The most infamous double-agent of the Vietnam War has died. Pham Xuan An worked for several years as a reporter for Western news organizations including Reuters and Time magazine, but all the time he was really a colonel in the North Vietnamese Army, feeding military information to them.
He was so successful in his duel role he was one of the few non-Westerners to be admitted to off-the-record briefings at the American Embassy. Time Inc was so impressed by his work that it made him a full-time staff correspondent.
At the same time as he was posing as a journalist, An was delivering a steady stream of military documents and reports to his masters in North Vietnam, usually written in invisible ink and leaving the documents in secret pick-up points around Saigon.
His duplicity was not revealed until after the war ended and the US had pulled out of South Vietnam.
The revelation about his dual life surprised and chagrined many of his American colleagues, among them David Halberstam of the NY Times, Morley Safer of CBS and Frank McCulloch of Time magazine.
“He was among the best connected journalists in the country,” said Morley Safer in a book he wrote after the war, after re-visiting Saigon and learning about An’s dual role and how he fooled America newsmen. An was always the first to brief newly arrived journalists – and was always happy to explain to them the complications of Virtnamese politics. “He was among the most trusted journalists in the country.”
At the same time he was keeping North Vietnam appraised of the strength of various American military units in the South – and the capabilities of their American commanders.
In the waning days of the war in Vietnam the double-agent even persuaded American officials in 1975 to fly several of his Vietnamese friends to safety , saying they would be punished by the Communists if they had to stay. . His wife and four children were also flown to the United States. He elected to stay behind.
When he later tried to travel to the US the new Vietnamese Government denied him an exit visa, after which his family returned and rejoined him in Vietnam.
When subsequently, some l5 years after the war, he was asked by Morley Safer to tell the truth about his double life, he admitted that at the age of l6 he had starting working for the Vietminh, the Communist national liberation movement.
He expressed no regrets for working both as a Western journalist and as an informant for the Communists. “One truth is that for ten years I was a staff correspondent for Time magazine, and before that Reuters.. The other truth is that I joined the movement in 1944 and in one way or another have been part of it ever since. Two truths – both truths are true.”
According to a son, Vietnam’s most infamous double agent, died in a military hospital in Ho Chi Minh City last week from emphysema, He was 79.