Chapter 10. Robert Shaplen: A New York Time Reporter
Was Killed by Vietnamese Communist.
Episode 38. Want to keep the secret, they must “kill people dear”!
“An’s closest professional relationship was with Bob Shaplen”!
- Robert Shaplen was a world-class writer!
“If Deepe was a spunky welterweight, Robert Shaplen was a world-class writer, producing a steady stream of articles and books out of Asia for fifty years. Shaplen was the dean of the American press corps in Vietnam, a big, gruff, gravel-voiced, cigar-smoking man who was Far Eastern correspondent for The New Yorker. He lived in a hotel room overlooking Hong Kong Bay, except when he was in Saigon, where he stayed in Room forty-seven at the Continental Palace Hotel. Shaplen wrote four New Yorker articles a year, long, detailed, exquisitely nuanced examinations of government and military policy, informed by sources at the highest levels. “He was one of our favorite journalists,” says former CIA officer Frank Snepp. “We had orders from the top to give him unbelievable access to the embassy and high-level intelligence.”
Former Newsweek bureau chief Kevin Buckley, who also lived and worked at the Continental, describes how Shaplen, who occupied the central room over the front door of the hotel, opened his suite every afternoon for a cocktail party that drew the most influential journalists in town, including Pham Xuan An. “Following the daily military briefing at 4:45 P.M., we would stop off at café Givral or Shaplen’s room or both,” says Buckley.
“He always had a bottle of Scotch, and there would be waiters bustling in and out with ice buckets, glasses, and soda. He was a great host.”
“Shaplen presumed that his room was wired better than a recording studio,” says Buckley. “Living next to him were the Canadian, Polish, and Indian diplomats who made up the International Control Commission. The ICC had been set up to monitor the 1956 elections, which were supposed to unify Vietnam. When the elections were canceled, these guys had nothing better to do for the next twenty years than eavesdrop on Shaplen’s telephone calls to the CIA. Whenever a question came up that needed to be answered, Shaplen would get on the phone and call down to the lobby. ‘Hello, this is Bob Shaplen, get me extension 4—.’” Buckley lowers his voice and starts growling in the stentorian whisper that Shaplen adopted when speaking to his friends at the embassy.
Whether or not he worked for the CIA, Shaplen is known to have loaned his services to the U.S. government on at least one occasion, when he carried back-channel communications for the State Department between Washington and Hanoi. By mid-1966, the U.S. government had begun to fear for the wel-fare of American pilots and other prisoners held in Hanoi. Captured in the midst of an undeclared war, these men were labeled war criminals—what today would be called “enemy combatants.” Anxious to make certain that they were covered by the Geneva Conventions and not tortured into making “confessions”
or brought to trial and executed, U.S. Ambassador-at-large Averell Harriman asked Shaplen to contact North Vietnam.
Shaplen was dispatched from New York to Phnom Penh, where he was instructed to find his old acquaintance Wilfred Burchett. A Communist sympathizer and prolific reporter from Vietnam’s “liberated” zones, Burchett was thought to be the quickest route to Hanoi. Shaplen penned a letter detailing America’s concerns and offered a deal, either medical supplies or a reciprocal exchange of prisoners, following the release of U.S. pilots. Two days after Burchett delivered Shaplen’s letter to the NLF representative in Phnom Penh, he got a reply. Referring to American prisoners as “criminal nationals,” the letter declared, without naming a date, that the “prisoners [would] be returned to their families.” (Another seven years would pass before this happened.) Shaplen asked Harriman for permission to write another letter thanking the Communists for “understanding the humanitarian aspects of the problem.” He also wanted to clarify that his original letter, although coming from a
“private person,” had been authorized by the U.S. government. . ” (The Spy Who Loved Us, page 155)
- Bop Shaplen and Phạm Xuân Ẩn
- An’s closest professional relationship was with Bob Shaplen.
