Larry Berman: Interviewed about the double life of Vietnam spy journalist
Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Larry Berman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Davis, and the author of three books on Vietnam, including No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger, and Betrayal in Vietnam. He is the author of the new book, Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent.
FP: Larry Berman, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Berman: Thank you for the opportunity.
FP: What inspired you to write this book?
Berman: So many aspects of this project interested me. During the Vietnam War, Pham Xuan An was a highly respected Time Magazine reporter who turned out to be a spy for the North Vietnamese. For twenty years An lived a lie and no one suspected him of being an enemy agent. That’s pretty intriguing by itself. An was later promoted to Major General and Hero of the People’s Army-- one of only two intelligence officers during the war ever promoted to the rank of General and Hero. When I first met An in July 2001, I was completing my book No Peace No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam. I wanted to use the story of An’s life as a window for understanding the complexities of the war from the communist Vietnamese perspective, the story of An’s life as an intelligence agent, his cover in journalism, his years in America, his friendships—the story of war and reconciliation.
FP: Tell us in general about who An was.
Berman: I’m not sure anyone really knows the real Pham Xuan An. Even after spending so much time with him, I always acknowledge this first since An fooled everyone with his perfect cover, not just journalists. During the war, An worked first for Reuters, then the New York Herald Tribune and finally for Time Magazine. He was known as an informative, witty, chain-smoking correspondent, regarded as the dean of his trade by foreign reporters covering the war in Vietnam. An’s information and security tidbits are so good about goings on within the Presidential Palace and South Vietnamese General Staff, it was rumored he must be working secretly for the CIA. An has access to U.S. and South Vietnamese military bases and was a regular at diplomatic receptions. His name appeared on every list of accredited MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) correspondents from 1965-1975. An supplied a large part of Time’s Vietnam copy and was responsible for checking the accuracy of battlefield maps that appeared in the magazine. When South Vietnam fell in April 1975, An stayed behind with his aging mother, but his wife and four children were evacuated to the United States. They were processed at Camp Pendleton and settled in Arlington, Virginia. That shows his complete cover and also raises some intriguing issues that I’m sure we’ll get to.
FP: What was his time like in the United States? What impact did American culture have on him?
Berman: It was in the mid-1940s when the Communist Party recruited An. The Party chose his cover in journalism and developed a carefully scripted artificial life history. In the years prior to his American journey, An befriended Colonel Edward Lansdale’s covert CIA team that was in Vietnam combating communism. In fact, it was Lansdale himself who helped expedite An’s trip by having the Asia Foundation sponsor An’s studies in the U.S. From 1957-59 An attended Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, California, majored in journalism, interned at the Sacramento Bee and then drove across the country for an internship at the United Nations. He learned so much about American culture and the American people--their compassion, generosity, way of thinking, and their freedoms. He often spoke of how Americans taught him a new way of thinking, a way of looking at the world that the communist party could not do. He also said that Americans taught him about humanity
In the immediate aftermath of the war, An was probably the sole member of the victorious side who held no bitterness towards an enemy who had wrought so much death and destruction in his country. “I had lived and worked with Americans for so long. I knew them as good people. Most Americans believed what their government told them, they did not know the real Vietnamese. I had no reason to dislike the Americans, just as the Americans who knew me before the war had no reason to dislike me.”
FP: The entities that wrought death and destruction in Vietnam were the North Vietnamese communists and the Viet Cong, supported by their international communist backers.
Berman: You might want to consider what the United States did to Vietnam, including the use of Agent Orange, massive bombing campaigns, My Lai, the death of so many innocents, on all sides.
FP: Many horrible things happen in war. The U.S. had to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in WWII, but it was the lesser of two evils and it saved millions of lives. It was a just cause, as was the U.S. effort to save South Vietnam from communism.
Berman: Japan attacked the United States; what did Vietnam do to the United States?
FP: The North Vietnamese tyranny, with the help and support of international communist forces, was attempting to establish its despotism on a free people. South Vietnam requested the U.S. to help protect it from this totalitarian force. This was a time when the containment of communism was a critical issue. It all adds up pretty clearly to me.
The most important point here is that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong perpetrated a mass terror that appears not to have interested the anti-war Left, let alone the likes of An.
