“We’ve had good talks with your veterans,” he said. “I think they were impressed with us. I know we were impressed with them.”
His daughter brought out a bowl of tangerines, and Bao and I sat in the small garden of his home talking long into the afternoon, he wearing the blouse of his NVA uniform. In an army career that spanned thirty- four years, he spent nine years fighting the French, ten the Americans, and six Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. What he most appreciated now, he said, was the peacefulness of his life. His pension—$72 per month, a comfortable sum in Vietnam—provided for all his material needs, and he had no more real concerns, he said, other than to ensure that the next generation had opportunities his didn’t and that his children prospered.
Funny. That is how Duong Cu, the former South Vietnamese judge, put it too.
AT 10 A.M. APRIL 30,1975, Pham Xuan An was in Time magazine’s of¬fice with several South Vietnam intelligence officers, listening to Radio Saigon. “Citizens, stand by,” the broadcast said. “The president will shortly make an important announcement.” Time’s American staffers had left Saigon two days earlier on an evacuation flight; now, reporting the city’s final hours was left to An, the most trusted and respected of the Vietnamese reporters who worked for Western news agencies. I hadn’t known An well during the war, but whenever I’d asked a colleague a question about the history of the Viet Cong or needed an analysis of a political event, the reply invariably came back, “Go see An over at Time” An had worked for Caltex in 1952, spent two years studying in the United States, and joined the U.S. Military Advisory Group as an adviser in Saigon in 1954. He was one of the few Vietnamese reporters who had U.S. press credentials, and his reporting was considered rock-solid: accu¬rate, insightful, forward-looking. He shared his knowledge generously even with those of us who didn’t work for Time and was good company when you could grab him for a beer on the veranda of the Continental.
The radio announcement—that President Duong Van Minh was sur¬rendering to North Vietnam—didn’t surprise An. In fact, very little sur¬prised An because his intelligence was as sound as his reporting. An, it turned out, was a Viet Cong colonel and had worked for the resistance movement since 1945.
“I don’t think anyone suspected,” An said when, twenty-five years after the war’s end, I walked through the green iron gate surrounding his house that the government provided him for $6 rent per month. “Even my wife. She knew I was involved with the liberation front, but she didn’t know any details.”
An had greeted me at the doorstep barefoot, smoking a Marlboro. He was seventy-two years old, with jet-black hair and a thin, tired face. The two German shepherds that had accompanied him everywhere had died, and his companion now was a Rottweiler named Bella. He took me into his library. The shelves were packed with books in Vietnamese, English, and French: Bernard Fall’s Last Reflections on a War, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, Nayan Chanda’s Brother Enemy, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. Two other titles caught my eye: Is South Vietnam Viable? and How to Stay Alive in Vietnam. His desk was piled with papers and letters, and it was difficult to know whether he was very busy or just hadn’t gotten around to doing all that needed to be done.
“An, I don’t know quite how to put this,” I said, “but being a double agent, didn’t it make you feel pretty uncomfortable with yourself? I mean, weren’t you betraying the friends at Time who trusted you?”
“No, it was simple, really, not complicated at all. I had my national ob¬ligation and I had my job. I was an analyst, not an operative. For instance, before the Tet Offensive, the front wanted a detailed report about the military situation around Saigon. How strong was the ARVN? What was their discipline, morale? What was the U.S.’s likely reaction? I did that. The research I did was strategic, not tactical. It was like working at RAND. I didn’t do espionage. I wasn’t supposed to plant stories. That was for the propaganda section. I never did anything that endangered the life of any American. I was loyal to the revolution but I had friends and sources to protect on both sides.
“To work for Time, you had to be objective. Learning that helped me with my national obligation. The American press was different than any I’d known. You are a reporter. A good reporter reports exactly what he sees and you get it right. You should not rationalize. So when I wrote for the front, I’d ask myself, Am I being objective in this?’ I learned a lot be¬ing a correspondent. And I learned a lot from America. It helped me open up my way of thinking.”
An had gone into the forests with the Viet Minh in 1945 as a seven¬teen-year-old platoon commander. Seven years later he started work in a strategic intelligence unit set up by Hanoi in the South. An said that with Vietnam under colonial rule, the decision to join the resistance was a no- brainer.
“The front was about nationalism then. Communism came later. The front stood for two things: It was against the French, and it was for social justice between landowners and tenants. That’s why it was so compelling to people my age. It promised justice. We had to study French history in those days. We studied the French Revolution, and we’d say, ‘If the French can do it, why can’t we?’ That’s the irony. The French inspired us how to make a revolution against France.
“For a young person like me, it was easy to be against injustice. But as you grow older, you realize it’s not so black and white. Now it’s like I’ve seen the beginning of the revolution and I’ve seen the end. I understand that you can’t crush social injustice overnight. I’m not an optimist or a pessimist any more. I’m just a realist. I try to look at things objectively like Time taught me to do as a reporter.”