Blogs > HNN > Merle L. Pribbenow: Review of Larry Berman's Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, TIME Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent

Aug 15, 2007 4:13 pm

Merle L. Pribbenow: Review of Larry Berman's Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, TIME Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent

What goes on in the heart of a spy? What makes him tick? Can a spy truly have friends? How does a spy decide between his loyalty to his secret masters and his loyalty to his friends? How does he live with himself? And how do his friends react when they find that the friend and colleague they had known, trusted, and even loved, lied to them betrayed their confidences, and may have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of other friends and countrymen?

These are some of the questions Larry Berman poses in a fascinating new book, Perfect Spy. Berman, a political science professor at the University of California-Davis and the author of three previous books on Vietnam, has made a formidable contribution to untangling the twisted skeins of truth and lies that made up the life, and the myth, of a man whom the Vietnamese Communists now proclaim as their most important and productive spy during the Vietnam War’s American phase.

Despite the author’s conscientious efforts—which included dozens of trips to Vietnam to interview Pham Xuan An and a number of An’s espionage associates and controllers, along with prodigious archival research in the United States and extensive interviews with An’s American friends and colleagues—much about Pham Xuan An’s life still remains shrouded in mystery. An, like the professional intelligence officer that he was, set strict limits on his cooperation with Berman. An refused to name most of his sources of information, and while eager to discuss his journalistic career, he was almost maddeningly vague about many aspects of his parallel covert life as a Communist spy. The Vietnamese government provided Berman only very limited assistance and support, and the files on An held by the Vietnamese intelligence service and by the many other intelligence services with officers An admittedly contacted (the CIA, the South Vietnamese, the French, the British, and the Taiwanese, among others) remained closed to Berman, and to all outsiders.

Because of these vital limits, which the author freely admits, this book does not provide the complete story of Pham Xuan An’s espionage activities. That story will have to await the opening of Vietnam’s intelligence archives. Until that time—if indeed, it ever comes—Berman’s book will stand as the definitive, first-hand account of An’s life as a Communist undercover operative.

It is now well known that thousands of Communist officers and agents were active in all branches of the old South Vietnamese regime during the Vietnam War. After the war ended, however, the victorious Communist regime concluded that three individuals out of this vast army of spies had made such important contributions to the cause that they deserved to be promoted to the rank of “major general” in the Vietnamese military intelligence service. One of the three, Vu Ngoc Nha, had penetrated the inner sanctum of the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace before he was caught and imprisoned in 1969. Another, Dang Tran Duc, had worked for more than a decade as a mid-level officer in South Vietnam’s Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) before he was exposed and forced to flee to the jungle a year before the war ended. Pham Xuan An, the third Communist “super-spy,” worked as a journalist for Western news organizations, and in contrast to his two colleagues, An’s efforts went undetected for the duration....

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Robert Lee Gaston - 9/7/2007

One has to wonder. Did Pham influence Vietnam War reporting? Did he have a close relationship with folks like Dan Rather or David Halberstam?

Another question: did Pham advise the North Vietnamese regarding treatment of POWs? Did he favor allowing Cubans to torture American POWs?

Does the book address these questions?