“An’s closest professional relationship was with Bob Shaplen, who from 1962 to 1978 lived in Hong Kong as the New Yorker’s Far East correspondent, covering the Vietnam War and other countries in Asia. When in Saigon, he took up regular quarters in room 407 of the Continental Hotel. From his window and balcony he looked directly at the National Assembly; to his right and directly across the street was Givral. Anthropologist Gerald Hickey recalled, “When Bob Shaplen was in Saigon, An and I would go to his room at the Hotel Continental Palace, where a variety of people gathered. They included journalists, among them Jean-Claude Pomonti of Le Monde, George McArthur of the Los Angeles Times, Keyes Beech of the Chicago Daily News, and old Vietnamese hands such as Lou Conein. From time to time, Vietnamese officials, including General Tran Van Don, would appear.”14“(Perfect Spy, Chapter 5, Page 2/25)
“Lou Conein spent quite a bit of time with both An and Shaplen. He always insisted that An shaped Shaplen’s writing. Conein remembered taking Shaplen to see the Venerable Buddhist monk Tri Quang, but when Shaplen’s interview appeared in the New Yorker, it bore no resemblance to what Conein heard Tri Quang tell him. When Conein challenged Shaplen about the accuracy of his story by saying, “Bob, he didn’t say that,” Shaplen responded, “But that’s what he meant, Lou, that’s what he was really saying.” Conein concluded that this was because Shaplen would “scribble down a lot of notes on what Tri Quang said and then he’d go see Anh [sic] and Vuong in Givral. He’d show them the notes and they’d say, ‘He said that, but this is what he really meant, this is what he was really saying.’ Then Bob would write it that way.””(Perfect Spy, Chapter 5, Page 3/25)
“Conein believed this type of influence also affected Shaplen’s analysis of internal Vietnamese politics and their meaning. After reading his essays in the New Yorker, Conein would challenge Shaplen: “Bob, I’ve got sources and it didn’t happen that way.” According to Sheehan’s notes, “Shaplen would tell Conein he was wrong, frequently citing what Anh [sic] and Vuong had said as authorities.”15
Both Conein and Sheehan thought An made “a perfect agent for the VC because, among other factors, he knew everything Shaplen learned from the Embassy and the CIA station and what the Americans intended to do and how they assessed a situation, at least as this was relayed to Shaplen, and Anh [sic] had the perfect cover being Shaplen’s principal assistant when Shaplen was in town and then in later years the Vietnamese reporter for Time magazine as well.”16.”(Perfect Spy, Chapter 5, Page 3/25)
“From the twenty-fourth to the twenty-sixth of January 1973, the days immediately preceding the signing, Shaplen wrote that “An feeling that we won’t cut aid—can’t do that in face of world opinion on reconstruction. But we might cut Thieu’s throat.”.”(Perfect Spy, Chapter 6, Page 4/24)
- An left Reuters in 1964 …moved on to the Time bureau.
“An left Reuters in 1964 after a falling out with Nick Turner. “The eventual revelation of his undercover role surprised many of my colleagues and has been much written about, but it did not surprise me,” wrote Turner. “I always had suspicions and told him so, but said it did not concern me so long as he did his job. However, I was cautious about sharing sensitive information with him, and he clearly resented this and eventually moved on to the Time bureau.”18
When I later asked Turner for an elaboration of his views he wrote: “I never indicated to him that I believed he was a VC intelligence officer, let alone a senior one, and indeed I never suspected it. But his sympathies were clear enough and that is what I discussed with him, without making an issue of it. To me, it was quite natural—and not to be criticized—that a person of his kind of makeup and philosophical outlook might have VC sympathies, and I appreciated the opportunity his conversations gave me to understand some of the complexities of what might be broadly called Vietnamese nationalism. My suspicion was that since his sympathies were fairly obvious, he was almost certainly feeding information to the VC, but probably at a low level, through some other agent or network. There were also other reasons I thought this was likely. But I repeat, I had no suspicion that he himself was actually an important part of their intelligence operation.”19.”(Perfect Spy, Chapter 5, Page 4/25)
“An had a different version of their falling out, prefacing his story by saying, “Nick Turner never said a word to me about any suspicions that I was Viet Cong. I did not need him to share sensitive information with me because I had my own sources, better than his, I can assure you. I am very sorry to read what he now says because he knows that I protected him and Reuters from great embarrassment. I was his source for everything and he knows that. I am sorry to have to say this, but what he says is wrong.”20
An explained to me that he quit Reuters the day he returned from covering the August 1964 coup in which Major General Khanh assumed the presidency of South Vietnam, ousting Major General Duong Van Minh. Turner needed to file the story, but events at the palace delayed An by several hours. “Where the hell have you been, An, I’ve been waiting for you,” An recalled Turner yelling. “I’ve been covering the coup at the palace,” An replied.
