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Not a spy, an analyst

Jim Pringle’s vivid account of the role of Pham Xuan An during the 1968 Tet offensive spurs a few memories of my own of the Vietnam War spy, from both earlier and later.  


I remember An as the smartest Vietnamese reporter in Saigon in 1965-66. He was cultured, sophisticated, westernised. He spoke impeccable English and French. A man about town, good company. He was one of us, exchanging the latest news gossip. 

An undercover Vietcong agent? A communist? It never seriously crossed my mind in those days. He had worked for Reuters before my time and had left us to join Time magazine. Jim says an earlier Reuters bureau chief, Nick Turner, sacked him. I thought he had simply moved to the Americans for more money: a good capitalist motive.

In retrospect, of course, I remember how well informed An was, both on military matters and on the internal politics of South Vietnam. He gave the most valuable informal briefings, and no doubt picked up some gold dust in exchange, for his other masters.


We did not meet again for 30 years. On a visit to Ho Chi Minh City in the 1990s, I contacted An and invited him to lunch at the Continental Hotel, where we had first met in 1965. I asked him if he had really been a spy for North Vietnam, in the old days.

“Not a spy,” he said, thinking carefully about the question. “I prefer to say I was an analyst.”  

We discussed the difference, which was not entirely clear to me, and he gave the Tet offensive as an example. He said his reports for the communist side were analytical, not tactical. He had analysed the strategic results of the Vietcong’s spectacular attacks on Saigon and other cities, particularly the impact on US public opinion.

His great regret was that the North Vietnamese commanders had withdrawn their forces in the face of strong American retaliation. He had argued that they should have kept up their surprise offensive, despite substantial losses.

“I am convinced that the war could have been ended within a year, if only they had been able to press home their advantage at that time,” An said.

The war lasted seven more years after the Tet offensive.

Adapted from an article in Frontlines: Snapshots of History, published by Reuters in 2001. ■