The author of Perfect Spy returns to Vietnam to promote the latest edition of his book, which chronicles Pham Xuan An’s double life during the American War. By day, he was a trusted journalist for American news agencies in Saigon and by night, he was a communist spy sending dispatches, sometimes via eggrolls, to Hanoi. By the time of his death in 2006, An had maintained most of his friends on both sides. By Lien Hoang. Photo by Dave Lemke.
What do you want people to know the book is about?
The Viet Minh looked around and they found one guy, Pham Xuan An, who had learned English at an early age from missionaries. They said, “We’re going to send you to the United States and we’re going to ask you to become the American expert on culture. We need to know who these people are, because they’re coming.”
What changes are there in this edition?
He would constantly quote Lincoln’s address after the American Civil War to me, which of course was: with malice toward none, with charity for all.
Talk about the intrigue of being a spy.
An would stay home at night and, using a special mix that creates an invisible ink, he would write his reports on pieces of paper, that were then used as wrappers for traditional Vietnamese food, eggrolls and the like. He would take them to the public market, where he would meet a woman by the name of Nguyen Thi Ba.
She was a betel-nut-chewing woman, discreet, not attractive because he didn’t want any attention brought to her. He rejected 10 or 15 couriers before he selected Ba. And the two of them really became the most successful spy and courier team in the history of espionage to our knowledge.
He had trained his dog, a large German shepherd, to pee at a certain tree, and that tree was actually a dropbox. He would receive at this tree the location of the next rendezvous.
When An’s reports made themselves all the way up to Hanoi, when General [Vo Nguyen] Giap read them, who obviously just passed away, he said, “Thanks to An’s reports, we’re now in the American war room.”
But he loved the United States.
He’s got these American friends, and he risks everything to save some of their lives, like [Time correspondent] Bob Ansen. He risked everything to save someone who had shown empathy for the Vietnamese children who were massacred at Takeo [Cambodia]. He knew how much Ansen hated the war and loved the Vietnamese and respected the Vietnamese.
How do you compare this to modern-day spying?
An did all this without all these advanced technologies. What An represented was the value of human intelligence, to meld into a society, learn a culture. It’s the same way the perpetrators from 9/11 were educated in the US system, had lived with us. But they still hated us. An didn’t hate Americans, that was a really big difference.
What was An’s role in the Tet Offensive?
The head of his network, Tu Cang, came down weeks before. I had dinner with Tu Cang last night. Tu Cang knew nothing about the layout of Saigon, didn’t know easy access points and things like that. An showed him all of this. He showed Tu Cang certain areas where he thought troops could get in. He also showed him where caches of weapons could be stored.
This is where I think it would be difficult for An to defend himself. Of course An would always say he didn’t shoot a gun, he never killed anybody, he loved Americans, he would never do anything to hurt Americans. But of course it’s true that by showing Tu Cang all these areas, he had an indirect role certainly in what happened during the Tet Offensive.
Do you think he felt grief about that?
I don’t think he felt he contributed to the death of Americans, he wasn’t wired like that. Do I think that he despaired over the death of Americans in general? Yes, just as he despaired over the death of Vietnamese.
Do you think An took any secrets to his grave?
My dream is that 50 years from now, this next generation of historians with Vietnamese language skills will be allowed into these archives with all of An’s secret reports in Hanoi. That’s where the truth really is.
What were criticisms of the book, were you seen as a traitor?
The biggest criticism was that I was taken in by An. That’s fine, but I’d say that’s a minority view. People sometimes say a stupid thing, they say An was a traitor. I address this point in my new edition, who did An betray? He didn’t betray the United States. He was a Vietnamese, he had sworn loyalty and fealty to Vietnam.
Imagine if you and I were best friends for 20 years. Then you found out I wasn’t who you thought I was. I had not only lied to you about who I was, but I was the worst kind of thing, I was a spy. There was something about Pham Xuan An that led 98 percent of those who had been taken in by him, not to reject him, but to embrace him. And I think the answer, by the way, is that these people came to agree with An’s perspective on the war.
Do you think he had any impact on policy after the war?
He was made an adviser, particularly on Chinese policy. He never told me what he did. Ever.