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The Leftie Nation Throws a Rightie

By Jerry Lembcke

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Only in a political campaign season as unlikely as this one could a report like Sydney Schanberg's "McCain and the POW Cover-up" see the light-of-day. Schanberg's 2,500 word article in the October 6 Nation magazine claimed there is an "imposing body of evidence suggesting that a large number—probably hundreds—of the US prisoners held in Vietnam" were never returned. Included in the evidence referred to by him are eyewitness citings of the left-behind POWs, satellite photos of rescue symbols, and aborted Special Forces missions designed to bring back POWs the Pentagon knew were still held by the Hanoi regime after the 1973 release of prisoners that ended the war. McCain, according to Schanberg, has aided the suppression of this evidence, perhaps to keep under wraps other facts about his own collaboration with the enemy during his time in Hao Lo Prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton) that might inconvenience his run for the presidency.

Schanberg won a Pulitzer for his war reports from Southeast Asia and his 1980 book about Cambodian journalist Dith Pran inspired the film, Killing Fields. Credentials like these draw the eyes of Nation readers to the McCain-POW story but even the cachet of award-winning journalism can't dress-up the fanciful qualities of this story that has lived for years on the obscure web sites of ultra-rightist political groups.

Schanberg's story appears to be a soft version of the hard-core conspiracy tale originally written by Ted Sampley in 1992 claiming McCain may have been brainwashed and returned to America as a dupe of the communists, a "Manchurian Candidate," as in the 1962 film by that title. One version of the story ala McCain avers that some of the supposedly missing POWs were traded to Moscow in return for improved post-war relations—and that the Senator has held this secret for years.

The belief in POWs from Korea or Vietnam languishing for decades behind the Iron Curtin is a Cold War fantasy made most vivid by Nelson DeMille's novel Charm School about US pilots captured in Vietnam and taken to the Soviet Union where they are made to teach American cultural ways to young Soviet spies who will then be infiltrated into the US for espionage. But have the US pilots really been captives all these years? Or did some them crossover to the dark side, becoming willingly complicit in the communist plot against America?

DeMille's gripping story of intrigue and duplicity merged with other works of fiction like Francis Ford Coppola's 1978 film Apocalypse Now and Monica Jensen-Stevenson's 1997 book Spite House to construct the outlines of CNN's 1998 primetime broadcast of Valley of Death, a documentary claiming that US Special Forces used sarin nerve gas on a 1970 raid into Laos to kill defectors whose existence the government did not want to admit to. Defectors—or might they have been POWs that the government did not want to admit were captured in Laos? POWs that John McCain has kept us from knowing about for thirty-five years?

A month after Valley of Death was broadcast, CNN retracted it as "unsupportable by the facts" and fired April Oliver and Jack Smith who had produced it. In the course of writing a book about that fiasco, I discovered that the Nation magazine had actually drank the story's cool aid, and had contracted with investigative journalist Steven Weinberg to do a special report that would vindicate the producers. Weinberg's piece was pending publication when the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, after which time the Nation appeared to have dropped interest in the story.

The mythology that POWs were left behind in Southeast Asia was debunked by Bruce Franklin in his 1992 book M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America, and research including my own into stories that the US military maybe even hunted down and killed some of its own—defectors or POWs—locate the source of such tales in a paranoid political culture that springs from apocalyptic beliefs.

Presumably someone at the Nation intended Schaunberg's piece to cast McCain in bad light but a report like his, flowing as it does from the wellspring of rightist conspiricism, risks discrediting his opponents for tactics as cheesy as those of his own operatives. The possibility, on the other hand, that someone at the Nation remains in the thrall of fictions like Valley of Death should disturb the magazine's readers and concern others in the community of journalism.

Jerry Lembcke is Associate Professor of Sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, MA and the author of CNN's Tailwind Tale: Inside Vietnam's Last Great Myth and The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.


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