No Sherlock: NPR Anchor Asks If Viet Cong Spy at Time Magazine Cost American Lives

Pham Xuan Am served on the staff of Time magazine during the Vietnam War – and he also served as a communist spy for the Viet Cong. This should have been the cause of great embarrassment for liberal media outlets like Time. Instead, in 1990, former Time reporter H.D.S. Greenway wasn’t irate at his colleague, but expressed his anger in the Washington Post at the "right-wingers [who] seized on the An story to say that the press had fallen victim to a fiendish disinformation plot."

On Saturday’s Weekend Edition, NPR anchor Scott Simon interviewed Larry Berman, author of a new book on Pham Xuan Am called "Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent." Simon might have been trying to help the author out, but the question he asked seemed like a no-brainer: "Did he give information that resulted in the deaths of South Vietnamese or American soldiers?"

It came in this exchange about how this perfect spying scenario developed:  

SIMON: As Pham Xuan An began to supply information of the North Vietnamese while working for Time and for Reuters, what kind of access did he have? What did the job give him?

BERMAN: An was actually hired as one of the consultants for the creation of this South Vietnamese CIO. The South Vietnamese Central Intelligence Organization, which was patterned after our CIA. An would get his information from the Vietnamese intelligence organization, from his contacts in the South Vietnamese government.

He never had to steal a single document, and the reason for that was people were always giving it to him and asking him for his analysis because he was so good at disentangling complex ideas. The South Vietnamese needed An to explain the Americans to them. And the Americans needed An to explain the Vietnamese. And he was in this perfect position. He was just the recipient of all this information. And then at night, he would go home and write a secret reports. Eventually his reports would reach Hanoi.

SIMON: Is there blood on his hands? Did he give information that resulted in the deaths of South Vietnamese or American soldiers?

Prof. BERMAN: An insisted to his last day, and I tried to develop this in the book, that he never could have hurt anyone. That is, he could have never shot a gun, which is true. He could have never killed anyone. And indeed he went out of his way to save the lives of several prominent anti-communists and American journalist Robert Sam Anson.

And also at the last days of April 1975, one of the leading anti-communists who, if he had been captured, would have certainly been killed and An helped get him out. But absolutely, during the Tet offensive in which thousands have died, that his reports, his recommendations led to deaths of both Americans and South Vietnamese, not only in Saigon but in way and all throughout Vietnam.

Simon began by noting: "Pham Xuan An served as the eyes, ears and voice for some of the best-known Americans reporting from Vietnam in the 1960s. He worked as an interpreter, correspondent and resource for Reuters and Time magazine. He befriended the likes of David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Morley Safer, Robert Shaplen, Robert Sam Anson." It was noticeable that when he asked about people feeling betrayed, Berman talked only about how the South Vietnamese felt betrayed, he asked nothing about how American journalists reacted. Simon did not follow up:

SIMON: When his story began to come out and some people, obviously, began to know what - that even in the 1980s when he was declared a national hero, it seems to me there were people on both sides who felt betrayed.

BERMAN: Certainly, the South Vietnamese who have fled the country and living in America felt betrayed, and then his South Vietnamese, quote, "brothers." His brother enemies in the South felt betrayed, yes. And An felt very uncomfortable about that because, of course, he understood what he had done. He had not only deceived the Americans, but he had deceived millions of South Vietnamese.

And that is why he became part of this broader reconciliation process. I think the only way to look at An's life is to view on this part of the reconciliation between former enemies that is, you know, the United States and Vietnam, between he and his - and those he had betrayed. But it's still a very, very much of a sore spot, particularly amongst the Vietnamese-American community in this country today.

Halberstam, like many other journalists either betrayed by indifferent to his spy friend's agenda, is hailed as a brilliant man, the kind we would never see again. But if a journalist can be so easily bamboozled, how is he a journalist for the ages? NPR has dwelled for days on tributes to Halberstam, so emblematic of the Quagmire Corps that made the world safe for communism. Within the same show, Simon delivered a eulogy to Halberstam's last speech to journalism students and acknowledged that Halberstam was "a mentor and friend to me for more than 25 years." Simon exclaimed:

He never quite shook his image as the tough young reporter stalking through the swamps of Vietnam; didn't really want to. But David Halberstam was elegant, a man of impeccable manners and handsome bearing in what's often taken to be a rumpled profession.

And in a business that abounds in snide asides and outright backstabbing, David Halberstam was a man of astonishing generosity. David read, watched and listened. He wrote encouraging notes, rave reviews, and quotable blurbs. He gave warm advice and always reached for the check.

When Simon turned on Saturday morning to NPR analyst Daniel Schorr, he sang the same song: "David Halberstam was - simply typified a generation of journalists that we'll not see again. He's thought of [as leading] this country on his way out of Vietnam. No other reporter I've ever known could say that I was the first instrumental person in ending a war."

On Sunday, one of Halberstam's NPR eulogists was none other than his Vietnam colleague and Iraq journalistic embarrassment Peter Arnett: "He was a giant of contemporary journalism, and David Halberstam really was the brightest light of the Vietnam reporting generation."

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