An said that as their argument got more heated, Turner ordered him to remove the small “singing” bird he kept on his desk. “I told him that if I remove the bird, I quit, and that is what I did right there. Actually, I got so mad I threw everything off my desk. I packed up my belongings and never returned to Reuters. Nick Turner lost a valuable source and he knows that.”.”(Perfect Spy, Chapter 5, Page 4/25)
““As regards An’s departure from Reuters, the fact is that he was not just away for ‘several hours’ but two to three days and I knew he was not out of town,” explained Turner. “When he strolled in rather casually I probably did say, ‘Where the hell have you been, An?’ He replied that he had been working for Beverley Deepe on some big job. This prompted me to point out that he was paid a salary to work for Reuters, to which he replied that he wasn’t paid enough. He was right. I had asked Reuters to increase his pay because good Vietnamese assistants to foreign correspondents were in hot demand, but this had been refused. I took some solace from the fact that visiting correspondents would beat a path to Reuters’ door to pick his brains (to which I had no objection), and some of them remunerated him in various ways…. he did not appreciate this remonstration, and he did pack his things and left.”21 .”.”(Perfect Spy, Chapter 5, Page 5/25)
“An was soon introduced by Bob Shaplen to Frank McCulloch of Time.27 McCulloch, a former marine, covered just about every major battle in 1964–65, spending most of his time with the 9th Marine regiment. He later received a plaque naming him an honorary member. In early 1964 the Time and Life staff—like the war—was small. John Shaw was the resident Saigon stringer, and he and Frank worked out of Shaw’s apartment on Cong Ly Street as well as McCulloch’s hotel room in the Caravelle. The American military presence was about sixteen thousand. Soon Jim Wilde arrived, and they moved to room 6 in the Continental. In 1964 the Saigon bureau hired its first full-time Vietnamese employee, Nguyen Thuy Dang, as office manager. As the war grew, Frank told Dang to find a new office. They moved to 7 Han Thuyen, four blocks west of the Continental, a half block from the city’s Catholic cathedral, the cable office, and post office. By the time McCulloch left, Time-Life had its own villa, five rooms in the Continental, including room 6, which was the Life office.28
McCulloch was immediately impressed by An. “He lived up to every expectation I had. He had great knowledge of the changing landscape. I can say, in retrospect, that being a spy never warped his journalism.”.”(Perfect Spy, Chapter 5, Page 6/25)
“The biggest challenge facing an American reporter in Vietnam was gaining access to the marketplaces or coffee shops that constituted Saigon’s informal rumor mills. Shaplen had come to rely on his close friend Pham Xuan An: “[He is] employed by an American news magazine and is probably the hardest-working and most highly respected Vietnamese journalist in town…An, being a journalist who, though he works for the Americans, is also trusted by the Vietnamese, makes a point of visiting at least five of these (rumor) places each morning before he heads to the Givral; and then after lunch, he goes to the official American and Vietnamese briefings and back to Givral.” Shaplen then quoted An’s own description of what qualities made for an effective reporter in Saigon. .”.”(Perfect Spy, Chapter 5, Page 8/25)
“An provided Shaplen with a detailed analysis of the situation.36 “An most afraid of undisciplined soldiers and bandits. He says May for Saigon,” wrote Shaplen.37
…THE MONTH OF APRIL had been full of anxiety for An as he worried about the safety of his family and friends. He knew time was running short. “I never gave any thought to me going to the United States, but I did not know if I should send my wife and children. I received no message from Hanoi, no instructions, and I was under pressure from Time to decide. All my friends wanted to help, not just Time, so many kind people. Malcolm Browne offered to put me on the New York Times list even though I worked for a competitor; a representative from Reuters came to Givral and offered me and my family passage out. Jim Robinson, who used to work for NBC, offered to take me and my family on the plane he had chartered. Then on April 22 Bob Shaplen told me I had to decide now, for the safety of my wife and children. I said OK, give me one day to think it over.”
…Shaplen wrote Lansdale on May 10 that “among those who stayed back, at his insistence in the face of all the pleas, mine included, was Pham Xuan An, our old friend of Time…I hope he’ll be ok.”40…” “(Perfect Spy, Chapter 6, Page 12/24)
- Shaplen and An spent hours closeted together!
“Shaplen and An spent hours closeted together in Shaplen’s hotel room discussing Vietnamese politics and the progress of the war, and Shaplen even wrote about An in a New Yorker article entitled “We Have Always Survived,” published in 1972.
An is “probably the hardest-working and most highly respected Vietnamese journalist in town,” writes Shaplen, who begins his article with a lengthy description of café Givral. “Everyone who comes to Givral does so not only to exchange information but to play the subtle conversational games the Vietnamese play so much better than Americans can—testing each other, putting each other on, trying to humor somebody and to den-igrate somebody else. “
(The Spy Who Loved Us, page 157)
“Shaplen continues following An on his daily rounds. “Ad-jacent to Ham Nghi is a street called Nguyen Cong Tru, where each morning at about ten o’clock Chinese businessmen or their Vietnamese agents meet in two or three cafés to determine collectively what the day’s black-market piaster rate will be and also to set the prices of rice, pork, and other basic commodities.
