Moments of Truth | McCain in Vietnam

In Ordeal as Captive, Character Was Shaped

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 5, 2008

HANOI The lake into which John McCain parachuted after his Navy plane was shot down is now surrounded by chic restaurants, cellphone stores and motorcycle dealerships. The prison camp where he confessed to being a "black criminal" has been turned into a multiplex cinema showing garish American movies. A five-star hotel occupies the site of the "Hanoi Hilton" jail, where he spent more than three years. The surface-to-air missile sites that once circled Hanoi have been replaced by sprawling industrial parks churning out sneakers and television sets for the U.S. market.

Hanoi and Vietnam have changed dramatically since the war with the United States ended 33 years ago. But for the Republican presidential nominee, the 5 1/2 years he spent as a prisoner of war had an indelible impact, not just because of the terrible injuries he suffered but because of how the ordeal shaped his worldview.

In hushed conversations with his fellow POWs four decades ago, he developed firm beliefs about how the United States should use its military power, lessons that he has sought to apply to the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His resistance of his captors -- especially his refusal to accept an offer that would have freed him before his comrades -- forged his character, taught him the meaning of honor and, eventually, launched him on a meteoric political career.

Before his final, fateful bombing mission, McCain had been a gregarious flyboy "whose ambitions did not go much beyond being a commander of a squadron," according to Joe McCain, his younger brother. The decision to reject early release, Joe McCain believes, was "the most important single moment of his entire life" and turned him into a potential commander in chief. "It showed," his brother said, "that he can make tough decisions in tough times."

Although the story of his imprisonment has been told many times, including by the candidate, a review of tens of thousands of documents and interviews with several dozen Vietnamese and former POWs yields fresh insights into McCain's experience.

For McCain, communism was not a theoretical abstraction; it was an oppressive reality he endured every minute from his capture in October 1967 until his release in March 1973. As the son of a top Navy admiral, who became commander in chief of U.S. forces in Asia in 1968, he was known as the "Crown Prince" and subjected to special attention from his captors. The Vietnamese used McCain and other prisoners to try to convince Americans that their leaders were fighting an unjust war that could not be won.

By his own account, McCain eventually "broke" under torture, a blow to his sense of military honor and self-esteem that led to suicide attempts and hardened his hatred for the communists. Though he shunned efforts by his interrogators to persuade him to accept early release, which would have violated his obligations under the code of conduct for American prisoners, he was nevertheless pushed into making statements critical of the United States and thanking his captors for their "humane" treatment.

Reconstructing the crucial early phase of McCain's imprisonment is complicated by the lack of independently verifiable documentary evidence. He spent much of that time in solitary confinement, able to communicate with his fellow prisoners only sporadically, by whispering messages in shower stalls and tapping laboriously through a thick brick wall. Accounts of his torture by the Vietnamese are largely based on his own reminiscences, particularly his 1999 memoir, "Faith of My Fathers."

The North Vietnamese kept detailed records on individual prisoner interrogations, known as the blue files, but these have never been released. Official U.S. documentation of the abuses suffered by the prisoners is also unavailable. Extensive debriefs of returning POWs remain classified because of privacy restrictions. The McCain campaign did not respond to requests for access to the candidate's postwar intelligence debriefs and his Navy personnel file. Unlike both George W. Bush and John F. Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, McCain has come under little outside pressure to release his military records.

This account is based on a review of records at the National Archives in College Park and the POW-MIA database at the Library of Congress, as well as interviews with former POWs and Vietnamese who had contact with McCain during his captivity.

McCain's Final Mission Over Vietnam

McCain's last mission over Vietnam could serve as an almost perfect illustration of the futility of President Lyndon B. Johnson's bombing campaign known as Operation Rolling Thunder. The target on Oct. 26, 1967, was a thermal power plant in the center of Hanoi. The net result of the raid was three U.S. Navy planes down, minimal disruption of electricity supplies in the North Vietnamese capital and a propaganda windfall for the Vietnamese. The American bombs all fell wide of their target.

"He probably killed a few fish," said retired Maj. Nguyen Lan, the commander of the surface-to-air missile battery that brought down McCain, telling his story in public for the first time. "The Americans never did destroy that power plant," he said laughing.

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