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The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An's Dangerous Game

The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An's Dangerous Game

by Thomas A. Bass

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Pham Xuan An was a brilliant journalist and an even better spy. A friend to all the legendary reporters who covered the Vietnam War, he was an invaluable source of news and a font of wisdom on all things Vietnamese. At the same time, he was a masterful double agent. An inspired shape-shifter who kept his cover in place until the day he died, Pham Xuan An ranks as


Pham Xuan An was a brilliant journalist and an even better spy. A friend to all the legendary reporters who covered the Vietnam War, he was an invaluable source of news and a font of wisdom on all things Vietnamese. At the same time, he was a masterful double agent. An inspired shape-shifter who kept his cover in place until the day he died, Pham Xuan An ranks as one of the preeminent spies of the twentieth century.

When Thomas A. Bass set out to write the story of An’s remarkable career for The New Yorker, fresh revelations arrived daily during their freewheeling conversations, which began in 1992. But a good spy is always at work, and it was not until An’s death in 2006 that Bass was able to lift the veil from his carefully guarded story to offer up this fascinating portrait of a hidden life.

A masterful history that reads like a John le Carré thriller, The Spy Who Loved Us offers a vivid portrait of journalists and spies at war.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Bass (The Eudaemonic Pie) expands his New Yorker profile of Vietnamese journalist-spy Pham Xuan An into this atmospheric study of tangled war-time loyalties. Working from 1965 to 1976 in Time magazine's Saigon bureau, An became known as a well-informed and connected reporter. Meanwhile, he passed clandestine reports and top-secret South Vietnamese and American military documents to the Communists; his intelligence purportedly helped decide several important battles. The ironies of An's character-the Communist agent who admired Americans while working to defeat them, the honest reporter (American colleagues insist he never slanted his coverage of the war) who was a little too honest with the wrong people-aren't as profound as Bass wants them to be. Nor do An's loquacious but cagey reminiscences yield much insight into the war's dynamics. (The author seems a bit credulous: "[W]ith 21 bullets remaining, he killed 21 enemy soldiers," he writes of another Vietcong agent allegedly surrounded by 700 attackers.) Bass's account succeeds mainly as an evocation of a murky Saigon during war, where truth was a rare commodity and virtually everyone had an ulterior motive. Photos, maps. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The Foreword
Intriguing . . . masterful . . . .This first-rate account, which will appeal to general readers as well as historians, portrays An as a man caught between two cultures who never lost sight of his ultimate goal, peace and prosperity for Vietnam.
Library Journal

Pham Xuan An (d. 2006) was an experienced journalist at Time magazine's Saigon bureau. There, he was a delightful colleague, full of nuanced information about the war and respected for the articles he published in the Western press. But he was also Hanoi's longtime top agent in the enemy capital. While he provided analytical reports and tactical advice to field units, An's greatest success was warning the Communists about the invasions of Cambodia and Laos. He skillfully played a dangerous game of affection and careful deception, and he surely would have been executed had he been caught carrying his microfilm. Educated for two years in the United States and apparently fond of American culture, An (like so many others) just did not want Washington ruling his country. Readers will find not merely an interesting story but lessons about themselves through foreign eyes. Former reporter Bass (English & journalism, SUNY at Albany) interviewed An and others and has perhaps more Vietnamese sources than did Larry Berman for Perfect Spy. Most readers should acquaint themselves with at least one of these two good books. (Index not seen.)
—Daniel K. Blewett

