By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
About a year after his release from a North Vietnamese prison camp, Cmdr. John S. McCain III sat down to address one of the most vexing questions confronting his fellow prisoners: Why did some choose to collaborate with the North Vietnamese?
McCain blamed American politics.
“The biggest factor in a man’s ability to perform credibly as a prisoner of war is a strong belief in the correctness of his nation’s foreign policy,” McCain wrote in a 1974 essay submitted to the National War College and never released to the public. Prisoners who questioned “the legality of the war” were “extremely easy marks for Communist propaganda,” he wrote.
Americans captured after 1968 had proven to be more susceptible to North Vietnamese pressure, he argued, because they “had been exposed to the divisive forces which had come into focus as a result of the anti-war movement in the United States.”
To insulate against such doubts, McCain recommended that the military should teach its recruits not only how to fight but also the reasons for American foreign policies like the containment of Southeast Asian communism – even though, McCain acknowledged, “a program of this nature could be construed as ‘brainwashing’ or ‘thought control’ and could come in for a great deal of criticism.”
Now a senator who is the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee, McCain often points to his nine months at the War College as the time that crystallized his views toward foreign conflicts like the war in Iraq. He has talked about his studies as a tutorial in the hows-and-whys of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. But the 40-page final paper he produced was limited to an evaluation of the military code of conduct through the prism of his “narrow, but personal, viewpoint.”
It was in many ways a first draft of his political autobiography, recounting the ennobling stories of resistance that he and his co-author, Mark Salter, would later retell in his 1999 memoir, “Faith of My Fathers.”
McCain’s 1974 thesis, though, also revealed a welter of other emotions about his years as a prisoner of war, including a deep anger at those he considered collaborators, a tough-minded disdain for public hand-wringing about captives like himself, and a sharp impatience with the American government for failing to “explain to its people, young and old, some basic facts of its foreign policy.” But at the same time, McCain also urged that any military survival training should include lessons in what he called “the necessity to forgive.”
McCain’s paper – obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and provided to The Times by Matt Welch, an author of a book about McCain – sheds new light on the experience that first brought him national attention and remains a staple of his campaign commercials. His conclusions hint at themes of his career, like his habit of making peace with former enemies. And his arguments that the government and the military should have done more to convince the voters and the troops about the case for the war in Vietnam echo in current debates about Iraq as well.
Asked if he still had those views, McCain said in an e-mail message that he still believed the anti-war movement had hurt the morale of some prisoners, although he added the vast majority “performed their duty with courage and resolve irrespective of how controversy about the war influenced their view of it.”
Historians, though, say his assertion that the anti-war movement weakened the resistance of Americans captured late in the war is misleading, in part because almost all the most cooperative prisoners were captured early and in part because many other cultural shifts contributed to differences in the later war captives. And some of his fellow prisoners also question the connection between the war protests and the camp collaborators.
“Don’t connect those guys with the anti-war movement,” said Orson Swindle, a prisoner who became a friend of McCain. “It was the guy in the next cell who was the reason we were trying so hard to uphold the code and our honor, and those guys just betrayed everything we stood for.”
But others say it is easy to see how McCain’s dismay at prisoners’ propaganda statements could feed his current impatience with calls for a withdrawal from Iraq. In the crucible of the camps, it was easy to see the collaborators – broadcasting anti-war statements over prison loudspeakers, smiling for Jane Fonda and visiting peace activists, enjoying the rewards of better food and less torture – as embodiments of the war protesters that the North Vietnamese counted on to wear down the American war effort.
“Just like the ‘pull-out movement’ today, as I call it, the peace movement would give them something to hang their hats on,” said Richard A. Stratton, another former prisoner incarcerated with McCain. “You are being tortured and all you have to do to get them to stop is say the same thing that Bobby Kennedy is saying. The same thing that George McGovern is saying. You don’t even have to make anything up.”
McCain, then a Navy lieutenant commander, was by all accounts what the American prisoners called a “tough resister.” He was nicknamed Crip for the severity of the injuries he sustained – a shoulder, both arms and his knee broken, with a bayonet wound near the groin – when his fighter plane was shot down in October 1967. Military rules only allowed POWs to go home in the order of their capture, but some senior officers said his medical condition justified accepting an offer of release from the North Vietnamese. McCain, the son of a prominent admiral, did not want to be part of North Vietnamese propaganda, so he chose to endure years of torture instead.
