tv Vietnam War - 50 Years Later with Sen. John Mc Cain CSPAN December 25, 2017 9:35pm-10:01pm EST
countries, to heal the wounds of war. >> watch american history tv this week in primetime on c span-3. >> navy ill flyer john mccain was shot down over north vietnam during his 23rd mission on october 26, 1967. he ejected from his sky hawk bomber into a lake, was captured, beats enand held in filthy conditions with poor medical care despite life-threatening injuries. two of the more than five years he was held as a p.o.w. were spent in solitary confinement. on this 50th anniversary, senator mccain talks with the american history tv about those events and he reflects on the war's legacy and impact on america. >> 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 we, before we get into a conflict, we better have a strategy and a capability to win. and this was one of these gradual drip, drip, drip involvements, started out with the thing called the gulf of tonkin resolution, still not clear today, confrontation between vietnamese ship or ships and american ships, which then led to a resolution rammed through by linden johnson, a complete lack of focus and strategy on how to bring it to a close. and i'm very sympathetic because the one thing that overrode most of linden johnson's thinking appropriately was china, that we certainly didn't want to have a confrontation and a
conflagration that would lead to a 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 strengthened 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 was 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 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, i believe a-4 -- >> yes. >> taking off from the carrier, how apprehensive were you when you were flying into a place like northern vietnam that you'd
get shot down? >> well, i was on board the uss forestall, i was hit by a missile -- my plane was, on the flight deck. and then i transferred over to the uss ariskany. >> what were you thinking? >> 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 oh, no, i don't want to have 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.
one thing about being a fighter pilot, you're sure 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 a bunch of them jumped in. there is a picture which i'm sure you'll show of them pulling me out of the lake. you can see my arm is broken and up high. and then, of course, once they pulled me out, they weren't very happy to see me. >> why not? >> because i just finished bombing the place. and so that we got pretty rough. broke my shoulder and hurt my knee again. but, look, i don't blame them. i don't blame them. we're in a war. 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. and so they pulled me out -- long story short, pulled me out of the lake, beat me up a little or a lot, and 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 decided to give me treatment and two wonderful americans, they moved me into finally, who thought that they moved me in to die, and they took care of me and nursed me back to health. and then 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 are 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 that i ever met in my life and i never want to see again. but there were several that, 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. it was 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. 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, remember that these marines and soldiers, they were draftes. they weren't there because they volunteered. 18, 19-year-old kids. i've seen those pictures. they're just beautiful. he would come back very happy and restored from that experience. and so it was very -- he was very cognizant of the fact that the north vietnamese were -- valued my presence. and as you know -- there are 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 -- but, 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 loudspeaker in it and they were playing christmas music. i still remember one of the songs was i'll be home for christmas sung by dine ashor--
shore. three men came into my camp. to make a long story short, he told me about an island that 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 the end of the evening, it was purely social. that's the only time it's ever done. and he was giving me cigarettes and he was telling me about it, ho chi minh's island and how his father had been part of the viet men. anyway, make a long story short, he said, there is 's an island ho chi minh used to relax and refresh and it's out in the tonkin gulf. he said my father had 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.
i said, okay. i said, i want to go to ho chi minh's island. he said, how do you know about ho chi minh's island? no one knows about ho chi minh's island. i said, i know about ho chi minh's island. six months later, mark salter and i and cindy go to hai fong and spent the night looking at the sunset from the balcony of ho chi minh's bedroom. amazing story. >> how big an island was it or is it? >> not real big, but not small. in other words, i'd say you could probably walk from end to end of it in a half hour. so, anyway, we spent the night there. and so he, as i say, he came to washington and he had since passed away. he was the interpreter for dong
chow ping -- excuse me -- >> minh dan dong? >> no -- >> in paris? >> paris peace talks. i have a -- on my wall in my office, there is a cable that was sent by avril harryman back to the state department, classified secret, and it says on it at the tea brake, lay duck toe, that's who it was, lay duck toe, the north negotiator, the vietnamese had intended to release admiral mccain's son but he had refused. and that's the -- that was part of the documents that we declassified because for a while
there, everybody was believing that 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 all these secret documents that are out there that will prove that we left americans behind. so, part of the -- our report is we said that everyone -- everything has to be declassified that has anything to do with p.o.w. m.i.a.s. well, one of the documents that came out was the one i mentioned to you, it was from avril harriman in paris back to the state department. and that was really remarkable, 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. >> no, that's fine. we're going through a period where we see a lot of hate speech. >> yeah. >> now, i want to ask you -- this may be sensitive, but i want to ask you, you came out of the vietnam war and you 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 that had, what, five deferments and all that. how do you process that? >> i think you just ignore it, i really do. i watch what the president does, not what he says. i think the important thing about that statement, though, was not about me. i went out, not that long ago after he said that, because occasionally people come to us -- their relative served in a war and didn't get the medals
that they earned. and we do the research. anyway, 92-year-old man from scottsdale, arizona, a prisoner weighed 110 pounds when he was finally when the germans finally were stopped fighting. and so we gave him his medals. it was wonderful. at a retirement home. all of them were there. it was very moving. i was talking to him before he said, senator mccain tell me 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. what he said like that 92 year-old man who came out of a weighing 110 pounds. that's what i take exception to.
