He had a life none of us knew about, a life involving invisible ink and microfilm, the tunnels at Cu Chi and mail drops in the Ho Bo woods. He had a rank (colonel then, major general when he died this week) and, no doubt, a serial number. But to those of us who worked closely with him, as I did for three years, Pham Xuan An was nothing more (or less) than a first-class journalist, with better sources in the South Vietnamese government and a better understanding of the war's historical and political meaning for Vietnam than we would ever have.
He was part Confucian scholar, part medieval monk. His little office in the TIME bureau on the second floor of the Continental Palace Hotel in Saigon was piled almost to the ceiling with stacks upon stacks of dusty documents, reports and newspapers, any one of which he was magically able to locate at a moment's notice, although such notice was rarely necessary, because he seemed to have committed it all to memory. He smoked constantly, drank rarely, laughed easily, bred and raised German shepherds and drove a tiny, rattling Renault through whose floorboards you could see the road going by. I felt I knew him well, but I was wrong.
Just above my computer in my office at home hangs a photograph of An and me, taken in 1990 during our first postwar reunion. We are in his driveway in Saigon, he in the loose trousers and white shirt he always wore. His little Renault, which had long since given up the ghost, is lying in state behind us, covered in years of grime. We had just spent the afternoon talking about the past his as well as mine and the present. Ever the reporter, An was deeply concerned about Vietnam's economy and the corruption that was making it worse. "If I had known during the war that we would just be trading the Americans for the Russians," he said, "I'd have stuck with the Americans." When his secret life came up, he said, "I always tried to tell you the truth." I believed him. Indeed, I recall any number of times especially during the period when Henry Kissinger was bare-knuckling South Vietnam into accepting his "peace-is-at-hand" terms when An saved us from reporting things that weren't true.
He always said that the reason why communists had so much support in Vietnam was that they were the only force that had struggled effectively over the years against foreign occupation and influence: against the Japanese in World War II, against the French for a decade after that, and against U.S. what? "nation building," for lack of a better term, for two more decades. An grew to maturity in the immediate post-World War II years and eventually attracted the attention and sponsorship of Saigon spooks of all sorts from the CIA's Edward Lansdale (who arranged for An to study journalism during the late 1950s at California's Orange Coast College) to the communists' Muoi Huong (who became his case officer after his return to Vietnam).
But in certain profound ways I think the spooks didn't understand An any better than we journalists did later. He was, above all things including journalism a nationalist; he loved, above all things including communism Vietnam. He liked the French and the Americans he knew and spoke their languages well, but he didn't want to see his country Frenchified or Americanized. Or, for that matter, communized, which is probably why he was placed under house arrest and "re-educated" after the Vietnam War ended.
During the war, a colleague of ours said to me, "I think Pham Xuan An is the perfect example of the very best in Vietnamese society." I felt that way, too. I still do.