Excerpt from Chapter 3 of Nothing Is Impossible. An Improbable Friendship: John Kerry and John McCain

Chapter 3

An improbable friendship: John Kerry and John McCain

Excerpt about John McCain

When I called on Senator John McCain prior to my confirmation hearings in April 2014, I wanted his vote.  I knew that, if McCain supported me as ambassador to Vietnam, then other Senators would, too.  If he opposed my nomination, the chances weren’t good.  During that meeting, I gained much more than the Senator’s vote; he gave me a glimpse into who he was.

Much has been written about John McCain’s imprisonment in the “Hanoi Hilton,” as it was commonly called.  Hoa Lo prison, or what is left of it, is not a happy place.  On display today are instruments of torture dating back to the French era, and unrealistically happy videos of imprisoned U.S. soldiers.  There is a special exhibit just on McCain’s imprisonment.

But, as David Foster Wallace wrote during the 2000 presidential campaign, it is worth taking a moment to imagine what the experience must have been like for a 31-year-old Navy pilot named John McCain.  The son and grandson of admirals was shot down over Hanoi’s Truc Bach lake, where he had tried to destroy a power plant.  Ejected from the plane as it spiraled downward, he had two broken arms and a broken leg even before he hit the water, hard.  Men swam out to him, and saving his life was not foremost in their thoughts.  He and his fellow pilots had destroyed their city’s infrastructure and killed many of its citizens.  They wanted him dead.

The men who pulled McCain from the water also stuck a bayonet in his groin, and behaved otherwise ungently with a man whom they held responsible for the death of their loved ones.  He was dragged to shore with one leg bent at a 90-degree angle with the bone protruding from the skin.  His captors threw McCain into a cell, where he had to beg for a week – a week – before receiving medical attention.  Two of his broken limbs were set without anesthetic.  The third, and the wound in his groin, were left to heal, or not, on their own.

Weighing 100 pounds, barely alive, McCain had to stand before the warden, who had by then learned that the young lieutenant’s father commanded America’s entire Pacific Fleet.  “You may go free,” the warden said.

In his Senate office, McCain showed me a framed State Department telegram dated September 13, 1968.  Sent by Ambassador Harriman from Paris during the 1968 peace talks, it read, “Le Duc Tho…mentioned that DRV had intended to release Admiral McCain’s son as one of the three pilots freed recently, but he had refused.”  Adhering to the Code of Conduct of Prisoners of War, McCain refused to accept the warden’s offer of freedom.  He would not leave earlier than those who had arrived at Hoa Lo prison before him.

The warden ordered guards to beat McCain.  They broke his ribs, rebroke his arm, knocked out his teeth, and threw him into solitary confinement, where he spent much of the next four years.

So when McCain showed me that telegram, he was telling me who he was.  That decision, to remain in prison, with its terrible suffering and degradation, was preferable to him than betraying the Code.  As Wallace wrote,

“The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered – voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. Literally: “moral authority,” that old cliche, much like so many other cliche’s – “service,” “honor,” “duty,” “patriotism” – that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain we’ve seen, though – arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in ’98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-SPAN, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July ’99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire Town Hall Meetings – something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a whiff of a childhood smell or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us think about what terms like “service” and “sacrifice” and “honor” might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe.”

While I first met McCain during his 1997 visit to Vietnam, and again when he visited India in 2008 with Senator Joe Lieberman, I did not know him.  When he pointed to that telegram, he let me know about the pivotal moment in his life, the decision that made him the man he became.

McCain was the object of many veterans’ wrath; he was called “Songbird” and “Manchurian candidate” for his commitment to ending the war through normalization of diplomatic relations.  He endured heckling and protests during the time he worked on the POW/MIA committee.  All this for a man who for nearly seven years endured torture and deprivation at the hands of his captors.  Captors whom he forgave.

When they worked together on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA affairs, John Kerry and John McCain – a liberal Democrat and conservative Republican – formed an unlikely friendship.  Their thorough and dogged work led to a Senate resolution in January 1994 urging the President to lift a trade embargo against Vietnam, and to President Clinton’s decision in July 1995 to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam.  In my view, John McCain had earned the right to decide who should be ambassador to Vietnam and who should not.

In May 2015, during a visit to Hanoi, McCain guided Senators Reed, Sullivan and Ernst through Hoa Lo prison, where he had been held for seven years.  Now a museum, the prison emphasizes the brutality of French colonialism.  It glosses over Vietnamese excesses, and portrays the treatment of American POWs in a bizarre and unreal way.  After looking at a video of American prisoners playing volleyball, drinking beer and hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree, McCain laughed.  “Yes, it was a party every day,” he joked.  When we came to an exhibit focused on him, featuring a clean, pristine flight suit, he laughed again.  “My actual suit had the arms torn off,” he noted.

