Mai Tran, an American of Vietnamese descent grieves over the portrait of the late US Senator John McCain during a memorial tribute at the US embassy in Hanoi on August 27, 2018. John McCain, a war hero and towering figure in US politics known for reaching across the aisle in an increasingly divided nation, died on August 25 at the age of 81 following a battle with brain cancer. Photo: AFP

Politicians from both sides of the aisle and people from all walks of life in the United States have paid tributes to Senator John McCain, who died on August 25.

Far away in Vietnam, a country which the former naval bomber pilot fought against and where he was captured and held as a prisoner of war (POW) for more than five years,  the people and their leaders also fondly remember the high-profile politician.

In an interview with state-run Voice of Vietnam (VOV) radio service a day after his death, Vietnam’s ambassador to the US, Ha Kim Ngoc, described him as a friend who was well liked by the Vietnamese people.

On August 27, two of Vietnam’s top four leaders, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and National Assembly (the country’s parliament) Chairwoman Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan sent messages of condolence to McCain’s family and leaders of the US Senate. On the same day, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson reiterated that Vietnam would like to extend the deepest sympathy to his family and the US Congress.

On the same day, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh paid respects to McCain at the US embassy in Hanoi, the country’s capital.

In state-run media outlets and especially on social media, the former POW turned politician has been affectionately talked about, with some even calling for a street in Hanoi to be named after him.

The main reason that Vietnam’s leaders and people have such great respect for the six-term Arizona senator is that he played a central role in the US-Vietnam reconciliation

The main reason that Vietnam’s leaders and people have such great respect for the six-term Arizona senator is that he played a central role in the US-Vietnam reconciliation.

Ambassador Ha Kim Ngoc depicted McCain as a symbol of that process. Another piece by VOV, which quoted Pham Quang Vinh, a former Vietnamese ambassador to the US, regarded him as “a vanguard in healing the wounds of war between the two countries.”

Writing in a condolence book at the US embassy in Hanoi, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh equally stressed: “For both the government of Vietnam and its people, Senator McCain was a symbol of his generation of senators and of the veterans of the Vietnam War […] who took the lead in significantly healing the wounds of war, normalizing ties and promoting the comprehensive Vietnam-US partnership.”

In echoing his contributions to the reconciliation and then cooperation between the two former war foes, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said likewise that Vietnam’s leaders and people “treasure efforts made by McCain in building and developing the Vietnam-US relations over the past decades.”

Indeed, his role in transforming the two countries from total enemies to comprehensive partners was crucial. It can be said that McCain is not just a symbol – but the symbol – of such a remarkable transformation, as he symbolized both the deepest confrontation between the two nations during the deadly decade-long war and the high level of cooperation that the two nations are now enjoying.

Tellingly, those who strongly advocated normalization of relations with Vietnam were Vietnam War veterans and there are many of them, including John Kerry.

In 1993, Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and then chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA (missing in action) Affairs, and McCain, a member of the committee, traveled to Vietnam.

During the trip, the two senators visited Hoa Lo prison, aka “the Hanoi Hilton,” where McCain had been jailed.

That outing marked the beginning of the unlikely friendship, not just between these two Vietnam War veterans, but also between the two nations. In 1994, the US Senate passed a resolution sponsored by them that called for the US to lift the economic embargo on its former Southeast Asian enemy, paving the way for the normalization of relations between the two countries one year later.

Many years later, these two influential war vets were front and center of the US’s enhancement of ties with Vietnam.

But their experiences and reactions to the war were very different. Kerry, who held an anti-war stance upon his return from Vietnam, didn’t experience the ordeal that McCain endured from his capture in October 1967, when his Skyhawk jet was shot down, to his release in March 1973.

Whether and to what extent he was tortured may be disputed by his captors, but it is undisputable that his years as a POW, including long periods of solitary confinement in the bitter enemy’s prison was, as he wrote vividly in a 1973 account of his captivity, harrowing.

