Saying Goodbye to John McCain: Salute to an American Who Helped Changed Vietnam Until His Last Days

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

No other foreign politicians have thus far achieved what John McCain was able to do in Vietnam in the recent decades.

In a country where he was captured, tortured and held as a POW for five years and a half, two of which were in solitary confinement, McCain had emerged during the past thirty-something years as a symbol of integrity and righteousness for Vietnamese people from all walks of life.

The love and respect which the people, from the once upon a time’s “enemy’s land,” have for John McCain also help answer a question many foreigners often wonder, do Vietnamese hate America or Americans?

As shown in the case of John McCain, we don’t.

Vietnamese people paid respect to John McCain by placing flowers at the very same spot where he was shot down and captured during the war. Photo courtesy: Facebook.

Vietnam – which till this day – continues to be divided by ideologies and remnants of the Civil War (1954-1975), to a certain extent, still haunt its future generations. Till this day, the debate about the legitimacy of the two flags, the yellow-starred red flag of the current regime and the yellow flag of the former Republic of Vietnam in the South, has yet subsided. Nevertheless, John McCain is considered by both the public in Vietnam and among the diaspora communities living overseas, as an American politician who had worked tirelessly to better the lives of many Vietnamese.

It is well-covered in the news about McCain’s efforts in the normalization of the diplomatic relationship between the two countries in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. So it could be entirely understandable to see the affection that many Vietnamese people have shown for McCain.

The lifting of the embargo back in 1994 brought sizeable changes in every day’s lives of the ordinary people. With economic growth, what also came along was the certain rising standard of living for the majority of the population. However, that would not be all of the reasons for why Vietnamese around the globe respect John McCain.

One of a few stories you will not read about John McCain in Vietnam’s state-run media would be his close ties with the human rights and democracy activists’ community, whom he had continued to fight along their side until his very last days.

Dissident and former political prisoner, attorney Le Quoc Quan wrote on his Facebook upon learning about John McCain’s passing that as late as June 2017, during his last trip to Vietnam, McCain still insisted on meeting with the human rights and democracy activists in the country like how he had been doing for years.

While the Vietnamese government could not stop McCain, they tried to intimidate activists like Quan to stay away. But they also failed. Quan recalled, “I still went to see him (McCain) because he is a righteous friend of mine and Vietnam. Even if they (the police) tried to stop me, I would still find a way to go to the meeting. It is my way of delivering this very message to my government.”

In 2007, John McCain signed a letter to the then President of Vietnam, Nguyen Minh Triet, to demand the release of Quan, who was arbitrarily arrested and detained for a few months. Shortly after the letter was sent and made public, Vietnam did release him.

Other activists also offered their condolences on social media, recounting numerous times that John McCain spoke up on their behalf and stood by them in their fight for democracy in Vietnam.

However, McCain’s office was frequented not only by activists from Vietnam and their advocates but also members of the overseas Vietnamese community.

When working on restoring the United States’ diplomatic relation with Vietnam, McCain did not forget the human rights and democracy agenda in the country. He also remembered the fate of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees still languishing across numerous camps in Southeast Asia at the time. He certainly did not ignore the South Vietnamese men who had fought along the Americans and suffered retribution after the war ended.

John McCain participated in the establishing of the Humanitarian Operation, which was a special deal with Hanoi in 1990, to allow the South Vietnamese officers and soldiers who could not escape Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and had undergone the “re-education camps,” sometimes for tens of years, to leave for the United States. By 1994, 50,000 service members of the old South’s regime and their family members have arrived in America.

After April 1975, the Vietnamese Boat People’s Exodus made international headlights where hundreds of thousands had lost their lives at sea while escaping Vietnam by small fishing boats. The “Orderly Departure Program” was an effort created by the American government to put an end to this tragedy, by offering a special visa policy for Vietnamese to leave Vietnam to the United States directly and not having to escape to a third country first.

John McCain co-sponsored what was now known as the McCain Amendment to the ODP, which continued to allow unmarried children of the former South Vietnamese officers to immigrate to America with their parents’ refugees status, after the policy concerning their derivative refugee status expired in April 1995.

The Vietnamese immigrant children under these programs have since grown up and assimilated well into American mainstream society. Tram Ngo, a young Vietnamese American wrote on her Facebook: “McCain championed Vietnamese Boat People when it was politically unpopular to do so. For that, he will always have a dear place in my heart.” Her feelings and sentiment would certainly be mutually shared and acknowledged by many of her peers.

While John McCain’s five and a half years at the Hanoi Hilton is a well-known fact to many, the Vietnamese state-owned media has not dared to go into the details of his torture and the extent of the physical and mental abuse he suffered while in prison. However, with the blooming of the Internet and especially with the popularity of social media platforms in the past decade inside the country, such information is no longer “state’s secrets.” One could also say that the respect for John McCain accelerated when people learned about the events related to his treatment in prison. He has been widely praised for being able to put the past behind and worked to improve the life of the ordinary Vietnamese.

Truong Huy San, who is also known as author Huy Duc of The Winning Side (Bên Thắng Cuộc), shared his thoughts about McCain on Facebook:

“If he had not put aside his weapons and medals and treated them as memorabilia of the past, then he would have stayed all along within the war; if he had harbored vengeance, then his whole life would only have enemies. Moreover, he could only be a ‘war hero,’ but would never become the ‘political hero’ that he was.”

This post received close to 5,000 reactions within one day.

A friend, a comrade, a benevolent senator to the refugees, a supporter of the democracy movement, or a political hero? Those are the many sides of John McCain that Vietnamese people see. While each of them could be entirely different from one another, what matters most is that John McCain will forever be a part of this country’s history, not only in the past but as well as in the present and its future.

In March 2016, John McCain penned an op-ed in the New York Times upon learning of the passing of an American Communist, Mr. Delmer Berg of California, and he cited Donne’s poem to connect himself to Berg. Today, many Vietnamese people around the world – regardless of the ideologies they each hold – would probably want to say the same thing to Mr. McCain:

“No man is an island, entire of itself.” He is “part of the main.” And I believe “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

So was Mr. McCain. He didn’t need to know for whom the bell tolls. He knew it tolled for him. And I salute him. Rest in peace.

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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.