Foes united in tributes to John McCain

The memorial to John McCain at the site where his plane was shot down in 1967.

Senator John McCain embodied the roller coaster ride of US-Vietnamese relations like no other figure.

His death elicited heartfelt tributes from bitter foes on all sides of the conflict – from Vietnamese communist leaders as well as anti-communist refugees and pro-democracy dissidents; from Democrats and Republicans as well as war veterans in both countries.

John McCain’s five decade entanglement with Vietnam began in 1967, screaming over Hanoi in a single seat Skyhawk attack aircraft as he selected targets to bomb.

He was shot down, denounced as a war criminal and tortured despite his life threatening injuries.

And yet half a century later he was seen by all sides as a heroic figure, who worked hard for reconciliation and never forgot other victims of the conflict, however unfashionable their causes became.

A memorial at the site of his capture in Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake has become a shrine to a man whose life transcended the brutal conflict, the humbling of a superpower, and continued suspicions between the two sides.

The Foreign Minister, Pham Binh Minh, paid his condolences at the US embassy in Hanoi, describing John McCain as a symbol of reconciliation.

Pro-democracy campaigners, who face the constant threat of state violence and arrest, also paid tribute to the man.

The Senator had first returned to Vietnam in 1985, a decade before relations were finally established between Hanoi and Washington.

He faced down those in his own Republican Party and other war veterans who argued that Vietnam should be punished until it could account for all the American servicemen still listed as missing in action.

However, for all his enthusiasm for reconciliation with Hanoi, John McCain continued to offer political support to the boat people trapped in refugee camps after fleeing the communist regime.

He also offered encouragement to political dissidents, intervening with the Vietnamese government on a number of occasions to request lenient treatment.

US support for such groups arouses much suspicion in Hanoi.
It’s seen as an underhand trick, promoting what the Communist party sees as subversion and counter-revolution while openly speaking of economic and strategic partnership.

And yet, John McCain’s nuanced approach somehow seemed more frank and guileless than that of successive administrations.

Even for the Communist party, he had proved himself a man of honour – forgiving his captors despite five years of sometimes brutal treatment at the “Hanoi Hilton”, and putting his reputation on the line to support reconciliation with a former enemy.