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Vietnam’s Masterspy

Pick up a copy of  Perfect Spy:  The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, by Larry  Berman.  It is quite good in places, and has much to recommend it.

Pham Xuan An, subject of this biography, was a Vietnamese reporter in Saigon during the war for a number of US publications, first and foremost Time magazine.  More than that, he was the leading Vietnamese   go-to person for most of the US’ reportorial corps, as he was generally   acknowledged as having the best contacts of anyone in Saigon.  More   importantly, he explained the workings of Vietnamese society and    culture to several generations of US reporters.  Trained as a   journalist in Orange Coast College, California, in the late 1950’s, he   had a deep understanding and appreciation of American society, culture,   and the American people–one that was probably unmatched in Vietnamese  journalism.  The kicker was, the entire of his adult life he was an  officer in the North Vietnamese Army’s intelligence service, rising to   Colonel by 1970.

An’s role as an intelligence operative was as a strategic analyst, the   highest level of intelligence operative, one who attempts to explain   the psychological workings, the big picture, of your opponent and his   actions.  He received numerous high decorations for his efforts from   the Vietnamese  Politbureau, well-deserved decorations.  It is rare that   intelligence operatives actually have any great effect on the course of   history—the Communist spy Richard Sorge – executed by the Japanese —  may be an exception, perhaps Kim Philby–but there is room   to argue that An’s efforts elevate him to that status.  Berman makes   the case for that; not successfully in my estimation.  But the writing   of history on this issue has just begun, and I would not want to say   that An’s elevation to Sorge’s level won’t happen.

The book suffers from a severe lack of editing focus and has a   scattered narrative that’s hard to follow.  Nevertheless, there are   gems aplenty scattered throughout it.  My favorite, so far, is An’s   analysis of South Vietnam in 1974, as reported via an interview he gave   to Robert Shaplen.  Shaplen used parts of this , bowdlerized, in a book of his, bowdlerized.  The straight version of his notes, courtesy of Texas   Tech’s Vietnam Studies Archives, is worth a hard and close read.  From   pp204-5:

“An was very critical of President Nguyen Van Thieu, the best evidence   of which is found in Shaplen’s notes where An compares the effects of   President Thieu’s leadership with opium-addicted circus monkeys.    An:  ‘Thieu, we made him so, and if we let him go, he’ll sink.  Lots   of Chinese and Saigonese raise monkeys, feed them opium, good food, do   tricks, put on fancy hats.  Circus.  But when owner turns his back for   three minutes, the monkey will revert to his basic nature, eat   excrement, like Thieu.  So if we are delaying our support for five   minutes, ARVN gets swallowed up.  We have created a monkey climate   here.’   An explained to Shaplen that the leadership crisis in Saigon   was a direct result of the United States doing nothing to develop a new   generation of leaders in Vietnam.  ‘Blood and dollars have been spent   here but what have we done to Vietnamese and Saigon?  Most Americans   are in contact with the monkeys and we will soon withdraw anyway.  We   know only the monkeys.  When we came we made use of Viets trained by   French, mandarin crowd, and we made the new generals.  Dollars, etc.   and the monkeys didn’t know how to use them.  No Viet doctrine, no US   doctrine either.  We build school buildings, but no teachers.  Build   roads and new canals, but Viets don’t know how to use them.  So the   Americans can’t put their brains in our hats and that’s been proved.    No real leadership training.”

An went on to report to Hanoi on Hanoi’s concern that the US might   re-intervene in Vietnam to rescue Thieu if Hanoi were to attack again   as in ’68 or ’72.  An said to Berman, quoting Pham Van Dong:  ‘The   United States has withdrawn its troops in accordance with the Paris   agreement, which it regards as a victory after suffering many defeats   with no way out.  Now, there is no way that they could intervene again   byh sending in troops.  They may provide air and naval support, but   that cannot decide victory or defeat…I’m kidding, but also telling   the truth, when I say that the Americans would not come back even if   you offered them candy.’

Strategic analysis, unlike most all other forms of intelligence   reportage and efforts, has a decent half-life.  Nations and peoples and   their institutions and culture don’t change very rapidly.  It is the   heigth of wisdom to study what our enemies say, have said, about us in   their strategic analysis, because they see us as we are, stripped of   our pretenses and illusions and self-delusions.  The parallels between   Vietnam in its last days and our current military adventures are   manifold, but An’s analysis of our failure in our efforts then in   Vietnam are as true today–we don’t care to develop any in-country   leadership or doctrine.  We deal with the monkeys.   We won’t be back   to those countries even if they offer us candy. That’s us in history’s mirror.

Daniel N. White  can be reached at           louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com

 

 

 

 

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Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to.  He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about.  He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now.  He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb.  He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.

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