Campaign 2000

The following was an article in the Electronic Telegraph, Issue 1668, dated Sunday, December 19, 1999.

McCain under fire from
fellow Vietnam 'vets'

Story originally located here.
By David Wastell in Washington

JOHN McCAIN, the former American prisoner of war challenging George W Bush for the Republican presidential nomination, has found his own record being questioned by the very people he claims to represent: fellow Vietnam veterans.

Families and supporters of American soldiers classified as missing in action (MIAs), have launched a concerted campaign against the Arizona senator's attempt to become president. They claim that he has obstructed efforts to uncover the truth about the 2,054 men whose deaths in Vietnam or neighbouring countries have never been fully confirmed, and that he may even have collaborated with the enemy while a PoW.

The bitterness of the complaints against him is at odds with his claim to speak for all war veterans. He is counting on "vets" to build support in the primary elections beginning in February, especially in South Carolina and California - two crucial states where ex-soldiers comprise 10 per cent of voters. However, opponents across the United States are using internet sites, e-mails and veterans' mailing lists in a drive to debunk Mr McCain's war record and mobilise opinion against him.

Ted Sampley, who served twice in Vietnam and now edits a veterans' newsletter in North Carolina, said: "From the press he's been getting, if I didn't know what I know, I'd be supporting him, too. But those of us who know about him are afraid for him to be president. We'll do all we can to see that he's defeated."

Mr McCain's critics claim that, while a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, he was more co-operative than he needed to be. They say that he voted to curtail senate hearings on missing servicemen, that he is brusque, impatient and rude to relatives of MIAs, and that he was too quick to back President Clinton's decision to normalise relations with Vietnam.

The MIA issue remains acutely sensitive because of suspicions that some Americans may have been left behind - forgotten by the US government. Families of some missing men suspect that a series of administrations have been too fearful of the political and diplomatic fallout should live prisoners be discovered.

Critics believe that prisoners who returned safely, such as Mr McCain, cannot face the possibility that others may have been left behind. A senate select committee inquiry, in which he was involved, concluded that, although there was no proof that any unknown prisoners survived, there was no evidence that all those who did not return had died.

Some of Mr McCain's critics question the extent to which he bowed to the demands of his Communist captors during his six years of imprisonment, and cite the frequency with which he was put up as an interview subject for journalists on propaganda trips to Hanoi.

Mr McCain, who suffered multiple broken bones when his aircraft was shot down, says he was hung up by ropes for four days until, in his desperation to receive medical help, he began offering military information which he judged was either of no consequence or was already publicly available.

Mr Sampley admitted that captured Americans had suffered brutal treatment in Vietnam. But he pointed out that if Mr McCain was elected, it would be the first time that an American president had spent years as a prisoner in the hands of an enemy who "worked with a vengeance" to manipulate PoWs' brains.

Another critic is Carol Hrdlicke, whose husband David, a pilot, was shot down in 1965. She was told by officials that he had died in captivity. The actual date of his death remained in dispute, she says, until the Air Force finally ruled that it had been 1968. Yet in 1994, she was told that her husband had been interviewed by a Russian journalist a full year after that date.

She claimed that, as a senator, Mr McCain had tried to water down legislation designed to strengthen the safeguards against MIAs being declared dead prematurely.

At the senate hearings, Mr McCain is said by MIA families to have reduced one of their number to tears. Dolores Alfond, from Bellevue in Washington state, who chairs the 5,000-strong National Alliance of Families, lost her brother, Major Victor Apodaca, who was declared missing in action in Vietnam in June 1967. She was on the receiving end of Mr McCain's tongue when he accused her of holding out false hopes and impeding discovery of the truth. He had said that he was "sick and tired" of criticisms over PoWs, she maintained.

"Every time our organisation works on legislation regarding MIAs or veterans, McCain has always been there to stop us or throw obstacles in the way."

A group of Mr McCain's fellow prisoners has been mobilised by his campaign to counter the criticisms. Orson Swindle, who spent months with him in captivity, said: "In one form or another, each and every one of us submitted. It's not the same as collaboration. You submit when you reach the end of the rope and can't stand the pain. You collaborate when you change your mind.

"John McCain did not collaborate with the enemy. He was just an extraordinarily tough American in a terrible situation. We all fed them bullshit because it was a way out of the pain. He's an incredibly honest person of great intellect, extraordinary courageousness and an enormous sense of history."

Still deeply embedded in the American psyche, the Vietnam War is featuring heavily in the presidential election campaign as the four leading candidates were all eligible to fight in it.

Mr Bush, the Texas Governor, and Bill Bradley, who is contesting the Democratic nomination, both remained in the US, serving with the National Guard, while Vice-President Al Gore did serve in Vietnam - but worked as an army journalist.

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