An’s six-year-old grandson came over and sat on the arm of my chair. He didn’t smile or frown. He just looked at me quietly with big brown eyes. An lit another Marlboro.
For ten years during the American War, An’s Viet Cong liaison contact was an older woman whose name he never knew and with whom he never exchanged more than a casual hello. Their paths would cross mo¬mentarily in the Central Market or on Nguyen Hue or Le Loi Street— but never twice in the same place—and the messages they passed were wri tten in invisible ink and hidden in biscuit tins or packs of cigarettes or bouquets of flowers.
Three days after Saigon fell, a North Vietnamese captain and a ser¬geant came into Times office. They were polite, even friendly, and told the man Hanoi referred to by the code name Hai Trung to register, along with others who had worked for U.S. companies, at the former South Ko¬rean embassy. An never told them he had spent the war on their side be¬cause that would have been only partly true. What he had worked for was the justice of independence. He did not want to see the North dominate the South, or the South the North. He was not anti-American. He be¬lieved Vietnam could learn many important lessons from the West. He wondered if communism were best for Vietnam.
The men from the North promoted An to general and offered him a job in censorship. “When you work for a free press, you don’t want a job in censorship. I turned it down,” An explained. He kept listening to the BBC and Voice of America. He spoke often of his departed American friends. There were even reports that in Saigon’s final hours he had helped several disoriented South Vietnamese soldiers flee to safety by boat, taking from his bookcase the Indochina Geographic Handbook, writ¬ten in 1943 by British naval intelligence. He showed them how the cur¬rents flowed in April, where weather depressions were likely, when mon¬soons struck—-and he suggested an escape route. An wasn’t against anyone. He was simply for the Vietnamese.
So the revolutionaries who now ran Saigon set An up in a nice house and put him out to pasture. His career ended. His double life was uncov¬ered by French intelligence in 1978; the Party told An not to give inter¬views about it. When an occasional American journalist returned to Viet¬nam and asked the government for permission to visit An, he was told An was sick and unavailable. An seldom left his home, and the mail on his desk grew higher.
“I owe so many letters to friends all over the world,” An told me. “I guess I haven’t written anyone in twelve or thirteen years. That’s too bad because I’m a little sentimental and I miss those journalists a lot. Jack Foise, Dan Sutherland, Stan Karnow. Those were good people. I have good intentions to answer but my English is getting rusty. And my French is worse. I don’t even know where my typewriter is. Karnow tried to get me to write my memoirs. Random House was interested. I said nothing doing. I’m poor but I don’t need money. Besides, I don’t want to embarrass people on either side. Even if they were dead, what would their children think if I wrote unflattering things about their fathers?”
An, the good soldier of the revolution, had paid a price for believing the revolution was over once the French and the Americans left. He re¬gretted that freedom of expression was still controlled but thought Viet¬nam was making economic progress and slowly becoming more free. I asked him what was the biggest mistake the Americans had made in Vietnam.
“Look,” An said, “some of the influential Americans I dealt with, like Colby, Lansdale, they were beautiful people. They were very smart. They weren’t ignorant about Vietnam. But being smart and making the right decision are different things. The big mistake the Americans made was not understanding the Vietnamese’s history, culture, mentality. They were so sure military strength would win the war, they never bothered to learn who they were fighting.”
ON APRIL 30 AT 11:10 A.M., the first communist T-34 tank, driven by Bui Duc Mai and carrying a crew whose helmets bore the words uVe Saigon (Onward Saigon), crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace. President Minh, having trouble summoning his cabinet because the switchboard operators had fled, sat with his thirty top advisers in two rows of chairs, awaiting the victors.“The revolution is here. We have been waiting for you all morning,” he said.
In the fourth-floor Associated Press office on Nguyen Hue Street, George Esper heard Minh’s surrender broadcast over Radio Saigon and typed a one-paragraph bulletin with hands trembling. He handed the bulletin to the telex operator, who read it quickly. The operator’s jaw dropped, his eyes became saucers. He bolted for the door. Esper and his colleague Peter Arnett wrestled him back into his chair and did not re¬lease him until he had punched the bulletin for AP’s New York editors that North Vietnam had taken Saigon.