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Uncle Albert, double agent and official hero

I recently re-read Agent Z.21 (Tallandier), an account of Pham Xuan An by American journalist Thomas Bass, who noted early in the book the importance of the Vietnamese reporter and spy to Reuters and other news outlets, including Time magazine.


The biography seeks to tell the story of how a well-regarded Vietnamese journalist provided information and analysis to his Western colleagues in Saigon bureau by day, and by night wrote detailed briefing notes for Ho Chi Minh and other North Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi. 


As I re-read the fascinating book, I wondered whether there would be a mention of my late uncle Albert Pham Ngoc Thao. Sure enough, towards the end of the book, there was a reference to Thao, double agent and also an official hero of Vietnam.


In the chapter titled In a Country Created by Salvador Dali, Bass asked An’s boss, Mai Chi Tho, a four-star general, for names of the most important spies in the war with the US.


Pham Ngoc Thao was the fourth most significant agent for the North Vietnamese, Tho said.


I went to Vietnam recently and made a special visit to the museum at Ben Tre, a regional capital in the Mekong Delta, south of Ho Chi Minh City. 


The museum sets out to show the struggle for national independence, and on the first floor there is a room dedicated to uncle Thao.


There are tributes and photos of Thao, the former army colonel who worked with the then South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and also reported to Hanoi. 


Thao was one of the top five agents working for Hanoi, the museum guide said. That phrase struck me as curious and I had wondered who were the other agents. Agent Z.21 gives those names, topped by An, according to Bass.


I found it interesting that Saigon sent Thao in 1964 as press attaché to the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, in a bid to keep him out of the plots of coups d’état which racked the government.


South Vietnam recalled Thao, who went into hiding, helped stage an overthrow of the government, was caught and executed in 1965.


Agent Z.21 is the title of the French edition of The Spy Who Loved Us (republished by University of Massachusetts Press), based on interviews and published in 2009, three years after the death of the decorated Vietnamese hero. ■