“Decoding” Pham Xuan An
In 2001, Thanh Nien published a 52-part special report on Pham Xuan An, titled “The strategic general and spy.” It was our effort then to sketch the dual life of an individual who many considered to be Vietnam’s greatest spy.
Seven years later, we have been able to collect additional documents and materials as well as obtain information from sources whom An shared intimate connections with about events in the lifetime of this “perfect spy.”
Thus, the launch of this new introspective series will provide readers with an opportunity to review the events that occurred in An’s career, as we strive to “decode” the man by analyzing him in the context of the relationships he built over time – both with those whom he had befriended and those whom he secretly fought against.
We hope that the series will help to erase the misconceptions and perspectives that may have derived from Western media and publications’ reporting on An and provide a nuanced view of the man and his lifetime achievements.
Chapter 1: The advantage of the English language
How Pham Xuan An began his spying career has been mentioned in many books.
Starting out as an employee of Caltex oil firm, An later worked for the French Customs Office in Saigon Port where he “made copies of almost all documents concerning the transport of military supplies, weapons and equipment of French troops” to send to his commanders and gained seminal experience in intelligence work.
When the resistance war against the French army was coming to an end, An was ordered to “shift focus to a new target, but not ignore the old one.”
The turning point in his undercover life came when the ruling authority in South Vietnam was being transferred from the French to the Americans.
The new objective involved acquiring a military position with the new regime.
Before the Geneva Convention was signed, An’s commander Pham Ngoc Thach had asked him to “try to dodge the draft, but if drafted, to climb [in rank] as high up as battalion commander.”
An’s cousin, Captain Pham Xuan Giai, then served as the Bureau 5’s head in the Vietnam National Army’s General Staff.
Giai had close relationships with Chief of General Staff, General Nguyen Van Hinh, and Head of the Counterintelligence Bureau 6, Major Tran Dinh Lan.
Realizing an auspicious opportunity, An contacted his cousin, who promised to find him a job in Bureau 5.
Before he left the customs office, An managed to fill his previous role with Tu An, who continued his work until the Geneva Convention was signed in July 1954.
The General Staffs Bureau 5 was responsible for military training and psychological warfare; it was also referred to as the Military Training Bureau.
In April 1954, Hinh recruited An to work in the bureau in the rank of staff sergeant.
An subsequently became Giai’s secretary to support daily operations.
When the Americans began their intervention in Vietnam to assist French troops, their officials became involved in military matters and established relations with General Staff personnel to advise on enhancing the army’s defensive capacity.
Captain Giai was one of a few local officers fluent in English because he had been previously trained in psychological warfare at Fort Bragg, California.
He was responsible for working directly with American Colonel Edward Lansdale, who played a major role in setting up and fortifying Ngo Dinh Diem’s southern regime.
Giai delegated An, who was also adept at speaking English, to contact Lansdale’s lower-ranked officers such as captains Rufus Philips, Roderick and Sharp.
Although An could not initially form a direct relationship with Lansdale, he was able to make friends with several US officers and began to learn the American way of doing things.
After the signing of the Geneva Convention in 1954, France and the US agreed that the US would train and reconstruct the “national army” [South Vietnamese Army] according to its standards.
A joint Franco-American Training Relations and Instructions Mission (TRIM), previously set up in February 1955, was replaced by CATO (Combined Army Training Organization) under the authority of the US Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam (MAAGV) in June 1956.
In October 1955, the US had proposed that the Ngo Dinh Diem regime reform its armed forces by first grouping existing infantry battalions into six light infantry divisions, which would be trained under American oversight at the Thu Duc Military Training School.
An was the only non-commissioned officer who followed the “National Army” officers to translate for American advisors.
Later, thanks to his deft ability to “know how to work with Americans,” An was appointed to facilitate smooth communication between Bureau 5 and CATO because the previously responsible officer had been rejected for being “influenced too heavily by the French.” Despite his low rank, An’s new post afforded him the opportunity to attend discussions about training programs and selection of officers for overseas training.
At that time, CATO was planning to train commandos and infiltrate them into the north to conduct sabotage activities.
The problem with the plan was that most Vietnamese officers in the Military Training Bureau opposed the scheme.
The officers had been trained by the French army, and thus were used to working according to the French way.
Most did not agree with the American-style training methods.
An, who had already relayed the intents of the infiltration plan to his superiors in the north, stepped up to serve as a go-between for Bureau 5 and the American officers.
He knew he would be sidelined, and hence barred from conducting spying activities for the north if he failed to convince either side to reach a tentative agreement.
When US chief advisor Lieutenant Colonel George Melvin asked An for his opinion on the plan, he replied that the ideas were “great and new” but “I’m afraid the Vietnamese officers will not accept them easily because they think there’s no point in sending commandos to the north now that we have signed a truce.”
Melvin slapped the table and said, “I’m sorry you’re just a staff sergeant. If you were an officer, I would ask [Defense Minister] Tran Trung Dung to promote you to chief of the Military Training Bureau.”
An responded, “Gosh, don’t say so. If my bosses heard they could banish me to [the military demarcation zone of] Ben Hai. Let me try to persuade them.”
Melvin happily promised, “If you succeed, I will throw a banquet for you.”
An then requested a meeting with Major General Tran Van Don, who was then the chief of general staff.
He told Don that rejection of the commando training plan “will cause not only Melvin but also [MAAG chief] Lieutenant General [Samuel] Williams to lose face.
“You should permit the approval of this plan to help them save face, after that we’ll find a way to delay its implementation,” said An.
“Someone else may already fill their posts by the time things are set in motion.”
Don thought it was a wise move, so he ordered the Military Training Bureau to approve the plan.
As forecast by An, the scheme was not carried out until 1960.
An then phoned to ask Melvin to “prepare money for dining out.” Instead of eating out, however, Melvin invited An to his home where he organized a feast with other guests, including Lansdale, Philips, General Williams, Filipino Colonel Benson.
It was at that point that An started to build a close relationship with Lansdale.
“Decoding” Pham Xuan An - Chapter 2
Chapter 2: What good is being friends with Lansdale?
General Edward Geary Lansdale (1908-1987) was an outstanding Central Intelligence Agency expert in counter-insurgency operations.
He worked in advertising in Los Angeles and San Francisco before serving with the Office of Strategic Services in World War II.
After the war, he contributed to defeating an insurgency in the Philippines and helped sell his friend Ramon Magsaysay, the defense secretary, to Filipinos as their next president in 1953.
He was also a member of General John W. O’Daniel’s mission to Indochina in 1953, acting as an advisor to French forces on special counter-guerrilla operations against the Viet Minh.
