Larry Berman and the “Perfect Spy” (Part 1)

VietNamNet's Viet Lam talks with Prof. Larry Berman, author of bestseller “Perfect Spy”, about legendary Vietnamese spy Pham Xuan An.

Viet Lam: The first edition of “Perfect Spy” was published seven years ago and the second edition was released last year with a new title “Perfect Spy X6”. What is the difference between the two editions?

Larry Berman: Well, the biggest change in the two editions is that in the new edition, that is the word-for-word translation of the English copy of Perfect Spy.

In the first edition, it was more a summary in general, very good translation but not word for word...and of course X6 was the code name of Pham Xuan An. So the biggest difference is that.

The second biggest difference is the existing book has special letters that I shared with readers for the first time from An, also letters from the members of the H.63 network. And finally it has an essay by me of the things that Pham Xuan An told me that could not be published in the first edition, but I used in the second edition.

Viet Lam: Many readers have sent us this question “What inspired you to keep writing about Pham Xuan An”?

Larry Berman: Pham Xuan An was the most interesting person that I have met in my life for many reasons.

First of all, he was a spy, the most successful spy during the whole Vietnam War and he let me write his life story. As I got to know him, I realized that his life was something much more than just spying. It was about the struggle of the Vietnamese people but also the struggle of Pham Xuan An after the war and what happened to him.

So I find that his whole life was so interesting that I just keep going back and forth with him. And of course, many Vietnamese readers buy the book. It becomes popular, so why would I not keep writing?

Viet Lam: There are many Vietnamese and Americans writing about An. We wonder why An chose you to share his secrets, his life and reports?

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Larry Berman and Pham Xuan An. The photo is provided by the author.

Larry Berman: I talked about that in my book. An selected me for several reasons.

At first he did not want me to write the book. He did not want anyone to write the book. Many people who knew him during the war are famous journalists like Stanley Karnow and others. They offered An $500,000 to write his memoirs. And An kept saying "No, because if I tell the secrets, too many people would be hurt".

And then An got very sick and was dying. He thought he would have only six months to live and I was with him and I said to him that "your story really needs to be told". He finally agreed. He chose me to tell because he had read my other books and he thought I was the fairest American historian on controversial subjects and that I would be independent and that I did not know him during the war. I had no view of the war and no service in the war. Therefore, I can address this. That is why he selected me. I think An knew my commitment to him

Viet Lam: Had you ever read any article about Pham Xuan An before you started writing about him. After many meetings with An, what was your perspective about him? Who was the real Pham Xuan An?

Larry Berman: When I first met Pham Xuan An in Ho Chi Minh City in the summer of 2000, I sat to have dinner with him but I did not know who he was and we spoke for about four hours together about his time in California, his career in journalism, about who he knew, and he never mentioned anything about spying.

I found that he was one of the most interesting, engaging talkers. After dinner, I learnt who he was and I read everything I could about him and I really wanted to get involved with him and write his story. Then I read everything about Pham Xuan An.

But at first I knew very little about Pham Xuan An. Most are published by Vietnamese journalists who have written about his life story in general, his secrets and intelligence. That was not the kind of story An wanted. These stories even embarrassed him. He wanted an American historian to write history.

Concerning the answer for who is the real Pham Xuan An, we will never know who the real Pham Xuan An is.

We do know Pham Xuan An through several remarkable stages of his life, his mission to his country, his obligation. He wanted to fulfill his mission to his country and went to the United States and came back. And then to the end of his life, he saw the dream come true: reconciliation between our two countries.

An was the only Vietnamese after the war who truly understood the American people, not just the reason for the American government's waging the war. And he saw that goodness, spontaneity and friendship and he admired the American system. And he was a very lonely man for the large part of his life because he could not bring those ideas to the Vietnamese people.

Viet Lam: You mentioned a very interesting thing about Pham Xuan An, not just as a perfect spy, but more than a remarkable personality and a lonely spy. This is also relevant to the question of a reader named Nguyen Giang: “Is Pham Xuan An more a patriotic communist or a journalist who fought for his people’s independence?”

Larry Berman: That is a good question and thank you for asking it.

Pham Xuan An is a patriot, I say that in the book. But by patriot, I mean he joined the revolution when he was a very young man and he believed that no foreign army and no foreign country have the right to determine Vietnam’s future.

To Pham Xuan An, that was what the revolution was about: Vietnam for the Vietnamese and not by the French or the American, the Japanese, but for the Vietnamese. So, he was a patriot and he took a mission. That mission was to go to the United States, learn about the Americans and come back and report on them. But his mission was not to hate Americans. He came to admire Americans and who America was. He just wanted them to go home.

When he joined the Party, he did not know anything about Communism and the whole time he worked as a spy, he had never gone to a Communist meeting. He did not know anything about that because he was working as a reporter for an American newspaper on his mission. So when the war was over and someone said “Oh, you are Communist now”.

An said “I am a patriot, a Vietnamese that fought for independence”. That is how I answered that question. It is not black and white. It is very complicated.