>> how much of this hate speech in the society the drugs and you nengs this earlier came out of a period in our existence 50 years ago today when you were shot down where the government wasn't telling us the truth? >> the government wasn't telling us the truth that the whole mcna mar ra apparatus was, they had this idea about unquote graduated escalation. that if we stepped up the bombing a little more it would drive them to the negotiating table and we would come to a peaceful end. what's happening was it was pumping up the moral of the north veet na meez. because they thought they were beating us. we were able to fight back from the aggressor. the whole concept was fatally flawed. and to prove that point, was
when the talks in paris had broken down so finally richard nixon said go in and whipe them out. we went in with b 52s and aircraft kp took out the resistance. and they agreed to negotiate. 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're being beaten. and of course the offensive and so much we could talk about. but it was so much moral boost. and the chinese and russians were given them everything they wanted. still the most heavily defended place in the history of the world was han away. with the russian surface air missile. and most people won't believe
this, a russian ship would show up in high fong harbor. be off loaded the missiles on it a vehicle, taken up, put in place, and while we watched it. we watched it. and then those missiles were fired at american aircraft. that's just -- it's worse than ridiculous. the first target i had in combat had already been bombed 12 times. it was a pile of rubble. i bombed the rubble again. right not far away from it was a bridge that we didn't wasn't on the quote aremoved list. that's not the way to fight a war. >> i was watching a tape of the north vietnam prison who said you weren't tortured. >> no, i was treated like a king. the feather bed had some lumps in it. that i would like --
>> what's the difference you weren't tortured and we told people we have not tortured and i know you're gerns against the idea. why is it so hard for the government to tell the truth? >> it's a classic communist. what'd you think they would say yes we beat imup and broke him arm again. >> we don't either. we don't tell the truth. >> no, that's the problem i have had for a long time. is what our treatment of detain knees particularly in the use of water boarding. that makes us really -- one of the more embarrassing chapters in my view of american history. the way we treated -- there's a story that ksm colleagues was being water boarded and they sent a message to cia saying we can't get anything out of him. and the answer was water board him some more. it was deemed a war crime and
japanese officers were shot and executed because they water boarded people. it is clearly a war crime. and by the way the cia has gotten away with it. they destroyed the film they destroyed the information and it would be a black mark in the history of this country that we did that. and frankly i'll never forget the cia for what they did. >> back to -- comparison on something. we know a lot about your torture. 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 is you never know what's going to happen the next morning. whether they're going to come arpd and open your cell door and
say come on out. at least with this fight that i'm in i know the enemy and i know what we have to do. and know that we take the consequences. let me say, brian, that i have had -- we're talking about 50 years. i'm the most fortunate person of all thousands that 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 as 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 have dealt with this latest? >> yeah. it's been sympathic.
i'm sure some are glad i'm going. no. i have been greeted with -- people 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. there's been an incredible out pouring of friendship. unbelievable. moves me to tears. >> what is your treatment now? >> i receive radiation. and chemo. and i have had it done twice. and now i'm waiting for an mri. i want to tell you that nobody expected me to have the energy level and i don't have any problems sleeping i don't have any problem eating. i'm exercising all the time. i'm in fine shape. and so let's see what happens. i have fooled them before. >> one last question about the vietnam legacy.
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 antiwar, because of the inequity of the draft. we were in bad shape. fortunately if i maybe a bit provoke yal. reagan came along with a commitment to rebuild the military and we did. it's good now. there's a lot of problems but it's not the moral issue. we had marine company officers that were discharging half their
company because they weren't performing. they we gave them the authority just throw them out. if they're not any good. and there was a famous marine general who who said that a guy came up and said you have all these guys, you're throwing out all these guys what's going to be left? he said that's my driver. if he and i are the only two left in the marine core if that's what it takes i'll fix the marine core. it was a very big problem. our challenge to rebuild our military after what happened after the vietnam conflict. >> senator mccain, thank you for your time. >> interested in american history tv? visit our web site.
c-span.org/history. you can do our t schedule. preview programs. and watch. american history tv at c-span.org/history. c-span, where history unfolds daily. in 1979, c-span was created as a public service by americas cable television companies. and brought to you today by your cable or satellite provider. each week, american artifacts takes you to museums and historic places to learn at american history. next we tour the railroad exhibit at the henry ford museum in michigan. transportation cure ya tor talks about the progression of american rail. an 1831 steam loco motive. and a 125 foot engine. that weighs nearly 4