Vietnam War historian Stanley Karnow, in his book “Vietnam: A History,” described Lansdale as one who “counted on ‘psychological warfare’ techniques that resembled advertising gimmicks.” Former CIA Director William Colby described him as “one of the greatest spies in history.”
Lansdale was widely believed to be the inspiration for the central characters of two books featuring Americans fighting communism in Southeast Asia – Graham Greene’s “Quiet American” (1955) and William Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s “Ugly American” (1958).
(Greene vehemently denied any link with Lansdale; his Alden Pyle, he said, was based on another, lesser-known American operative. Lansdale did not officially enter the Vietnam arena until 1954 while Greene wrote his book in 1952.)
In 1961, after his stint in Vietnam, Lansdale was in charge of Operation Mongoose, a covert action program of sabotage and subversion against Cuba, aimed at overthrowing President Fidel Castro’s government.
His operation in Vietnam only became known to the public after some confidential Pentagon documents were declassified in 1971.
Lansdale was considered the architect of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam.
“Do what you did in the Philippines,” Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told Lansdale before sending him to Vietnam in 1954.
He played an immense role in creating and maintaining the new regime in South Vietnam, headed by Diem.
Lansdale came to Vietnam as an Air force attaché in the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) but in fact was a leader of the Saigon Military Mission (SMM), an intelligent unit which reported only to the CIA director.
The SMM operation was unknown to both the MAAG chief commander and the US ambassador to Saigon.
The US administration’s decisions on Vietnam at that time were mostly based on Lansdale’s insights and proposals.
As Diem’s main advisor, Lansdale helped the then-Prime Minister Diem build and fortify his regime.
He quelled a riot by General Nguyen Van Hinh and stamped out religious sects’ armies in the south by using military force and bribery.
Lansdale was also the engineer of the mass migration of nearly a million people from north to south Vietnam after the Geneva Convention.
“The majority were Catholics, whole communities of whom fled, their priests in the lead; others included various factions that had opposed the Viet Minh. The US and France provided ships and aircraft for their voyage. The refugees from the north were to furnish Diem with a fierce anti-Communist constituency in the south, and thus their exodus was politically important. Lansdale encouraged the Catholics by broadcasting slogans like ‘the Virgin Mary is going south’ but he put his own contribution in perspective, as he later explained to me, ‘People just don’t pull up their roots and transplant themselves because of slogans. They honestly feared what might happen to them, and the emotion was strong enough to overcome their attachment to their land, their homes, and their ancestral graves’.” (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History, p. 238)
Pham Xuan An’s close relation with Lansdale made a crucial contribution to his life as a spy.
In 1956 An’s commanders realized that, as a communication officer, An could provide them with information concerning military reform and training plans.
But that was not enough.
An would have to go further if they were to receive more strategic intelligence.
An’s direct commander was Muoi Huong, vice chief of the Strategic Intelligent Agency who was detached to the south in 1952 and stayed there after the Geneva Convention.
He decided An should quit his post to prepare for a long-term strategy.
An’s close connection with the Americans served as a springboard for his plan to study in the US.
An talked to Lansdale about his wish to study in the States.
Lansdale said he “definitely supported” An’s plan and that whatever field An wanted to major in would be great, be it civilian or military.
Lansdale introduced An to Dr. Elon E. Hildreth, the head of the Education Division of the United States Operations Mission (USOM, which later became USAID, the United States Agency for International Development).
Hildreth suggested An apply as a civilian rather than a military officer.
An chose political science and journalism as his majors.
Hildreth agreed and helped An apply for a scholarship at Columbia University.
An then met General Tran Van Don to ask to be discharged from the military.
Don asked An to find someone to fill his post who was both competent and accepted by the Americans.
It took An three months to persuade Lieutenant Thuong, who also worked as general staff, to replace him.
An also had to ask for Lansdale’s intervention to get a discharge order in February 1957.
Some problems arose, however.
In late 1956, Hildreth told An his application could not pass the Vietnamese’s Overseas Study Council.
The council said An had not submitted a high school degree and he had to choose a major that was not taught at universities in Saigon.
An therefore proposed to fund his own study, choosing the major of journalism.
The council accepted his new choice and asked him to take an English language test, even though he had already passed a USOM English test.
An was tested by Huynh Van Diem, the general planning director of the South Vietnam regime.
Despite his good command of the language, Diem finally noted in his application documents that “journalism is not yet necessary for the country.” An’s application was shelved.
Lansdale, who was then in the US, asked his friend, Colonel Woodburry, who also knew An, to help him.
Woodburry asked Captain Jack Horner to contact Bui Quang An, the cabinet director of Minister Bui Huu Chau for help.
Thanks to Quang An, Chau approved An’s application.
Horner also helped An meet Dr. Parker, Director of the Asian Foundation to apply for a scholarship for his study.
Dr. Parker said he supported An but would “address the issue after An has gone to the US” so as not to annoy Huynh Van Diem and the Overseas Study Council.
An could finally study journalism at the California-based Orange Coast College in 1957.
Without his close relationship with such a powerful figure as Lansdale, the opportunity would have been impossible.
Pham Xuan An peddles Dr. Don E. Hildreth, the head of the Education Division of the United States Operations Mission (USOM, which later became USAID, the United States Agency for International Development). PHOTOS COURTESY OF PHAM XUAN AN’S FAMILY
By Hoang Hai Van
"Decoding" Pham Xuan An - Chapter 4
|The fourth installment of a Thanh Nien series on Pham Xuan An, Vietnam’s most celebrated secret agent.|
Chapter 4: Entering the presidential inteligence agency
The fourth installment of a Thanh Nien series on Pham Xuan An, Vietnam’s most celebrated secret agent.
In late 1958, when Pham Xuan An was studying journalism at Orange Coast College in California, he received a letter from his family which secretly informed him his three commanders, Muoi Huong, Duong Minh Son and Nguyen Vu, had been arrested.
Confident his superiors would never give him up, An continued his studies in the States.
He completed his course and returned to Saigon on October 10, 1959.
His mother and younger brother, who met him at Tan Son Nhat Airport, confirmed he it had not been discovered.
But without commanders, An had only himself to rely on – he worked as a spy for the communist government in the an north.
According to the plan hatched before An went to the ‘ US, An would work as a reporter in Vietnam.
He first focused on two newsrooms: Viet Tan Xa (the Vietnam News Agency); and The Time of Vietnam, then the only English language newspaper in Saigon.
An consulted Howard Thomas, president of the Asia Foundation, who was helping prepare the foundation’s program to train Vietnamese journalists in American-style reporting.
