tv Vietnam War - 50 Years Later with Sen. John Mc Cain CSPAN December 29, 2017 5:20pm-5:49pm EST
conditions and poor medical care. two of the more than five years he was held as a p.o.w. were spent in solitary confinement. on the 50th anniversary of his capture, he talked with american history tv about those events and his thoughts on the war's legacy and impact on america. this is about 25 minutes. >> senator mccain, when you look back 50 years ago when your plane went down there in hanoi, and through the last 50 years, what today in your opinion are the legacies of vietnam, good and bad? >> the legacies of vietnam is that before we get into a conflict, we better have a strategy and a capability to win. and this is one of these gradual drip, drip, drip involvements, started out with a thing called the gulf of tonkin resolution where there was supposedly and
still not clear to this day confrontation between vietnamese ship and or ships and american ships, which then led to a resolution rammed through by lyndon johnson to a complete lack of focus at strategy on how to bring it to a close. and i'm very sympathetic because the one thing that overrode most of lyndon johnson's thinking, appropriately, was china. that we certainly didn't want to have a confrontation and a conflageration that would lead to a real conflict there. so it cautioned all of our actions so that it was a very gradual escalation, which then not only didn't harm the enemy, but it strengthens their resolve. and that led, of course, to all kinds of implications and repercussions. the new age, the use of drugs,
demonstrations, right out here on this mall. there were a million people or however many it was, it really split our society in a way that we sometimes forget. mass arrests, demonstrations. chicago. that all of us can look back and see on c-span. but it was a tumultuous time, and most of it was bred by the conflict. and one aspect of the conflict, by the way, that i will never, ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of america and the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. that is wrong. that is wrong. if we're going to ask every american to serve, every
american should serve. and later in the war, we went to the lottery system, which was -- but for years and years, it was the lowest income americans, which means a lot of minorities, that were forced to go and fight. and that's -- that, to me, that's a black mark on the history of this country. asking those with the lowest income level to do the fighting for us while the wealthiest stayed home. >> when you were in your, believe, a-4, taking off from the carrier, how apprehensive were you when you were flying into a place like northern vietnam that you would get shot down? >> i was onboard the uss forest where we had a horrific fire and i was hit by a missile and all that. my plane was. and on the flight deck. then i transferred over to another. i was flying off that when i was
shot down. what was i thinking? i was a young fighter pilot. >> how old were you? >> 28, something like that. listen, that's what i wanted to do with my life. i wanted to go to combat. i wanted to go against the enemy. and it wasn't so much that they were the enemy as, you know, that's what i was trained to do all those years. and i wanted to do it. it wasn't as if i was on -- i don't want to fly this combat mission. it was that i'm ready to go. and my contemporaries and my squadron mates were the same way. we took a lot of losses. but one of the great things about being a fighter pilot is you're sure that everybody else is going to get shot down but not you. >> and when that happened, how many vietnamese were around you
in the water in that lake? >> well, when i first went in, it's a long story, but i was barely able to get back to the surface. but then a bunch of them jumped in and there's a picture which i'm sure you'll show of them pulling me out of the lake. you can see my arm is broken up high, and then of course, once they pulled me out, they weren't very happy to see me. >> why not? >> because i had just finished bombing the place. and so it got pretty rough. broke my shoulder. hurt my knee again. but look, i don't blame them. i don't blame them. we're in a war. i don't -- i didn't like it. but at the same time, when you're in a war and you're captured by the enemy, you can't expect, you know, to have tea.
so they pulled me out. long story short, pulled me out of the lake, put me in a truck -- beat me up a little or a lot, then went to the now famous hanoi hilton prison, which was just a short drive away. five-minute drive away. and then it's a very long story about how they found out who my father was, and they decided to give me treatment, and two wonderful americans, they moved me into finally, who thought they moved me in to die, and they took care of me, nursed me back to health, and after they saw me in better health, they put me into solitary confinement. and look. i don't hold a grudge against the north vietnamese. i don't like them. there's some that i would never want to see again. but at the same time, i was part of a conflict. okay.
and i thought they were some of the meanest people i have ever met in my life. and i never want to see again. but there were several that were good people and that were kind to me. so that's why it was much easier for me to support along with president clinton and others the normalization of relations with our two countries, to heal the wounds of war. >> when you got back from over there, how much did you and your dad talk about it? >> a lot. a lot. very hard on my dad, particularly since i knew what was happening to me, and he didn't. and so everybody that would come through hawaii in his command would want to talk about me. and they did the right thing. they said, please just don't talk about admiral mccain's son because then that takes up the whole conversation. but every christmas, for four years, he would fly all the way up to the dmz, the dividing line between north and south vietnam. and have christmas dinner with the marines, and then, of course, and remember, these marines and soldiers, they were draftees.