” (The Spy Who Loved Us, page 158)
“Having worked up an appetite by now, An and Shaplen stop for lunch. “In the same vicinity are a number of restaurants, each catering to a different clientele, and to these An took me in his search for tidbits of information. The Victory, a spacious place on Ham Nghi specializing in Chinese food, has much the same atmosphere in the morning that Givral has in the afternoon, but is not so crowded. Politicians, journalists, and important businessmen exchange information there every morning over tea or Chinese soup.”
(The Spy Who Loved Us, page 159)
“In his book Bitter Victory, which he wrote after traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia in 1984, Shaplen refers to An as “surely one of the best-informed men in town. . . . In our conversations over the years, often lasting for hours, I discovered that the facts and opinions he furnished about the Communists, the government, and the many contending individuals and groups—including Buddhists and Catholics who opposed both sides in the conflict—were more on the mark than anything I could obtain from other sources, not excluding the American Embassy, which often knew surprisingly little about what was going on among the non-establishment Vietnamese.”
(The Spy Who Loved Us, page 160)
- Peter Shaplen: “Pham Xuan An was one of the great double agents of the twentieth century, maybe of all time”!
An had always dreamed of a united, reconciled Vietnam.
“In the immediate aftermath of the evacuation, Peter Shaplen, desperate for information about his father’s whereabouts, heard from the Pentagon’s Naval Command Center and the State Department’s Public Affairs Office that his father was “somewhere in the South China Sea.” In a touching letter mailed to his father’s apartment in Hong Kong, Peter asked: “Where is George McArthur? Where is the Ambassador’s secretary, Eva Kim? Where the hell are all those dogs from Saigon? What happened to their homes and their property? Did any get out? What happened to the $17 million in Saigon gold? Did it get out? Where is Vuong? Where is Philippe Francini [sic]? Where is Vinh and his family? Did they get out en masse? Did Francini [sic]stay to be with the hotel? Did An get the Time, Inc. charter? What about his family? Where is Keyes Beech? Where is Dennis [sic] Warner? Where is Dan Southerland?”70
An did indeed get the Time, Inc. charter. For a brief period he would be Time’s only reporter in Vietnam.
One of Bob Shaplen’s most revealing notations is an entry on his last day with An in Saigon. “An—mass of people want peace more than ever, do not want to strengthen government; the masses don’t want war, want reconciliation.”71 An had always dreamed of a united, reconciled Vietnam.“(Perfect Spy, Chapter 6, Page 20/24)
“Pham Xuan An was one of the great double agents of the twentieth century, maybe of all time”!
““Pham Xuan An was one of the great double agents of the twentieth century, maybe of all time,” says Peter Shaplen, Robert’s son, who became a journalist and producer for ABC
News. “He had entrée to all the high-level sources in Vietnam.
The country consisted of a multitude of strange, shadow-like connections, and An was at the center of all of them.”
Peter describes to me how his father, like An, was well connected. “When he went to Washington he would see friends at the CIA. Other friends in Hong Kong were Agency people.
People said, ‘Oh, he must be working for them,’ but I don’t think this was the case. He traded in information, he breathed it, he lived it. He would have been of incredible interest to the Agency, but was he a spy? I don’t think so. For one thing, he was never rich. What money he had came from The New Yorker. ”
Peter Shaplen has another reason for doubting that his father was a spy. “Bob couldn’t keep a secret. ‘Tell Western Union or tell Shaplen,’ said one of his former wives. He lived big, he lived huge. He was a large man, six feet three inches tall, weighing two hundred pounds. He was a handsome guy with dark hair, who sat down at his typewriter at 7:00 A.M. and worked through lunch before heading off in the afternoon for a game of tennis. He had a booming, gravelly baritone, made raspy from smoking small cigars during the day and a big cigar at night. He liked his Scotch, his cigars, his women. He loved the life of a foreign correspondent. He relished the attention and being at the center of things. We’re gossips,” says Peter Shaplen.
“That’s what journalists are, gossips.”
In the early 1970s, when Peter was beginning his own journalism career, he checked in to the Continental Hotel, where he was shown to his father’s old room. Soon he was surprised by a steady stream of people knocking on his door—fixers, money launderers, journalists, ladies of the night, and other traffickers in the gossip that his father loved to retail. Word had got out that
“Shap-ah-lain” was back in town, and people presumed it was Bob who had returned.”
(The Spy Who Loved Us, page 160)
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