Thomas told An the Asia Foundation and Vietnam News Agency (VNA) had agreed the news agency would organize the program with the foundation’s funds.
“You should meet VNA Director Nguyen Thai,” Thomas told An.
“He’ll welcome you because we agreed you will be in charge of the program.”
Nguyen Thai did indeed welcome An but revealed there was a problem.
“VNA is not allowed to hire more staff now,” he said.
“If you can, apply to work in the Presidential Office first. The office will dispatch you to work in our news agency. That’ll be fine.”
At the same time, the United States Operations Mission to Vietnam (USOM, which later became United States Agency for International Development (USAID)) said it could help An find a job with American agencies in Saigon.
Many Vietnamese language newspapers also wanted to hire him.
An favored Thai’s suggestion as it would give him the best cover under which to establish a widespread network of contacts without arousing suspicion.
An had a friend, Le Van Thai, who was then working at the Socio-Political Study Service (SPSS), which was the Presidential Office’s secret intelligence agency.
The service director was Tran Kim Tuyen.
When An told his friend the advice he’d received from Nguyen Thai, Van Thai said it seemed feasible.
“SPSS wants to plant its men in the VNA to screen the activities of secret agents who have been dispatched overseas as agency correspondents,” Van Thai said, promising to talk to Tuyen about An.
Van Thai also told An of a serious conflict between the secret agencies run by President Ngo Dinh Diem’s two younger brothers, Ngo Dinh Nhu and Ngo Dinh Can.
SPSS belonged to Nhu, while Can headed the Special Task Group.
VNA Director Nguyen Thai was a member of Can’s faction, Van Thai said.
Van Thai said working for Tuyen’s side could be risky for An if the conflict between the brothers’ secret agencies intensified.
An said he would be fine because his cousin, Le Khac Duyet, chief of police forces in the central area, was Can’s trusted subordinate.
“I only want to work as a journalist and have no interest in politics,” An said.
Thanks to Van Thai, Tuyen soon agreed to employ An at SPSS and subsequently dispatched him to work at VNA.
VNA Director Nguyen Thai later told An he hoped his presence in VNA would help allay Tuyen’s suspicion the director of the news agency was working against him.
An later had a close relationship with Tuyen, who was the number three in Diem’s South Vietnam regime.
A notorious anti-communist chief secret agent, Tuyen in fact was “used” by the Viet Cong’s three most famous spies: An, Dang Tran Duc and Pham Ngoc Thao.
An and other secret agents rarely discussed Tuyen while meeting with the media.
However, it would be impossible to understand his secret agent career without talking in more detail about Tuyen.
While in the U.S. to study journalism, Pham Xuan An worked as an intern at the Sacramento Bee for several weeks in 1959
“Decoding” Pham Xuan An - Chapter 5
|The fifth installment of a Thanh Nien series on Vietnam’s “perfect spy,” Pham Xuan An, recounts how the secret agent won the confidence of the South Vietnam regime’s intelligence chief, Tran Kim Tuyen.|
Chapter 5: “Doctor” Tran Kim Tuyen
Tran Kim Tuyen, who became the director of the Presidential Office’s secret intelligence agency in South Vietnam in the mid-1950s, was born into a Catholic family in Nga Son in Thanh Hoa Province in 1925.
After finishing high school at the Hanoi Grand Seminary in 1943, Tuyen returned to his home town to teach at a Catholic school.
In 1949 he went to Hanoi to study law and medicine.
Tuyen had completed only the law degree when he was drafted to the army of the French colonial regime.
After some training at the army medical school, he graduated as an army medical officer with the rank of lieutenant.
As a result, he was later nicknamed Doctor Tuyen.
While in Hanoi, Tuyen formed a strong friendship with Ngo Dinh Nhu, who was working at the Ecole Française d’Extreme-Orient (French School of Asian Studies).
When Nhu’s brother, Ngo Dinh Diem, became Prime Minister of the French-backed regime in 1954, Nhu founded the Can Lao Nhan Vi Party (Party for the Labor) as a political force to back Diem.
Tuyen joined this party and became a trusted companion.
When Diem became president of the South Vietnamese regime a year later, Nhu became his right-hand man.
Nhu assigned Tuyen to be director of the Socio-Political Study Service (SPSS) – the de facto presidential intelligence agency.
Tuyen was therefore the third most powerful figure in Diem’s regime.
Tuyen organized and commanded the entire network of strategic intelligence, the secret agent system and special task forces.
SPSS’s two major responsibilities were fighting the communist-led revolutionary forces and controlling and purging opposition parties to protect the regime.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) granted funds for SPSS activities, mostly to serve its first task.
Major General Dang Tran Duc, another communist spy hero who worked for SPSS, told me the CIA, in 1956, granted VND50 million (now worth US$3,125) to SPSS’s spy program, which planned to send spies and commandos to infiltrate North Vietnam to collect intelligence and conduct sabotage activities.
Tuyen was supposed to use the grant to buy a well-equipped ship for this purpose but “he was more interested in other purposes,” according to Major General Duc.
The SPSS director spent VND30 million ($1,875) on various Can Lao Nhan Vi Party activities, including strengthening the regime-backed General Workers Union as a force against the US-backed General Labor Union.
The remaining money, which was embezzled further, was only enough to buy a worn-out ship.
After the program started, the CIA began receiving some intelligence about the north.
But after some careful checks they discovered the information was not being sent from north Vietnam but from Tuyen’s agents in Cambodia and Laos.
The CIA became suspicious and in 1958 asked to take over the program.
In response, Tuyen ordered his subordinates to “arrange” an accident - to blow up the ship at sea to destroy the evidence of the diversion of CIA funds.
Apparently, Tuyen pretended to work for the Americans to further his own purposes.
However, Pham Xuan An was at first not sure about Tuyen’s relationship with the CIA.
It was not until November 11, 1960, that he stumbled across one of Tuyen’s secrets.
At that time, besides working for SPSS and the Vietnam News Agency (VNA), An was also reporting for Reuters.
At 4 a.m. on that day, Bruce Russell, Reuters’ Saigon correspondent, phoned An.
“Have you heard anything?” he asked.
An said he’d heard a big explosion and some small ones.
Russell asked An to find out more about what was happening.
An made several phone calls. Tuyen and Le Van Thai (An’s friend, who also worked for the SPSS) said they didn’t know anything.
The telephone line to the paratroop brigade commander Nguyen Chanh Thi was cut.
Major Bui Huy Loi, chief of the General Staff operations room, was “in a meeting and could not answer the phone,” his assistant said.
“There’s a coup,” VNA Director Nguyen Thai told An over the phone.
