John McCain: One Prisoner of War's Fresh Appraisal of U.S. in 1973

Interview with Cdr. John S. McCain III.

John McCain pictured during an interview with U.S.News & World Report in 1973 after his release from captivity in Vietnam.

John McCain during an 1973 interview with U.S. News after his release from captivity in Vietnam.

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This story originally appeared in the Dec. 31, 1973, issue of U.S.News & World Report.

Commander McCain spent 5½ years as a war prisoner. Because he was the son of a top U. S. admiral, his captors made every effort to wring propaganda from him. His first-person story appeared in this magazine's May 14, 1973, issue. Now, nine months after his return, he reports on what being home has been like.

Commander McCain, what has life been like for you in the nine months since your release from prison camp in Hanoi? Was there, for example, a big letdown after the initial joy of being free?

There certainly has been no letdown. The reception that we, as prisoners of war, received was overwhelming and somewhat embarrassing, because we felt that we were just average American pilots who had been shot down. We never anticipated such a feeling of warmth. It still shows no signs of letting up. The only thing that has been somewhat of an adjustment is the difference in the pace of living now, as compared to in prison.

There, the big event of the day usually was when it came your turn to go out of your cell to bathe. I still seem not to have enough time to do all the things that I want to do—or have to do.

Readjustment has its amusing aspects, too. The other day I was talking with some friends about a movie star I remembered and somebody said, "Why, she's dead now."

I said, "What? She can't be!" And my wife, Carol, said: "You have to excuse John. He's only caught up to 1969 so far." It's become a big family joke.

Do the memories of those long years haunt you in any way? Do you, for example, have nightmares?

No, I sleep very well. But sometimes, a little thing can bring back those days in a flash. For instance, one of the most unpleasant aspects of living in a cell is to hear the keys rattle in the door at an unusual time of day—or night—when you know it isn't routine. That usually meant you were going for interrogation, and that could often turn into a long period of no sleep, no food, or severe torture. A couple of times recently, I've heard keys rattle at a door, and for a very brief instant I've tensed up just as I did over there. But that's very rare.

Have there been surprises—things you didn't expect or anticipate—since you have returned and picked up a normal life here in America?

In prison, I think, you become very idealistic. You get a feeling that in your country everything is perfection. Now that I'm back it disturbs me to find people so critical of our country and our way of life and our Government. I think that many Americans have a tendency to neglect the really fine things and the benefits that we have here and concentrate on the faults. What are some of these benefits, as you see them?

One, of course, is the basic standard of living. Another is our freedom to speak out, to move around at will. I don't think in any other country, except perhaps in England, do they approach the basic freedoms that the individual has in this country. Another surprise is the emphasis that is being made on ecology—and it's fine.

The greatest change, and, to me, the most heart-warming improvement has been in the area of equal opportunity. When I left the U.S. seven years ago, we were having riots and demonstrations in the streets. Cities were being destroyed. Now I find none of that, and I have not seen any really overt racial discrimination.

How do you account for the fact that most of the POWs have made such a good readjustment?

I think there are a number of reasons for this. The major one is that the last two years that we were there the treatment was relatively mild. If we had come out, say, in late 1969, the problems of readjustment would have been far more severe. Starting in 1971, the food improved considerably. We were allowed to be together more and set up educational programs, and work out some simple entertainment and do a lot of things for each other, to keep our minds active. Would you have liked to see the POWs charged with collaborating brought to trial?

The decision was made by the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of the Army not to bring these men to trial who were charged by the senior officers among the POWs.