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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 email@example.com