Nguyen Thai said he would find shelter and contact An when the situation calmed down. (Some time later An discovered Nguyen Thai had been working for the CIA and had participated in the coup).
An drove to Russell’s home to discuss the situation.
An insisted the paratroopers had carried out the coup d’etat against President Diem.
An and Russell went to the post office to send a report to Reuters but the building was occupied by paratroopers.
They finally managed to send the report at the UK Embassy with the help of the intelligence chief there.
An left Russell at the embassy and drove to the homes of Tuyen and Van Thai to ask them to flee.
When he returned to pick up Russell, An saw Tuyen’s family taking shelter at the residence of the embassy’s intelligence official.
A thought struck him: Tuyen was working for the British intelligence agency, not the CIA.
Leaving the embassy, An went around the city to pick up more information about the coup.
Paratroopers had surrounded the presidential office.
An asked Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi, “Why haven’t you ordered an attack on the presidential office? What are you waiting for?”
Thi replied, “You’re a reporter but you’re even more hot-tempered than me, a soldier. We are waiting for a negotiation with Diem.”
An also contacted Major Bui Huy Loi, who was commanding the coup with Colonel Vuong Van Dong.
Within a short time of the coup beginning, An managed to contact both sides and write accurate and detailed reports for Reuters.
Later, when he knew that the coup would certainly fail, An contacted VNA Director Nguyen Thai, who had also participated in the coup, and helped him return to the VNA headquarters to resume the news agency’s work.
An’s thoughtfulness helped him win Nguyen Thai’s heart.
An also made a good impression on the officers who had led the coup.
By ensuring the safety of Tuyen and Van Thai and their families during the coup, An also earned their trust, which later helped him in his secret mission.
In his conversations with me about Tuyen, An was very careful with his language.
He said Tuyen was “collaborating” with the British intelligence agency because it served his own purposes.
When I asked An’s leader, Muoi Nho, about what British intelligence agents wanted from Tuyen, he said “England wanted to know the Americans’ plan in Vietnam in order to cope with them on a global scale.”
Tuyen, therefore, also needed An to “know the Americans.”
Pham Xuan An’s Press Card when he was working for Reuters
“Decoding” Pham Xuan An - Chapter 6
|The sixth installment of a series on Pham Xuan An, Vietnam’s most well-known secret agent, reveals the efforts made by An and his commanders to reestablish their links.|
Chapter 6: Efforts to relink with comrades
Pham Xuan An lost contact with the Communist-led liberation forces in 1958 after his commanders were arrested in June that year while he was studying journalism in the US
After he returned to Vietnam in late 1959, the Socio-Political Studies Service (SPSS), the de facto intelligence agency of the Presidential Office of the US-backed South Vietnam regime, recruited An and assigned him to work at the Vietnam News Agency (VNA), the regime’s official news agency.
An’s job included monitoring SPSS secret agents working abroad under the cover of VNA correspondents; collecting, classifying and analyzing foreign news reports sent from overseas embassies; helping American advisors and VNA editors complete a journalism book titled San Tin (News Hunting); attending daily meetings of the Information Ministry and the US and British Information Bureaus on behalf of VNA director Nguyen Thai if Thai was busy; and maintaining VNA’s relations with foreign agencies, especially American and British agencies, and with the Presidential Office.
While working at VNA, An succeeded in bringing under his control four SPSS spies who had been trained by the US’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and were working undercover as VNA reporters.
They had been counting on SPSS chief Tran Kim Tuyen to flout VNA regulations and disregard its chief, and had refused to write new reports.
An asked the spies to file news reports, threatening to fire them otherwise.
Being reporters but not writing anything would surely arouse suspicion, he told them.
Tuyen himself could not deny this rationale.
The spies’ ineptitude may have caused An to look down on the South Vietnam regime’s secret agents.
As a result, there were some instances when An came across some intelligence from agents in Tokyo but did not report it to his commanders, only finding out its importance later.
Thanks to Thai’s recommendation, An became a correspondent for Reuters in 1960.
The British news agency initially had an information-sharing contract with VNA but later found it necessary to have a correspondent in Vietnam who would be in charge of the three Indochinese countries.
Also through Thai, An got to know CIA Director William Colby and many other CIA experts Pham Xuan An and established a strong connection with the Americans.
At the same time, he established ties with politicians and army officers of the South Vietnam regime through Tuyen and some other “old friends” he had known since 1954 who were then holding important positions.
As a result, An could not only “read all confidential reports of the [South Vietnam regime] Defense Ministry” but also “travel everywhere aboard the Presidential Office’s helicopters” thanks to the help of Nguyen Van Chau, Social Warfare Director of the Defense Ministry, who was introduced to An by Tuyen.
For some time in 1960, An was on the payroll of three agencies at the same time: the presidential intelligence agency (SPSS), VNA, and Reuters.
To avoid possible complications, An asked Tuyen’s permission to resign his jobs at the SPSS and VNA.
After quitting in late 1960, however, An maintained close links with Tuyen and VNA’s Thai.
After establishing a good footing and strong connections with reliable intelligence sources, he was still unable to resume contact with the Communist-led liberation forces.
An knew a fundamental rule in intelligence was that subordinates never attempted to make contact with superiors.
They would just have to wait for the latter to make contact if the contact was somehow lost.
However, he was so eager to reestablish links with his organization that he decided to violate the rule.
In 1960, he first planned to make contact through Bui Thi Nga, the wife of Huynh Tan Phat, a famous revolutionary scholar.
However, she was arrested before An could contact her.
Also in 1960, the people in the rural central and southern regions rose up against Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnam regime in a widespread and synchronized campaign known as Dong Khoi (General Uprising).
In a report to the CIA, Lansdale wrote: “There may be less than 15,000 Viet Cong in South Vietnam by December 1960 but they could control half (of South Vietnam) in the daytime and more at night.”
The liberation forces rebuilt and strengthened the intelligence system which was seriously damaged in 1957-58.
The officials in charge of security and intelligence in the Southern Committee of the Labor Party (the name of the Communists’ political party between 1951 and 1976) were Mai Chi Tho and Cao Dang Chiem.
Muoi Nho, a secret agent who had worked in Laos and Cambodia, ran the Intelligence Service – which was codenamed I4 – of the Sai Gon-Cho Lon Zone party committee.
I4 reported to both Cao Dang Chiem and zonal party secretary Vo Van Kiet.
An I4 secret agent named Tam who worked in Saigon told Nho that through Nga he had known about An, who was “a very good man.” Nho reported this information to Kiet and Chiem.
Fortunately, Chiem was one of the very few officials who knew An since 1953 and the plan to send him to the US
Chiem and Kiet decided that Nho would resume contact with An.
