Pham Xuan An, a Vietnamese correspondent for TIME Magazine, worked in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Later, it would come to light that An was more than a journalist. While literature has been written about An’s life as a spy, Dr. Larry Berman, author of Perfect Spy, wanted to understand An as a person and understand his motivations.
“I always wanted to know who was the real An,” Berman said. “Awarded medals from General Vo Nguyen Giap. Feeding reports to the Americans and South Vietnam. Feeding reports to North Vietnam. I wondered how he lived his cover so perfectly.”
Berman first met An at a dinner in Ho Chi Minh City in 2000. An arrived late, bemoaning the Saigon traffic and greeting dinner guests with a rockstar’s charisma. They sat next to each other that evening and a connection formed over California – where Berman taught at the University of California, Davis and An studied at Orange Coast College (OCC).
“We spoke for three hours. Yet, there was never a word about his work in intelligence,” Berman said.
An invited Berman to talk the next day, and Berman decided to forego the rest of his group’s travels to stay in Ho Chi Minh City. For five days, the two talked about Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, the war, and whether Berman could write about An’s life. An’s answer was always no.
An’s past was complicated. He worked for the Viet Minh in the 1940s culling intelligence for the South Vietnamese and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In the late 1950s, the Viet Minh tasked An to learn about the American people, so he went to study at OCC.
While studying journalism, An obtained a driver’s license and set out to drive across the states to learn about America. His car broke down twice, and people along the way offered him housing and food.
“An came back to Vietnam understanding the Americans and their kindness,” Berman said. “That experience in America was pivotal, because he saw Americans’ courtesy and care. An realized that the Americans and Vietnamese had so much in common. He saw governments were creating war, not the people.”
The Cover He Lived and Became
“An possessed a great intellect and a great sense of humor. He fit in with any social situation,” Berman said. “In order to survive as a spy, An had to become another person. In that process, he was not able to just switch it off. I saw An put on a mask, but the stranger thing was that An became his mask.”
When asked whether An was a communist, Berman said the answer was not simple.
“I tell them that An thought of himself as a patriot, a fierce nationalist, who wanted the Vietnamese to determine their own Vietnam,” Berman said. “An had come to understand and like Americans, but he just wanted them to go home.”
When An was near death with emphysema and three-quarters of his lungs removed, he agreed to let Berman write about his life.
“He said he chose me because he thought I was an objective writer,” Berman said. “It was important that his story be seen from the Vietnamese side as well as the American side. I wanted to do justice to that and make sure to share An’s vision for a Vietnam where the Vietnamese really take control of their futures.”
Berman worked to write about An’s upbringing and perspectives by meeting with people whom An knew. Berman also visited some of An’s favorite places. “By tracing An’s life story, I worked to display An with a touch of humanity.”
Their conversations mimicked their first five days spent together. From eight in the morning until the afternoon, An and Berman spoke about politics, history, and An’s hopes for Vietnam.
“Being a reporter, An believed in critical inquiry, new ways of thinking and education systems that he had witnessed in America,” Berman said. “An served his country driven by a dream to see young Vietnamese shape the future they wanted, framed on social justice and equality.”
Berman gifted Fulbright’s library with a signed copy of Perfect Spyand concluded, “I envy you, for what you are learning at Fulbright. It is everything An could imagine for Vietnam’s future.”
Dr. Larry Berman is the author of Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter, and Communist Agent. The founding Dean of Georgia State University’s Honors College in the United States, he spoke as part of the Vietnamese Studies course, “Introduction to Vietnamese Culture and History,” as part of Fulbright University Vietnam’s Co-Design Year 2018-2019.