ALMOST 51 YEARS after then-US navy captain John McCain was retrieved from Hanoi’s Truc Bach lake by a vengeful crowd, his former foes see the late American politician in a very similar light to the country he served – as an enemy turned friend.
“He recognised war is the best lesson for peace, so he is a veteran who pioneered reconciliation,” said Duong Trung Quoc, a historian and member of Vietnam’s National Assembly.
When McCain visited Vietnam in 1985, his first trip back after being released from a Hanoi prisoner-of-war camp in 1973 where he was incarcerated for more than five years, relations with the United States were almost as bad as they had been during the war. Vietnam was fighting a decade-long war in Cambodia against the Khmer Rouge, which was backed directly by Beijing and indirectly by Washington. A US embargo was in place, while a cold war with China, by then a covert strategic partner of Washington, occasionally flashed into bloodshed.
The Reagan administration maintained that Vietnam deserved no diplomatic recognition while its troops occupied Cambodia, while unfounded reports that missing American servicemen remained imprisoned in Vietnam made recognition of the Hanoi government politically unpopular.
McCain, however, made support for renewed relations one of his first of many rebukes of presidents from his own party, introducing failed legislation and penning an op-ed in The Washington Post in 1988 to pitch the idea.
“McCain had respect for the Vietnamese and wanted closure on the war. Reagan was committed to ‘rolling back’ communist gains,” Abuza says. “Reagan and [then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping] both saw Hanoi as a Soviet proxy that had to be contained.”
Historian Quoc says McCain’s early advocacy for reconciliation was recognised in Vietnam, which had made overtures for normalisation to the US as early as 1975 despite lingering mistrust.
“We consider him to be the man who started reconciliation and re-establishing diplomatic relations and normalisation between the US and Vietnam,” said Quoc, adding that McCain was a “deep friend” of Vietnam.
As other war veterans in politics came to McCain’s side, including senator and eventual secretary of state John Kerry, his ideas caught on under the Clinton administration. When Bill Clinton signed the legislation normalising relations with Vietnam in 1995, McCain was at his side.
Nguyen Quoc Cuong, who served as Vietnam’s ambassador from 2011 to 2014, says he had observed McCain, with whom he met publicly and privately, instil the importance of bilateral ties to his younger colleagues in the Senate.
“He intentionally brought young senators with him on his visits to Vietnam in hopes they would be bridges for the relations between the two countries after he passed away,” he says.
McCain, Cuong says, would even bring visitors to a monument in commemoration of his capture, featuring a statue of McCain in his flight suit kneeling with his arms in the air. “Senator McCain was very proud of his statue,” Cuong says.
Vietnam’s current friendship with the US is easy to rationalise against the backdrop of Hanoi’s pre-existing rhetoric, according to Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and an expert on Vietnam.
“During the war Vietnam’s official line was to draw a distinction between the ‘peace-loving American people’ and the warmongers in the White House,” he says.
Nguyen Duc Gan, a 70-year-old North Vietnamese army veteran, says he did not hold McCain’s wartime service against him. Gan was captured by South Vietnam not long after McCain was seized by the north, and would spend five years imprisoned under similar conditions, including torture, until both men were freed in 1973 after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.
“He was a soldier like me, so he had to obey orders from his seniors,” Gan says, adding that killing is an “inevitable” part of any war. McCain’s actions after the war, he says, mattered more.
Thayer explained that McCain’s willingness to bury the hatchet with Vietnam despite being a former POW was a big part of his appeal.
“Senator McCain’s strong support for reconciliation and engagement with Vietnam, his high profile in America, and his lack of bitterness about his captivity endeared him to the Vietnamese public,” he said.
Vietnam today looks to the US to counter Chinese ambitions in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.
McCain, always known for his hawkish foreign policy, was an avid advocate of partnering with Vietnam to contain a rising China. It would not be until the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia”, however, that deepening defence ties with Hanoi would become a priority.
“It was only in October 2008 that Vietnam and the US conducted their first strategic dialogue on political, security, defence and humanitarian cooperation issues in Hanoi,” Thayer says.
Of particular interest to the Vietnamese government, and of McCain, was scrapping an American ban on the sale of lethal military equipment to Vietnam.
Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a prominent dissident blogger, says the senator spoke to him about the ban during a May 2015 meeting in Hanoi. He recalled McCain asking Tuyen and the other dissidents gathered at the ambassador’s residence whether lifting the ban would worsen the human rights situation in Vietnam.
“We all told him to lift the ban, that the country’s national interests are more important than us,” Tuyen recalls. A year later, in the twilight of McCain’s life, the embargo – the last remaining wartime sanction in place – was lifted.
What will become of the arms sales, Thayer says, is the first “real test” of bilateral defence ties. “Now the ball is in Vietnam’s court. Will it begin to make substantial purchases of US military equipment, technology and weapons?”
Thus far, the US has publicly sold a coastguard cutter and several patrol boats to Vietnam, while President Donald Trump has expressed a willingness to sell more.
Gan, the Vietnamese war veteran, says he imagined the senator would have likely done even more for Vietnam if given the chance. “I wish he could live longer to make more contributions to the friendship between the US and Vietnam.”