A friend of An’s, Tam Thao, who was working for a revolutionary woman’s organization, was transferred to I4 for the task.
In late 1960, Thao led An to a liberation force secret base in Phu Hoa Dong, Cu Chi District.
The trip was not hard for him to make since he possessed a travel pass granted by Tuyen which was “powerful enough that no one could stop him.”
It was there that he met his future direct commander, Nho, for the first time.
He spent three days in the base reporting what happened to him before and during his stay in the US and after he returned to Vietnam.
He also apprised Nho and Chiem of his thoughts and analyses of the enemy situation.
Chiem and Nho later reported the intelligence to Kiet, who agreed with them that An could become a great spy.
After reestablishing links with his organization, an upbeat An began to carry out his mission.
Pham Xuan An while working as a journalist
“Decoding” Pham Xuan An - Chapter 7
Chapter 7: The first mission
In October 1959, Diem enacted the “10/59 Law,” which outlawed communism and escalated his bloody suppression of revolutionary and liberation movements.
An official in Diem’s regime declared that year that the South Vietnamese regime had “completely erased the heavy influence that the communists had left on the people over the past nine years.”
But as revealed years later in the Pentagon Papers, the American leadership of the Vietnam effort at the time commented that no matter how it contributed to the internal security of the South Vietnam regime, the anti-communist campaign terrified Vietnamese farmers and aroused deep popular resentment.
They also admitted that while trying to wipe out the old popular anti-France and pro-independence movements known as the Viet Minh, which they renamed “Viet Cong” (a pejorative term literally meaning “Vietnamese Communist”), the Americans helped created a new Viet Minh which was deemed a more effective group than the organization the French fought against.
Pham Xuan An and his commanders reestablished their link in late 1960 after several of An’s superiors were jailed by the Saigon authorities in 1958.
After re-establishing contact with his old officers, An spent three days in a secret base of the liberation forces in Cu Chi District (internationally known for its famous Cu Chi Tunnels system) discussing and analyzing the enemy situation.
The commanders were impressed with An’s access to the nerve-center agencies of the US and the US-backed South Vietnam regime.
They asked him to investigate strategic political and military information from the US and South Vietnam government and continue using his journalism assignments to expand relations with American and Vietnamese officials in the process.
For his own safety, they also asked An to stop his relations with those people he had gotten acquainted with during the resistance war against the French invasion.
The rural central and southern Vietnamese people’s Dong Khoi (General Uprising) campaign against Diem’s regime in 1960 led to the establishment of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam in December 1960 and later, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces. The communist-led fight for national independence and reunion now had an armed force.
Diem’s regime, meanwhile, was struggling with internal conflicts, which led to a failed coup attempt by Lieutenant Colonel Vuong Van Dong and Colonel Nguyen Chanh Thi in November 1960.
In an effort to cope with the widespread Dong Kiwi campaign, Ngo Dinh Diem decided to divide South Vietnam into four “tactical zones” and increased his regimes use of military force to quell dissent.
In early 1961, the US Administration agreed to increase financial aid for Vietnam but asked Diem to reform his military and move his dictatorship cler to democracy.
However, Diem was unwilling to follow the American orders.
In May 1961, during Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Vietnam, a joint communiqué was released confirming the increase of US aid alongside a long-anticipated promise of reforms from Diem.
After re-linking with his old commanders, in late 1961 An sent them an important military document detailing the US’s plans to counter the uprising.
The document was signed by General Lionel McGarr, the top US military commander in Vietnam and chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG).
The document discussed the implementation of a counter-insurgency plan that had been adopted by the US National Security Council that April.
The plan aimed to increase financial aid and advisers to the South Vietnam regime to further strengthen its military forces, fortify its control over southern Vietnamese territory and carry out secret sabotage missions in the North.
This plan was considered a prelude to the “special war” plan, also known as the Staley-Taylor plan, which the US applied in Vietnam in 1961-1965.
The Staley-Taylor plan sought to defeat the communist-led liberation forces with substantial increases of US aid and advisers, more US combat support mainly in the form of tactical airlift, further expansion of South Vietnam’s armed forces and support for the strategic hamlet program to prevent farmers’ from supporting liberation forces.
The strategic hamlet program failed miserably as it came to be seen as a reckless concentration-camp operation that displaced thousands of peasants and destroyed countless villages.
The Staley-Taylor plan also eventually introduced the use of defoliants by the US and South Vietnamese militaries which would increase with the implementation of Operation Ranch Hand in 1964.
Ranch Hand operations burned acres of forest (soldiers on this mission cynically used the slogan “Only we can prevent forests” in a play on words on the American icon Smokey the Bear, who encouraged youngsters that “only you can prevent forest fires”).
Ranch Hand also initiated the dropping of over 11 million gallons of the herbicide/defoliant Agent Orange on South Vietnam.
Dioxin released from Agent Orange has since been linked with cancer and birth defects in millions of Vietnamese.
An had been aware of the “special war” paper and the beginning of the Staley-Taylor plan since its earliest inception.
After Johnson’s visit in May 1961, the US sent two more missions to Vietnam between June and October the same year.
In June, Dr. Eugene Staley of the Stanford Research Institute arrived in Saigon to study the economic demands of the anti-communist war.
General Maxwell D. Taylor, a special military adviser for President John F. Kennedy, led the other mission to Saigon later.
Edward Lansdale, an old acquaintance of An’s in the late 1950s, also joined the latter mission as a special assistant to Secretary of Defense McNamara.
The missions studied the feasibility of conducting a “special war” plan in Vietnam, which the US saw as a pilot to it’s global “flexible response strategy.” President Kennedy had argued that America needed a flexible response that gave the US a greater range of options than the choice between the use of nuclear weapons or defeat.
The final result was the Staley-Taylor plan.
The American economic and political advisers were interested in An, who had been trained in the US and exhibited a sharp analytical mind in his military and political reports.
They gradually considered him on “the American side.” As a result, while Stanley was preparing his proposal he consulted with An on the plan several times.
In the meetings, Stanley presented to An all the underlying ideas and targets of the plan.
By doing so, he hoped to know what the South Vietnam regime’s reactions might be.
He also hoped An would write reports in favor of his proposals.
In the end, An did not even have to steal the document.
It was Tran Kim Tuyen, head of Diem’s secret presidential intelligence agency, who gave it to him.
Tuyen asked him to “study, summarize and comment on it” to help him understand the Americans’ new military strategy.
As mentioned in the previous chapters, An won Tuyen’s confidence when he helped him flee in the failed coup attempt in November 1960.
