Remembering Another 4th of July

It’s no secret that the John McCain campaign has had a tough couple of weeks. McCain and his aides could be excused for feeling down and out. It’s worth remembering, though, that McCain, one of the authentic heroes of modern America, has seen and survived a lot worse. It was on the Fourth of July in 1968 when McCain told his Vietnamese captors that he would not return to the United States. The story is a familiar one, but worth retelling, as McCain does in Chapter 19 of his book Faith of My Fathers. The chapter is titled “The Fourth of July.”

Sometime in the middle of June 1968, I was summoned to an interview with the Cat. His interpreter was an English-speaking officer we called “The Rabbit,” an experienced torturer who enjoyed his work. *** After about two hours of circuitous conversation, the Cat asked me if I wanted to go home. ***
I wanted to say yes. I badly wanted to go home. I was tired and sick, and despite my bad attitude, I was often afraid. But I couldn’t keep from my own counsel the knowledge of how my release would affect my father, and my fellow prisoners. I knew what the Vietnamese hoped to gain from my release.
Although I did not know it at the time, my father would shortly assume command of the war effort as Commander in Chief, Pacific. The Vietnamese intended to hail his arrival with a propaganda spectacle as they released his son in a gesture of “goodwill.” I was to be enticed into receiving special treatment in the hope that it would shame the new enemy commander.
Moreover, I knew that every prisoner the Vietnamese tried to break, those who had arrived before me and those who would come after me, would be taunted with the story of how an admiral’s son had gone home early, a lucky beneficiary of America’s class-conscious society. I knew that my release would add to the suffering of men who were already straining to keep faith with their country. I was injured, but I believed I could survive. I couldn’t persuade myself to leave.
Several days later, I went to tell the Cat I wouldn’t accept his offer….Eventually, again using the Rabbit to interpret, the Cat asked me if I had considered his offer. “I have,” I answered.
“What is your answer?”
“No, thank you.”
“American prisoners cannot accept parole, or amnesty or special favors. We must be released in the order of our capture, starting with Everett Alvarez”–the first pilot captured in the North.
He then suggested that my physical condition made my long-term survival doubtful. “I think I will make it,” I replied. ***
On the morning of the Fourth of July, Soft Soap entered my cell and mentioned that he knew I had received a generous offer to go home. “You will have a nice family reunion, Mac Kane,” he suggested.
“Yes,” I acknowledged, “but I can’t accept it.”
A few hours later, I faced a solemn Cat. That morning, the camp loudspeakers broadcast the news that three prisoners had been chosen for early release. The Cat had summoned me for one last chance to accept his offer. This time I was not taken to the large reception room but to an interrogation room. *** The Rabbit spoke first.
“Our senior officer wants to know your final answer.”
“My final answer is no.”
In a fit of pique, the Rabbit snapped the ink pen he had been holding between his hands. *** He stood up, kicked over the chair, and spoke to me in English for the first time.
“They taught you too well, Mac Kane. They taught you too well,” he shouted as he abruptly left the room. ***
The Rabbit and I sat there for a few moments staring at each other in silence before he angrily dismissed me.
“Now it will be very bad for you, Mac Kane. Go back to your room.”
I did as instructed and awaited the moment when the Rabbit’s prediction would come true.
That same day [July 4, 1968] my father assumed command of all U.S. forces in the Pacific.

The demise of McCain’s campaign is being widely predicted. Maybe so. But McCain has survived much bleaker times than this, and been counted out with far better reason. Win or lose, his dedication to his country and lifetime of public service deserve our respect.


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