Staying at the Hanoi Hilton

Why did John McCain’s captors need his permission to release him from jail?

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In Thursday’s speech at the Republican National Convention, Sen. John McCain described his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. As he recounted, his captors offered to release him, but he refused, saying that“[i]f I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners.” Wait, why didn’t the North Vietnamese just kick him out of the Hanoi Hilton?

Because they wouldn’t have gotten what they wanted out of his release. McCain’s captors may have been hoping for positive publicity in letting go such a high-profile prisoner. (His father was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.) Had McCain been thrown out of jail without formally disavowing the United States, the North Vietnamese would have been denied a chance at propaganda victory. McCain would have come home telling stories of torture and coercion—not the PR the captors hoped for in engineering his parole. 

According to an account of his captivity given to U.S. News & World Report in 1973, the North Vietnamese offered McCain the opportunity for an unconditional release—without signing any statements. But, he said, there was no way to know that they wouldn’t coerce him into signing something later on, after he’d already caved on the initial offer. (As for demoralizing his fellow prisoners, it does seem like the captors could have kicked him out, then told the other inmates that he’d capitulated.)

Approximately a dozen of the 472 prisoners of war held in North Vietnam accepted offers of early release, usually in return for signing statements expressing sympathy for communism, denouncing U.S. involvement in the war, and saying they had been treated well by their captors. Most who accepted were injured or near the point of death. (Early release wasn’t offered to all prisoners.) Those who took the deal were then handed over to visiting anti-war groups, including American peace activists Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda. During their debriefing, most reneged on the statements they’d made to obtain release.

Tension still exists between those prisoners and other POWs. One notable exception to this is Douglas Hegdahl, who was explicitly ordered by the ranking officer in his prison camp to accept parole since he had memorized the names of many others in captivity. (For the most part, the North Vietnamese didn’t release the names of POWs, so people in the United States had no way of knowing whether missing soldiers were dead or imprisoned.) Hegdahl was an enlisted man, but most POWs were officers and pilots. Many were older than the average U.S. soldier in Vietnam and had hopes of further promotion within the military—which would have been destroyed by the acceptance of early parole.

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Explainer thanks Bruce Franklin of Rutgers University, Paul Galanti of NAM POWS, and Craig Howes of the University of Hawaii-Manoa.