An also knew very well about An’s close relations with the American side as well as his analytical capacity in military and political issues.
An naturally became an adviser in fields which Tuyen had little knowledge of, especially military.
After receiving the document, An immediately photographed it onto 24 rolls of microfilm, which he sent to his commanders through other secret agents.
His commanders received film, but due to An’s poor photography, the document was illegible.
An then retyped the whole plan verbatim and brought a copy to the commanders’ base himself.
He had to do so because it would have been very dangerous for other agents to transport such a large document through check points.
An, meanwhile, had a travel pass granted by Tuyen which helped him avoid regular inspections.
“Decoding” Pham Xuan An - Chapter 8
Chapter 8: Early warning
Between 1961 and ‘62 Pham Xuan An sent his commanders many documents about the “special war” strategy, including the Staley-Taylor plan, the Harkins-McGarr plan and others, drafted by the US-backed South Vietnam regime.
The Staley-Taylor plan promoted three strategic solutions:
1. Bolstering the South Vietnamese army with support from American advisers
2. Strengthening the South Vietnamese government to effectively control urban areas and using the “strategic hamlet” program to stamp out rural uprisings.
3. Tightening control of the areas bordering North Vietnam and coastal areas to stop the North’s supplies and reinforcements for the liberation forces.
The plan was to be applied in three stages between 1961 and ‘65.
In the first stage, to last 18 months from mid-1961, the South Vietnamese army would be strengthened – under the formula of Vietnamese troops plus American weapons and equipment plus advisers – and about 16,000-17,000 strategic hamlets would be established to accommodate around 10 million people.
The second stage would begin in early 1963, aiming to rebuild the economy, further increase troops and complete the appeasement.
The last stage in early 1965 would focus on developing the economy, stabilize South Vietnam and end the war.
Two US missions led by Dr. Eugene Staley of the Stanford Research Institute and General Maxwell Taylor arrived in Saigon in June and October 1961 to prepare for the plan.
While in Saigon, Staley held discussions of the plan with An.
An reported it to his commanders who asked him to get his hands on a complete copy.
The drawing up of the Staley-Taylor plan was so confidential that Tuyen had no idea about its contents even after it was drafted.
An disclosed to Tuyen that Vu Quoc Thuc, the president’s economic adviser, was in the plan drafting group.
Tuyen asked Thuc to provide him with the plan which he then asked An to study and summarize for him.
An made a copy of the plan to send to his commanders, as mentioned in the previous chapter.
In implementing the Staley-Taylor plan, Ngo Dinh Nhu ordered his subordinates to draft the “strategic hamlet plan” which was a strategic solution against guerilla warfare.
After Nhu approved the plan, it was sent to the SPSS to be translated into English.
Once again, Tuyen asked An to translate it, and An made a copy of the whole thing to send back to his commanders.
Since he was also performing some urgent tasks for his commanders at the time, he decided to ask Peter Roberts, a secret agent of the British Intelligence Service, for help with the translation.
An and Roberts had a close relationship and usually shared information.
Roberts willingly agreed to help because Britain too, wanted to study the plan.
An realized he was in danger if someone else knew he had leaked the plan to the British.
But the British were smart enough not to risk losing an intelligence source by leaking this information, he reckoned.
The translation was later sent back to Nhu, who forwarded it to the Americans.
Tuyen asked An to translate another plan on the so-called “fighting hamlets” which were reportedly based on the Israeli kibbutz model.
An’s commanders soon received a copy of this plan.
Under the Staley-Taylor plan, the armed forces of the South Vietnam regime grew rapidly to 350,000 in 1962, including 200,000 regular troops equipped with 257 warplanes, 364 tanks and armored vehicles.
The number of American advisers was 2,630 that year, in addition to 8,280 American troops.
To better handle the growing US military presence in Vietnam, on February 6, 1962, the MACV, or the US Military Assistance Command for Vietnam, was formed.
It replaced MAAG, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, which had been established in 1950.
President John F. Kennedy selected General Paul D. Harkins as MACV commander.
Harkins had been serving as Deputy Commanding General, US Army, Pacific, and had been actively involved in the Pacific Command’s contingency planning for Vietnam.
The MACV’s planner was General Richard Stillwell, an expert in military intelligence.
Many American officers whom An had known in the 1950s, such as Rufus Philips, Ogy Williams, Leonard Maynard and David Hudson, were responsible for setting up an agency supporting the “strategic hamlets” program.
This agency was headed by Rufus Philips.
After arriving in Vietnam, Harkins continued to improve the counterinsurgency plan initiated by General Lionel McGarr, former MAAG head, and introduced the Harkins-McGarr plan in 1962.
The plan aimed to quickly wipe out the liberation forces’ fledgling army and seize back areas that had been liberated.
It promoted the escalation of mopping-up operations taking advantage of the deployment of US armored vehicles and helicopters and favored a “net and spear” concept – small units operating out of pacified areas to find the enemy, call in reserve forces and gradually extend security to all of Vietnam.
An also sent this plan to his commanders in addition to many other reports about the organization of the South Saigon army, its new weapons and military equipment and military tactics.
“Decoding” Pham Xuan An - Chapter 9
Chapter 9: When An’s cover was almost blown
Though Pham Xuan An’s usual refrain was “[The liberation forces had] hundreds of strategic secret agents [working undercover in South Vietnam], I was just one of them,” he was the one who provided the war planners the US’ complete “special war” strategy.
He provided them not only the entire plans, but also his analyses of them.
“I sent my commanders whatever they needed,” An said.
He also sent reports analyzing the growing political and military conflicts between the US and Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the US-backed South Vietnam regime.
Diem did not want the Americans to interfere too deeply with his regime’s internal affairs.
In late 1961, for example, when the Mekong Delta was hit by devastating floods, General Maxwell D. Taylor, a special military adviser for President John F. Kennedy, proposed to bring in US troops for relief missions but Diem rejected it.
Diem also rejected another plan to install US advisors in South Vietnam military divisions and regiments.
The conflicts later led to the American decision to overthrow him.
An also provided his commanders important information on the activities of American intelligence agencies, including that of CIA-trained commandos and spies in the north and the special forces known as the Green Beret in the Central Highlands.
The CIA admitted later its intelligence about the liberation armed forces had been inaccurate.
From 1961, besides its widespread political movements against the South Vietnam regime, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFL) also further developed its military wing, the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, made up of a regular army and guerillas.
In 1962, while the NFL-liberated area kept expanding and many of the so-called “strategic hamlets” were destroyed, General Paul Harkins, commander of the US Military Assistance Command for Vietnam (MACV), reported to his government that the South Vietnam army was successful in driving back the NFL and expanding its control over the countryside.