In a statement on McCain’s passing, Kerry, who also served as US secretary of state under president Barack Obama and was, like McCain, a former presidential nominee, recalled the moment they visited Hoa Lo prison in 1993. He wrote: “I stood with John [McCain], the two of us alone, in the very cell in the Hanoi Hilton where years of his life were lived out in pain but always in honor.”

To explain how brave McCain was during those grueling years, Kerry wrote: “If you ever needed to take the measure of John McCain, just count the days and years he spent in that tiny dank place and ask yourself whether you could make it there an hour.”

Yet, for all that he suffered, the Republican senator was not bitter. Instead, he did his utmost to help heal the rancor and rupture between the two nations.

In his touching tribute, Kerry also said, “John McCain showed all of us how to bridge the divide between a protester and a POW, and how to find common ground even when it was improbable.”

Admittedly, without his heroic embrace of Vietnam, it could have been difficult, if not impossible, for president Bill Clinton – who had avoided serving in the war – to establish diplomatic relations with Hanoi in July 1995.

In announcing his decision to normalize diplomatic ties with Vietnam on July 11 that year, the Democratic president listed “distinguished veterans of the Vietnam war … of different parties” who “were able to move beyond the haunting and painful past toward finding common ground for the future” by supporting normalization. Named first among these, to whom “all Americans should be grateful,” was McCain.

In remarks at a ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the normalization in Hanoi, in 2015, the former president described his decision to establish ties with Vietnam as “one of the most important achievements [of his presidency]” as it “helped to heal the wounds of war, to build bonds of genuine friendship, and provide proof in an increasingly divided world that cooperation was far better than conflict.” Again, Clinton thanked a number of Vietnam War veterans for making such a decision possible and one of these was McCain, then chairman of the Armed Services Committee of the Senate.

In addressing the people of Vietnam during his 2016 visit, Obama reminded them that “the reconciliation between our countries was led by our veterans who once faced each other in battle.” The first name mentioned was John McCain, “who was held for years here as a prisoner of war.”

In their respective statements, Clinton and Obama both hailed the remarkable cooperation between the two countries in many different areas since normalization. Again, McCain’s contributions to the enhancement of the bilateral ties were huge. Indeed, as Ha Kim Ngoc rightly described it, the senator “has a very special position in the history of the Vietnam-US relationship.”

According to Vietnam’s ambassador to the US, even during his illness, McCain, who died from brain cancer, which was diagnosed last summer, still paid attention to Vietnam-related issues such as the East Sea [South China Sea] issue and the US’s ban on imports of Vietnamese catfish.

As an ardent advocate for human rights, freedom, democracy and the rule of law, during his numerous trips to the one-party state, besides holding talks with Vietnamese leaders and officials, the maverick senator sought to meet rights activists and political dissidents. In fact, he strongly and consistently urged the US to support “all Vietnamese citizens who seek to use peaceful means to build a strong and prosperous country that respects human rights and the rule of law.”

For many Vietnamese, the war with the US is now a thing of the past

Against this backdrop, it isn’t surprising that the Vietnamese people highly respect him.

It’s worth pointing out that, though the two countries fought a bitter and devastating war, the Vietnamese generally hold a very positive view of the US. A survey by Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan American organization, found that 86% of the Vietnamese viewed the US positively in 2017, up from 76% in 2014. By comparison, only 10% viewed China favorably last year.

For some, such contrasting attitudes toward the US and China exist because “many Vietnamese see the threat from the US as being in the past, and are happy to leave it in the past. But they see the threat from China as being in the here and now.”

Indeed, for many Vietnamese, the war with the US is now a thing of the past.

In his remarks at the Oval Office in 2015, Nguyen Phu Trong – the first general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party to visit the US – said “there has been a bad, difficult chapter in our history, but we have been able to rise above the past [… ] and look towards a future in order to build the comprehensive partnership that we have today.” During that historic trip, Trong also met with Senator McCain, who “warmly” welcomed him.

Evidently, the two former battleground foes have been able to move beyond that difficult and painful past and the Vietnamese regard the US very favorably because it has people like John McCain, who are able to let go of suspicion and enmity and embrace reconciliation and amity.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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