Luke Hunt, award-winning Australian war reporter and frequent Washington Times stringer, is the author of “The Punji Trap — Pham Xuan An: The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us,” the story of a North Vietnamese operative whose hidden hand shaped the way America saw the Tet Offensive which began 50 years ago Tuesday. The charismatic Pham Xuan An served as a correspondent for Time Magazine and Reuters — and the North’s super spy in Saigon.
Mr. Hunt spoke to The Times just ahead of the American publication of “The Punji Trap.” What follows is an edited Q&A:
Question: “The Punji Trap” was a long time in the making. Why?
Answer: It took almost 30 years for a number of reasons. During my childhood, I became fascinated with Vietnam as the war played out on television and a family friend died there, which really left its mark. While at university in the 1980s, I wrote an undergrad thesis on An way back when his role was still a secret. I then managed to interview him several times and realized there was certainly a book in him, but he insisted that much of the material was “off the record” until after his death, which was in 2006.
Q: How did An pull off one of the 20th century’s most successful covert propaganda efforts?
A: Americans were always interested in beating themselves up about the lies that came from the White House, but never the lies that came from the North Vietnamese, who told three major fictions. One: [North Vietnamese leader] Ho Chi Minh convinced the world that the conflict was a national war of liberation — but really the ethnic Viets were trying to colonize the entire Southeast Asian peninsula. Two: An convinced the world that the Tet Offensive was a victory for the Communists, which militarily it was not. Three: The North pledged not invade the South, but they did in 1975 and have spoon-fed communism to the population every day since.
Q: How did An do his work?
A: An was an idealistic young revolutionary who joined the Viet Minh as a teenager and fought the Japanese in World War II and the French as they sought to return at war’s end. He then went to college in California, worked awhile at The Sacramento Bee, then returned to Saigon to work for the Western media. He was well-respected, knew how to act “Western,” and was also a connected spy — so he played the media like a Stradivarius. One former Time bureau chief told me An would set up bogus interview with people in sidewalk cafes — “You’re going to meet this bloke from the opposition who knows all about the North’s tactics,” etc. — and American journalists ate it up. But it was all made up. When the lies hit American TV and leading magazines, it played a huge role in eroding support for the war.
Q: “The Punji Trap” explores the work of a storied band of foreign correspondents who covered Vietnam. What is your take on war reporting today?
A: Technology has allowed too many armchair war correspondents to tweet opinions. This is understandable, given groups like [Islamic State] have made frontline coverage by independent journalists almost impossible. Their predilection for hacking the heads off the messenger was as chilling as it was almost without precedent. But the need for solid, objective reporting is greater than it has ever been. My proudest boast [is that] no one who worked with me got hurt. I wish I could say that about friends and colleagues who got hurt or killed.