Buoyed by this “victory,” the US doubled its military aid for Vietnam to US$675 million in the 1962-63 period from $321.7 million in 1961-62.
Acting on plans made by US advisors, by 1962 the South Vietnam army had carried out over 4,000 mopping-up operations in the liberated zone.
The NFL’s reply came on January 2, 1963, at the Battle of Ap Bac in Tien Giang Province.
The battle showed for the first time that the NFL had successfully developed tactics to counter the technological advantage the US provided the South Vietnamese.
It also demonstrated that the NFL’s military wing had come of age and was able to tackle South Vietnam troops supported by US armor, artillery and helicopters.
The battle fueled the southern uprising against the South Vietnam regime, leading to the uprooting of nearly half of the total 6,000 “strategic hamlets.”
The “special war” strategy failed completely after the Battle of Binh Gia in Ba Ria in December 1964.
The battle marked the first battalion- and regiment-level operation of the NFL which decimated three South Vietnam battalions and destroyed 35 helicopters.
As mentioned earlier, An was allowed to join a US advisor group to inspect the aftermath of the Battle of Ap Bac on helicopter.
The Vietnamese government later conferred on An a Medal of Honor for his contribution which led to this victory.
Earlier, in 1961, an incident caused by his commanders’ recklessness almost blew An’s cover and put him in serious danger.
An had sent them a document spelling out the Americans’ counterinsurgency plan, known as the McGarr plan for General Lionel McGarr who signed it.
The military training agency of the liberation forces made copies of the document and distributed them among its forces.
The South Vietnam army, in a raid that year, seized one such copy and sent it to Tran Kim Tuyen, head of the Secret Presidential Intelligence Agency (SPSS).
After An found out about it, he informed his commanders who ordered him to lie low.
From the seized copy, it would have been possible for the enemy to discover An since only a few people had access to the original document.
An was faced with the difficult task of finding out if the enemy suspected him as the source of the leak, and flee if required.
Thanks to his close relations with Tuyen’s trusted subordinates in the SPSS, An knew they were not suspicious of anyone and were only trying to make sure the leak went unnoticed so that they were not held accountable.
Even the South Vietnam army’s intelligence agency knew nothing about the document.
The CIA concluded that the document was just a dirty trick employed in an internal conflict within the regime and was not actually an NFL training document.
But to make sure, An asked Tuyen about it and received confirmation.
He reported the all-clear to his superiors and successfully sought permission to resume his intelligence work.
“Decoding” Pham Xuan An - Chapter 10
Chapter 10: Stormy weather
The strong growth of the liberation movement led by the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NFL) in 1960 made Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, leaders of the US-backed South Vietnam government, reluctantly change their minds about the magnitude of the American military presence in their regime.
Prior to that year, they had rejected a plan to install US advisors in the South Vietnamese army.
In 1960, however, Diem not only accepted the plan but also said publicly that he needed American military assistance.
Diem’s sinking ship then meandered down catastrophe creek through 1963.
After surviving a failed coup in 1960, Diem tightened his nepotistic dictatorship and flatly oppressed opposition groups, including the Buddhists.
A widespread Buddhist movement rose up against his regime, peaking with the self-immolation of monk Thich Quang Duc on June 11, 1963.
Meanwhile, to push its “special war” strategy, the US wanted to increase its military presence and influence on Diem’s regime.
American leaders made it known that they wanted to send their own troops to Vietnam, not just advisors.
The idea was strongly opposed by Ngo Dinh Nhu, who felt uncomfortable with American advisors and did not want US troops to take part in the conflict.
Worrying that the “special war” strategy in Vietnam would be wasted by Nhu, the US administration in June 1963 replaced Ambassador to Saigon Frederick Nolting with Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
The new ambassador’s mission was to pressure Diem into accepting US troops and to get rid of Nhu. Diem would be purged otherwise.
An wrote many reports to his commanders analyzing the stormy political environment in Saigon at that time.
Many groups were plotting coups to overthrow Diem’s regime.
One plot was led by Tran Kim Tuyen (head of South Vietnam’s CIA-equivalent, the SPSS), Major General Tran Thien Khiem (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the South Vietnam army) and Colonel Pham Ngoc Thao (governor of Ben Tre Province).
At that time, An did not know Thao was in fact another NFL secret agent.
Another group included many senior army officers, including Tran Van Don, Duong Van Minh, Mai Huu Xuan, Le Van Kim and Pham Van Dong.
A third major group was headed by opposition Dai Viet Party members like Nguyen Ton Hoang, Chung Tan Cang and Phan Huy Quat.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) planted its agents in all the groups, all of which had connections with the large Buddhist movement.
Tuyen’s would-be coup-team contained two of the most important communist spies, Pham Ngoc Thao and Dang Tran Duc (a.k.a. Ba Quoc).
Tuyen discussed his plan for a peaceful coup with Thao, saying he aimed to “correct” the regime and free it from American influence while safeguarding the lives of Diem and Nhu.
According to Ba Quoc, Tuyen, who had helped Diem strengthen his regime, was disappointed because Ngo Dinh Can, another brother of Diem’s, was trying to get rid of him.
“Tuyen did not hide his political view point from me,” Ba Quoc said.
“He did not support Diem’s nepotism and believed that Nhu had made a lot of mistakes in oppressing the Buddhists and had so lost his people’s support.”
Tuyen, a Catholic, assigned Ba Quoc to contact Buddhist leaders to launch an anti-Diem movement and plot a coup.
But word of the plan apparently got to Diem and he sent Tuyen to Cairo to serve as ambassador to Egypt.
Though a close acquaintance of Tuyen’s, An did not take part in Tuyen’s coup attempt, or any of the attempts for that matter.
His most important mission was to maintain a strong foothold to secure his work under any administration in the South.
A coup could have caused An to lose many important sources in the officers of Diem’s regime.
From another angle, his relationships with them could put him in danger.
As the coup plotters continued plotting, it was very unclear who, if anyone, would finally launch the attempt.
As a result, An had to establish good ties with all sides while remaining neutral and keeping his cover as a Reuters journalist.
“At that time I worked under very intense pressure,” he said later in life.
“On the one hand, I had to cope with the changing situation wisely; on the other hand, my commanders were pressing for timely intelligence. I also had to write regular reports for Reuters, which was very demanding.”
However, the coup planning season also gave An a golden opportunity to expand his relations as all sides needed Reuters to publish favorable stories about them.
As An was famous for his vast knowledge and sharp analytical mind, local politicians and generals turned to him for advice to strengthen their positions with the locals and the international community.