At times, McCain seemed to court punishment, noisily cussing out his captors while giving “thumbs up” signs to his fellow prisoners. “No matter what he did, he always played to the bleachers,” Robert Coram, a military historian, wrote in a book about the camps.
All of the prisoners acknowledged that everyone had a breaking point. McCain’s came 10 months after he arrived. With his father taking command of the Pacific Fleet, the North Vietnamese were determined to coerce the son into denouncing the war. For four days they tied him with ropes, beat him every few hours, re-broke his arm, and left him in a pool of his own blood and refuse. Finally, he signed and tape-recorded a war crimes confession.
His fellow prisoners say his capitulation only redoubled his determination to provoke his captors. “Acts of defiance felt so good that I felt they more than compensated for their repercussions,” he wrote, “and they helped me keep at bay the unsettled feelings of guilt and self doubt my confession had aroused.”
Others responded differently. Initially unable to feed or clean himself, McCain was nursed back to health by his cellmate, Maj. Norris Overly of the Air Force. McCain has often credited Overly with saving his life, calling him “a very fine man.”
Returning from an interrogation in February 1968, however, Overly told his cellmates he was going home. He said, as he later testified to Congress, that he had given his captors nothing and could not explain their decision.
McCain said in his e-mail message that he had never been angry with Overly. In his memoir, he recalls only a fear his friend was making a mistake. “I couldn’t stand in judgment of him,” he wrote.
But his fellow prisoners say he felt betrayed. After a goodbye ceremony staged for North Vietnamese cameras – McCain arrived on a stretcher – he and the others began referring to the departures as the “fink release program” and “the slimies.”
Overly declined to comment.
By the end of 1972, a dozen of the roughly 400 American prisoners of war in the North had accepted offers to be freed, only one with the permission of the senior American officers. All were required, at the very least, to sign letters requesting “amnesty” and thanking the North Vietnamese.
Some went further. As early as 1969, McCain began hearing three American officers denouncing the war over camp loudspeakers. The first two, Robert Schweitzer and Edison Miller, became known as “The Bob and Ed Show.” Walter Eugene Wilber soon joined.
They were followed by as many as a dozen others: enlisted infantrymen captured in South Vietnam early in the war and later brought to the northern prisons. They had not received the same training in survival strategies and the code of conduct as the pilots who made up the rest of the prisons in the North. The cooperators called themselves the “peace committee” and enjoyed treats from their captors, including beer, ice cream, Vietnamese dinners, and front-row seats at a local circus. They lived in fear of retribution from the tough resisters.
Miller and Wilber, the officers, said in interviews that they considered it pointless to resist after they had surrendered. “I think our duty as senior officers is to get these men home as healthy emotionally and physically as we can and I don’t intend to play politics,” Miller, a Marine lieutenant colonel, said he told the others.
Some members of the peace committee said that watching the destruction of Vietnamese villages had turned them against the war, arguing that the pilots did not see the carnage. Others said they were beaten down. “We said what we had to say to get through it,” Michael Branch, one of the enlisted men, said in an interview.
In his memoirs, McCain addressed only briefly what he called “the camp rats.”
During a stint in solitary confinement, he had caught a glimpse of two other American officers acting friendly with their guards and enjoying delicacies like eggs and bananas, McCain and his co-author wrote. Assuming that contact with a fellow American would restore their nerve, McCain called out: “Hey, guys my name’s McCain. Who are you?” They called the guards, who beat him again.
But Schweitzer, who died in a car crash soon after his return, became the most significant example of what McCain later called “the necessity to forgive.” Confronted by a senior Navy officer, Schweitzer renounced his participation in the propaganda, gave up preferential treatment, and resumed his place in the American ranks.
“It is neither American nor Christian to nag a repentant sinner to his grave” the senior Americans taught.
“John McCain has lived by that his whole life,” Swindle said. Others have observed the pattern as McCain has embraced former adversaries from anti-war activists and North Vietnamese prison commanders to the critics who charged him with corruption in the Keating Five scandal.
