A fair media is casualty of war


Register columnist


A new book about a Viet Cong spy – a former Orange Coast College student – named Pham Xuan An is both fascinating and deeply troubling.The book by UC Davis professor Larry Berman, “Perfect Spy,” is fascinating in that it’s a well-written, well-researched tale of danger and intrigue involving a man who led a secret life as a communist agent while posing as a pro-American reporter during the Vietnam War.But the book also offers a troubling look not only at the duplicity of a man many people in Orange County consider to be a traitor, but also at the gullibility and anti-U.S. bias of many reporters who covered that long-ago war – characteristics that unfortunately are still on display in the news media today.

In the late 1950s the Vietnam-born Pham Xuan An was a foreign student at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, studying journalism and writing for the school newspaper and improving his English skills. At the time few Americans even knew where Vietnam was – and no one knew that the personable An was already an agent for the communist Viet Cong who were fighting the U.S.-backed government of South Vietnam.

An returned to Vietnam after his studies and eventually became a reporter for Time magazine in Saigon, as well as a trusted friend and source for numerous journalists who were covering the expanding U.S. military effort in that country – including such well-known reporters as David Halberstam, Stanley Karnow and others. But at the same time he was also a secret Viet Cong colonel, smuggling documents and reports to the VC and helping to plan attacks in the bloody 1968 Tet Offensive. After the communist North Vietnamese takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, An was eventually recognized by the communists as a hero of the war – their hero, anyway.

An, who died last year in Vietnam at age 79, is generally treated sympathetically in Berman’s book. And as I said, it’s an interesting read.But as someone who served an unremarkable tour of duty as a young soldier in Vietnam, I can’t summon up any sympathy or admiration for an enemy spy who contributed to the deaths of 58,000 Americans, as well as hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese.

And I’m not the only one. Among the thousands of South Vietnamese who fled from the brutal communist regime in 1975 and afterward, there are certainly many who feel the same.

“The perception for many Vietnamese people (in Orange County) is that what he did was a betrayal,” says Dean Hue Pham of Orange Coast College, An’s alma mater. “For many of them the wounds of the war are still there.”

And it’s not just An’s spying that I have a problem with. Equally infuriating to me was the reaction by many of the American reporters to the post-war revelation that their friend An had been a spy all along.

To put it simply, they didn’t care. As reported in the book, even though An had duped them, and even though his spying inevitably caused American deaths, reporters like Halberstam and Karnow and others still thought he was a good guy and a good reporter and even a great patriot.

“For many of the journalists it was easy to forgive An” for his deception, Berman told me. “Because they viewed the war the same way An did.”Exactly. Although Berman didn’t put it this way, it’s clear to me that just like An the communist spy, at least some of the American reporters covering the Vietnam War wanted America to lose – and the fact that An helped accomplish that didn’t bother them at all.

Sadly, it’s the same story now with the war in Iraq. Although they claim to be “objective”, most U.S. journalists covering the war these days have an obvious anti-war, anti-military bias. And it wouldn’t surprise me if at least a few of the Iraqis that many major U.S. news organizations have on their payrolls in Iraq turn out to be working for the insurgents, mining gullible reporters for sensitive information and manipulating the reporters’ already biased views – just as Pham Xuan An did with gullible and biased reporters four decades ago.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that reporters should be cheerleaders for the war. Their job should be to report the news, good and bad.But it might also be wise for them to study the case of Pham Xuan An and the reporters who embraced him – and to make sure that while they’re trying to get the story, they don’t make friends with the enemy.

“Perfect Spy” author Larry Berman will have a book signing and talk at 11 a.m. June 30 at the Nguoi Viet Daily News, 14771 Moran St., Westminster.

Gordon Dillow served as a U.S. Army sergeant in Vietnam in 1971-72 and has several times been an embedded reporter with Marine infantry units in Iraq. Contact him at 714-796-7953 or GLDillow@aol.com

Courtesy Gordon Dillow and http://www.ocregister.com/ocregister/news/columns/article_1737196.php

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