An wisely separated his relationships so that no one side would know that he was also consulting with the other sides.
At that time, Saigon was swamped with foreign media who looked to An as an important source of information.
An also expanded his intelligence ties beyond CIA to other intelligence agencies from England, West Germany and France.
He became friendly with attaches from many foreign embassies in Vietnam.
He reported all such relations to his commanders.
An thus had a thorough grasp of the political crisis in Saigon and the deep chasm growing between the US and the Ngo Dinh Diem regime.
Through An’s reports as well as through other secret agents, Hanoi-based liberation forces were well aware of the American plan to switch horse mid-race and adjusted their strategy.
In fact, An knew about the coup on November 1, 1963 a day early but could not inform his commanders due to communication problems.
The coup, which would finally kill Diem and Nhu, apparently saved An’s career.
After Diem’s regime was overthrown, Time journalist Merton Perry, who later worked for Newsweek, told An he could have lost his job at Reuters had the coup not taken place.
Perry said he had read a letter ordering the South Vietnam Embassy in the UK to lobby Reuters to replace Saigon chief representative Nick Turner because “the Reuters Saigon office reported unverified and unconfirmed information.” Reuters, meanwhile, was well aware that all such “information” originated from An.
After the coup, the issue was ignored.
Until his death in 2006, An maintained that he had never published any false information in all his years as a journalist for the western media.
Ngo Dinh Diem and Ambassador to Saigon Henry Cabot Lodge (October 1963)
“Decoding” Pham Xuan An - Chapter 11
Chapter 11: Vital inteligence
After President Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime was overthrown in a coup in November 1963, all three Vietnamese spies who had close connections with Tran Kim Tuyen, head of Diem’s spy agency, were safe.
Pham Ngoc Thao continued his mission of creating political chaos in South Vietnam.
Ba Quoc underwent lie detector tests before being employed in the new regime’s intelligence agency.
And Pham Xuan An continued to bring into play his strategic strengths as a journalist.
After the coup, a group of army generals, including Duong Van Minh, Tran Van Don, Mai Huu Xuan and Le Van Kim assumed power with America’s support.
Several generals who had fled to France during Diem’s regime returned to hold important positions in the South Vietnam army, including Nguyen Chanh Thi and An’s cousin, Pham Xuan Giai.
The new regime needed the “cooperation” of foreign news agencies.
As a result, An quickly established connections with new information sources, including Pham Van Dong, an officer trusted by the Americans, Nguyen Huy Loi, the right hand man of Chief of Staff Nguyen Van Vy and Nguyen Be from the Special Forces.
However, he still also maintained relations with some out-of-favor officials and officers of the old regime, including some of Tuyen’s former subordinates, not for any strategic reason but because they had become friends.
An had won their hearts by being there when they needed him.
An also befriended Robert Shaplen, a correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.
Through Shaplen, An also made friends with Lieutenant Colonel Lucien Conein, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief in Saigon.
Among other exploits, Conein was instrumental in the November 1963 coup against Ngo Dinh Diem, having served as the CIA’s liaison officer with the coup plotters, delivering US$42,000 of the known cash disbursements.
The New York Times wrote in Conein’s obituary in 1998:
“Stanley Karnow, the historian and author of ‘Vietnam: A History’ (Viking, 1983), spent 70 hours interviewing Mr. Conein (pronounced co-NEEN) for a proposed biography.
The project was abandoned when Mr. Karnow decided that his subject was beginning to resemble Somerset Maugham’s fictional spy Ashenden, a man so consumed by espionage that he cannot sort out his cover stories from the story of his life.
‘He was out of his time,’ Mr. Karnow said. ‘He was the swashbuckling soldier of fortune – the guy who has ceased to exist except in fiction.’”
The New York Times also described Shaplen as a journalist who, for five decades until he died in 1998, covered Asia with “insight, an eye for detail and a sweep that spoke of his many years of experience.”
He was a “front-line correspondent… from the battlefields of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to the jungles of Cambodia and Laos and the teeming byways of Hong Kong and Singapore… was with Mao Zedong in the mountains of Yanan in 1946,” The New York Times said.
“Young reporters who went to Asia found a call on Bob Shaplen almost as mandatory as clearing customs,” the newspaper said.
In Vietnam, Shaplen’s reporting was initially less critical of the American involvement than that of some of his colleagues during much of the war.
Eventually, though, he too became a harsh critic of the US participation in the conflict.
By making friends with Shaplen and Conein, An was able to secure good sources of intelligence and also expand his network of American and Vietnamese officials.
After the coup, An’s commanders asked him to study the new military plans, the “strategic hamlet” plan and the conflict between the Americans and the new Saigon regime.
Soon after taking over the regime, the coup generals started bickering between themselves.
In late January 1964, a group of generals led by Nguyen Khanh and Tran Thien Khiem overthrew Duong Van Minh in a bloodless coup later known as the “First Correction.”
Nguyen Khanh became Prime Minister cum Commander-in-Chief.
On August 27, 1964, Khanh and Khiem carried out the “Second Correction” to set up a “triumvirate” in which Duong Van Minh was Chief of State, Khanh was Prime Minister and Khiem was Defense Minister. (Communist agent Pham Ngoc Thao became the Public Relations Director of Khanh’s government.)
Thanks to his relationships, An was believed to be a journalist who did not want to become involved in politics.
Through Conein, An managed to set up a good footing for his connections with Khanh’s group.
Meanwhile, in January 1964, US President Lyndon Johnson assigned General William C.
Westmoreland to be deputy commander of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), assuming command from General Paul D. Harkins.
In March that year, Johnson agreed to the adoption of a new military policy in Vietnam, which was known as the McNamara-Taylor plan, after Secretary of State Robert S. McNamara and General Maxwell D. Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The plan aimed to increase US military aid to shore up the sagging South Vietnamese army.
It would strengthen US advisors’ command, boost financial aid and bolster the South Vietnamese army.
Under the plan, operations in rural areas were to be stepped up, as was the bombing of North Vietnam and Laos to cut its supplies to the South Vietnamese liberation forces.
In July 1964 General Taylor was appointed the new US Ambassador to South Vietnam, replacing Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
The most important question An’s commanders posed for him then was whether the US would send troops to Vietnam to rescue the South Vietnam regime.
An’s reply was definite: The US would send troops to Vietnam.
He also reported to his commanders the content of the McNamara-Taylor plan as well as sent them copies of several other important campaigns.
They included: two special spies programs for rural areas, the Advanced Political Action and Census Grievances; a plan to form an airborne ranger arm; and the military strategy for the dry season of 1964-1965.