UNWAVERING WAR SUPPORT
But back in the camps, several of his friends said, McCain was as enraged as any of the “tough resisters” by what they considered the treason of the two officers and enlisted men. “He thought this was ‘terrible, terrible, terrible,’ they should all be shot,” said John Dramesi, a fellow prisoner. McCain was one of about a half-dozen former prisoners of war who spent the year after their release at the National War College, an elite academy for future admirals or generals.
Some officers fresh from Vietnam questioned the premise of the war. “The vast majority of generals who had experience in Vietnam will tell you we should never have gone past the advisory level,” said John H. Johns, a retired Army general and a student at the college that year. But in McCain’s War College paper, he instead focused on the failure to sustain public support for the fight.
He cast a cold eye on the public sympathy for prisoners like himself. “Two and a half million American fighting men served in the Vietnam conflict, and more importantly 46,000 sacrificed their lives,” McCain wrote. “Yet in the latter stages of that war millions of people were more actively concerned about the plight of 565 P.O.W.'s in Hanoi than in any bigger issue of the war.”
American elected officials, he argued, had fostered a myopic focus on the prisoners by forsaking the goal of unconditional surrender in favor of a negotiated peace, enabling the North Vietnamese to turn their hostages into a bargaining chip. “Many congressional resolutions, favorable to the enemy, were based solely on the guaranteed return of Americans from North Vietnam,” he wrote.
With prisoners returned, he argued, ambivalence about the war was protecting the minority of American prisoners “who did not keep faith with their country or their fellow prisoners.”
Court-martial charges were filed against two officers and seven enlisted men, he noted. “Probably more would have been charged if the Vietnam War had been like other wars in which this country has engaged,” McCain wrote. (Top military leaders quickly quashed charges against those nine.)
McCain reserved his fiercest criticism for what he called “the evils of parole and amnesty,” returning repeatedly to the importance of teaching recruits to reject such offers as he did. The prospect of early release had tempted and demoralized the other captives while providing the North Vietnamese “a maximum of favorable publicity and propaganda value from these ‘humane acts,”’ he wrote.
“Probably the greatest shock to great numbers of the POWs was to find, on returning to the U.S., that POWs who were released early had not been court-martialed but in fact had received choice assignments and early promotions,” he added, calling their warm welcome “inexcusable.”
McCain’s recommendation that the military try to instill more “belief in the correctness of this nation’s policy” in each new recruit may be the most notable part of his War College paper.
“Too many men in the armed forces of the United States do not understand what this nation’s foreign policy is,” McCain wrote, adding he did not propose a Soviet-style “indoctrination,” but “a simple, straightforward explanation of the foreign policy of the United States.”
In his e-mail message, McCain stood by the idea. “It is important, not just for POWs, but all Americans serving in combat to understand the purpose and reason for the sacrifices they are asked to make for our country,” he said.
Such instruction, though, sounds close to heretical to some military officers because it risks instructing the troops in the foreign policy of either one president or another, a prospect that particularly troubles McCain’s contemporaries who came to opposite conclusions about the Vietnam War.
“It gets to be partisan political positioning and regime support,” said Merrill McPeak, a retired Air Force general and another War College classmate of McCain. (Both Johns and McPeak are supporting the Democratic presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama.)
But Richard H. Kohn, a historian of civil-military relations at the University of North Carolina who has taught at the War College, suggested that McCain’s recommendation was more of a “time warp” back to the 1950s, when he came of age at the Naval Academy. It was an era of staunchly anti-communist foreign policy consensus that was shattered by the debates over the Vietnam War while McCain was in prison, Kohn said.
McCain’s public statements when he returned from the war suggested that he saw a similar consensus emerging again. “I see more of an appreciation of our way of life,” he wrote in a 1973 article for U.S. News & World Report. “There is more patriotism. The flag is all over the place.”
“Some of my fellow prisoners sang a different tune, but they were a very small minority,” he added. “I ask myself if they should be prosecuted, and I don’t find that easy to answer. It might destroy the very fine image the great majority of us have brought back from that hellhole.”© The New York Times. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.