Sunday, June 29, 2014

All's Fair in War? Larry Berman's Wonderful Book about Pham Xuan An

Berman, Larry. Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent. New York: HarperCollins/Smithsonian, 2007.

This finely-written book tells the story of one of the most fascinating real-life characters ever. If you like history with a bit of mystery, you'll love this.

*Spoiler Alert*

In early 1953 in the southernmost province of Vietnam, the legendary Le Duc Tho presided over a ceremony in which Pham Xuan An, the subject of this riveting story, became a member of the Communist Party. Shortly afterward, the Party determined An's career. They realized he had the intellect and disposition to become a first-rate spy. For many years to come, An would lead a brilliant double life.

As historian and author Larry Berman explains, in the early 1950s, the leaders of the Communist Party fully realized that the United States was in the process of replacing the French colonialists in Vietnam. To the U.S.--in spite of American propaganda--Vietnam was never about the Vietnamese people. It was always about Cold War containment and the incredible task of keeping all of the dominoes in Southeast Asia standing straight.

For their part, many of the Vietnamese people had no interest in being told by the French or the Americans or anyone else that they would not be allowed to determine their own national future. As they had with the French, the Vietnamese would do everything they could to resist the Americans. Secretly, Pham Xuan An and his network would become a powerful component of that resistance.

In 1957, An came to Orange Coast College in California where he learned English, became acquainted with American culture, and developed many contacts inside the U.S. He even worked for the college newspaper where he made several new friends. Upon returning to Vietnam, An was at first quite nervous. Living in Saigon, he wondered, would he be suspected and arrested? Once he settled down, An began to develop relationships with important Americans and high-ranking leaders within the South Vietnamese government. In the years to come, An worked for the Reuters news service, the New York Herald Tribune, and eventually for Time magazine. All along, he was one of Hanoi's most valuable informants. He didn't have to steal information. It was freely discussed and shared with him by people who considered An a colleague and friend.

In short, Pham Xuan An may have been the one of the greatest con men and informants ever. For many years, he lived as both a first-rate journalist in Saigon working for American news outlets, and also as a hero of the Communist government headquartered in Hanoi.

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