During the Vietnam War, journalist Pham Xuan An covertly straddled two worlds. As a correspondent for Time and Reuters, An was a champion of the Western liberal media; as a spy for Hanoi, he played a significant part in communism triumphing in his homeland.
An is the subject of a new book, Punji Trap, by veteran Australian foreign correspondent (and frequent Diplomat contributor) Luke Hunt, which sheds light on a man who both educated and misinformed his readership while inspiring and betraying his colleagues.
An’s obituary in The New York Times in 2006 recounted an interview with CBS correspondent Morley Safer, in which the Vietnamese war reporter had been pressed to explain his double life. “One truth is that for 10 years I was a staff correspondent for Time magazine, and before that Reuters,” he said. “The other truth is that I joined the [revolutionary] movement in 1944 and in one way or another have been part of it ever since. Two truths – both truths are true.”
It’s the kind of explanation that doesn’t seem out of place in 2018’s world of so-called “alternative facts” – making Hunt’s book about An especially timely.
Hunt describes an idealistic young revolutionary who joined the Viet Minh as a teenager and fought against the French in the 1940s. In his late 20s, An left for college in California (where for a while he reported at The Sacramento Bee), and after returning home, gained prominence as a journalist whose Vietnam War reports were read all around the world.
It was during this tense and bloody time in the region, Hunt writes, that “An’s twin careers as Viet Cong officer and international war correspondent ascended in parallel.” When it came to both roles, in fact, An “became his own best source of information.” At the height of the war, An was manipulating stories that ran in Time and handing over hundreds of aerial photos of the south of the country – taken while reporting – to North Vietnamese intelligence. An was “not just an average sort of enemy but a spy and in many ways a pretty good one,” Hunt tells us.
The complications of this double life soon caught up with An, and the consequences – as one might expect in an era of such heightened paranoia – eventually followed.
In telling this story, Hunt does his utmost to avoid Vietnam War clichés: he neither spends too much time dissecting and deconstructing U.S. involvement in the conflict nor panders lazily to the interests of Hanoi. And while it might be tempting to take An’s “both truths are true” line more seriously than, say, Kellyanne Conway’s claim of “alternative facts,” postmodern philosophy is not Hunt’s objective here. He is focused less on what An’s duplicity meant, and more on what it was – for that in itself was significant enough.
Hunt, himself a foreign correspondent based in Phnom Penh, where he writes for The Diplomat, has covered conflicts in Iraq, Kashmir and Sri Lanka and served as bureau chief for AFP in Afghanistan and Cambodia. He draws from his own decades-old interviews with An and other key figures of wartime Vietnam. These relics mesh well with Hunt’s sophisticated understanding of war correspondence and an inviting narrative that plays out to a backdrop of significant moments in the conflict.
In Hunt’s own words, Punji Trap “seeks solely to relay a story, which carries its own significance, as told by those who were there.” That much seems true – and in telling it, Hunt has delivered an enthralling and important human tale of duplicity.
It might also be true that this book – Hunt’s second – is an important study of 20th century foreign correspondence, something made possible by his own knowledge of the intricacies of reporting for wire services from the frontline.
To use An’s own rationalization, perhaps both truths might be true.
Shane Worrell is a Melbourne-based journalist and former managing editor of The Phnom Penh Post.