Is John McCain a War Hero?

The senator's five years as a prisoner of war have been widely viewed as heroic. But as he prepares a White House bid, a small group of detractors is determined to expose him as a wartime traitor

Rowan: If they had made an all-out effort, could they have forced him to go home?

Craner: There's little doubt in my mind that they could have tortured him right out of the country, but I'm sure that's not what they had in mind.

McCain's punishment sessions continued, according to his U.S. News piece. In October 1968, he "met" another prisoner, Ernest Brace, a civilian, through the wall of his cell. In his 1988 memoir of the war, A Code to Keep, Brace recalls of McCain:

He continued to get pressure to produce propaganda tapes or make appearances to peace delegations. Some days he would tell me, through the wall, not to worry if he wasn't in his room for a while. He was refusing, he said, to appear before another peace delegation, and he would probably be spending some time in the punishment room on the other side of the courtyard.

In May 1969, U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird admonished the North Vietnamese to treat American prisoners humanely, and allow inspections of the camps by impartial observers. The next month, the Vietnamese released a broadcast quoting McCain saying he had received "very good medical treatment." Laird denounced the recording as "contrived."

In October 1969, the torture sessions ended abruptly, McCain wrote. McCain and the others would later learn this was because word of his harsh treatment had gotten back to the U.S. via prisoners who had taken early release.

Three months later, McCain and his neighbor, Ernest Brace, were among a group of POWs moved to the Hanoi Hilton, as punishment for communicating with fellow prisoners. Brace wrote: On the night of December 9 [1969] my door was jerked open, and the guard told me to get ready to move. . . .

"You are in bad trouble for communicating," he told me. "You are being taken to a harsher place."

Blindfolded, I was placed in the back of a truck with some soldiers and other prisoners. The vehicle had rolled out of the prison grounds and was heading through the Hanoi streets when I felt someone tapping a message on my thigh.

"Hi," said the message. "I John McCain. Who U?"
With tears forming in my eyes behind the blindfold, I worked my hand around to grasp my neighbor's hand, and squeezed out an answer. "EB here."

John McCain and Ernie Brace landed in cells in "Golden Nugget," a section of "Little Vegas," as the prisoners called that area of the Hanoi Hilton.

McCain was asked to meet with a "visitor" who turned out to be Dr. Fernando Barral, a Spanish psychiatrist living in Cuba. The interview took place at the Committee for Foreign Cultural Relations in Hanoi. Barral describes the setting, which included a spread of oranges, cakes, coffee and cigarettes. An account of Barral's interview with McCain was published in the Cuban periodical Granma on January 24, 1970.

Barral and McCain talked about a variety of subjects, according to Granma. McCain praised his treatment by the North Vietnamese, spoke of his wife and of his family: "One of my forebears was a colonel in Washington's independent forces. Another was a general in the war of secession. Thus it was natural for me to follow a military career. Of course my father was not always an admiral; during World War II he was commander of a submarine. He has been in the navy since 1927 and has been an admiral since 1965. He holds the highest rank in the navy. If I had not been downed, I would have become an admiral at an earlier age than my father."

Barral also reported that McCain talked of his education and military training, and that he had once dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

Barral's psychiatric analysis of "the personality of the prisoner who is responsible for many criminal bombings of the people":

He showed himself to be intellectually alert during the interview. From a morale point of view he is not in traumatic shock. He is neither dejected nor depressed. He was able to be sarcastic, and even humorous, indicative of psychic equilibrium. From the moral and ideological point of view he showed us he is an insensitive individual without human depth, who does not show the slightest concern, who does not appear to have thought about the criminal acts he committed against a population from the absolute impunity of his airplane, and that nevertheless those people saved his life, fed him, and looked after his health, and he is now healthy and strong. I believe that he has bombed densely populated places for sport. I noted that he was hardened, that he spoke of banal things as if he were at a cocktail party.

McCain became angry when a photographer showed up to snap some pictures of the meeting, and to the chagrin of his captors, said he would never meet with "visitors" again.

In the U.S. News piece, McCain wrote that because of his repeated refusals, he was forced to sit on a stool for three days and three nights. Although he got a cellmate in March 1970, by early June he was yanked away from other Americans entirely and relocated to a remote room dubbed "Calcutta."

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