Perfect Spy by Larry Berman


Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent by Larry Berman

The French and the Japanese

When Vichy France surrendered to the Nazis during World War II, this had implications for French colonies. Japan took over Vietnam from the French. After America defeated Japan in 1945, Japan lost Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh moved into Hanoi. There followed several years of the Communist Viet Minh and the French fighting for control of Vietnam, culminating in partition in 1956. The Viet Minh presented themselves as nationalists, not as Communists, in 1954 when they were fighting the French.

South Vietnam

Forces in the 1950s competing for South Vietnam:

  1. Bao Dai (last emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty, who was exiled to France in 1955),
  2. Cao Dai (vegetarian Buddhists, whose main temple is at Tay Ninh, near the Black Virgin Mountain. One of its leaders, Trinh Minh The, was assassinated in 1955),
  3. Hoa Hao (rural Buddhists living in the Mekong river delta),
  4. Binh Xuyen (in charge of gambling, opium and prostitution in Cho Lon, including the largest brothel in Asia, the Hall of Mirrors),
  5. General Nguyen Van Hinh, backed by France, and eventually exiled to France in 1954,
  6. Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic who became head of South Vietnam during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Pham Xuan An

Pham Xuan An was born in Dong Hai province in 1927. His father was a land surveyor. His father sent him to live in Hue for awhile, where he saw how badly the landlords treated their tenant farmers. An liked Americans, because they root for the underdog. An learned English first from missionaries, then from the British embassy. An loved reading. An’s American friends and colleagues were very fond of him and never suspected his hobby.


Pham Xuan An was recruited to spy for the Communists. The mission of An was two-fold:

  1. to learn as much as possible about American culture,
  2. to become a journalist covering Viet Nam for a major American news organization.

To conceal his true sympathies, An hung out with the most anti-Communist Americans.

Orange County, California

Colonel Edward Lansdale arranged for the Asia Foundation to sponsor An as a journalism student in the United States. An attended Orange Coast College in southern California. An was a reporter for his college newspaper the Barnacle. An graduated in 1959 and went to work for the Sacramento Bee newspaper.


After An returned to Vietnam in 1960, he worked first for the South Vietnam Press Agency, then for Reuters, then in 1964 for the New York Herald Tribune, then in 1965 forTime magazine. Pham Xuan An did not give disinformation, because it would damage his credibility. American reporters valued his opinion and he tried to educate them about Vietnam. He was valued by the American due to his easy going nature, sense of humor, competence, excellent English, and wide array of contacts among the Vietnamese locals.

American Departure

In 1973 Henry Kissinger negotiated the Paris Accords, which allowed the North Vietnamese Army to keep 2-3 hundred thousand troops in South Vietnam, but required the American troops to leave. In December 1974 the North Vietnam Army took Phuoc Long City, thus violating the Paris Accords. American President Gerald Ford made no military response. He let them get away with it. The Communists knew then that America had abandoned Vietnam and it was theirs for the taking. After Saigon fell to the Communists in April 1975, An felt that the Americans failed to train good South Vietnamese leaders. An had contempt for the South Vietnamese leadership.

Personal Loyalty

An remained in Vietnam to take care of his mother. 120,000 South Vietnamese refugees were rescued by USA. For An, personal relationships were more important than political allegiances.An refused to rat out his anti-communist contacts to the communists after the war. After 1975, An finally learned about Marxist-Leninism, and the country became de-Americanized and Russified. An did not care for the Russians. An’s son studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. An died in Vietnam in 2006 of emphysema.