Pham Xuan An

Professor chronicles life of communist spy

By Blair Anthony Robertson
Sacramento Bee

Pham Xuan An was a longtime spy for the Communist Party in Vietnam and is credited with playing a major role in Vietnam's victory over the United States.

A gifted conversationalist, An, who died in 2006, worked for Time magazine in Vietnam, befriending many of the era's leading journalists. But before that, he went to college in California and had a brief internship at The Sacramento Bee where, among other stories, he wrote a first-person account of his purported crusade against communist propaganda. The piece made him a local celebrity and solidified his cover for years to come.


Larry Berman [see his precis, below, for a portrait of corporate/academic influences - Carnegie, Rockefeller Foundation Residency Fellowship, Gerald Ford Library grant ... ], a political science professor at the University of California-Davis, chronicled An's exploits in his new book, Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An.

Berman, 56, sat down recently to talk about the book.

How did Pham Xuan An become so successful as a spy?

"He spent a lot of time developing his cover. All the people I interviewed for the book said they liked him because he could fit in. He could joke with people. He spoke English. He liked to joke. He really went to school studying the Americans. He studied how the CIA interacted with people, how college coeds interacted in Orange County."

He came to California to go to college in the late 1950s on assignment? He was developing as a spy?

"He had no choice. He did not want to go, but his party ordered him to do it. This is what is the most interesting thing to me historically about his whole life, the foresight of the communist Vietnamese. In 1955, to recognize that the United States was slowly but surely coming — even though the French had been defeated, even though the Japanese had been defeated — the Vietnamese would not be allowed to determine their future. They didn't anticipate 550,000 American ground troops in their country, but they certainly anticipated having to fight the Americans. An's mission was to go to the United States. His occupation was chosen for him as journalism by the Communist Party. It would allow him access to explore and give him freedom to talk to as many people as he wanted to."

What brought An to Sacramento and an internship at The Bee in 1959?

"You couldn't even make up this story. An completed his studies at Orange Coast College, where he graduated with a degree in journalism. The school and the Asia Foundation secured an internship at The Sacramento Bee. He became very close friends with Eleanor McClatchy (the late president of McClatchy Newspapers). She just took a liking to him, like everybody did. She personally took him to the Sacramento Airport to greet the Soviet Friendship Delegation.

"After his article came out, he became a local celebrity. Everybody wanted to meet this great anti-communist journalist."

It sounds like one of his talents was making friends.

(Late CIA Director Bill Colby - Time cover caption: "THE CIA - Has it Gone too Far?" ( ... on which day of the week? ... ) - AC)

"As he told me, he developed a conscious strategy to only make friends with people who did not have communist sympathies. That's why he hung out with so many CIA people. He became friends with WILLIAM COLBY, who would become the CIA director. One of the things he found during his time with Americans was that Americans were great people. It was a new way of thinking. They were spontaneous.  They were creative. He fell in love with that — the idea of asking questions, having multiple sources. He thought this is what Vietnam should do."

Over time, was he unable to distinguish who he really was versus the person he was portraying as a spy?

"I've thought about this one a lot. He told me that it took extraordinary self-discipline. He always knew what his mission was. He never forgot he was a spy, and he never forgot his cover was journalism. He always said he tried to be the best journalist he could. He never tried to give misinformation to Time magazine, because he knew that if he got caught he could be killed."

Where does An rank as a spy?

"I consider him to be one of the great spies of the 20th century. He didn't spy for money or glory. He spied just for his country. Whether he was an enemy or not, I consider that a noble thing."

May 2007

Current Position: Professor, Department of Political Science, UC-Davis Interim Director, UC Davis Washington Program

Teaching and Research Interests:

The American Presidency; American National Institutions

Awards, Grants and Fellowships:

Richard E. Neustadt Book Award, Special Citation American Political Science Association, 2002

Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Fellowship, 1998-99

Rockefeller Foundation Residency Fellowship for Bellagio, Italy. 1998

Outstanding Mentor of Women in Political Science, Women’s Caucus for Political Science, 1996

Gerald R. Ford Library Research Grant, 1994, 1998

Bernath Lecture Prize, Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations, 1993

Carnegie Corporation, Political-Military Interventions in Contemporary World Politics, 1990-91

Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, Political-Military Interventions in Contemporary
World Politics, 1989-1990; 1990-1991

Richard E. Neustadt Book Award, American Political Science Association, co-recipients,1990

Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, The Media and Future of American Democracy, 1990

L.J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation, The Media and Future of American Democracy, 1990

John M. Olin Foundation, The Legacy of the Reagan Presidency, 1988

Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, The Legacy of the Reagan Presidency, 1988

Smith Richardson Foundation, The Legacy of the Reagan Presidency, 1988

The Bicentennial Swedish-American Exchange Fund, 1986

John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, 1985

American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, 1984-85

Russell Sage Foundation Research Grant, 1980-81

American Philosophical Society Research Grant, 1981

Lyndon Baines Johnson Library Research Grant, 1975-76, 1978, 1985

National Science Foundation Grant for Dissertation Research, 1976

Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Research Grant, 1975-76

Harry S. Truman Library Institute Research Grant, 1975-76

Selected Publications:


Perfect Spy: The Extraordinary Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter & Vietnamese Communist Agent. Smithsonian-Harper Collins, 2007.

