Pham Xuan An, 79; Journalist Who Was Later Revealed to Be Viet Cong Spy

Special to The Times

Pham Xuan An, who worked as a trusted correspondent for Time magazine during the Vietnam War while holding the rank of colonel in the Viet Cong guerrilla army, died Wednesday. He was 79.

An, who had emphysema, died in a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City, according to his family.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 23, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 23, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Pham Xuan An obituary: An obituary of Vietnamese journalist and spy Pham Xuan An that appeared in Thursday’s California section said he studied at a junior college in Fullerton in the late 1950s. In fact, he attended Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa in 1957-58 and 1958-59.

An, whose dual role was discovered by a French journalist several years after the war ended in 1975, always insisted he had been an analyst, not an operative, for the Viet Cong and that the intelligence he provided the Viet Cong had not cost the life of a single American. Nor, he said, had he ever planted a false story in Time.


“I don’t think anyone suspected, even my wife,” An, a reed-thin chain-smoker, said in a 2001 interview with the Los Angeles Times. An example of the intelligence he gave the Viet Cong was an assessment of South Vietnam’s forces around Saigon -- as Ho Chi Minh City was previously known -- prior to the Communists’ 1968 Tet offensive. As a credentialed correspondent, he was well-positioned to obtain such information because he had access to American and South Vietnamese military briefings.

Despite the revelation that he was a spy, An retained the friendship of many former U.S. correspondents. They remembered he had once risked blowing his cover by winning the release of Robert Sam Anson, a Time magazine correspondent who had been captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

An’s son graduated from the University of North Carolina and Duke Law School with the financial help of some of those correspondents.


“The American press was different than any I’d known,” An recalled. “A good reporter reports exactly what he sees and you get it right. You should not rationalize. So when I wrote [reports] for the [national liberation] front, I’d ask myself, ‘Am I being objective in this?’ I learned a lot from being a correspondent. And I learned a lot from America. It helped me open up my way of thinking.”

The son of upper-middle-class parents who lived in Saigon, An had gone into the forest with the Viet Minh, the forerunner of the Viet Cong, in 1945 as a 17-year-old platoon commander.

The front’s enemy then was French colonialism and its goal was nationalism and social justice. He was never a Communist and was, in fact, critical of the front’s increasingly ideological objectives and the heavy-handed rule Hanoi eventually exerted over Vietnam when Saigon fell.


At various times between 1949 and 1954, when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, An worked in Saigon as a bookkeeper, a civil servant in the customs department and an advisor to the U.S. military mission to Vietnam. In the late 1950s, he lived in California, studying at a junior college in Fullerton and spending a summer as an intern at the Sacramento Bee.

He returned to Saigon in 1959, fluent in English and trained in journalism, and was hired by the Vietnam Press, the national news agency, to cover President Ngo Dinh Diem.

“He was very knowledgeable, a good journalist with marvelous contacts,” recalled Nguyen Thai, the agency’s former director general who now lives in Oakland.


An left the agency in 1960 to work for Reuters, the British news service. In 1965, Time’s Saigon bureau chief, Frank McCulloch, impressed with An’s journalist skills and courtly manner, hired him.

He stayed with Time until 1975 and covered the fall of Saigon after the magazine’s American correspondents had left the city with most other U.S. journalists and diplomats.

During the Vietnam War, An’s Viet Cong contact was an older woman whose name he never knew and with whom he exchanged no more than a casual hello.


His reports to the Viet Cong leadership were written in invisible ink, the notes hidden in cigarette packs or tins of biscuits and passed to the woman in encounters at the central market.

After the war, An was promoted to general and offered a job in the Communist government’s censorship department. He turned it down.

Hanoi’s cadres provided him and his family a comfortable house for $6 a month rent and he retired.


In 2001, An was asked what the biggest mistake was the United States had made during the war. He replied: “Look, some of the influential Americans I dealt with were beautiful people. They were very smart. They weren’t ignorant about Vietnam. But being smart and making the right decisions are different things.

“The big mistake the Americans made was not understanding the Vietnamese history, culture, mentality. They were so sure military strength would win the war, they never bothered to learn who they were fighting.”