Why you should care
Because he convinced Americans they were losing the Vietnam War.
Pham Xuan An often spent his days chain-smoking Lucky Strike cigarettes at Givral Cafe, a popular spot in what was then the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon. As a trusted source of information during the Vietnam War, the local correspondent won praise and admiration from foreign journalists, many of who marveled at his ability to recall major events of the conflict in impeccable detail.
Little did they know that their self-deprecating colleague was a top espionage agent for the Communist regime in North Vietnam. An was first recruited as a spy in 1952. Five years later, his intelligence unit sent him to study journalism in California, believing that masquerading as a reporter would be the perfect cover. During his two years in America, he worked for his campus paper at Orange Coast College and interned at The Sacramento Bee. With journalism as his cover, he was ordered to return to Vietnam in 1960 on a mission to infiltrate the American press.
“An made a lot of friends, but he was ultimately committed to ensuring that the Americans lost the war,” says Luke Hunt, author of Punji Trap — Pham Xuan An: The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us, a book about An’s life.
An worked as a correspondent with Reuters and then later with Time magazine, the first Vietnamese person on staff there to cover the war. After filing his dispatch each night, he would photograph secret documents that he obtained from the South Vietnamese army, intelligence units and secret police. All of those security branches trusted An, both with information and to mediate between the South Vietnamese forces and American troops.
The trickier part of An’s job was sending the evidence he gathered back to Hanoi. To do so, he hid photos in canisters wrapped in grilled pork and rice paper. He would then deposit the canisters in a tree nest or under a gravestone for pick up. Like others working undercover, An lived with constant anxiety, knowing he could be caught and tortured at any time. “He was just trying to survive like everyone else,” says Hunt.
Those who knew An during the war believe he never wanted to endanger innocent lives, but as a nationalist and a Communist, he had no problem targeting U.S. forces. His intelligence gathering was particularly crucial in helping the Viet Cong guerrillas launch one of the largest attacks during the conflict, the 1968 Tet Offensive. An helped choose the targets, which included the U.S. embassy, the Presidential Palace and the courthouse, where stacks of gold were being stored.
When the offensive launched on Jan. 30, U.S. forces were caught off guard. But they quickly recovered, regaining lost territory and killing more than half of the 84,000 Viet Cong troops deployed in the attack. Still, An convinced the Saigon press corps that the battle was a major blow to the U.S. war effort, although the opposite was true.
“An knew the Communists couldn’t win the war militarily, so he had to defeat America politically,” says Hunt.
The plan was working. Washington was suddenly under immense pressure to bring its boys home, with President Lyndon Johnson facing hostile protests everywhere he went. Even CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite went on-air to announce that the U.S. was locked in a stalemate. The entire American press was regurgitating a lie instigated by An.
But while An misled his colleagues, he didn’t abandon them. In 1970, his Time colleague Robert Sam Anson was kidnapped by North Vietnamese forces in Cambodia, where more than 25 reporters had already been killed. Anson’s wife begged An for help, so he used his connections to secure the release of his colleague. “An had humanistic principles,” Hunt tells me. “In his heart, he was a decent man.”
Once Viet Cong forces captured Saigon in 1975, An feared that his country would slip back into war. To save his friends from reprisal, he begged American officials to airlift them to the U.S. His wife and four children were also flown to Washington, D.C., where they waited for An to join them. But Hanoi prohibited An from living out the rest of his life in America, forcing his family to return a year later. At the time, Hanoi suspected that An had grown too fond of the Americans, so they sent him to a reeducation camp.
More than a decade later, William Thatcher Dowell — who also covered the Vietnam War as a radio journalist — began meeting with An as Time’s Southeast Asia correspondent in the 1990s. By then, Hanoi had already announced that An had been one of its most remarkable spies. For the rest of An’s life, he lived off a modest pension and took refuge in books. The government tightly monitored him until his dying days, although it allowed more of his former colleagues to visit him as he grew gray.
“An described his mission as simply interpreting the behavior of the Americans,” Dowell says. “The U.S. was doing things so insane that the North Vietnamese couldn’t understand our motives.”
While that may be true, An shaped American public opinion more than arguably any other journalist covering the war. Few of his former colleagues still hold a grudge, but others admire him for fighting what they believe was a noble cause to liberate his country from foreign occupation. In the obituaries and tributes that poured into the American press after he died in 2006, he was often depicted as the spy who loved America.
The framing may overshadow a less romantic truth: What if An was simply keeping his friends close and his enemies closer during the war?
Nobody will ever know.