The Art of Political Leadership: Essays in Honor of Fred I. Greenstein. Editor. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.

No Peace, No Honor: Nixon, Kissinger and Betrayal in Vietnam. The Free Press, 2001, 2002 paperback published by Touchstone Books, Simon & Schuster; Vietnamese language edition published by Viet Tide, 2003.

Approaching Democracy, co-authored with Bruce Murphy, 5th edition. Prentice-Hall, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2006

Foreign Military Intervention: The Dynamics of Protracted Conflict, co-author and editor with Ariel Levite and Bruce Jentleson; Columbia University Press, 1992.

Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency, ed., The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Lyndon Johnson's War: The Road to Stalemate in Vietnam. W. W. Norton, 1989.

How Presidents Test Reality: Decisions on Vietnam, 1954 and 1965, co-collaborator with authors Fred Greenstein and John Burke; Russell Sage, 1989. Winner of the 1990 Richard E. Neustadt Award for the best book published in 1989 that contributed most to research and scholarship in the field of the American Presidency.

The New American Presidency. Little, Brown and Co., 1987.

Planning a Tragedy: The Americanization of the War in Vietnam. W. W. Norton, 1982.

The Office of Management and Budget and the Presidency, 1921-1979. Princeton University Press, 1979.

Evolution of the Modern Presidency: A Bibliographical Survey. American Enterprise Press, 1977 (with Fred Greenstein and Alvin Felzenberg).

Articles and Selected Essays:

“Secret European Initiates During the Nixon Years: No Closer to Peace,” in La Guerre Du

Vietnam Et L’Europe, edited by Christopher Goscha and Maurice Vaisse, Bruylant, 2003.

“Why The United States Fought in Vietnam.” Co-authored with Stephen R. Routh. Annual Review of Political Science. 2003

“The Vietnam War and It’s Impact,” co-authored with Jason Newman, in The Encyclopedia of

American Foreign Policy, edited by Alexander DeCorde, Richard Dean Burns, and Fredrik Logevall. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2001.

“Ronald Wilson Reagan,” co-authored with Stephen R. Routh, in The Oxford Companion to

Politics of the World, Oxford University Press, 2001.

“The Great Society” co-authored with Stephen R. Routh, in The Encyclopedia of American Studies, Grollier Publishing Company, 2000.

“The Legacy of the Clinton Presidency in Foreign Policy,” co-authored with Emily Goldman, in The Legacy of the Clinton Presidency, Chatham House,1999.

“NSAM 263 and NSAM 273: Manipulating History,” in Vietnam: The Early Decisions, edited by Lloyd Gardner. University of Texas Press, 1997.

“Presidency and Foreign Policy,” co-authored with Linda Valenty, in The Encyclopedia of Foreign Relations, edited by Bruce Jentleson and Thomas Patterson, Oxford University Press, 1997.

"Clinton's Foreign Policy at Midterm," co-authored with Emily Goldman in The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals, edited by Colin Campbell and Bert A. Rockman, Chatham House, 1996.

"Coming to Grips with Lyndon Johnson's War," Diplomatic History 18. No. 4, Fall 1993.

“Protracted Foreign Military Intervention: A Structured, Focused Comparative Analysis,” co-authored with Bruce Jentleson and Ariel Levite, in Force, Diplomacy and Leadership: Essays in Honor of Alexander L. George, edited by Dan Caldwell and Timothy McKeown. Westview Press, 1993.

“From Intervention to Disengagement: The United States in Vietnam,” in Foreign Military Intervention: The Dynamics of Protracted Conflict, edited by Ariel. E. Levite, Bruce Jentleson and Larry Berman. Columbia University Press, 1992.

"Bush and the Post-Cold War World: New Challenges for American Leadership," co-author with Bruce Jentleson in The Bush Presidency: First Appraisals, edited by Colin Campbell and Bert Rockman, Chatham House, 1991.

"Presidential Powers and National Security," in The Constitution and National Security, edited by Howard Shuman and Walter Thomas. National Defense University Press, 1990.

"Lyndon B. Johnson, Paths Chosen and Opportunities Lost," in Leadership in the Modern Presidency, edited by Fred Greenstein. Harvard University Press, 1989.

"The President: Executive Energy and Republican Safety," in E Pluribus Unum: Constitutional Principles and the Institutions of Government, edited by Sarah Thurow. University Press of America, 1988.

"The Office of Management and Budget," in Government Agencies, edited by Donald Whitnah. Greenwood Press, 1984.

“Waiting for Smoking Guns: Presidential Decision-making and the Vietnam War, 1965-67,” in Vietnam as History, edited by Peter Braestrup. University Press of America, 1984

"Presidential Libraries: How Not to be a Stranger in a Strange Land," in Studying the Presidency, edited by George Edwards and Steven Wayne. University of Tennessee Press, 1983.

"Johnson and the White House Staff," in Exploring the Johnson Years, edited by Robert Devine. University of Texas Press, 1981.

"The Evolution and Value of Presidential Libraries," in The Presidency and Information Policy, edited by Harold Relyea. Center for the Study of the Presidency, 1981.

"OMB and the Hazards of Presidential Staff Work," Public Administration Review 38 (November/December 1978: 520-524).

"The Office of Management and Budget That Almost Wasn't," Political Science Quarterly 92 (Summer 1977: 281-304).

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