John McCain's Cross to Bear


The blogosphere is Huffin' and puffin' over whether John McCain's anecdote about a Vietnamese prison guard silently drawing a cross next to him in the dirt–a story he retold at this weekend's religion debate–is either A) ripped off from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, B) a case of co-opting a story that happened to some other prisoner, C) some weird Chuck Colson story as transmuted somehow from Jesse Helms to Mark Salter; or D) the truth, just fuzzed by memory as to whether the cross was drawn by a foot or a stick. Having been in diapers at the time, I cannot claim expertise on the matter.

However. Along the way, many have noticed that this moving and memorable incident was somehow nowhere to be found in McCain's otherwise exhaustive 12,000-word essay for U.S. News & World Report in May 1973 about his Vietnam experiences, most of which ended up in his 1999 memoir Faith of My Fathers. In fact, as I mention in what is reportedly "the best short biography of the man":

McCain's snap take on events, as captured in his U.S. News essay, contained plenty of analysis and depictions that went missing in his subsequent statements about Vietnam. Among the more trivial of these were his observations that "a lot" of his captors "were homosexual, although never toward us"; that "the Oriental, as you may know, likes to beat around the bush quite a bit"; and that "you never can fathom the 'gooks." More substantively, he gave hawkish testament to the "caliber" and "courage" of President Nixon in mining Hanoi Harbor and bombing Cambodia, acts he credited with ending the war. "He has a long background in dealing with these people. He knows how to use the carrot and the stick," he wrote. "We're stronger than the Communists, so they were willing to negotiate. Force is what they understand. And that's why it is difficult for me to understand now, when everybody knows bombing finally got a cease-fire agreement, why people are still criticizing his foreign policy."

The most interesting of the details McCain left out of all subsequent interviews and books was his anecdotal evidence lending support to the controversial domino theory-the notion that once Vietnam fell, the communists would sweep through the rest of southeast Asia. It was one of the main justifications for the war, and especially for staying in it long after success seemed unlikely. In the essay, McCain claimed that two separate Vietnamese generals in May 1968 told him following: "After we liberate South Vietnam we're going to liberate Cambodia. And after Cambodia we're going to Laos and after we liberate Laos we're going to liberate Thailand and after we liberate Thailand we're going to liberate Malaysia, and then Burma. We're going to liberate all east Asia." What was McCain's interpretation of these politically convenient quotes? "Some people's favorite game is to refute the 'domino theory,' but the North Vietnamese themselves never tried to refute it. They believe it….This is what Communism is all about-armed struggle to overthrow capitalist countries."

If any of these stories is a lie, I hope it's the ol' cross-in-the-dirt number. I wouldn't want to think that any American hero came home and announced to a deeply skeptical public a totally made-up story about how not one, but two different "generals" spelled out a Domino Theory that McCain himself would later recognize as being bogus.

UPDATE: Lefty blogger Steve Smith reminds us that John Kerry (remember him?) got raked over the coals over some Vietnam memory-discrepancy, and he (Smith) tells a poignant tale about his own childhood meeting with Robert Kennedy that never took place. Me, I'm lucky to remember much of any of my time overseas, and exactly none of it was spent being tortured.