At a quiet dinner after we visited the prison, McCain became reflective, and told us a story.  “Each prisoner had a small cloth, about 8 inches square, that we used to wash our dishes and clean our bodies.  One day when I emerged from the stall we used to wash ourselves, my cloth had been taken from the clothesline on which it was drying.  Feeling desperate, I saw another prisoner’s cloth, and swiped it.  Our cells were very small, and we weren’t allowed to speak with the other prisoners.  So I used to tap out messages to the guy in the cell next to mine using Morse Code.  He tapped this: ‘Someone stole my cloth.  If I find out who it is, I’ll kill him.’”

“For days I said nothing.  Then one day when washing, I saw another cloth, and hung up the one I had stolen.  Later I confessed to my neighbor that I was the culprit.  For six weeks, he refused to communicate with me.  I felt very much alone.”

Some prisoners curried favor with the guards by ratting on the other prisoners.  Rewarded with beer and occasional time out of their cells, they were hated by the majority of the prisoners.  When the POWs were released, many wanted the traitors to be court-martialed.  The President issued them a pardon.  McCain said he regretted that decision.

It was no party in Hoa Lo prison.

On the day I visited McCain’s office before my confirmation hearing, he mentioned that a small monument had been erected in Hanoi next to Truc Bach lake, where he had been pulled from the water.  “The monument is pretty dirty,” he said.  “Could you ask that it be cleaned up?” I joked that, if I needed to clean it myself with a toothbrush, I would do so, as long as he voted for my confirmation.

Getting Senator McCain’s vote was my sole objective.  But that outcome had been achieved already, and not by me.   McCain told me that his fellow prisoner in Hoa Lo, former Ambassador Pete Peterson, had called to vouch for me.  “If Pete supports you as ambassador, then I will vote to confirm,” the Senator said.  He laughed along with me about cleaning up the monument.  If I had listened more carefully, I might have realized the seriousness of his simple request.   That monument stands at the beginning of John McCain’s real story.

A year earlier, Hanoi Party Chief Pham Quang Nghi met with McCain in his Capitol Hill office, and presented him with a photograph of the monument.  The Senator noted that, first, a bird was pooping on it.  Second, his title was inaccurate: he was listed as a U.S. Air Force Squadron leader rather than a U.S. Naval Lieutenant Commander.  The only monument to McCain had the facts wrong, and McCain wanted the truth.

Soon after I arrived in Hanoi, the text on the monument was revised.   When McCain visited, I brought him and the other Senators to see the clean, improved monument.   The Vietnamese pejorative prefix “Ten” before McCain’s name had been replaced with “phi cong” or “pilot.”  McCain’s name was spelled correctly.  The repairs had been done quietly, with no fanfare.  Honor and truth were preserved.

McCain and his delegation engaged in substantive discussions with Vietnam’s leaders regarding tensions in the South China Sea, where Southeast Asian nations were seeking to negotiate a Code of Conduct with China.  McCain stressed that Congress would soon authorize $425 million for new maritime capacity-building efforts.  China had only recently militarized Johnson Reef, one of six new “stationary aircraft carriers” it was building upon reefs in the South China Sea.  McCain also told Vietnamese leaders that the United States wanted Vietnam to be in the first tranche of TPP members.

All of Vietnam’s senior-most leaders wanted to meet with McCain; our challenge was to accommodate as many as possible.  But what struck me about each meeting was how quickly McCain gave the floor to more junior senators.  Senators Reed, Ernst and Sullivan spoke far more than McCain, who could have easily done all the talking himself.   This wasn’t simply senatorial courtesy.  McCain wanted those who would remain in the Senate after he was gone to understand Vietnam, and to see a strong partnership with Vietnam as an important U.S. priority.  His method worked.  Senator Sullivan in particular expressed great enthusiasm about the opportunities in Vietnam.  When I called on him later in his Senate offices, Sullivan’s commitment had only grown.  McCain chose his proteges wisely.  With McCain’s death, no Senator matters more to the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations than Dan Sullivan.

In July 2017, during a crucial debate over health care, Senator McCain returned to the Senate floor days after he was diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer.  He gave one of the most brilliant speeches of his long and storied career.  Appalled by the way the President and Senator Mitch McConnell were trying to ram through repeal of the Affordable Care Act, he reminded his fellow senators that, under the U.S. Constitution, they are the President’s equals in governance, not his subordinates.  As Andrew Sullivan wrote a few days later, McCain “seemed for a few moments like an actual voice of authority in a capital where all such authority has withered into mere positioning or cowardice. And in the early hours of Friday morning, McCain appropriately provided the critical vote to kill the skinny repeal of the ACA. It was, in some ways, his finest hour.”

In the many stories written about McCain’s career upon his death, I have been glad to see frequent mention of his role in bringing about normalization of relations with Vietnam.  Reflecting the views of many in Vietnam, the press has described him as a true friend, and he was.  Truth, honor and service defined him; these days John’s McCain’s ideals are in short supply.