In late February 1991, on a Boeing 757 headed for Kuwait, a conversation took place that would spur the advancement of a reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam. The flight was the first leg of a Congressional delegation’s journey to the region to survey the results of Operation Desert Storm, which had begun in January and had just ended.
Seated opposite one another on this overnight flight were U.S. Senators John Kerry and John McCain. The two men had served together in the Senate for four years, Kerry as a Democrat and McCain as a Republican, and they regularly found themselves on opposite sides of important issues. In part, that may have been an extension of their different experiences as soldiers during the Vietnam War and in particular their reactions to the war when they returned.
Lieutenant Commander John McCain was the son and grandson of admirals. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, trained as a fighter pilot and flew a Naval A-4 aircraft that dropped bombs on targets in the North. On October 26, 1967, the 31-year-old McCain was shot down over Hanoi’s Trúc Bạch lake, after he had tried to destroy a power plant.
Ejected from the plane as it spiraled downward, he had two broken arms and a broken leg even before he hit the water, hard. Men swam out to him, but saving his life was not foremost in their thoughts. McCain and his fellow pilots had destroyed their city’s infrastructure and killed many of its citizens. These Vietnamese soldiers swimming to him wanted him dead.
The men who pulled McCain from the water held him responsible for the deaths of their loved ones, and they stuck a bayonet in his groin. He was dragged to shore with one leg bent at a 90-degree angle and the bone protruding from the skin. McCain’s captors threw him into a cell in Hỏa Lò prison; its name translates as “fiery furnace.” Built by the French at the end of the nineteenth century, the prison housed generations of Vietnamese nationalists long before any American POWs were held there. Weeks passed before McCain received any medical attention. Two of his broken limbs were set without anesthetic. The third, and the wound in his groin, were left to heal, or not, on their own. Fellow prisoners, who had also endured torture at the hands of the Vietnamese, kept McCain alive.
Over the coming months, McCain shrunk down to a hundred pounds and when he was brought before the warden in June 1968, he was barely able to stand. The Vietnamese had by then learned that the young lieutenant’s father was the commander of America’s entire Pacific Fleet.
“You may go free,” the warden said.
McCain sought the advice of his friend and fellow prisoner Bob Craner, who argued that seriously injured prisoners could be excused from the U.S. military’s Code of Conduct restrictions that said prisoners of war should go home in the order of their capture. But McCain chose to adhere to the code and refused to accept the offer. He would not go home out of turn.
The warden told him, “Now, McCain, it will be very bad for you,” and ordered guards to beat him. They broke his ribs, rebroke his arm, knocked out his teeth, and threw him into solitary confinement, where he stayed for two of the next four years.
The decision to remain in prison, in solidarity with other POWs, defined McCain. Previously a playboy and a rebel, McCain experienced prison as a kind of enlightenment. He had inherited a legacy from his father and grandfather, who had passed on to him a deep loyalty to the United States and especially to the U.S. Navy. Service, sacrifice, and honor became the foundations of his character. Many years later, in his memoir Faith of My Fathers, McCain reflected on “the honor we earn and the love we give if at a moment in our youth we sacrifice with others for something greater than our self-interest.”
In December 1972, President Richard Nixon ordered B-52 attacks on Hanoi, which became known as the “Christmas bombings.” McCain and the other American prisoners cheered. A month later, the Paris peace talks ended with an agreement that included the release of prisoners of war. They were released in order of their shoot-down date, and McCain was among those who departed from Vietnam on March 15. President Nixon was a hero to McCain, and they first met when the President welcomed McCain and other POWs to the White House in May 1973.
As a former prisoner of war, McCain could choose his assignment. He became commanding officer in Cecil Field, in Jacksonville, Florida.
Like McCain, John Kerry was also a member of a military family, his father having served as a pilot during World War II. He graduated from Yale University in 1966 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He arrived in Vietnam in November 1968 as a Lieutenant and was soon captaining swift boats on the intricate web of rivers that make up the Mekong Delta.
On the night of February 28, 1969, Kerry and his crew were patrolling the Bảy Háp River on a mission to destroy enemy boats, structures, and bunkers when they ran into an ambush. Kerry directed the boats he commanded “to turn to the beach and charge the Viet Cong positions,” then “expertly directed” his boat’s fire and coordinated the deployment of the South Vietnamese troops, according to the Commander of Naval Forces Vietnam, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who later awarded him the Silver Star.
Kerry pursued those who staged the ambush, leaping ashore to pursue, and ultimately kill, a fleeing Việt Cộng carrying a B-40 grenade launcher. The mission was judged successful for having destroyed numerous targets and confiscated substantial combat supplies while sustaining no American casualties.
Less than a month later, Kerry earned a Bronze Star by rescuing Green Beret Jim Rassmann from a different tributary of the Bảy Háp River. He crawled out onto the deck of his damaged swift boat and, though injured and under fire, pulled Rassmann out of the water. Kerry also earned three Purple Hearts. Kerry was sent home on March 26, 1969, as a decorated war hero who had been wounded three times.
Returning full of questions, Kerry wondered what the United States was actually accomplishing in Vietnam. He had discovered that most Vietnamese he saw along the rivers were apolitical. They didn’t support the Việt Cộng or the Saigon government. They just wanted to be left alone to go about their lives. He questioned whether the domino theory of countries falling to communism one after another made sense. In his 2018 autobiography, he wrote that, “The blind repetition of missions…was symbolic of our whole failing commitment to a war that I was now convinced was wrong.”
While Kerry admired the bravery and sacrifice of the men with whom he served, he could not justify their deaths – nor did he believe the government could. Kerry connected with the anti-war movement and gradually began to speak in favor of an accelerated end to the war. In 1970, he received an honorable discharge from the Navy and began working with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), a national veterans’ organization that by then was active throughout the United States. Kerry argued that VVAW should take its arguments to Washington, DC, where in April 1971 he participated in a five-day antiwar protest.
During the protest, someone from Senator William Fulbright’s staff heard Kerry speak and hustled him into a Senate hearing room. The young veteran said, “Each day, to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam, someone has to give up his life so the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, ‘the first President to lose a war.’ We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”
Kerry’s testimony drew so much attention that he was asked to give speeches around the country for VVAW. In 1972, he ran for Congress, but in the same election that President Richard Nixon defeated Senator George McGovern, he lost. After the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January 1973, Kerry attended law school.