McCain returns to the past

From POW to family man: McCain takes his wife and son back to the "Hanoi Hilton" and the site of his plane crash.

Published April 27, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

McCain on the streets of Hanoi.

These words you are reading may not be precious, but at least they have been smuggled out of Vietnam.

The iron curtain is alive and well here, and attempts made this morning to log onto a Web site that provides information about the problems of the Vietnamese economy -- and there are many -- proved futile because of government "firewall" software. And attempts to e-mail photographs for this piece were nearly in vain; a world-weary photographer here for the same reason I am, to follow around former Vietnam POW and Arizona Sen. John McCain on the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, confirms the communist government's constipated supervision.

A decade ago, when McCain was among those working on opening Vietnamese markets, putting aside whatever personal animus he had for the sake of bringing the country into the 20th century (just in time for the 21st), he had reason to hope that things would be different, he says. "In '92, I felt a degree of optimism that I don't feel now," he says.

Still, he is determined to make this trip worth more than just a cool episode of "Where in the World Is Matt Lauer?" (NBC's "Today" show is paying for McCain's trip in return for a lengthy Friday morning segment.) In a Tuesday meeting with Foreign Minister Nguyen Dy Nien, a dinner later that night with National Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Do Van Tai and a Wednesday drop by with National Assembly Speaker Nong Duc Manh, McCain strongly encouraged the Vietnamese government to sign the Vietnam-U.S. Bilateral Trade Agreement, which both countries agreed to "in principle" last July but which the Vietnamese Politburo has since balked at signing because of internal divisions between hard-liners and economic reformers.

"It seems to me that it is greatly in the interest of the Vietnamese government to conclude [its ratification of] the trade agreement in a timely fashion," McCain said, somewhat brusquely, to Nong. "I know the chairman is aware that there has been a reduction in the last three years in foreign investment in Vietnam ... As a friend, I urge you to evaluate what are the factors that have declined investments ... I do not mean to be presumptuous when I remind the chairman that a very rapidly growing number of [young Vietnamese] are joining the job market."

McCain added that Vietnam's refusal to sign the trade agreement could affect a pending, "very controversial," as he put it, House vote on normalizing trade relations with China.

Nong, speaking through an interpreter as reporters listened, thanked McCain for his "frank discussion" but did not sound optimistic, suggesting that "the two sides need further exchange of ideas" because Vietnam "is in a very low development as compared to your country."

"Our task is to also overcome the consequences of war, and I also hope the U.S. will help us with that," Nong guilt-tripped. McCain took Nong's remarks to be a reference to the lingering toxic effects of Agent Orange in the country.

A meeting with National Assembly Speaker Nong Duc Manh at which McCain forcefully urged the speaker to ratify the U.S.-Vietnamese trade agreement. McCain appears under the watchful eye of a bust of Ho Chi Minh.

Other analyses of the Politburo's concerns conclude that economic reform will inevitably undermine the nation's socialist girdings, weakening the Vietnamese Communist Party's clamp on its people. A September story in the South China Morning Post pointed out that the trade deal would inevitably harm the $600 million in revenues of the Vietnamese military's various commercial enterprises. And even some of the most capitalist consultants see further unemployment -- already at 10 percent -- as a likely immediate consequence.

But McCain points to the destitution of the Vietnamese people -- the nation has an estimated per capita income of less than $300 a year and around $1.5 billion in national debt -- and sees free trade as the answer.

Indeed, the trade agreement is the only issue McCain seems fired up about, even on Wednesday as he guides his wife, Cindy, and 13-year-old son, Jack, past shadows of his horrors -- a memorial near where his plane was shot down in Truc Bach Lake and through the museum where once stood the Hoa Lo prison camp, commonly known as the "Hanoi Hilton," where he was held captive. He is denied entry to the other prison camp, called the "Plantation," where he was held during his five and a half years as a POW.

"That infuriates me," he says softly to an aide after the Vietnamese army bureaucrats brusquely reject him at the gate. But he is smiling as he says it.

The senator's chief of staff, Mark Salter, says McCain has rarely come close to losing his temper during his many trips back to Vietnam. There was one time, in the early '90s, when he and fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., witnessed a guard using a bit of force on a prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton, when it was still being used for incarceration.

"Hey!" McCain yelled then. "Remember: 'Humane and lenient'" -- the protocols for treatment of prisoners under the Geneva Convention.

The other time was in '91, Salter recalls, when McCain and Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, stopped by the Hanoi Hilton and wandered around outside. A prison guard ran over and started brutally hassling their driver, even getting physical.

