The perfect spy

A local historian immortalizes an affable Vietnamese double agent who once worked as a Sacramento journalist

Larry Berman finally received Pham Xuan An’s permission for a biography when An thought he was dying.

Larry Berman finally received Pham Xuan An’s permission for a biography when An thought he was dying.

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UC Davis professor Larry Berman didn’t know the self-effacing, wiry Vietnamese gentleman who sat down across from him at a university dinner in Texas back in 2001. But when the gentleman heard that Berman taught at UC Davis, he was immediately thrilled. “I once lived there and went to college in Costa Mesa. It was the happiest time of my life,” said Pham Xuan An, the now famous Vietnamese spy.

“As he spoke, I recalled reading about a highly respected Time Magazine reporter who turned out to be a spy for the North Vietnamese and surmised that my dinner companion was that person,” writes Berman in his new book, Perfect Spy, which was just released last week.

Though Berman didn’t know it, he was beginning a life-changing relationship—and more than a thousand hours of conversation—with a hero of the People’s Army, a real live journalist who’s job was just a cover for his espionage during the Vietnam War.

An came to California as an undercover Communist in the 1950s. He studied journalism in Costa Mesa and held internships at the Sacramento Bee and at the United Nations before returning to South Vietnam, where he both held down a job as a correspondent for Time Magazine and funneled U.S. military secrets to Hanoi to aid the Communists in the war against the United States and South Vietnam. His time in California taught him to love Americans, according to Berman, and taught him to copy their sociability. It also led to ironic situations.

“An told me he had visited Davis while interning at the Sacramento Bee,” wrote Berman. “He recalled the personal kindness of publisher Eleanor McClatchy, and mentioned he had met the governor of California, Edmund G. ‘Pat’ Brown, while attending a conference for college newspaper editors in Sacramento.”

Not only did An meet the governor, but McClatchy also once had taken him to the airport to meet a high-ranking Soviet officer who was traveling ahead of Nikita Khrushchev—right at the height of the Cold War. “[An] was the only one who knew,” said Berman, “that there were two communists there.”

Berman, who teaches political science at Davis and is the author of numerous books, including No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam, for which An was a source, has traveled to Vietnam 17 times since 2001, taking notes and seeking permission to write a biography. An continually turned him down until 2003.

“I was in Saigon when he went into the hospital,” said Berman. “I think there is something that happens in a person’s life when they think they have a short time to live.” Everyone thought An was dying, said Berman. The coffin had been brought into the house, and An finally consented to a biography. “I don’t think he thought he’d live three more years,” said Berman, who joked that he was like the Terminator. He just kept coming back to An’s home with more questions, more documents. The last time he saw An was a week before he died of emphysema, at the age of 79, last September.

It’s interesting that Berman spent so much time preparing a biography of one of the Vietnam War’s most successful and long-lived spies, especially since he’s been fighting a public battle with the CIA for the last couple of years to get access to U.S. secrets.

Berman’s case, which is now with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, argues that President’s Daily Briefs, known as PDBs, from the CIA to former President Lyndon Johnson, should be released to historians.

Berman asked for four specific briefs from Johnson’s term under the Freedom of Information Act, but was rebuffed. He sued the CIA for failing to comply with FOIA but, in 2005, U.S. District Judge David Levi ruled that briefs could be held indefinitely.

“First, because the PDB is itself an intelligence method, the release of any portion of the requested PDBs necessarily constitutes information about the application of an intelligence method. Any intelligible information that is not classified is nevertheless part of a mosaic of PDB information that could provide damaging insight into how the CIA conducts its intelligence business. Finally, the presidential communications privilege applies to documents in their entirety.”

What’s in the briefs?

“Nothing,” said Berman. “I don’t think there’s anything significant.” But the government fears that Berman or someone else might use a favorable decision to gain access to other briefs, he said, including those about the Iraq war or 9/11. The ruling, Berman believes, sets back the whole concept of ‘freedom of information.’”

So if it’s so hard to get ahold of PDBs, how could An have known enough during the Vietnam War to help the north? How did a Vietnamese spy manage to write for Time, turn CIA agents and South Vietnamese government leaders into his best friends, send secrets to the Communists and still remain popular 30 years after the war ended?

“I interviewed about 100 people about An,” said Berman. “Ninety-eight still love him.”

That list includes some of the most respected journalists of the era, people like the late David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan.

“It’s because South Vietnam is a lot different than America,” Berman said. “Everyone leaked like a sieve.” An was also an adept schmoozer. He’d learned to joke, to drink, to be as spontaneous as Americans. “Then he gets back to Vietnam and becomes a great resource for reporters,” said Berman. “And the south Vietnamese found him so useful because he could explain the Americans to them. He was trusted by everyone.”

Because An befriended those on all sides of the conflict, some speculate that he was more than a double agent. He could have been a triple.

Berman can’t know for sure. Though he had exceptional access to An’s records and top sources, he can’t be sure that An told him everything. “How do I know I was not the final spin of the ultimate spy?” Berman asks himself. “There’s no guarantee.”