And so I wonder: how about the Hue massacre, which was typical of communist behavior in the war? In the Tet Offensive of January/February 1968, the Viet Cong perpetrated a massacre in Hue, the ancient imperial capital. Let me briefly quote Jean-Louis Margolin from the Black Book of Communism (p.572) regarding what the communists did during the few weeks they controlled the city:
... at least 3,000 people were massacred, including Vietnamese priests, French religious workers, German doctors, and a number of officials and government workers. The number of deaths was far higher than in the massacres carried out by Americans. Some of the victims were buried alive; others were taken away to “study sessions”; from which they never returned.
Did the Hue massacre outrage An? How many hours of sleep did he lose over it?
And when the noble effort of the U.S. failed to save South Vietnam, we know about the killing fields and mass terror that followed.
But again, we will try not to reargue the whole Vietnam war here today.
Let’s try to return to An. What was the development of An's cover as a journalist? In what ways did he perform his job?
Berman: Let me first just say that the deaths at Hue saddened An. He had been living and working his cover with the Americans since the mid-1950s and had no contact with the communist party you are referring to. I just want it on the record.
In his cover as a journalist, An’s value came in disentangling the complexities of Vietnamese politics for American reporters in Vietnam, but he was equally valued by Vietnamese politicians, military commanders and intelligence officials because he previously lived in the United States and could explain the Americans to the Vietnamese.
For An, journalism was a cover for his job in intelligence, but An lived his cover just as if it was his real life, otherwise he would be dead. The communists had other agents operating in the press whose task was disinformation and shaping the news towards the communist perspective, but this was not An’s mission. I conducted research in archives throughout the United States, finding much material in the Papers of Robert Shaplen deposited with the Wisconsin Historical Society; the Neil Sheehan papers at the Library of Congress; the Frank McCulloch Papers at the University of Nevada; and the Edward Lansdale Papers at the Hoover Institution Library. My extensive analysis of Shaplen’s detailed notes from conversations with An reveal nothing that could substantiate the charge that An was trying to push false information or even an interpretation that could be construed as pro-Viet Cong.
FP: Yeh, the deaths at Hue saddened An alright, that's why he reached out in solidarity to the villians who perpetrated it. An may have been saddened by Hue, but in the sense that the victims were a necessary sacrifice in his eyes for the sake of building the utopia that he envisioned – typical of how all believers see the shedding of human blood being necessary for the engendering of their fantasy world.
The bottom line, again, is that An helped a vicious totalitarian regime.
Berman: An spoke out about his regrets. The revolution he joined twenty years earlier was a fight against colonialism and one to rid his country of foreign armies. He did not envision the totalitarian regime which emerged.
FP: An was very well familiar with the nature of the North Vietnamese regime. Please spare me the explanation of how anyone who knew anything about the North Vietnamese -- and who their role models and supporters were – could possibly have believed that a communist victory would bring a Jeffersonian-style democracy to South Vietnam.
On p.275 you write that An “joined the revolution imbued with nationalist ideals to fight against colonialism with hopes of creating a new society based on social justice and economic equality.”
With all due respect sir, this must be your sense of humor. Social justice and economic equality? The kind of social and economic equality that Stalin and Mao and the North Vietnamese had engendered?
Dr. Berman, if someone today began helping a communist movement that was supported by totalitarian entities out of an inspiration to create “social justice and economic equality” would you be able to guess the outcome of this experiment? Would you want any of your loved ones, let alone yourself, being part of the experiment? Would you really exonerate the individuals who would be complicit in creating the possibility of such an experiment?
In any case, again, let’s return to An:
Can you talk a bit about An’s method as an intelligence agent?
Berman: His mission as a spy was to provide strategic intelligence reports about U.S. war plans and send them into “the jungle,” as he referred to the chain of command. He would do this by writing reports in invisible ink that served as wrappings for traditional Vietnamese rolls and having them carried by his courier system to the VC base in Cu Chi. Eventually these reports made it all the way to Hanoi.
An was an astute analyst and demonstrated very early the capacity to distill complicated military plans into readily digestible reports for his superiors. Working for Time provided on the job training for being a spy because part of a reporter’s job is sorting rumor from fact in making the determination on what information is valuable and what is worthless.
Through it all, An understood that one slip up would bring instant capture and likely death. He had a start date for his assignment, but his mission would end only when his country was united or when he was captured. Another heralded spy and friend, the CIA’s Lou Conein, tipped his hat to An for “pulling it off all those years, for maintaining his self-control and never making a slip.” Conein’s admiration was of “one professional intelligence officer towards another man who played a similar role. You can’t help admiring a guy who is that skillful at his job.”
