war on the rocks

John McCain in 1974, Back in Vietnam

August 27, 2018

John McCain’s visit to Saigon in the fall of 1974 was not exactly big news.

At the time, the big story for reporters in Vietnam was a massive movement protesting corruption in President Nguyen Van Thieu’s government. In the first significant challenge to Thieu’s authority in years, thousands of demonstrators carrying flaming torches marched night after night through Saigon’s streets. When Thieu fired several cabinet ministers, three generals, and hundreds of lower-ranking officers, it was an unprecedented concession to his political opponents and a clear sign that his power was eroding. Saigon would fall to Communist forces six months later.

With all that going on, when McCain arrived with several other former prisoners of war as official guests for South Vietnam’s National Day celebration — its last, though we didn’t know that then — it received hardly any coverage. I didn’t mention it in my stories at all. Yet that un-newsworthy visit provided one of the most vivid memories of my years reporting in Vietnam for the Baltimore Sun.

McCain, still on active duty as a Navy commander, had been released barely a year and a half earlier after more than five years in captivity in North Vietnam, where he was repeatedly tortured. As the son and namesake of the recently retired commander of the Pacific fleet, he was one of the better-known POWs. But in 1974, he was not yet the national figure he would later become.

As I recall, I was introduced to McCain by another journalist early in his visit. He was interested in talking to some Saigon reporters, so we met a number of times in the following days, usually in the old Continental Palace hotel where we were both staying. He would stop by my room late in the evening after the delegation’s program had ended for the day.

It wasn’t like the usual interchange between a reporter and a newsmaker. McCain didn’t come to my room to tell his own story or to talk about his visit. He wanted to listen, not talk, and get a more independent, less sugar-coated perspective on Vietnam than he was hearing in briefings from the U.S. embassy and Vietnamese government officials. During those late-evening chats he’d tell me a bit about his day, but he was more interested in whatever I might tell him about the situation in Vietnam.

That’s a flattering but ethically ticklish situation for a reporter. Since I didn’t plan to write about him or the delegation, I didn’t think of him as someone I was covering, so saw no ethical violation in talking with him. I tried to stick to facts, without advocating any particular opinion or policy viewpoint or venturing into the larger debate on the rights and wrongs of U.S. policy. Basically, I told him what I had been writing in my stories for the past few months — that the war, which both sides were fighting all-out in spite of the January 1973 peace agreement, was going badly for the South.

No one then imagined that the Republic of Vietnam was only six months away from its final defeat. But heavy casualties and terrible economic hardships were devastating morale in the South Vietnamese army and the civilian population. Desertions were sky-high (I didn’t have exact numbers then, but the number of deserters every month was equal to nearly two entire South Vietnamese divisions). Although the South Vietnamese still far outgunned the enemy, cuts in U.S. military aid had led to fuel and ammunition shortages and raised doubts about continuing U.S. support — doubts that deepened after Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. And the demonstrations in Saigon were a sign that the government was losing authority.

McCain listened to all this unemotionally. Unlike many of his military colleagues, he didn’t bristle defensively at the idea that the war wasn’t going as well as American officials were saying, or at anything that sounded critical of the South Vietnamese. Occasionally I thought I detected a small wince, though I couldn’t be sure.

I was already in some awe of McCain’s heroism as a prisoner of war. But those talks showed me a different kind of bravery, reflected in his effort to learn and understand more about the place and the events that had cost him five and a half years in brutal captivity.

Until he was shot down, McCain told me, he hadn’t known much about Vietnam. He’d focused on his missions, not on the larger issues. But since his release he had read extensively, seeking to better understand what the war was about and what his ordeal had been for. He couldn’t be objective, he added with characteristic candor. After everything he’d undergone, he wasn’t ready to think the war was all for nothing, or a mistake.

Still, he had read all those books, and here he was, asking questions that he surely knew might elicit uncomfortable answers. I had no way to know what was in his mind, but I wondered if he was seeking those answers almost against his will, out of some involuntary need for truth that he might have resisted if he could.

One night, McCain knocked on my door after returning from a reception hosted by one of Thieu’s closest aides. In his speech, McCain told me, their host addressed the former prisoners of war directly, telling them that no one could ever fully repay their sacrifice but that he and the president would do anything they could to thank them. If there was any place they wanted to go, anything they wanted to see, anyone they wanted to meet, he said, just ask and it will be arranged.

McCain stuck up his hand. There was a place he’d like to go, he said. He wanted to visit Con Son Island.