they weren't there because they volunteered. and they're mainly 18, 19-year-old kids. just i have seen the pictures. they're just beautiful. and he would come back very happy and restored from that experience. and so it was very -- he was very cognizant of the fact that north vietnamese were -- valued my presence. and as you know, there's so many stories we could tell, but they offered me a chance to be released. but our code of conduct says sick and injured and by order of capture. and i knew why they were
offering me release. if my name had been smith, it wouldn't have been. so saying no wasn't the easiest thing to say. and i don't mean to bounce around, but three years afterwards, after i had refused, on christmas eve, cold christmas eve in hanoi, i was in solitary confinement. every cell had a loud speaker in it, and they were playing christmas music. i still remember one of the songs was "i'll be home for christmas" sung by dina shore. that was a bit nostalgic, but anyway, the same guy who was the leader of all the camps came into my cell. and to make a very long story short, he told me about an island in ho chi minh used to love to go to, which many years
later i demanded a visit to and went to. but most importantly, at end of the evening, it was purely social. the only time it was ever done, and he was giving me cigarettes and telling me about ho chi minh's island and how his father had been part of that. anyway, to make a long story short. he said, you know, there's an island that ho chi minh uses to rest, relax, refresh, and it's out in the tonkin gulf. and he said my father has gone out there with ho chi minh, but nobody knows about it. i said really? years later, normalization of relations, the foreign minister of vietnam comes to washington. i have him to lunch in the senate dining room. and he says, whatever you want, whatever you want, we will do. because you're our friend. and i said okay. i want to go to ho chi minh's island. he said, ho chi minh's island. no one knows about ho chi minh's island. i said i know. about six months later, mark salter and i and cindy go and get on a boat and go out and spent a night looking at the sunset from the balcony of ho chi minh's bedroom. amazing story. >> how big an island was it?
>> not real big, but not small. in other words, i would say you could probably walk from end to end of it in half hour. you know, so anyway, we spent the night there. and so as i say, he came to washington, and he has since passed away. he was the interpreter for -- excuse me. >> van dong? >> yeah, no, no. for -- >> in paris or? >> paris peace talks. i have a -- on my wall in my office, there is a cable that
was sent by avril harriman back to the state department, top secret, and it says at the tea break, le duc to, he said the vietnamese had intended to release admiral mccain's son, but he had refused. and that was part of the documents that we declassified because for a while there, everybody was believing we had left americans behind. so one of the -- such long stories, but senator mitchell and senator dole set up this select committee headed by me and john kerry. and part of the deal was that the conspiracy theory people said there's always secret documents that are out there that will prove that we left americans behind. so part of our report is we said everything has to be declassified that has anything
to do with p.o.w./mias. one of the documents that came out was the one i mentioned to you, from avril in paris back to the state department. and that was really remarkable when it came to thousands of documents came out. and that one was more than interesting. >> let me ask you about -- we're going through a period -- >> sorry for the long answers. >> it's fine. we're going through a period where we see a lot of hate speech. >> yeah. >> i want to ask you, this may be sensitive, but i want to ask
you, you came out of the vietnam war and say i'm not bitter. i didn't have nightmares. i got over it. relate that to what our president said about you. >> well -- >> when he said you're no war hero, what did that feel like? and here's a guy who had, what, five deferments and all that. how do you process that? >> i think you just ignore it. i really do. but what he said, like that 92-year-old man who came out of there weighing 110 pounds.
we gave him his medals. it was wonderful. at a retirement home. it was very moving. he said senator mccain, why is it that donald trump doesn't like me? and i said, sir, he does. and so do all americans. so it wasn't what he said about me because i'm in the arena. but what he said like that 92-year-old man who came out of stalag. >> how much came out of a period of our existence, 50 years ago today, you were shot down, where the government wasn't telling us the truth. >> the government wasn't telling
us the truth. the whole mcnamara apparatus. they had this idea about, quote, unquote, graduated escalation. if we just stepped up the bombing a little more, it would drive them to the negotiating table and we would come to a peaceful end. what actually was happening was that it was pumping up the moral of the north vietnamese because they thought they were beating us. look, we were able to fight back from the aggressors. so the whole concept was fatally flawed. and to prove that point was when the talks in paris had prone
down. so finally richard nixon said, okay, do in and wipe them out. we went in with b-52s and other aircraft and just took out all existence. guess what, they agreed to negotiate. so, the problem i think had a lot to do with a belief that somehow you can convince the enemy to compromise when the enemy does not think they are being beaten. and of course the tett offensive, and there's so much we could talk about, but so much moral boost. the chinese and russians were giving them everything they wanted. still the most heavily defended place in the history of the world was hanoi with the russian surface-to-air missiles. most people aren't going to believe this, but a russian ship would show up in haiphong harbor, missiles loaded into a vehicle, taken up and put in place while we watched it. we watched it. then those missiles were fired at american aircraft.
it's ridiculous. the first i had in combat had been bombed 25 times. it was rubble. so i went in and bombed rubble again. not far away from it was a bridge not on the approved list. that's not the way to fight a war. >> i was watching tape of north vietnamese former head of the prison who said you aren't tortured. >> no. i was treated like a king. the feather bed had some lumps in it. >> what about the difference between you weren't tortured and we have said we don't tortured. why is it so hard for governments to not tell the truth. >> a classic communist -- what do you think they would say, yes, we beat him up. we broke him up either. >> we don't do it either. we don't tell the truth.