FP: What was An's impact on the war?
Berman: An is a “Hero of the Revolution” and received 4 special medals for specific acts contributing directly to his country’s defeat of the Americans. His early reports were so accurate that General Giap joked “we are now in the U.S.’s war room.” Each of An’s Exploit Medals receives detailed attention in my book precisely because An most definitely influenced the outcome of the war. During the early stages of the American build-up in Vietnam, An was the most valuable of all agents operating in the South because he had already established an almost impenetrable cover. He played an important role in identifying access points into Saigon for the 1968 Tet Offensive and helped analyze the entire counter-insurgency program. His final reports allowed for the expediting of the final offensive in April 1975.
FP: Right, so he facilitated the victory of tyranny over his people and helped spawn the bloodbath that followed. Lovely.
Berman: That’s a rather simplistic view of An’s role and the complexities of the battle for Vietnamese independence. I’ll have more to say about this shortly and I don’t expect to convince you, but there is another view of “history.” What happened inside Vietnam after 1975 came as a shock to many who had fought for liberation.
FP: And let me guess, many of those who fought for liberation went on to support communist liberations throughout the world, based on exactly the same principles, and then they were shocked all over again when the bloodbaths began right?
We obviously disagree on this.
Let’s move on.
So how did An see his mission and the communist party? If he lived in freedom and benefited from the beauty of freedom, why would he devote himself to a brutal tyranny? As an extension to that question, what did being a Vietnamese nationalist and patriot mean to him?
Berman: This is an important question. We need to go back in history, say September 14, 1945 when Ho issued the Vietnamese proclamation of independence with Jefferson’s stirring words, “we hold the truth that all men are created equal, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ho and his followers were grateful for America’s defeat of Vietnam’s enemy, Japan. Ho had helped rescue American pilots and furnished intelligence reports on Japanese operations, earning him the position OSS agent 19, code name Lucius. Ho soon wrote President Truman with a desperate plea that the United States come to the aid of Vietnamese self-determination. “It is with this firm conviction that we request of the United States as guardians and champions of World Justice to take a decisive step in support of our independence,” Ho wrote in a 1945 letter to Truman. “What we ask has graciously been granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the United States.”
For many reasons, the United States and Viet Minh did not bridge the chasm of the emerging Cold War forces that were already at work. Policy makers at the time had little interest in understanding the nature of the Vietnamese struggle for independence; instead, not losing Vietnam to communism would become US policy. Was Ho genuinely inspired by American ideals, or was he merely appealing for US support for short-term strategic benefit? Historians are still debating this. But whatever the motives and objectives of Ho and other Communist Party leaders, it is clear that many of Ho’s Vietnamese admirers took his words about independence and freedom seriously, and that they genuinely believed that this was the cause for which the Viet Minh and the Party was fighting. An was one of those Vietnamese who was inspired by Ho and the Party in this way.
I see some striking parallels between US motives and those of many of the Vietnamese who fought for the Communist side. For many of those who joined the Viet Minh, the NLF or even the Communist Party itself, the struggle against the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies was also a “noble cause”—a clear continuation of the struggle against the French colonialism which they so loathed and detested. Of course, during and after the war, many of those who supported and joined the Party discovered that these admirable goals had also become compromised by the Party’s authoritarian and tyrannical qualities.
An was one of these Vietnamese who was first inspired by the noble and admirable aspects of Ho Chi Minh’s message and later became disillusioned by the Party and his actions.
One more thing: it is ludicrous to suggest that Pham Xuan An or other young Vietnamese who joined the Vietnamese Communist Party during the late 1940s or early 1950s were motivated primarily (or even at all) by a desire to promote Soviet domination of Southeast Asia. As anyone with even a passing familiarity of the recent work on Soviet foreign policy knows, Soviet leaders did not consider Southeast Asia to be very important during the 1940s and 1950s. The USSR did not even recognize Ho’s government until 1950, and the amount of aid and support Moscow sent to Hanoi lagged far behind what the Chinese Communists were sending until the mid-1960s. In fact, the Vietnamese Communists did not move firmly into the Soviet orbit until the late 1970s—by which time An and many other Party members had become thoroughly disgusted with the Party and the betrayal of its original objectives. Whatever else An many have been, he was never a Stalinist or a tool of Moscow.
