The Story of Vietnam's 'Perfect Spy' Larry Berman's new book, Perfect Spy, tells the true story of reporter Pham Xuan An. He was a Time magazine reporter who also worked as a secret agent for the Communist Party in Vietnam during the Vietnam War.
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The Story of Vietnam's 'Perfect Spy'

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The Story of Vietnam's 'Perfect Spy'

The Story of Vietnam's 'Perfect Spy'

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Pham Xuan An served as the eyes, ears and voice for some of the best-known Americans reporting from Vietnam in the 1960s. He worked as an interpreter, correspondent and resource for Reuters and Time magazine. He befriended the likes of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Morley Safer, Robert Shaplen(ph), Robert Sam Anson.

But all the time he was assisting American journalists, An was also smuggling invisible ink messages inside egg rolls to officials in North Vietnam. Pham Xuan An died last year at the age of 79 having been proclaimed a hero of the People's Army of Vietnam, but also placed under house arrest.

His story is told in a new book, "Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent." That book is by Larry Berman, a professor at the University of California Davies, who joins us now in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Professor LARRY BERMAN (Author, "Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An"; Political Science, University of California, Davis): I'm delighted to be here.

SIMON: Tell us how your involvement began. You met this engaging aging man at a seafood restaurant.

Prof. BERMAN: That's correct. In July of 2001, I just happened to be invited to a dinner party, and no one spoke any English, and I thought this is going to be a very long evening. And all of a sudden, the last guest at the table arrived and it was Pham Xuan An. And he walked over, knows that everyone was standing to greet him, welcoming almost like a hero.

And he sat in the only empty seat, which happened to be right across from me. And we just really hit it off for two hours. And it was just lovely. And he invited me to breakfast and lunch the next day, and he said, let's continue. And he never once mentioned the fact that he was a spy that he'd been on espionage or anything like that.

SIMON: In a sense, he had been kind of schooled to penetrate American journalism, hadn't he?

Prof. BERMAN: Yes. I thought it was so interesting that in 1955, the communist had made the decision that the United States was going to invade their country one day. They were familiar with invaders, the Japanese, the Chinese, and of course, the French who they just defeated.

But they are watching how much money was being poured into their country by the United States and how the United States was really replacing the French. But who were these Americans? They had no idea. Well, An was really the only one of a handful who spoke any English. His English was actually fairly good.

And the decision was made to send him to study journalism in the United States. Journalism would provide a perfect cover for him. He could explore, he could get educated and he could come back and report on who the Americans were.

SIMON: As Pham Xuan An began to supply information of the North Vietnamese while working for Time and for Reuters, what kind of access did he have? What did the job give him?

Prof. BERMAN: An was actually hired as one of the consultants for the creation of this South Vietnamese CIO. The South Vietnamese Central Intelligence Organization, which was patterned after our CIA. An would get his information from the Vietnamese intelligence organization, from his contacts in the South Vietnamese government.

He never had to steal a single document, and the reason for that was people were always giving it to him and asking him for his analysis because he was so good at disentangling complex ideas. The South Vietnamese needed An to explain the Americans to them. And the Americans needed An to explain the Vietnamese.

And he was in this perfect position. He was just the recipient of all this information. And then at night, he would go home and write a secret reports. Eventually his reports would reach Hanoi.

SIMON: Is there blood on his hands? Did he give information that resulted in the deaths of South Vietnamese or American soldiers?

Prof. BERMAN: An insisted to his last day, and I tried to develop this in the book, that he never could have hurt anyone. That is, he could have never shot a gun, which is true. He could have never killed anyone. And indeed he went out of his way to save the lives of several prominent anti-communists and American journalist Robert Sam Anson.

And also at the last days of April 1975, one of the leading anti-communists who, if he had been captured, would have certainly been killed and An helped get him out. But absolutely, during the Tet offensive in which thousands have died, that his reports, his recommendations led to deaths of both Americans and South Vietnamese, not only in Saigon but in way and all throughout Vietnam.

SIMON: When his story began to come out and some people, obviously, began to know what - that even in the 1980s when he was declared a national hero, it seems to me there were people on both sides who felt betrayed.

Prof. BERMAN: Certainly, the South Vietnamese who have fled the country and living in America felt betrayed, and then his South Vietnamese, quote, "brothers." His brother enemies in the South felt betrayed, yes. And An felt very uncomfortable about that because, of course, he understood what he had done. He had not only deceived the Americans, but he had deceived millions of South Vietnamese.

And that is why he became part of this broader reconciliation process. I think the only way to look at An's life is to view on this part of the reconciliation between former enemies that is, you know, the United States and Vietnam, between he and his - and those he had betrayed. But it's still a very, very much of a sore spot, particularly amongst the Vietnamese-American community in this country today.

SIMON: This question must be asked of any writer who does a book with a spy. How do you know he was telling the truth?

Prof. BERMAN: I asked that question almost everyday as I was writing this book. And I was consumed with the following problem. How do I know that I am just not the final spin of the master spy who deceived everybody else? And that is why I conducted research in all these other archives.

One of the most important, I think, aspects of my book is that I found evidence of An in places where no one had ever looked before. So I went to Wisconsin, and in Wisconsin, at the Wisconsin Historical Archives. I found all the papers of a journalist by name of Robert Shaplen who, of course, was the Far (unintelligible)…

SIMON: (unintelligible)

Prof. BERMAN: …of the New Yorker Correspondence(ph). Well, everyday from 1965 through 1975, An would meet with Shaplen, and Shaplen kept verbatim notes of everything An ever said and then typed them up.

So I tried to create the conversation that I wanted to have with An, rather than him just telling me what he had already told journalists in Vietnam about his life. And I succeeded to some extent. I think he took about 80 percent of his secrets with him to the grave, but I did get out of him some very important things.

SIMON: Larry Berman. His new book is "Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent." Professor Berman, thanks so much.

Prof. BERMAN: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you.

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