POW/MIAs & John McCain

POW/MIAs & John McCain

POW/MIAs & John McCain

Montclair, N.J.


POW/MIAs & John McCain

Montclair, N.J.

Like other progressive historians, veterans and antiwar activists, I was profoundly shocked by The Nation‘s publication of Sydney Schanberg’s recycled and thoroughly discredited right-wing fantasy about Vietnam holding US POWs after the war [“McCain and the POW Cover-up,” Oct. 6]. Although many urged me to respond, I have been reluctant to do so.

First, I hesitated to compound the damage The Nation has done to itself and its credibility. Where were your fact checkers? Where were your responsible consultants who knew the history of this mythology and Schanberg’s disgraceful role in promulgating it for decades?

Second, I did not see how to avoid the appearance of self-promotion. M.I.A., Or, Mythmaking in America (my book, first published in 1991) exposed the true history of this fraudulent issue and systematically disproved every one of Schanberg’s “facts” and arguments about POWs allegedly held by Vietnam after the war. It is not up to me to respond to Schanberg; it is up to him to respond to the meticulously documented facts and analysis in the book and in articles I published in The Nation, The Atlantic, The Progressive and elsewhere.

Some may recall that Schanberg and I were scheduled to debate at NYU on October 20, 1992, when the issue was flaming because the POW/MIA myth was being used as the main weapon to prevent normalization of relations with Vietnam. Hundreds waited expectantly in the auditorium. Schanberg chose not to appear.

What forced me to write is one transcendent fact: the POW/MIA myth is still an essential component of the culture that supports our current, and likely future, wars. If we resurrect the true history of our genocidal war against Vietnam, we would no longer see America as the victim of Vietnam and all the countries we have bombed and invaded since. And the Vietnam POW, personified in John McCain, might then be seen not as the main victim of that war and hence America’s iconic war hero.


Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

It was extremely disturbing to see The Nation provide space to Sydney Schanberg alleging that John McCain was part of a conspiracy to suppress information about POWs left behind in Vietnam. That would mean that John Kerry and Bill Clinton were also part of the conspiracy, not to mention the Pentagon and the State Department.

Having made more than fifty trips to Vietnam, beginning in 1975, I think the only reality of this story is as evidence of how hard it is for the United States to lose a war. I feel no less a desire than The Nation to ensure that McCain is not our next president, but such an article is Swiftboat revisionism with the endorsement of the country’s leading progressive publication.

Executive director
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Deale, Md.

Kudos to Sydney Schanberg for bringing back to public awareness John McCain’s role in consistently blocking Congressional efforts to learn more about the fate of POWs in Vietnam never accounted for–left behind?–unlike McCain and his 590 fellows, who were released in 1973. It seems inexplicable behavior on the part of a man who puts such stock in honor and who promised, in his first presidential debate, to take care of veterans.



I was horrified to see Sydney Schanberg’s “McCain and the POW Cover-up,” which ignores scholars who demonstrate that the POW mythology has no basis in the evidence, that it was concocted by the Nixon administration to justify its stonewalling during the Paris peace negotiations, that it is the heart and soul of the fantasy that the Vietnamese were a perfidious enemy and Americans were their innocent victims–which survived for years as a rationale for demonizing and punishing Vietnam.

Normalization of relations with the SRV in 1994 seemed at last to end a grotesque “debate” that was driven by charges issuing from the lunatic fringe. Now Schanberg wants to revisit the issue, a proposal that will find no second anywhere in the scholarly literature and would be a waste of time for everyone who cares about the Vietnam War and its sequels or who wants a critical examination of McCain’s qualifications for the presidency. Why did The Nation publish this garbage?


Schanberg Replies

New York City

There is only one myth in this discussion. It is the myth that ideologues like H. Bruce Franklin created with their fact-starved claims that all the US prisoners were returned by Hanoi after the peace accords in 1973. Franklin may even have, in the beginning, allowed himself to believe his wishful narrative. But by now, as more and more evidence has emerged despite the still intense government cover-up, Franklin must know better. The desperate tone of his letter gives him away. He slings mud from his first sentence onward. He calls my article a “thoroughly discredited right-wing fantasy.” Anyone who knows my work will have a big laugh over that right-winger label.

What really happened at the Paris peace talks was that President Nixon, intent on getting out of the Vietnam morass by any means possible but lacking any leverage at the peace talks with Hanoi, agreed to sign the accords, as the North Vietnamese demanded, before being shown the list of prisoners they were returning. The list of 591 men was hundreds short of the prisoner population reported by United States intelligence.

Those are some of the facts that Franklin apparently chooses not to believe. Indeed, there are no facts at all in his letter. He says, ridiculously, that he alone owns the franchise on the POW story and therefore will not deign to address any of the detailed evidence in my 8,000-word investigative article. It is clear he cannot refute it. I think I can understand his rage. His book, which he touts as the definitive work that cannot be challenged, is what he built his academic reputation on. What kind of academic contends that there is no truth but his?

Whatever his worries, his pompous letter is a foolish way to deal with them. He even throws in a weird accusation that I failed to show up to debate him, thereby letting down the “hundreds” in the audience. Mr. Franklin, please send me a copy of any message from me agreeing to any debate–that will solve this enigma.

I thank Christopher May for reading my piece with no ideological filter. He understood that my article is not about who was right or wrong about the Vietnam War. It is about the missing men and the suppression of their files and John McCain’s central role in burying those files. About McCain’s role, May writes: “It seems inexplicable behavior on the part of a man who puts such stock in honor and who [has] promised…to take care of veterans.” Exactly.

About John McAuliff and David Hunt, I would hope they could remove any filters for an hour and read the full version of my article at nationinstitute.org, which is more detailed and has additional documentary evidence.

McAuliff says it was “extremely disturbing” that The Nation published my article. Hunt says he was “horrified” and calls the piece “garbage.” Franklin says he was “profoundly shocked.” (So much for the First Amendment.) There’s no reason for loaded, hot-tongue language like that–unless you think your myth might be coming apart.

Finally, I pose a challenge and an appeal to people who share these critics’ views. It’s obvious that the best way to get to the bottom of the POW story is to press our government to release all the POW files that have been suppressed for thirty-five years. Why haven’t the naysayers campaigned for this? Don’t the people who deny there were abandoned POWs want to know what’s in those files? What are they afraid of?

Sydney Schanberg

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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