All An ever wanted for the Vietnamese people was the chance to determine their own future, free from foreign interference. He was imbued with nationalist ideals of creating a new society based on social justice and economic equality. His dreams for the revolution turned out to be naïve and idealistic, but the power of his life story is driven by the noblest of goals for Vietnamese nationalism. He would also pay a heavy price for holding onto his dreams. He had no idea back then that the Party he joined would turn into the brutal regime of 1975. He was not a hard core party member and anyone who says otherwise is misinformed. He was, as Germaine Loc Swanson said, a communist by obligation. He had no contact with the Party after his return to Vietnam in 1959. He was living with the Americans in a cover; he did not attend Party meetings or ideological sessions, which is why he ran into so much trouble when the war ended.
The new regime believed he was too American; not really a communist party member in the ideological sense and that is why they sent him away for a year of reeducation and then placed him under literal house arrest, but as An always said, it was too late to change him.
FP: Well we disagree. Everyone knew who the North Vietnamese were and who their supporters and role models were. They headed a ruthless despotism.
Throughout the 20th century all we heard was the same crock. Marxist revolution after Marxist revolution, mass terror after mass terror, which can be the only conclusion to the socialist impulse, and we still get this charade about how “shocked” many believers were and are about what happens when yet another Marxist revolution turns into a bloodbath.
In terms of the Soviet/Chinese support: lovely, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong received more support from a communist tyranny that ended up killing 70 million of its citizens rather than one that killed 30 million of its citizens. Great.
There was Chinese Communist support and there was Soviet communist support, and we can debate in what order and to what degree and in what timing this all occurred. The bottom line is that the threat to South Vietnam in the Vietnam war was headed by communists, and these communists were supported by forces of communism internationally. And the people who involved themselves in helping these communists knew who they were helping.
Berman: I just want to remind readers that after the war ended in 1975, Vietnam went to war with Cambodia and soon toppled the Pol Pot regime and China then invaded Vietnam.
FP: Yes, that’s what happened.
Let me emphasize again: after everything that socialism perpetrated in the 20th Century, are you really going to tell me that someone else who is complicit in yet another building of a socialist paradise should be exonerated when the killing fields start because he really thought this time there would be an earthly utopia?
And again: the United States didn’t invade Vietnam. South Vietnam requested American assistance and the U.S. engaged in a noble cause to save South Vietnam from communism -- an effort that unfortunately failed thanks, in part, to monsters such as An.
Berman: This is precisely where we disagree. I agree that many of the US objectives in Vietnam were noble. I think that many US officials and certainly many of the American soldiers and civilians who served in Vietnam were motivated by a genuine desire to advance the cause of freedom and to defeat tyranny. However, I also think that the nobility of the US intervention in Vietnam was compromised in innumerable ways by American hubris, ignorance and arrogance—qualities that often led the US to fight and act in ways that were both counterproductive and morally deplorable.
So on the American side, very noble motives were often intermingled with baser impulses. But it simply does not follow from this that everything the US did in Vietnam was noble, or that responsibility for the US defeat lies partly with Americans! It might make us feel good to blame figures like An for our defeat, since it allows us to avoid having to take a hard look at our own strategic, military and political shortcomings. Unfortunately, however, these kinds of self-exculpating explanations don’t hold up when you actually look at the historical evidence. Do you really believe the US failed because of An or are you willing to consider other reasons?
FP: The U.S. failed because the anti-war movement crippled America. The North Vietnamese admitted this after the war, crediting the anti-war movement for their victory. So people like Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, and people like An, can take credit for the boat people, the re-education camps and the killing fields.
In your own book you demonstrate that battles like Tet were military defeats for the communists. It was the anti-war media that influenced the public mindset and that lost us that war.
Berman: I knew you’d eventually have to play the FrontPage hole card-- Fonda, Hayden and the crew. Tell me how 550,000 U.S. troops in a country, massive bombings, defoliation and herbicide programs and everything else that constituted the American commitment and we were no closer to achieving our objectives in the South than we were when we started. There’s a big difference in what Fonda did by going to Hanoi and playing into the enemy’s hands compared to average Americans who protested the war in which there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. LBJ’s words created the credibility gap.
FP: The people who protested the war facilitated the victory of communism in Southeast Asia.