"McCain drops his shoulder, storms over and gives him a shove," Salter says. "He says, 'What's your problem, pal?' And the guard rushed off. He's spoken angrily in the past, giving one of the ministers a little straight talk about human rights, sure. But those were the only two instances I've ever seen when he's shown a little irritation with anyone in Vietnam. And both of them were specifically when he saw prison guards giving someone a hard time."

As McCain stands by the memorial of his capture at Truc Bach Lake with Jack and Cindy, he is laughing and smiling, just like any other dad checking out, say, the Liberty Bell. He reads the Vietnamese inscription to "the people's defense forces" shooting down the "air pirate" named "John Sney Ma Can," misidentifying the former naval aviator as a member of the U.S. Air Force.

"That's the greatest insult of all," he announces.

The statue, which includes a figure of "Ma Can" being dragged out of the water, wasn't as well tended to the first time he saw it, during his 1985 return with CBS' Walter Cronkite. "There was grass running up all over it and bird crap everywhere," McCain notes. Back in the States, a joking reference to its condition to a visiting Vietnamese dignitary later prompted the official to worriedly tell Salter, "I live near there; I can go and clean it up."

"How far away is the Hanoi Hilton?" McCain is asked.

Just five minutes up the road, McCain says. He points out that, prior to his capture, he attended the military's "Escape and Evasion" school five different times. "And after all that, they threw me in the back of a truck to a prison five minutes away. A classic waste of the taxpayers' dollar," he says.

Jack suggests that another waste can be blamed on the two 1,000-pound bombs that his dad sent to the wrong targets. And whatever happened to his dad's plane? McCain points across the lake. As he ejected from the 450-mph plummeting aircraft, the plane smacked into some buildings.

"So you got something," Jack jokes.

"Yeah, collateral damage," Dad says.

Somewhat incongruously, the lake and both prisons are in the middle of the city; as a prisoner, McCain could occasionally hear the "ching-ching" of bicycle bells emanating from somewhere outside his cell.

In the shadow of the neighboring "Hanoi Towers" apartments, offices and shops for rent, a small horde of obnoxious cameramen awaits McCain outside the Hanoi Hilton. As we drive up, a mustached guy from the U.S. Embassy tells us that one wall is all that remains of the original prison, built in 1886 by the French.

As we enter, McCain's wife and son are pushed aside by the cameramen as McCain makes his way down the cellblock known as "Thunderbird," named after a Las Vegas hotel. "I hate the media," says U.S. News & World Report's Roger Simon.

McCain repeatedly stops to throw a lifeline to his family members and drag them up to where he's standing, in cells that never really held prisoners. The entire building has been reconstructed as a museum about French cruelty to the Vietnamese -- and Vietnamese hospitality to the Americans.

McCain is asked about the museum's approach to his days in its dank walls. "It's incomplete," he says, "though I would be somewhat astounded if they had some kind of memorial to their treatment of us."

This is his third or fourth visit to the prison. Cindy was here once before on a relief mission for the charity she runs; she came without her husband and she broke down. But Jack has never been here before, and McCain wants to show him the photographs of him and his buddies that are hanging in one display, but forgets which room it's in. A sound man guides him there.

McCain and son Jack before a photo exhibit of American soldiers in the Hanoi Hilton, now a museum commemorating the French imprisonment of the Viet Minh. The photo second from the left is of McCain when he was a prisoner of war.

McCain points at pictures of him and his buddies hanging behind a glass display case. There's Ev Alvarez, the longest-held prisoner in the North (1964 to 1973), who spent some time on the "Straight Talk Express" during his fellow prisoner's ill-fated run for the presidency. There's Pete Peterson, now U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. There's the old man.

"Not a bad-looking guy, eh, Jack?"

McCain points out that in one propaganda photo, of U.S. soldiers praying, one subversive soldier "is scratching his chin with his middle finger."

Salter beckons McCain to another wall, where the Vietnamese government has a plaque testifying that from Aug. 5, 1964, until Jan. 24, 1973, "the U.S. Government carried out two destructive wars by the Army and Navy against North Vietnam" in which the Vietnamese army "brought down thousands of aircraft." Even though the pilots "committed intold [sic] crimes on our people," the sign reads, "American pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead, they were well treated with adequate food, clothing, and shelter."

McCain, his son Jack and wife Cindy, in the cellblock where he was imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton.

McCain shakes his head in amazement.

"That's entertainment," he finally says.

