The War Nobody Won 13

The fiercest public diatribe against the regime was later unleashed by Colonel Bui Tin, deputy editor of Nhan Dan, the party newspaper, a figure with sterling Communist credentials. The son of a mandarin, he was born in Hue, the former capital of the central Vietnam kingdom of Annam. He spurned a chance to study in France and in 1945, at the age of eighteen, joined the Vietminh, the nationalist movement founded by Ho Chi Minh—first to fight against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during World War II and subsequently against the French. Wounded at the battle of Dienbienphu, he went on to play a key part in the war against the United States. At the end of 1963, he made the arduous trek south on a clandestine mission to prepare for the infiltration of North Vietnamese regulars. A decade afterward, as spokesman for a Communist group in Saigon following the cease-fire, he bade farewell to the last American soldier to leave Vietnam, a sergeant from Oregon whose name, he vaguely recalled, was Max Bielke, “I gave him a copy of a painting by Ho Chi Minh and invited him to return as a tourist some¬day,” Bui Tin told me. On April 30, 1975, then a correspondent for Quan Doi Nahn Dan, the North Vietnamese military journal, he was with the Communist forces that stormed into Saigon—and, as the highest-ranking officer present, took the surrender of South Vietnam’s defeated government.
I often saw him in Vietnam after the war. A short, sinewy man with a deceptively nonchalant manner, he spoke fluent French, and we spent hours together over drinks and dinners. He was close to General Giap— and, I assumed, Giap had not deterred the irrevocable step the colonel took in 1990.
While on an official trip to Paris, he gave the Western news media a “citizen’s petition” blasting the Hanoi regime. He also ventilated his grievances in a series of interviews beamed to Vietnam by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Vietnamese language branch. “Bureaucracy, irresponsibility, egotism, corruption and fraud are becoming entrenched under an insolent reign of privileges and prerogatives,” he said. “There is an alarming deterioration of traditional ethical, moral and spiritual values [and] confusion among the youth on whom the country’s future depends.” He spelled out his complaints in a memoir titled Following Ho Chi Minh, which was published in 1995 in Britain, France and the United States.
Never before had a Communist of such stature lashed out against his comrades, particularly from abroad. In Vietnam people rushed to listen to his broadcasts, and he was ousted from the party under a torrent of curses. Later I asked him why, after a lifetime as a faithful, disciplined Communist, he had chosen so unprecedented a course. He said, “I had to follow the dictates of my conscience.”
In 1981, I had looked forward to a reunion with my oldest Vietnamese colleague and friend, Pham Xuan An. I first became acquainted with him two decades earlier, when he was the Saigon stringer for Reuters, the British wire service. We would huddle together in the Brodard or the Givral, his favorite cafes, as he chain-smoked and patiently deci¬phered the puzzles of Vietnam for me. Encyclopedic and judicious, he was later hired by Time—the only Vietnamese journalist to become a staff correspondent for a U.S. news organization. Puzzled that he had not escaped when Saigon fell, I guessed that, like many Vietnamese, he had been trapped. I asked my handler to arrange a meeting with him— only to be told, “Forget it. Colonel Pham Xuan An does not want to see you or any other Americans.” “Colonel?” “Yes,” the official snapped. “He was one of us.” Thus I was stunned to learn that An had been a Vietcong agent all along.
Another old friend, Pham Ngoc Thao, a brilliant South Vietnamese colonel and the scion of a distinguished Catholic family, had also served the Communists. He evaded detection until, when for different reasons he was murdered during the war by the Saigon secret police. I was in¬formed of his dual role in Ho Chi Minh City in 1981, shortly after his body was exhumed and buried in the “patriots’ cemetery.” Thao was a compulsive conspirator, while An, the consummate journalist, had seemed so detached. Neither of them ever appeared to toe the Communist line, yet if they fooled the press, they also duped U.S. offi¬cials. At one point, Thao was assigned to the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington as liaison man with the CIA and the Pentagon.
Not until 1990, when the mood in Ho Chi Minh City was more re¬laxed, did I finally meet An again. I drove to his house, sidestepped the bicycles and motor scooters clogging the street, and peered through the gate into the courtyard of a shabby villa to see a skeletal figure in baggy shorts. We hugged, and An apologized. “The authorities wouldn’t let me see you the last time you were here. They were nervous. But now they are more relaxed. Anyway, they are not under any illusions about what I think.”
He sat in his parlor, a litter of books, yellowed newspapers and bat¬tered filing cabinets, under the whir of a ceiling fan. “I did work for the Communists,” he said, “but my motives were patriotic, not ideological.”
In 1944, at the age of sixteen, he enlisted in the Vietminh’s struggle against the Japanese and remained with them during the conflict against the French, running errands while attending school. After the partition of Vietnam in 1954, he served in the Saigon government army and was later awarded a scholarship to a college in southern California. He be¬came a football fan—and adored the United States. “Those years,” he recollected, “were the best of my life.”
A few years after returning home, An was contacted by his old Communist comrades. Then a Reuters reporter, he had access to both the Saigon regime and American officials, and they wanted access to his access. He agreed. Despite his reverence for America, he felt that for¬eigners had no place in Vietnam. Thus he began his double existence.

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