Con Son was the site of South Vietnam’s toughest prison, where the most dangerous suspected communists were held. The prison made headlines in the United States in 1970 when Tom Harkin, a congressional aide (later a U.S. senator) and Don Luce, an American anti-war activist, took several members of a congressional delegation to the island to publicize the brutal conditions there, including confinement of shackled prisoners in cramped cells that became infamous as “tiger cages.”

When their host heard his request at the banquet, McCain said, he looked as if someone had snuck up and whacked him from behind with a two-by-four. I probably looked a little stunned myself when he told me about it. With a tight smile, McCain explained that he had unwillingly become an expert on North Vietnamese prison conditions and since he had the opportunity, he was curious to see how our ally treated its prisoners.

I had seen plenty of visitors come and go during more than two years in Vietnam: politicians, academics, anti-war activists, pundits, and other more-or-less-public figures. Before that moment, I don’t remember any who went out of their way looking for something that might challenge their views. I’m not sure what I said to McCain, but inwardly I was cheering.

The Vietnamese stalled, no doubt hoping to run out the clock until he left. But McCain persisted. Finally, his hosts arranged a flight to Con Son on the delegation’s very last day in Saigon. When he told me that, I begged him to come to my room when he got back, no matter how late it was, and tell me about it.

Now I did want to write a story. To the best of my recollection, McCain had never asked me not to write about our talks. But I thought we both assumed they were private conversations, so even if he hadn’t said it in so many words, McCain probably didn’t think he was speaking for publication. By the usual rules, without an explicit agreement that our talks were off the record, I was not bound by that condition. But in the circumstances, I felt I should ask for his consent before writing about him.

I could have pulled out a notebook and said, “Wait a minute. Can I make some notes and write about this?” McCain might have agreed. I’ll never know. But it wouldn’t have pleased his South Vietnamese hosts to have this story reported, and his own government and his Navy superiors wouldn’t have been thrilled, either. McCain was still a serving officer, bound by military rules and possibly by a sense of obligation to national policy. So, I worried that if I asked and got the wrong answer, he might not tell me about the trip at all. I wanted to hear it too badly to take that risk, so I didn’t ask and, with a silent prayer of atonement to the journalism gods, abandoned the thought of writing a story.

McCain knocked on my door after his return from Con Son. It was late and he didn’t stay long, but he told me his overall conclusion: Conditions there weren’t as brutal as in the North Vietnamese camps, but they were pretty bad. He did not go into any details, other than telling me that he had had to ask repeatedly before prison officials would tell him how many prisoners were on the island, and when they finally gave him a number, McCain knew it was far too many to have adequate outdoor exercise in the available space.

For the first time in our meetings, he spoke a bit guardedly and seemed impatient to end the conversation. He might just have been tired from a long day, or in a hurry to get to his room and pack for an early flight out the next morning. Or, though I had no way to know and he didn’t say anything to suggest it, possibly being back in a Vietnamese prison had stirred emotions that he didn’t want to share or couldn’t find words to speak about.

If I didn’t learn as much as I’d hoped about the trip to Con Son, I still felt I had learned something valuable from McCain about courage ­— not just the kind he had shown as a prisoner of war, but the different form of bravery it took to go out and look for troubling truths that tested his convictions, instead of avoiding them.

I doubt that McCain ever thought about our meetings again, but I have remembered them often. During McCain’s unsuccessful run for the Republican nomination in the 2000 presidential election, I finally got the Con Son story into print, as an answer to pundits and other blowhards who were questioning if he was “temperamentally fit” to be president.

In the nearly two decades since then, John McCain on the public stage has not always seemed like the man I met in Saigon all those years ago. But that McCain has reappeared regularly enough for me to think I was not fundamentally wrong about his character. His politics were very different from mine, but in most of his political life he upheld important values and maintained a standard of civil and honest discourse.

In the last stage of his career, unlike most of his Republican colleagues, he did not kowtow to President Donald Trump or stay silent about his excesses in manner and policy. He faced his final illness with great dignity and typical courage. A decent, brave man. I will miss him, and wish there were more like him on the political scene he has now left.

 

Arnold R. Isaacs covered Vietnam for the Baltimore Sun between June 1972 and April 1975. He is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia, Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and Its Legacy and an online report, From Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani and Afghan Americans in post-9/11 America. His website is www.arnoldisaacs.net

Image: Wikimedia Commons