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unlikely endorsements

John McCain Has Some Odd Fans:
His Jailers at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’

They Play Down Torture and Wish Him Well;
Museum Visitors Want to See His Cell
September 13, 2008; Page A1

HANOI — As a U.S. Navy pilot, John McCain flew 23 bombing sorties over Vietnam before he was shot down and incarcerated in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp. The courage he displayed behind bars gave him the aura of a war hero, and it is still powering his electoral appeal.

Yet now, even the jailers who once tortured Sen. McCain are lining up to offer effusive — if somewhat embarrassing — endorsements for his presidential candidacy.

“If I had a vote in the U.S., I would choose McCain,” beams retired Col. Tran Trong Duyet, the camp’s former commander. “I want him in the White House.”

This unlikely sentiment is widely shared in this fast-growing country of 85 million. “The majority of the people in Vietnam know Sen. McCain and feel comfortable about him,” says Duong Trung Quoc, a member of Vietnam’s National Assembly and secretary-general of the Association of Vietnamese Historians. “Nobody here knows about Obama.”

The fascination with Sen. McCain’s presidential bid shows what has and hasn’t changed in Vietnam in the more than three decades since Hanoi’s Communist regime won its “American War.” Converts since then to a gospel of free-market economics, Vietnam’s rulers today see America not as a foe but as an increasingly valuable partner with shared geopolitical interests, such as counterbalancing a rising China next-door. “Vietnam needs a strong America, not a weak America,” says Mr. Quoc.

Sen. McCain, as a leading advocate of normalizing U.S.-Vietnamese relations after the war, was instrumental in this rapprochement. Hanoi nowadays has an actual Hanoi Hilton hotel within a few blocks of the former prison, as well as Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises and a cowboy-theme nightclub decorated with Confederate banners.

[Tran Trong Duyet]
Tran Trong Duyet

Yet, despite such economic liberalization, Vietnam still remains a repressive authoritarian state whose regime draws its legitimacy from defeating the U.S. Its official narrative of the war makes no mention of excesses committed by the Communist North. And, when it comes to the treatment meted out here to Sen. McCain and other American POWs, the “Hanoi Hilton” is still presented as something resembling a vacation resort that its guests were almost reluctant to leave.

Most of that French-built prison complex, known as Hoa Lo in Vietnamese, was demolished in 1993 to make room for an office tower. One surviving wing, however, has been preserved as a museum dedicated mostly to Vietnamese revolutionary leaders who had been jailed at Hoa Lo by French colonialists.

More Museum Space

Over the past several months, as Sen. McCain edged closer to the presidential nomination, the museum adjusted its exhibition. The section dedicated to him and other downed American pilots, incarcerated here between 1964 and 1973, now occupies two full rooms, up from just half a room last year, says Hoa Lo’s deputy director Nguyen Thi Hien.

“The visitors who come here now focus on the American pilots,” she says. “They all want to see where John McCain’s room was.” (Sen. McCain’s cell happens to be in the demolished part, and no longer exists.) Accompanied by a soundtrack of air raids, Hoa Lo’s exhibit makes no mention of the systematic beatings and torture that are so prominent in the accounts of Sen. McCain, who spent five and a half years in the camp, and of his fellow POWs.

Instead, propaganda photographs show smiling, well-coiffed American inmates having cookies and tea. “There’s plenty of fruit in this tropical land. It is as if one is being in California, somewhere on the West Coast,” says one poster depicting POWs playing basketball and guitar. Another, purportedly painted by American POWs, contains this misspelled appeal: “Lets’ fight so the Yanks quit, and the puppets topple. Foreward!”

One photograph shows Sen. McCain — who complained of being denied critical care for his broken limbs — being examined by a Vietnamese doctor. A large display case exhibits what is billed as his flight suit — strangely intact, even though Sen. McCain was severely injured after ejecting from his Skyhawk dive bomber, and was bayoneted and beaten immediately after his capture in Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake in October 1967.

A Prize Catch

A crumbling concrete monument on the lake’s edge, next to fancy new restaurants, still marks the spot. While not “Hanoi Hilton’s” most senior POW in rank, Sen. McCain was considered by his captors as a prize catch because his father served as head of the U.S. Navy Pacific Command. Because of this particular status, Sen. McCain refused Vietnamese offers to release him from the “Hanoi Hilton” out of turn.

“He came from a very prestigious family and he acted like a prince,” recalls the camp’s former commander, Mr. Duyet, who is now regularly made available for interviews by the Vietnamese government. McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds declined to comment for this article.

On a recent afternoon, the 75-year-old Mr. Duyet extracted a folder with faded black-and-white photographs and waxed lyrical about how “my friend John McCain” once taught him English and how the two frequently discussed “girls.”

Speaking in a leafy garden where he keeps caged birds, Mr. Duyet also insisted that “prisoners liked me because I was good to them and treated them nicely.” Sen. McCain had a starkly different recollection of Mr. Duyet. In an interview with the magazine U.S. News shortly after his release in 1973, Sen. McCain described Mr. Duyet — nicknamed “Slopehead” by the American POWs — as “a particularly idiotic individual” and “the bad guy” with a penchant for sadism.

Making a Movie

Ms. Hien, the Hoa Lo museum’s director, says that the abuse of Sen. McCain and other American prisoners is not shown in the exhibit because no such thing occurred here. “What we display is based on historical evidence, and the evidence is that the POWs were all treated in a humanitarian way,” she says. Because of growing interest in the issue, Hoa Lo plans to further expand the American POW section. She says she is also preparing a short documentary film for visitors.

Vietnam’s oft-repeated official line, to be reflected in the documentary, is that American prisoners at the “Hanoi Hilton” actually enjoyed higher living standards than their captors. “The American body is different from the Vietnamese body — the American diet is different, and so the American prisoners were receiving much bigger portions than our ordinary citizens,” says Luu Dinh Mien, an official with the Vietnam War Veterans Association who served as a propaganda officer and interrogator in the camp. (Sen. McCain recalled that, on many days, the only food he received was pumpkin soup and soggy bread.)

Among a handful of interviewed former Hoa Lo personnel, only retired Col. Pham Cong Khoi, who served as a cell guard responsible for Sen. McCain, offered a reluctant admission that the “Hanoi Hilton” was not quite the paradise it’s made out to be.

“I personally did not beat anyone,” he said when asked about Sen. McCain’s accounts of frequent thrashings. “But it is very normal that something like this happens in prison, when you question someone and they don’t want to answer you.” Minutes later, Mr. Khoi returned to toeing the party line. “We saved McCain’s life and treated him well,” he insisted with a broad smile. “And in return we think McCain will do something good for Vietnam.”