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

"After that, I didn't have too much to do with John McCain."

But that was far from the end of John McCain's dealings with POW/MIA activists. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1986, and in 1991 Congress held hearings into the POW/MIA issue, examining World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Although the Vietnam POW/MIA activism is by far the most vibrant, there are still questions about the fate of prisoners and MIAs who fought in the other wars.

Many POW/MIA activists did not welcome the hearings. Ann Mills Griffiths, director of the National League of Families, believes the hearings were designed to bury the issue once and for all.

"What it did was tie up assets and resources for a very long time, cause great divisiveness, give a forum to irresponsibility as well as responsibility, and every time that happens the issue loses," she says. "It was a very well-orchestrated, concerted effort to pave the way for all of the steps that the Clinton administration would take. It was very well-done."

Senator John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, was chosen to chair the committee; Senator Bob Smith, a New Hampshire Republican, was vice chair. Kerry and Smith, both Vietnam veterans, had differing opinions on the issue. Kerry made his skepticism clear early in the hearings, which went on for a year. Smith was more willing to believe that live POWs might remain abroad, particularly in Southeast Asia.

But it was Senator John McCain, the sole former POW on the committee, who attracted the spotlight during the hearings of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. McCain forged a relationship with Kerry, with whom he'd never been close (Kerry had become a war protester after returning from Vietnam) and made his skepticism about the live prisoner issue known during his questioning of witnesses.

During one memorable exchange, McCain reduced Dolores Alfond, the sister of a Vietnam POW/MIA, to tears with his harsh comments.

Carol Hrdlicka, who has obtained government documents indicating that her husband, David Hrdlicka, a Vietnam POW/MIA, was alive past 1973, flew to Washington, D.C., from Kansas for many of the hearing sessions.

Hrdlicka wears a laminated photo of her husband around her neck. Her concerns are typical.

"There's been no evidence to date that he ever died," Hrdlicka says of her husband. "If he's dead, where's his body, or where's the evidence? And there's no one from a government agency anyplace that has ever been able to answer that question."

She didn't get any answers from the Senate committee, either. After she saw Alfond weep, Hrdlicka was reluctant to testify. She did anyway, and it went fairly smoothly, she recalls, but she was still furious with McCain. She glared at him through the rest of the hearings.

"I figured that anybody who was a former POW should have some compassion for the guys who were left behind," Hrdlicka says, adding, "McCain fascinated me, because he couldn't look me in the eye. And anybody that can't look you in the eye, I feel, is guilty."

McCain raised eyebrows when he embraced Colonel Bui Tin, a former North Vietnamese political emissary who defected to the U.S. Tin claims he interrogated McCain in the Hanoi prison camps. A photo of their embrace was widely published.

Mark Salter, now McCain's chief of staff, was a legislative assistant at the time. He had no experience with the POW/MIA issue--but learned quickly after McCain assigned him to staff the committee. Salter is quick to observe that Tin made the first move.

"All the members went down to shake his hand, as they do with every witness that testified," Salter recalls. "And he reached up and embraced McCain, and that suddenly was splashed everywhere. Everywhere. It wasn't McCain embracing him, he was being embraced and graciously accepted."

In fact, a videotape from the hearing confirms that McCain was responding to the colonel's gesture.

That doesn't matter to Carol Hrdlicka. "Here's a Vietnamese Communist, and he's hugging him," she says. ". . . I can see being civil, but I can't see hugging the former enemy."

As expected, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs concluded that there was no compelling evidence that live prisoners remained in Southeast Asia.

McCain paid--just a little--for his unwavering position. Evan Mecham, impeached as governor of Arizona in 1988, returned to politics to challenge McCain in 1992, primarily because of McCain's position on POW/MIAs. Mecham failed, obviously.

(sung to the tune of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home")

When Johnny goes flying to Hanoi,
He's got some gall!
We know it's just a political ploy.
That's all! That's all!
For he will spend his nights and days
selling out our MIAs.
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!

When Johnny goes sailing 'cross the sea,
He's got some guts.
To suck up to the enemy,
and kiss their butts,
He'll have a ball in old Hanoi
sneaking round with his joy-boy.
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!
When Johnny hits ground in Vietnam,
Poohbah! Poohbah!
We hope he forgets his way back home.
We'll shout "HURRAH"!
Oh, Hanoi, grant our fondest wish,
and keep that low-life son-of-a-*****!
And we'd sure be glad if he never came home again!
--song by Arizona POW/MIA activists, 1993

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