The Wars of John McCain

John McCain believes the Vietnam War was winnable. Now he argues that an Obama administration would accept defeat in Iraq, with grave costs to American honor and national security. Is McCain’s quest for victory a reflection of an antiquated pre-Vietnam mind-set? Or of a commitment to principles we abandon at our peril? Is there any war McCain thinks can’t be won?
john mccain hanoi cell

In April of 1969, the commander in chief of American forces in the Pacific, Admiral John S. McCain Jr., sent a cable to General Earle Wheeler, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to General Creighton Abrams, the commander of American forces in Vietnam, with a pressing message. It is past time, Admiral McCain advised, for American units in Vietnam to overhaul their mission: the goal of the military effort in Vietnam should be to protect Vietnamese civilians from Communist insurgents, he wrote, rather than merely to hunt guerrillas in the countryside and then withdraw to the safety of permanent bases.

“The war has had from the outset major political as well as military overtones,” Admiral McCain wrote. “All agencies recognize that this is the time to put emphasis on protection of population and special enhancement of civilian security.” The South Vietnamese should do the main work of protecting civilians, McCain argued. The “national police should be the spearhead of this effort, and steps should be taken to attain the 120,000-man” South Vietnamese force by the following year.

The message was meant mainly for General Wheeler, and the Nixon administration. Abrams and McCain already agreed about the need to renovate American tactics in Vietnam. Both men were fairly new to their jobs. Abrams had succeeded General William Westmoreland the previous June and almost immediately had begun to discard many of Westmoreland’s divisive, and tactically fruitless, ideas, most notably his emphasis on search-and-destroy missions, which did little to sequester civilians from Vietcong control. Abrams had helped create the policy, soon endorsed by Nixon, known as “Vietnamization,” which demanded that the American-trained army of South Vietnam shoulder the burden of the fight against the north, and he had also tried, imperfectly, to reform the “Five O’Clock Follies,” the press briefings that provided notably optimistic reports about the war’s progress to a disaffected American public.

Abrams’s son, the retired Army general John Nelson Abrams, told me recently that both his father and Admiral McCain knew that their time was not boundless. “The strategy was, how quickly could you get the Vietnamese military to go from a support role to a lead role,” he said. The younger Abrams, who served in Vietnam as a frontline junior officer, and who dined with his father and Admiral McCain occasionally in Saigon during the war, said that both men understood that “time was running out for the American effort.”

“They never doubted that they were on the right track, but they also recognized that the American national will was the single greatest factor in determining whether the outcome would be victory or not,” he said. Both men were also impatient for victory, John Abrams said, in part out of concern for their own children. Two of Creighton Abrams’s three sons were serving in combat units, and Admiral McCain’s son, the naval aviator John S. McCain III, had been shot down over Hanoi on his 23rd bombing mission and was, at the time Admiral McCain drafted his cable to Wheeler and Abrams, a year and a half into what would turn out to be five and a half years of captivity in North Vietnam.

john mccain mother father parents
LT. JOHN S. MCCAIN III and his parents,
Roberta Wright McCain and
Rear Admiral John S. McCain Jr., stand beneath
a plaque of Admiral John S. McCain at the
commissioning of McCain Field, July 14, 1961
Photo credit: Associated Press

“You could see there was genuine fondness between them, and maybe in part because of the family commitment to the war, they were absolutely focused on winning,” John Abrams said, speaking of the relationship between his father and Admiral McCain. McCain, however, did not speak of his son’s captivity. “He would never show his emotions like that,” Abrams told me. After John McCain was released, in 1973, he learned that on several Christmases during his captivity, his father had traveled to the northernmost reaches of American-held territory, to be as close to him as physically possible. And only in 1973 did Admiral McCain learn that John McCain III had been singled out by the North Vietnamese for especially rigorous torture because he was the son of an important admiral. The North Vietnamese, in fact, referred to Admiral McCain’s son as the “prince.”

If Admiral McCain had doubts about America’s chance for victory, he concealed them expertly. In his public comments, he expressed supreme confidence that America had a plan in place to defeat the Communists. Though he was said to agree with General Abrams that overoptimistic reporting of battlefield successes had had the perverse effect of poisoning American public opinion, in a February 1969 interview with Reader’s Digest, he said, “We have the enemy licked now. He is beaten. We have the initiative in all areas. The enemy cannot achieve a military victory; he cannot even mount another major offensive.” In Faith of My Fathers, the biography of his father and grandfather—who was a legendary admiral of the Second World War—John McCain III reported that Henry Kissinger would bring Admiral McCain to see Nixon whenever the president seemed dispirited. “My father’s no-nonsense determination, Dr. Kissinger claims, was infectious and served as a tonic for the President’s flagging spirits,” McCain wrote.

“The reason I thought it would be helpful for President Nixon to see Admiral McCain on occasion was because he thought what we were doing was doable,” Kissinger told me a few weeks ago. “He talked about the practical problems. He wasn’t weighted down by what the op-ed pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post said.” Kissinger explained that although Admiral McCain spoke of “victory,” he understood the ambition of the Nixon administration to be the more finely calibrated goal of “withdrawal with honor.”

In 1972, the just-retired Admiral McCain wrote an opinion article for The New York Times in which he stated, “The South Vietnamese are doing sound military planning; the South Vietnamese Army has come of age; and the South Vietnamese Air Force is performing a steadily growing role in support of South Vietnamese Army ground forces. Vietnamization is successful.”

Less than three years later, Saigon fell to an invasion force of North Vietnamese tanks and infantry.

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Jeffrey Goldberg, an Atlantic national correspondent and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror (2007), blogs at More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.