The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John McCain was a POW. The psychologist was a Cuban. Their Vietnam War encounter: Strange.

As a prisoner of war in Vietnam, then-Lt. Cmdr. John McCain suffered life-threatening injuries. Here's the story of how he survived. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)
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One sticky night in Havana a decade ago, I was in search of a good meal. A friend steered me to an old house with tile floors and arched doorways in Playa, a neighborhood far off the regular tourist track.

A well-connected Cuban psychologist had converted the place into a paladar called Cactus de 33. You could get something delectable at Cactus that was hard to find in Havana restaurants in those days, even though it was abundant in the seas around the island: Cuban lobster.

The owner of the restaurant, Fernando Barral, was a squat, thickly built man with a shaved head and a gruff but charming manner. Barral’s father was a socialist killed during the Spanish Civil War, and he had moved to Argentina as a boy, where he befriended the young Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the future revolutionary icon. After the Cuban Revolution, Barral settled in Havana.

Cactus became my regular spot. On one of several visits, I looked up from a plate of lobster and noticed something odd on the wall. It was a familiar image, and when I got up and looked closer, it came into sharper focus. It was an old framed clipping of Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, with a photo of none other than Sen. John McCain, who died Aug. 25 at the age of 81 and will be buried Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery.

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The Granma article, dated Jan. 24, 1970, described how a Cuban psychologist had just returned from North Vietnam, where he had interviewed an American prisoner of war.

The psychologist was the guy serving me lobster.

Hardly anyone had noticed the clipping. Havana existed in an information vacuum, with access to the Internet and television zealously restricted by the government.

To my surprise, Barral told me that he had kept his original notes from that long-ago interview, and I later met up with him to thumb through the pages of a bound Vietnamese notebook with yellow flowers on the cover.

It was surreal holding that notebook in my hand, and thinking that nearly four decades prior it was perched on the lap of Barral as he sat across a table from the man who was running for president of the United States.

It was a nugget of living history, a relic that gave a small window into a despicable time, an era when a young American pilot was being subjected to torture and confinement in deplorable conditions inside the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” prison.

Sen. John McCain faced death twice as a Navy pilot and survived brutal years as a POW

It struck me as something that belonged in a museum, rather than stashed away in a private residence attached to a Cuban paladar. It also felt like holding a piece of evidence — prisoners of war aren’t supposed to be used as props, but the Cubans were plopping him right there onto the front page of their state-run newspaper. Perhaps that’s why I’ve kept the scanned images of his notebook all these years.

At that moment in 2008, the American prisoner of war in the picture was also the presumptive Republican nominee for president in an election that would eventually be won by Barack Obama.

During McCain’s decades of public service, his perseverance during more than five years of brutal captivity had come to form a core part of his legacy and public image.

When we met, Barral had just had cataract surgery, and his right eye was half-closed and bloodshot, giving him a somewhat menacing aspect about which he felt a bit self-conscious. But he was chatty and matter-of-fact, welcoming me to examine his notes as closely as I would like. (Barral, now 90, is in poor health and was unavailable for an interview, according to his wife.)

Barral told me that he came to interview McCain because he had won an essay contest in 1967 and that the prize was a 40-day trip to North Vietnam, a country that shared a communist political philosophy with the Cubans. The trip was delayed, he said, until late 1969.

McCain didn’t believe that story. In his 1999 autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers,” McCain called Barral “a Cuban propagandist, masquerading as a Spanish psychologist and moonlighting as a journalist.”

Barral didn’t mind the characterization, saying he had come up with the idea to interview an American POW to see “how the enemy thinks.”

“I’m not sure if it was for propaganda purposes,” Barral told me that day in Havana. “But I accept if it was an instrument for propaganda.”

The basic recollections of both men about the interview are quite similar. For instance, both say that McCain expressed no remorse about bombing North Vietnam.

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Barral documented his trip in 25 pages of neatly written script, chronicling how he met with McCain in the same hospitality suite at the North Vietnamese cultural relations committee where he had been welcomed the day before by the country’s vice president.

According to Barral’s notes, McCain told him that he “perceived the hatred and indignation of the people” as he was pulled from a Hanoi lake after his plane was shot down during a 1967 bombing run.

McCain lamented that he would have become an admiral at a younger age than his father if he hadn’t been captured, according to Barral. And he boasted about being the best pilot in the Navy.

Barral’s questions were mostly banal, but his later observations about McCain were biting. At times, he has twisted McCain’s words. McCain told him that he felt “safe” in his plane flying high above North Vietnam. But Barral, in the 2008 interview, interpreted that to mean “he felt superior to the Vietnamese up there in his plane.”

In his autobiography, McCain included an observation by Barral that aired on the Voice of Vietnam radio: “From the moral and ideological point of view he showed us he is an insensitive individual without human depth. … I believe that he bombed densely populated places for sport.”

At the end of their conversation, Barral asked McCain to look ahead. As long as the war continued, McCain said according to Barral’s notes, “he did not have many hopes for the future.”

In the next two decades, that same man would be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and to the U.S. Senate; his name would become synonymous with patriotism and sacrifice. When he had breathed his last, he lay in state in the rotunda of the Capitol. Political friends and foes alike called him an American hero.

Read more Retropolis:

A young photographer took this harrowing image of the Vietnam War. He didn’t live to see it published.

How Jane Fonda’s 1972 trip to North Vietnam earned her the nickname ‘Hanoi Jane’

John McCain couldn’t escape the pull of the Naval Academy. Now he’ll be buried there.

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