And as readers of my book know, from 1975 until the day he died, Pham Xuan An became a leader of reconciliation between our two countries. He was the VIP on the USS Vandegrift the first US ship to visit Saigon after the war. His son became a translator for two American Presidents, President Obama and President Bush. Pham Xuan An today is looking down and smiling about his life, I know.

Viet Lam: You met An many times, and also his colleagues in the H.63. Vietnamese spies had not been trained professionally. So, how could An and his colleagues be successful with such training?

Larry Berman: Well, first of all, the first thing I learnt when I interviewed many members of the H.63 network. Of course, many of them died protecting Pham Xuan An; their whole mission was to protect Pham Xuan An.

I was able to interview many of the key members of the network like Tu Cang, Ms Thao and the others in this town. Those are the ones who lived and survived but many in the H.63 died protecting Pham Xuan An. That is the first thing that I learnt and that was very important.

Pham Xuan An learnt about spying from reading books, and from thinking about it and adopting the coverage of journalists. But he did not go through the training as a formal spy. He got it from reading books. So, he was self-taught or taught himself how to do this successfully. He taught himself how to write invisibly, he learnt about a career system, from reading about it and testing it out.

Of course, there were many other Vietnamese spies who were caught. He was the only one who went the entire war and did not get caught and was even promoted. So many others, and even three spies who were promoted to the rank of general, but two of the three had to flee. Only Pham Xuan An survived. That is why I called him the perfect spy.

Viet Lam: So, did An tell you about the amount of exact intelligence information that he sent to Hanoi during the wartime?

Larry Berman: He told me that he sent a lot to Hanoi. He gave me some specific examples but in the book, I say that most of the secret, of the top secret reports he took with him to his grave. But really, the reports exist right here in Hanoi, in the military archive. Maybe, one day in the future, young historians who may not even be born yet will be able to read those reports and we will know everything that Pham Xuan An did. But right now, no scholar, American or Vietnamese, has been allowed to see those reports.

Viet Lam: Seven years ago VietNamNet published a special series about the H.63 spying network. We received a number that An sent about more than 400 reports to Hanoi, and the accuracy of the information was up to 80%. Do you think that is impressive?

Larry Berman: I think it is very impressive. An won 16 or 17 medals for his contributions to the victory but four or five of them in particular are Ap Bac of the 1965 escalation, the Tet Offensive. His report, we know, was crucial for the success of what General Giap tried to accomplish. Without a doubt, 80% is quite impressive. How did he get that information?  

An did not steal things from the Americans. He was a reporter, but he was also a very personable, bold and intelligent, we call, human intelligence. He actually became a very close friend with the South Vietnamese CIO, their intelligence office. Here, the intelligent officers would give him documents as they thought he was a reporter…

He was a master of getting people to give him materials so that he could use his analysis and write his reports. That was the key. He was a great intelligent analyst of the materials that he received, both intelligence and military.

Viet Lam: This question comes from a reader named Nam: “Do you think that the CIA may have been suspected An to be a Communist spy but they did not exclude him or arrest him for untold reasons?”

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Larry Berman: No, I do not think so. I think if the CIA thought that An was a spy, he would be dead. I have been asked that question before, but I do not think so. He had many friends in the CIA and a good working relationship with the CIA as a reporter. The CIA relied on An for tips because they thought he was a good non-Communist source.  But they never suspected An of being a spy. If they had, he would have been dead.

In my book, I tell the story that the CIA actually recruited An. The CIA came and asked An. An and I talked about it. They tried to get An to be an agent for them. And An did not know what to do because he was a Communist agent and the CIA did not know that. An did not know the future and he would accept the job so that he could infiltrate the CIA. So he sent a message to Hanoi to get their advice as to what to do. Should he accept the CIA offer? And the advice was it was too dangerous. And Hanoi said no, he should keep his coverage as a journalist and keep doing what he was doing. So he turned it down.

Something about spy Pham Xuan An:

Pham Xuan An was born in 1927 in Bien Hoa in the southern province of Dong Nai and died in 2006.

During his life as a secret agent, major-general An, whose alias was X6, worked for the intelligence group H63 in Sai Gon, which was then called Ho Chi Minh City.

He was a strategic spy and played an important role in the resistance war against the American invaders. He was a reporter for Reuters, Time magazine, and the New York Herald Tribune and received several honors from US politicians and the media.

He befriended everyone who was anyone in Sai Gon, including American journalists such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan, the CIA's William Colby and the legendary Colonel Edward Lansdale, not to mention the most influential members of the South Vietnamese government and army.

None ever guessed that he was providing strategic intelligence to Hanoi, smuggling invisible ink messages into the jungle inside egg rolls. His early reports were so accurate that General Vo Nguyen Giap joked, "We are now in the US war room."

In "Perfect Spy," Larry Berman, who An considered his official American biographer, chronicles the extraordinary life of one of the twentieth century's most fascinating spies.

The first edition of “Perfect Spy” was launched in 2007 and the second edition “Perfect Spy X6” was published last year.

A 32-episode television film on An will be shot soon in both the US and Vietnam. Each episode will be of 45 minutes and the budget will be around US$ 1 million.

Larry Berman also intends to make another 120-minute movie on the spy.


To be continued…


larry berman, pham xuan an, perfect spy