The group next buzzes by the Plantation, which still serves as a military office. All are denied entry, even to the front yard.

"They'll never change," McCain says of the communist military bureaucrats -- an angry-looking man and woman standing at the gate. He motions toward Tucker Carlson of the Weekly Standard. "Tell Tucker to give her his cigarettes and they'll let us in," he jokes.

He, Cindy and Jack walk down Pho Ly Nam De Street, and he tells them the story of Doug Egdall, an 18-year-old South Dakota sailor whom McCain knew at the Plantation. On his first night on his ship, Egdall went onto the deck to watch the ship's attack on the shore. But the munitions blast blew the ship back and Egdall fell overboard. "He never even spent a night on the ship," McCain says.

Plucked from the waters by North Vietnamese fishermen the next morning, Egdall was taken to the Plantation, where he was given "the run of the camp" compared with the other prisoners. "He was a tall, gangly guy, just 18," and the Vietnamese underestimated his intelligence. Egdall soon memorized everyone's names, all 200-odd prisoners, and when he was released he informed the military of exactly who was there. Plus, McCain says, "he was the first one to talk about the mistreatment at the camps."

Now he teaches an "Escape and Evasion" class in San Diego, McCain says with a smile.

The next and final stop of the day is the "Ranch," where the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting is headquartered. Since none of the information McCain is about to be briefed on is classified, he encourages the task force to let the six U.S. reporters on this trip accompany him on the briefing.

Lt. Col. Franklin Childress tells us about the six most recent missions to reclaim the remains of a total of 15 U.S. soldiers still missing in action. Each mission costs about $1 million, he says. The trips to the mountain sites, in particular, are often treacherous, with tough weather, live munitions, leeches and snakes like the bamboo viper -- nicknamed a "two-stepper," Childress says, "because if you're bitten you take two steps and then you die." Eighty to 85 percent of the cases are along terrain like this along or near the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Some missions, of course, are easier, like a trip last summer to reclaim a plane underwater near Da Nang. The two pilots were found still strapped in their seats in the cockpit.

Childress talks briefly about sightings of live soldiers and stories of soldiers still held in tiger cages in Laos. Twenty months ago, he reports, there was a sighting of a suspected former soldier. The task force takes all of these reports seriously, he says, though it's pretty clear he doesn't think any of the reports of American soldiers still being held captive are credible. In the recent case, the man was indeed tall, pale and skinny, with dark hair and a beard. But he also was not an American but an ethnic minority from China.

"There is usually a kernel of truth" to each of the reports, says Gary Flanagan, a casualty resolution specialist with the Pentagon, here since '91. A report about an African-American man being held in chains on the border under armed guard turned out to be a Senegalese-Vietnamese worker in a lumber camp who was dragging lumber with a chain, under the supervision of a guard protecting the valuable wood. After a vigorous mountain scouting trip in 1988, Flanagan heard reports of a white American being forced to carry materials over the mountain. "That was me," he says. "I look pretty ragged after a few days out there."

"The question then arises," McCain says at the end of the briefing, "when do we terminate this operation? And I think the answer lies with the families. When they feel satisfied." He recalls the reports about servicemen still held in tiger cages and a false photo of captive servicemen that Newsweek once featured on its cover. (At this, Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman shifts uncomfortably in his seat.)

The search for soldiers' remains -- and, however unlikely, survivors of the war -- continues, McCain says, with almost $800 million spent on the operation since 1992.

"When I think about the lengths we go to," he says later, in a brief drive back to Hotel Dae Woo (where we're all staying until we leave for Ho Chi Minh City Thursday evening), "I mean, we didn't do this for any other war. It's a commentary on the commitment we feel to our soldiers, and an obligation we feel, perhaps a touch of guilt."

Salter notes that "everybody looks for a psychological reason" for why McCain is so active on every legislative issue dealing with Vietnam -- POW/MIAs, the Vietnamese economy, diplomatic recognition. "I don't think there is one. He just feels a stewardship for the relationship, he and Kerry."

McCain seems to agree. He gave President Clinton bipartisan political cover on lifting the embargo against Vietnam and again on diplomatic recognition. But he says Kerry would have done the same for a Republican president were the situation reversed. "It wasn't so much giving Clinton cover as it was moving the process through," McCain says. "And doing the right thing."

And what if all his efforts on the trade agreement on this trip are for naught?

Well, at the very least the trip will have accomplished something for Jack. "It'll give him something to remember when the old geezer's down at the old soldiers' home," McCain says.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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John Mccain R-ariz.