Kirkus Reviews
Swiftly paced narrative of a Vietnamese James Bond who worked both sides of the game. Bass (English and Journalism/Univ. of Albany; The Predictors, 1999, etc.), whose 1996 book Vietnamerica concerned Amerasian children of the Vietnam War, returns to Indochina to flesh out a story he wrote for the New Yorker a few years ago. His subject, a former Reuters and Time correspondent named Pham Xuan An, proved to be a lively, often prickly interlocutor. He had received official clearance for the magazine piece, but he still knew things that no one else was supposed to know-most likely why the man known as Agent Z.21 chose not to speak on the record for the book. The result is "the unauthorized biography of a spy," Bass writes. An, the author reveals, was renowned for his skills as a reporter and writer-but also as a storyteller capable of spinning entertaining yarns over a hotel bar for hours on end. He was also famed, among certain compatriots, for endlessly detailed reports that made Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap "clap their hands with glee and exclaim over the verve and narrative grip of the Tolstoy in their midst." It was An, for instance, who revealed to Hanoi information that American ground forces were first on their way to Vietnam. "This would not be the only time that Pham Xuan An got a scoop from Time long before the magazine's readers back in the United States," writes Bass. An saved the lives of several fellow journalists, though, including Robert Sam Anson. At the end of the war, he put his family on helicopters leaving Saigon for American ships offshore, then gladly greeted the Communist liberators-though he had to serve time in a reeducation camp simply for having been tainted bycontact with the West. Bass writes himself into the story too much, but the intriguing character of An provides the center of a fascinating account. Agent: Michael Carlisle/Inkwell Management
From the Publisher
John Le Carré
“I was deeply impressed by this book. It is relevant, instructive, funny. The shock of the double never goes away. Neither does the gullibility of the arrogant intruder.”

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What People are Saying About This

Seymour Hersh
"This is a chilling account of betrayal of an American army -- and an American press corps -- involved in a guerrilla war in a society about which little was known or understood. The spy here was in South Vietnam, and his ultimate motives, as Thomas Bass makes clear, were far more complex than those of traditional espionage. This book, coming now, has another message, too, for me -- have we put ourselves in the same position, once again, in Iraq?"--(Seymour Hersh, author of Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib)
H.D.S. Greenway
"Thomas Bass tells a fantastic tale of intrigue, espionage, and friendship. His book reads as if it came from the farthest shores of fiction, and I wouldn't believe a word of it if I hadn't met so many of its characters and didn't know the story to be true."--(H.D.S. Greenway, Editor, The Boston Globe and Vietnam war reporter for Time and the Washington Post)
Morley Safer
"The story of Pham Xuan An is the revelation of a remarkable life and a remarkable man. Fictional accounts of practitioners of the Great Game-the craft of spying-come nowhere near the real thing that was practiced by An. In The Spy Who Loved Us, An is revealed as a man of split loyalties, who managed to maintain his humanity. Cast prejudices aside and you will discover a true hero, scholar, patriot, humanist and masterful spy."--(Morley Safer, Correspondent, CBS 60 Minutes and author of Flashbacks: On Returning to Vietnam)
Seymour Topping
"Thomas Bass has rendered a sensitive, revealing portrait of the strangely ambivalent personality I knew during the Vietnam War. In doing so he provided us with unique insights into the nature, conflicting sentiments and heartbreak of many Vietnamese who worked with Americans, made friends with them, but in the end loved their land more and sought, as their ancestors had a for a thousand years, to free it from all trespassers."--(Seymour Topping, former Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Managing Editor of The New York Times)
Daniel Ellsberg
"This is a brilliant book about a man and his times. It strengthens the feeling I got from meeting him late in his life that Pham Xuan An was one of the most impressive people I have ever encountered. He was a man of wisdom, courage, and clear-headed patriotism. He was also-even if it seems ironic to say this under the circumstances-a man of extraordinary integrity. He loved us at our best even while confronting us at our worst."--(Daniel Ellsberg, author of Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers)
John Laurence
"Every veteran, every scholar, every student, everyone who survived the Vietnam War is advised to read this book and reflect on its wisdom. In his thoughtful, provocative biography of one of the most successful espionage agents in history, Thomas Bass challenges some of our most fundamental assumptions about what really happened in Vietnam and what it means to us today."--(John Laurence, Vietnam war reporter for CBS News and author of The Cat from Hue: a Vietnam War Story)

Meet the Author

Thomas A. Bass is the author of The Eudaemonic Pie, Vietnamerica, The Predictors, and other books. Cited by the Overseas Press Club for his foreign reporting, he is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, Wired, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and other publications. He is Professor of English and Journalism at the State University of New York in Albany.

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