>> no, that's one of the problems i've had with our detainees, particularly in the use of waterboarding. that makes us really -- that's one of the most embarrassing chapters in my view of american history is the way we treat it. there is a story that ksm, khalid shaikh mohammed was being waterboarded and they sent a message back to cia saying we can't get anything out of them. the answer was, waterboard him some more. waterboarding was deemed a war crime. japanese officers were shot and executed because they waterboarded people. it was clearly a war crime. by the way, the cia has gotten away with it. they have destroyed the film. they have destroyed a lot of information. it will be a black mark on the history of this country that we
did that. frankly i'll never forgive the cia for what they did. >> back to -- comparison on something. we know a lot about your torture. >> yeah. >> what has been harder for you, living through the torture or living through the cancer? >> well, i think, you know, living through cancer is a challenge that i have. living through torture, you never know what's going to happen the next morning. whether they are going to come around and open your cell door and say, come on out. so at least with this fight that i'm in, i know the enemy and i know what we have to do and we take the consequences. let me also say, brian, i have had -- we're talking about 50 years. i am the most fortunate person
of all the thousands you have interviewed that you will ever know. i have had the best and full life that anybody could possibly have. so i look at this challenge with joy, with happiness, and with gratitude, gratitude that i have had the opportunity to serve this country a little bit. >> have you noticed any change in the way people are approaching you since you've dealt with this latest -- >> yeah, it's been more sympathetic. i'm sure some of them are glad i'm going. no, i've been greeted with -- look, people have told me when i gave the speech the other night and 100 senators were in their seats, that's the first time that's ever happened. so there has been an incredible outpouring of friendship. unbelievable. moves me to tears. >> what is your treatment now?
>> i receive radiation and chemo. i've had it done twice. and now i'm waiting for an mri. i want to tell you nobody expected me to have the energy level. i don't have any problem sleeping. i don't have any problem eating. i am exercising all the time. i'm in fine shape. so let's see what happens. i've fooled them before. >> one last question about the vietnam legacy thing. >> yeah. >> what was the impact on the vietnam war on our military up to this time? >> the impact on our military of the vietnam war was a devastating blow. not a fatal blow but devastating blow. after the war was over, the chief of staff of the united
states army came to the armed services committee and said, senators, you have a hollow army, because the military was eroded because of drugs, because of anti-war, because of the inequities of the draft. we were in bad shape. fortunately, then, if i may be a bit parochial, ronald reagan came along with a recommitment to build our military and we did. it's good now. we're in a lot of problems right now. but the fact is it's not the moral issue. listen, we had marine company officers that were discharging half their company because they weren't performing. we gave them the authority, just throw them out if they are not any good. there was a famous marine general who said -- the media
guy came up to them and said you have all these guys -- you're throwing all these guys out of the marine corps, who is going to be left. see that guy over there. he's my driver. if he and i are the only two left in the marine corps, if that's what it takes, i'm going to fix the marine corps. so it was a very big problem, challenge, to rebuild our military after what happened after the vietnam conflict. >> senator mccain, thank you for your time. tomorrow night on cspan, commander general john heighten, het e wilson and others on the military's role in space. they talk about threats from u.s. adversaries including china and russia. here's a preview. >> the office prepared to fight, but it's not prepared to fight in the future. so the strength that we have today is based on the mass and sheer numbers of capabilities
that we put up oaf tver years. it dwarfs any adversary we face and because of that, it maybes it dflt to deny the capabilities of the united states, but we don't have more fighting capabilities built on to those systems and our adversaries have been watching us ever since the first gulf war. they watched the enormous conventional power we created that was enabled by space and when you see that, you have to decide am i going to just ignore that huge advantage or try to do something about it. so the chinese and russians in particular have been watching what we've been doing and they've been building weapons, teing with weapons, building weapons to operate from the earth in space. laser weapons and they have not kept it secret. they're building those capabilities to challenge the united states of america, to challenge our allies and to change the balance of power in
the world. we cannot allow that to happen. >> so we are, we would win today, but not necessarily in the future. >> i'm worried about the future because i don't know how it happened, but somehow, this country just lost the ability to go fast. and we have adversaries that are going fast. we don't go fast anymore. we take four years to study a problem before we do everything. we do four year of risk reduction for technologies that we built 50 e years ago. why do we take that much time? we've been able to because of the advantage we've had over adversaries. when you look at the threat and deal with the threat, we don't have ha much time anymore. we have to move right now and we have to move fast and we have to change the way weather we do business. so we are a significant advantage today, but five years from now, that vantage will f we don't do something different will be gone and ten years from now, we could be behind. >> you can catch the rest of this discussion saturday night at 10:30 p.m. eastern on cspan.
this week, "washington journal" features authors of key books published this past year. join us for our live conversation with authors about their popular books. coming up on saturday, jessica bruter with her book, no mad land. surviving america in the 21st century and on sunday, chris whipple with the gate keepers. how the white house chiefs of staff define every presidency. "washington journal's" authors series all this week at 8:00 a.m. eastern on cspan. cspan.org and cspan radio. >> cspan, where history unfolds daily. in 1979, cspan was created as a public service by america's cable television companies. and is brought to you today by your cable or satellite provider.