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UC Davis Professor Relates Vietnam War from 'Perfect Spy's' Eyes

By Susanne Rockwell on April 23, 2007 in

One of modern history's most sympathetic, clever and ultimately luckiest spies, Pham Xuan An, successfully hoodwinked the CIA, American journalist colleagues and the South Vietnamese establishment for more than two decades, according to a new biography by Larry Berman, a political science professor at UC Davis.

Berman's book, "Perfect Spy, The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter & Vietnamese Communist Agent," is being released April 24 by Smithsonian Books.

In the book, Berman offers the portrait of a complex man whose humanity and loyalty to his American friends vied with his passionate commitment to a free Vietnam. In telling An's story, Berman offers a view of the Vietnam conflict from a distinctly Vietnamese point of view.

"Like so many young people who joined the Viet Minh revolution to fight French colonialism, Pham Xuan An held a vision for Vietnamese independence and social justice," Berman writes in his book. "He fought for liberty and against poverty; as a spy he sought neither glory nor money for himself, but everything for the people of his homeland."

Berman, an expert on the American presidency and the Vietnam War, first met Pham Xuan An in 2001 at a Saigon dinner party. He spent five years cultivating his subject and in the process discovered many ironic elements in An's life story:

  • He was the only agent North Vietnam sent to the U.S. Here, he studied journalism at Orange Coast College, a two-year commuter college in Costa Mesa, capped by a three-month internship at the Sacramento Bee. An said it was the happiest time in his life.
  • Throughout his espionage career, which began in 1950 and continued through the end of the American conflict in 1974, An went undetected, although he was well known throughout the CIA, South Vietnamese government and in American journalism circles.
  • An created what Berman believes was the best and most informed list of sources in Saigon and provided Hanoi an understanding of American tactics and battle plans. He also excelled at interpreting the information he stole.
  • Despite his exploits and successes on behalf of North Vietnam, An fell under suspicion by the Communist leaders after the war. They worried he may have been a triple agent because of his ties to American and Vietnamese intelligence. He was placed under house arrest and died of emphysema in September 2006, never again leaving his country after his visit to the U.S. in 1958.

An's command of English was an essential key to his success. As a teenager during the Japanese occupation, he learned English from missionaries and then from members of the British Embassy. Beginning in the 1950s, "He was among the most proficient of the Vietnamese, thereby enabling himself as a valuable asset to the Americans and Vietnamese, building relationships with dozens of future South Vietnamese commanders and influential Americans," Berman writes.

Although he was a high school dropout, An became a well-read, educated man who pursued journalism, working at first for the South Vietnamese official press organ, and quickly moving to the British news agency Reuters, and ultimately becoming a Time Magazine reporter.

Along the way, An developed many deep and lasting friendships with Americans and their families. After his double-life was revealed, Berman found that many of his friends were surprised that he had been working for the enemy. Even so, the author wrote, "Hardly anyone rejected An when they learned he had been a Communist spy."

"An believed that he did not engage in any acts of personal betrayal against Americans," Berman writes. "He insisted to his last day that none of his American friends ever suffered personally or professionally because of what he did."

After the war, the North Vietnamese government named An a Hero of the People's Army, and he was promoted to general -- one of only two intelligence officers ever to achieve that honor.

An maintained his humor, even after he fell from grace with the Communist leaders. He told Berman that when he was promoted to a one-star general in 1990 for his espionage work, he told the leadership, "I was familiar with five armies -- the Viet Minh, the French, the Viet Cong, the Americans and the South Vietnamese -- that I should have five stars. I don't think they understood my sense of humor."

Berman is author of "No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam," "Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam," and "Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam" among several other books. To learn more about "Perfect Spy," go to his Web site, .

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Susanne Rockwell, Web and new media editor, (530) 752-2542, [email protected]

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