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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All of us who had knowledge of their behavior were given a hearing. Although I was in favor of their going to trial, I certainly understand and support the official decision.

But I do think that it is very important for us to consider that we have a code of conduct for American prisoners of war that must be upheld for others to follow in future wars. We were not interested in trying to get two individual officers but to have a trial that would either clear them or convict them. There has been some misconception as to why these men were charged by our senior officers. It was not because they were against the war in Vietnam.

The charges, specifically, were that they had caused great difficulty, and sometimes injury, to individual POWs and to our military organization in the camp.

When you left to fight in Vietnam in early 1967, did you have the feeling most Americans supported the war?

Yes, I did. Were you shocked when you returned and found out that the war had become so divisive?

I was surprised at the degree of the divisiveness. Of course, the North Vietnamese told us every antiwar statement that was made by any well-known American. But we had a great tendency to disbelieve anything that the North Vietnamese had to say. And so I would say I was surprised to find out how the attitude of so many Americans had changed drastically. I don't think that the goals which we had when we entered that war changed. It was the long duration and the methods by which the war was prosecuted that changed people's minds. Since you've been back, has this Watergate business changed your opinion of the President?

No, it hasn't changed my opinion. It has certainly made me sad that this situation should have arisen. However, I feel that in the context of history that Watergate will be a very minor item as compared with the other achievements of this Administration, particularly in the area of foreign affairs. I do hope that this country will get over Watergate and get going again on the very serious problems that we're facing today. To return to the personal problems of readjustment, do you have an explanation for why so many POWs have separated from their wives?

I think you start with the fact that the overall divorce rate in this country is high. Divorce is no longer considered so unusual when a marriage is under strain. Next, you should realize that many of these men had been married only a short time before they left for Vietnam. But the most basic factor in the rather large number of separations and divorces among the POW families was the long separation and the difficulty of communication between husband and wife.

Many of the wives did not know how our views about the Vietnam war and our hatred of Communism had crystallized in prison camp. And back home great forces were being brought to bear on these women by the antiwar groups that promised to get letters and packages through to their husbands—to bring them home—if only the wives would endorse the antiwar propaganda.

So, in cases that I know of personally, while a man was being tortured for refusing to make a propaganda statement, his wife had gone along with the antiwar movement back home, because she thought it was in her husband's best interests. But this created a wound that in many cases could not be healed.

Let me emphasize that there were many, many fine women who supported what they knew their husbands believed in. My wife, Carol, was one of those, and I'm very proud of her.

Commander, you mentioned the warm reception you got on your return. Are letters still coming to you?

All told, I have received more than 4,000 letters, many from those who wore my POW bracelet. About 800 came from people who read my story in your magazine [issue of May 14, 1973] and out of those only two were critical—the writers called me a fascist. I'm still getting letters at the rate of half a dozen a day. It is simply overwhelming.