And let me ask this: An was dedicated to Vietnamese freedom and independence? Really? How much time and energy did he spend fighting the tyrannical barbarities of the North Vietnamese regime? How much of his soul was dedicated to defending political prisoners in North Vietnam, who suffered unimaginable torture and long years of captivity because they opposed despotism? How much did he protest the influences that the Soviet Empire wielded over North Vietnam?
Berman: He did more than you think and more than others. In the aftermath of the war he helped many of his brother-enemies escape, through his own heroic actions he helped the leading anti-communist in South Vietnam, Dr. Tran Kim Tuyen, escape from the approaching communist army and he helped several journalists who were later locked up by the new regime. All of this is documented in the book and hardly reflects the actions of what you call a monster.
FP: It was no mystery what would happen to South Vietnam after a communist takeover. And An and all the others got exactly what they wished for after 1975: a Stalinist regime. And An can take pride in the tens of thousands of boat people who drowned in the South Pacific escaping the tyranny that he had helped spawn.
The An you portray as helping his persecuted Vietnamese was the post-1975 An who became stuck in the hell he helped build, not the An who could have tried to prevent the enslavement of South Vietnamese people and to spare them the suffering and bondage of the North Vietnamese people.
Berman: That is just not accurate of An, who did not wish for the Stalinist regime and said so. He mocked the new regime’s dependence on the Soviet model and said that if he knew Vietnam was trading the US for the Soviets, he’d have stayed with the Americans. You’ve constructed an ideological straw man that my book specifically addresses. Pham Xuan An paid a heavy price for his views—house arrest, never being allowed to leave the country and no visitors between 1975-87.
FP: Again, the anti-despotic An is the An you describe after the victory of the communists, not the An who helped communism’s victory.
Let me get this straight: when An looked at North Vietnam, he didn’t see or know anything about the Red Terror that had occurred on a mass scale? He didn’t know anything about the Stalinist-style purges that had eliminated all opposition? He didn’t know about the forced collectivization of agriculture, which ended in horrifying results, taking tens of thousands of lives? With instruction and supervision from their Chinese mentors, the North Vietnamese enforced a “Land Reform” campaign that unleashed mass terror and exterminated tens of thousands of innocent Vietnamese peasants. Where was An’s dedication to Vietnamese freedom and independence there?
Berman: I’ve already addressed this earlier, with a straight face and with facts based on what scholars have learned from years of research. Let’s not keep re-fighting the war here.
FP: Ok, but let it be said that after Saigon fell in 1975, the summary executions of tens of thousands of innocent South Vietnamese followed. There were to be two million refugees and more than a million people thrown into the new communist gulags and “re-education camps.” Tens of thousands of South Vietnamese boat people perished in the Gulf of Thailand and in the South China Sea in their attempt to escape what the likes of Sontag, McCarthy and Chomsky had helped create.
No one with a straight face could say that they didn’t know this is what the North Vietnamese would bring to the South. The fall of Saigon also facilitated the communist takeovers of Laos and Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge victory in Cambodia led to a killing field in which some three million Cambodians were exterminated. In just a few years after the communist takeovers in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the communists killed more Indochinese citizens than had died on both sides in the whole Vietnam War.
An played a role in engendering these killing fields. And also in facilitating the deaths of American soldiers. And we are supposed to be sympathetic to him in some way? Please.
Berman: An went into hiding when Saigon fell in 1975 because he feared being killed. He was known only as a "friendly" correspondent. He was then sent away for a year of reeducation at a political institute because he knew nothing about Marxism, socialism and the communist party. In the book I specifically address the issue of An’s responsibility for the deaths of Americans and Vietnamese. What I have tried to do is explain the war through his eyes. Yes, An was responsible for the deaths of Americans. I’m not sure what else I can say except read the book.
FP: Oh I am sure An wasn't too ignorant about Marxism, socialism and the communist party. The point here is that the new totalitarian regime believed that he didn't know what he needed to know about it; he needed to be disinfected from his contact with the impure world and he needed to be educated properly. In other words, the process of Marxist revolutions eating their own children had begun.
Dr. Berman, I have read your book very carefully sir. Aside from our ideological combat here, I must say that you have done a great job as a historian and you have very successfully illuminated the life of this double agent. It is a very informative book that is also very interesting to read. So, again, aside from our differences on the Vietnam War and An, I commend you on an important feat as a historian.
So let’s return to An a bit more. Was An an agent of disinformation?
