Mary Hershberger: What Is the True Story of McCain’s Wartime Experience?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mary Hershberger is a historian, teacher, and author of Jane Fonda's War: A Political Biography of an Antiwar Icon, and Traveling to Vietnam: American Peace Activists and the War. She has taught at the University of Georgia, Virginia Tech, Eastern Mennonite University, Ohio State University, and at schools in East and Central Africa, including Makerere University in Uganda. ]

As we approach the end of an astonishing campaign season, one thing grows clear: John McCain’s campaign has suffered a string of disastrous decisions. These mistakes have overwhelmed even the campaign’s trump card—its image of John McCain as war hero. And not just an ordinary war hero but one who was captured by enemies, imprisoned near death, and “resurrected” to return home with visible wounds that marked his sacrifice.

Aside from the patriotic fervor and powerful religious themes this tale evokes in American Christians who believe that redemptive violence lies at the core of their faith, McCain’s campaign correctly counted on the media treating the image of war hero as if it stood outside history, beyond journalistic scrutiny. The “swift boating” of John Kerry four years ago left the media reluctant to engage in legitimate examination of John McCain’s claims.

As a historian who has studied Vietnam War documents, I read McCain’s Faith of My Fathers with growing concern over the troubling inconsistencies and internal contradictions that I found there.  When I sought out official reports, news accounts, film footage and other reliable sources to help resolve these contradictions, I consistently found questionable assertions in McCain’s claims. All memoirs are constrained by the limitations of our memory, but McCain’s accounts are unusually problematic, with many stories grossly exaggerated or simply made up.

Given the media scrutiny heaped upon Cindy McCain’s life during this campaign, one might expect the candidate himself would face equal investigation. That has not been true. When I wrote a piece documenting McCain’s less-than-heroic actions following the disastrous fire on the USS Forrestal, mainstream print newspapers and magazines turned it down, including those that printed investigative pieces on his wife and relentlessly dredged up every scrap of information to expose her vulnerabilities. Ask yourself—have you seen investigative reports of McCain’s claims about his military record that match the level of scrutiny given his wife?

McCain’s war record is a legitimate topic of investigation precisely because he cites it as evidence that he should be president, as proof that he is tested and ready to lead from day one. As such, it ought to be more thoroughly examined than anything else. The few investigations that have been carried out are not reassuring.

On the single issue of his plane crashes, for example, the Los Angeles Times has concluded that “though standards were looser and crashes more frequent in the 1960s, McCain’s record stands out.”  A pilot whose performance included two plane crashes and a collision with power lines usually underwent official review to determine his fitness to fly. McCain refuses to allow his military records to be released so that the voting public can see whether his record matches his claims. 

Much of the mainstream media frequently repeat without question McCain’s assertions about his war record, including his recent claim that he was on track to be promoted to admiral when he left the Navy. It is due to the diligence of writers on the Internet that claims like this have been investigated.  

A recent column by John Dean at, which includes a Q & A with me, looks at other areas in which McCain has made claims at stark odds with official documents or news reports. Dean concludes that the dwindling importance of the mainstream media is related to its reluctance to “sort fact from fiction” in the wake of the Swift Boaters.  The result is that the media gives McCain a pass “rather than risk irritating him by digging out the truth of his military background.”

The irony of McCain’s free pass is that newspapers like the New York Times need look no further than their own pages to check his claims. For example, McCain says that when he was shot down on October 26, 1967, the Vietnamese beat him over and over and refused to provide medical treatment for days until, in desperation, he told them that his father was an important military officer. In contrast, the New York Times, on October 28, 1967, quoted Hanoi radio reporting the day before that, “the son of the commander of the United States Naval Forces in Europe was captured in North Vietnam.”  At the time, the New York Times reported that the Vietnamese knew about McCain’s family connections as soon as he was captured, not days later. Which story is true? 

Likewise, as a Rolling Stone piece recently pointed out, the New York Times reported on November 11, 1967, less than two weeks after McCain was captured, that he had said that Vietnam appeared to be winning the war and the United States appeared isolated. There is a significant conflict between this and McCain’s memoirs, one that has gone unexamined in the Times.  

I have found enough compelling discrepancies between McCain’s claims of his treatment in Hanoi and other sources, including his fellow POWs, to cast serious doubt on his overall account of mistreatment and torture there. McCain’s account of his meeting with French journalist Francois Chalais four days after he was captured asserts that he was combative with guards in the room and refused to talk about the care he was receiving. His account is significantly undercut by recently released filmed footage of that meeting and by Chalais’ printed report at the time.

Many newspapers that recently endorsed Barack Obama also paid homage to McCain’s record as a war hero and former prisoner of war and have lamented that, as the St. Petersburg Times put it, “his campaign in recent months has been unworthy of his record.” If the media had examined his war record as it should have, rather than taking his self-serving memoir at face value, it would be less surprised today that McCain the candidate has been prone to poor judgment, erratic behavior under pressure, and risky decision-making. The similarities between John McCain’s campaign record and his war record outweigh their differences.

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