Sailor, statesman, symbol: reflecting on John McCain and the Vietnam War

By Frank Blazich
John McCain and other returning soldiers stand before a crowd

This past Saturday, August 25, Arizona Senator John S. McCain III bid the nation farewell. For 60 years, McCain served the country either as a naval officer or as an elected official. Like everyone, his life experienced public and personal highs and lows with the added factor of always being cast in the public eye. In life as in death, this aspect of Senator McCain will not change.

As a curator of modern military history, when asked to reflect on his life I look to the Vietnam War. My late father served in the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry in Vietnam in 1966 until enemy fire ended his combat service. The war forever remained imprinted on his soul and forever changed his destiny. The same, I believe, can accurately be said for McCain.

Son and grandson of decorated admirals, McCain’s pedigree preordained a naval career. Like his forefathers, the young McCain found his character tested in a Pacific theater war.

On October 26, 1967, while flying his 23rd combat mission, McCain's plane was shot down. Forced to eject, McCain broke both his arms and his right leg and almost drowned when he landed in Trúc Bạch Lake in Hanoi. There, he was beaten and bayoneted by his initial rescuers before being taken to the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison, better known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” No American had ever entered the Hilton in worse condition than McCain.

Group of men swimming in lake clustered around John McCain
Lieutenant Commander John S. McCain III, center on his back, being captured and brought out from the Trúc Bạch Lake in Hanoi, October 26, 1967. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

As a prisoner of war, McCain encountered several attempts at exploitations by his Vietnamese captors for propaganda purposes. Deemed the “crown prince” for his status as the son of Admiral John S. McCain Jr., the younger McCain’s medical treatment proved primitive at best. Brought out for propaganda interviews and visits by senior communist officials, McCain remained a incapacitated celebrity in squalid conditions. In late December, guards moved McCain out of Hỏa Lò to another prison camp on Hanoi’s outskirts nicknamed “the Plantation.” Near death and weighing barely 100 pounds, McCain found himself in the care of two Air Force pilots who fed him, bathed him, and helped him with other functions.

Red-and-white striped pajamas
Red-and-white-striped, now pinkish-gray, prisoner pajamas worn by Commander Allan “Al” Carpenter, USN, while a prisoner at Hỏa Lò Prison, Hanoi, North Vietnam, from 1966 to 1973
Tin cup decorated with symbols and other markings
Tin cup with enamel overlay used by Congressman Sam Johnson while a prisoner of war in North Vietnam from 1966 to 1973. Johnson used the cup for both drinking and communicating through his cell walls with fellow prisoners. The text translates to read “Vietnam and North Korea together.”

In March 1968, the airmen moved out. For two solitary years, McCain lived in a ten-foot-square windowless room with two small ventilation holes in the ceiling. A senior prison official urged him to accept an early release. McCain infuriated his captor by refusing the offer unless every fellow prisoner was also released. Torture began in August. McCain suffered cracked ribs, smashed teeth, and new fractures to his right leg and left arm. At last McCain broke and made a forced propaganda statement. Down but unbroken, he bounced back and continued to resist despite repeated beatings and punishments. Unity with his fellow prisoners and faith in his country strengthened his resistance throughout the ensuing years.

Released on March 14, 1973, he returned home with honor. His limp would prove permanent, and his arm movement would continue to be limited, his right arm two inches shorter. Retiring from the navy in 1981, McCain turned to politics.

Photograph of John McCain and other returning soldiers
McCain with former prisoners of war in Hanoi being released on March 14, 1973. Courtesy of National Archives.

The call to public service saw multiple Vietnam veterans enter Congress. McCain joined fellow POWs Jeremiah Denton, Sam Johnson, and Douglas Peterson in the Capitol Building. In the early 1990s, while on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, McCain shared the chairmanship with a fellow Vietnam naval officer John Kerry. Together the men advocated for the normalization of diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995. McCain stated publicly then that “We have looked back in anger at Vietnam for too long. I cannot allow whatever resentments I incurred during my time in Vietnam to hold me from doing what is so clearly my duty. I believe it is my duty to encourage this country to build from the losses and the hopes of our tragic war in Vietnam a better peace for both the American and the Vietnamese people.” Thereafter he visited Vietnam over 20 times, and news of his death met with praise and sympathies from former adversaries with whom McCain found camaraderie and common cause for peace and prosperity.

In the 21st century, McCain confronted another controversial, complicated conflict, the War on Terrorism. Abuse and torture of prisoners again found itself a source of national uproar. In the 2005 legislative process for the annual Defense Appropriation, McCain introduced an amendment that prohibited the inhumane treatment of prisoners by military personnel and spoke out against the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He continued throughout the remainder of his Senate career to argue that torture is both immoral and compromising of the nation’s values and honor while providing nothing of actual military value to the interrogators. This past May, McCain released a statement that “the methods we employ to keep our nation safe must be as right and just as the values we aspire to live up to and promote in the world.” These observations were foundational to McCain’s life after Vietnam, grounded in heart and soul as well as sinew and bone.

Button with photograph of John McCain and text, "The Republican Tradition"
John McCain campaign button

The passing of Senator McCain also leaves one closing observation. Unlike the nation’s world wars, it is extremely unlikely that any combat veteran of the Vietnam War will ever sit in the Oval Office. As many have paused to reflect on the tumultuous political and military events of 1968, the reflections invariably bring basic questions before us. What did we learn? What have we become? Had McCain won the 2008 presidential election, his beliefs and ideals forged in the over five years of imprisonment in Vietnam undoubtedly would have influenced the policies of his administration and the nation. His opponent in that election, former President Barack Obama, was too young to serve in the conflict, but bore witness to its ramifications to the nation. In response to McCain’s passing, he wrote, “Few of us have been tested the way John once was, or required to show the kind of courage that he did. But all of us can aspire to the courage to put the greater good above our own. At John’s best, he showed us what that means. And for that, we are all in his debt.”          

As the bugle and rifles sound at the funeral this Saturday, may we give pause to remember those veterans of the Vietnam War who continue to serve the nation as Senator McCain did, who in his own words, “made a small place for myself in the story of America and the history of my times.”

Frank Blazich Jr. is a curator in the Division of Armed Forces History. He has previously written about the life and legacy of Corporal William T. Perkins Jr., a 20-year-old Marine deployed to Vietnam as a combat photographer, and Captain James K. Redding’s experience in the Battle of Hue.