Berman: This is one of the big questions, that is, was An deliberately spreading false information in order to mislead his country’s enemy? The charge was initially made by Arnaud de Borchgrave in testimony before a Senate Sub Committee chaired by former American prisoner of war, Senator Jeremiah Denton. According to de Borchgrave, “He [An] was in charge of relaying disinformation to the U.S. Embassy and to journalistic colleagues.” Making the accusation is easy, proving it is something else. The charge has never been corroborated, despite several investigations and accusations. It remains perhaps the most sensitive, if not most central question, involving An’s cover—did he bias coverage of the war to favor the communists. I found no such evidence and believe me, I looked everywhere. That would have been a real newsmaker. The reason I came up empty is simple: if An had engaged in these types of activities, he surely would have blown his cover. He had more important things on his agenda than biasing the news.
FP: How did An pull it off for so long? Was he protected, lucky or just good at what he did?
Berman: He was good and he was also lucky. Ironically, when the war was over and Vietnam no longer divided, there were some within Vietnam’s Security Police Office, the “Cong An” who believed An’s ties with American and Vietnamese intelligence had been too close. They were also puzzled by his actions during the final days of the war when he saved so many South Vietnamese, especially Dr. Tuyen. Perhaps their Hero had survived for so long only because he had been worked for all sides, making him a possible triple agent. An only compounded matters by speaking fondly about his many friends in the CIA and CIO and so critically about his lost dreams for the revolution.
FP: Can you describe some of his friendships with Americans during and after the war?
Berman What makes An’s life story so interesting to me is that he apparently loved living his cover; being a correspondent for a free press was a dream come true in his vision of the revolution. For over twenty years An lived a lie that he hoped would become his reality—working as a newspaper correspondent in a unified Vietnam. He developed enduring bonds of friendship with many prominent journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan and with members of the American intelligence community like William Colby and the legendary Edward Lansdale. An admired and respected the Americans he met in Vietnam as well as during his time in the States. He just believed that they had no business being in his country. He came to admire Americans for their way of thinking, their values and the freedoms they possessed. He wanted his children to be educated in America because that was the place he had learned about humanity. At first, nothing was more difficult for me in writing about An’s life than trying to understand these friendships. In order to survive, An deceived those closest to him about his mission, yet hardly anyone rejected An when they learned he had been a communist spy. What kind of man can forge such enduring friendships based on a falsehood and, when the deception is unveiled, leave so few feeling betrayed? Why is it that so many refused to believe they had been source material for their friend’s reports to Hanoi?
FP: An liked being a correspondent for a free press while North Vietnamese citizens who believed in the right of a free press lingered in the North Vietnamese Gulag and suffered vicious torture and barbarity. He liked working for a free press so much that he worked to create a despotism for his own people where no one would be entitled to the freedom that America, a nation that he betrayed, gave him.
If there is a repulsive human being, this is certainly one of them.
Berman: You are entitled to your view, but Pham Xuan An did not work to create a despotism; he fought for the liberation of his country from foreign invaders; he fought for a vision that turned out to be naïve and later said so. What’s so hard to grasp here? He believed it was for the Vietnamese themselves to decide their future, not for the French or Americans. “In my life I had only two responsibilities. One was to my country as an obligation, the other one was to my American friends who taught me everything from A-Z, particularly American people. My wish is this. To fight until the country recovers independence and then renewal of diplomatic and normalization relations between the Vietnamese and American people and then I will die anytime smiling.”
FP: We are going in a circle here, but if An wanted a liberation of Vietnam he would have been fighting for the liberation of the Vietnamese in North Vietnam.
So was An a part of the reconciliation process between the two former enemies?
Berman: Pham Xuan An remained an Americophile throughout his life and happily he lived long enough to see a new chapter open between the United States and Vietnam. At the invitation of both the United States Ambassador to Vietnam, An was invited aboard the USS Vandegrift in November 2003 along with other dignitaries on the occasion of the first port call by an American Navy ship to Vietnam since the war ended in 1975. On that day An was in civilian attire and the only one to recognize him from the Vietnamese delegation was a Colonel who approached him and asked in Vietnamese, “excuse me, are you General Pham Xuan An?” An looked up and said, “yes I am.” The Colonel said, “nice meeting you sir,” and with An surrounded by so many high ranking American dignitaries he jokingly asked, “which side were you a General for?” Without hesitation, An answered “both sides!” The Colonel looked uneasy. “Just kidding,” said An. In telling me this story, An concluded, “You see, that is why they can’t let me out; they are still unsure who I am.”
FP: What is the story of An’s son, An Pham?
Berman: The slow winds of change eventually reached Vietnam in 1986 when the 6th National Congress launched Doi Moi, an economic renovation program to reform Vietnamese society and stimulate economic growth, thereby abandoning efforts to build a fully Communist society. A more tolerant attitude would prevail with respect to contact with the West and toward expression of opinion in the country.
It is within this context that a remarkable story unfolded involving bonds of friendship between former colleagues, a father’s dream for his eldest son and reconciliation between the two counties Pham Xuan An loved. “The party could only teach me ideological things,” explained An. “From the Americans I learned other important things about journalism, about another way of thinking. This is what I wanted for my son. I wanted him to have American friends.” An also believed that his son could represent a new bridge between Vietnamese and American peoples in the post-war period.
An’s former colleagues raised over $30,000. for Hoang An to attend the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill graduate program in journalism. An Pham returned to Vietnam in 1993 to begin work with the Foreign Ministry. In 1999 he secured a Fulbright Fellowship and attended Duke University Law School. He later served as an official translator between the President of Vietnam and President George W. Bush during the American President’s historic visit to Vietnam in 2006 and just last month An’s son was in the Oval Office translating President Bush’s words for Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet. I guess Pham Xuan An’s dream had been realized.
FP: One cannot help from noticing that you speak of An with a tone of admiration and even awe. It is a bit baffling what there is to like about any individual who would dedicate his life to helping the enslavement and extermination of mass numbers of people by a Stalinist ideology – all the while enjoying the luxury of freedom of a society that he helped deny to his own people.
Berman: I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to this interview. I’m glad to be here because FrontPage needs more conversations with people who don’t share your ideological lens on the world. Pham, Xuan An was a reflective man on the failures of the Vietnamese revolution and his country’s current political situation. “I didn’t fight for any of this,” he told me in reference to Vietnam's rampant government corruption, deriding what he described as “our new green communists.” He yearned for reform. You are just wrong to believe that An dedicated his life to help enslave and exterminate the Vietnamese people. My God, even the free Vietnamese in the US don’t believe this about An. Most brother-enemies have reconciled because they understand better than most that there were so many lies on all sides; that the struggle for Vietnamese independence was so much more complicated than you suggest. In closing, let me ask our readers one question: What would they have done had half-a-million troops invaded California (about the size of Vietnam). Would they fight in any way possible to save their homeland?
FP: If Nazis or communists in huge numbers tried to take over California, and were helped by international Nazis or communists to do it, and California was, for some reason, endangered to fall under a totalitarian regime, and Californians requested help from another democracy, and that democracy sent a half-a-million troops to help save Californians from tyranny – yes I could see that.
Did An dedicate his life to help enslave and exterminate the Vietnamese people? This phenomenon is much more complex than to caricature it in this light.
Throughout the 20th Century we have seen the phenomenon of the fellow traveler. We have seen the Western leftist intellectual who supports and venerates societies in which he himself would be exterminated. Today we see the radical Left venerating an ideology -- radical Islam – in which all leftist sacred ideals are mutilated. We see leftist feminists genuflecting in the direction of regimes where they themselves would be barbarized. We see the Noam Chomskys, leftwing Jews, embracing Hamas and Hezbollah -- Nazi organizations that are dedicated to perpetrating another Holocaust. We see the Jane Fondas, who already know what an American withdrawal in the face of totalitarianism yielded in an earlier conflict, supporting yet another military withdrawal in the face of totalitarianism in a new conflict.
So there is the real and horrifying phenomenon of the conscious/subconscious death wish of the believer. There is the reality of the believer who yearns to see human life and human blood sacrificed on the altar of utopian ideals. And there is the phenomenon of the believer who yearns for a society where he himself as an individual will be purged – where his own individuality will be submerged into a greater whole. And this phenomenon is very real; it is not a joke. . . .and I think it will have to be the subject of another discussion in another time and place.
Aside from our disagreements, Larry Berman, on who An was and what the Vietnam War was, you have clearly done a fantastic and professional job as a historian in gathering together and painting the life of An.
I apologize that things were a little rough in this interview, but these are the critical issues of our time my friend, issues that I guess we both feel very strongly about.
Thank you kindly for joining Frontpage Interview. It was a pleasure to have you here.
Berman: Thanks for an engaging conversation and for the kind words about my book and my scholarship.
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