Although the memory has faded in recent years, during much of the second half of the twentieth century the name “Tokyo Rose” ranked very high in our popular consciousness, probably second only to “Benedict Arnold” as a byword for American treachery during wartime. The story of Iva Ikuko Toguri, the young Japanese-American woman who spent her wartime years broadcasting popular music laced with enemy propaganda to our suffering troops in the Pacific Theater was well known to everyone, and her trial for treason after the war, which stripped her of her citizenship and sentenced her to a long prison term, made the national headlines.
The actual historical facts seem to have been somewhat different than the popular myth. Instead of a single “Tokyo Rose” there were actually several such female broadcasters, with Ms. Toguri not even being the earliest, and their identities merged in the minds of the embattled American GIs. But she was the only one ever brought to trial and punished, although her own radio commentary turned out to have been almost totally innocuous. The plight of a young American-born woman alone on a family visit who became trapped behind enemy lines by the sudden outbreak of war was obviously a difficult one, and desperately taking a job as an English-language music announcer hardly fits the usual notion of treason. Indeed, after her release from federal prison, she avoided deportation and spent the rest of her life quietly running a grocery shop in Chicago. Postwar Japan soon became our closest ally in Asia and once wartime passions had sufficiently cooled she was eventually pardoned by President Gerald Ford and had her U.S. citizenship restored.
Despite these extremely mitigating circumstances in Ms. Toguri’s particular case, we should not be too surprised at America’s harsh treatment of the poor woman upon her return home from Japan. All normal countries ruthlessly punish treason and traitors, and these terms are often expansively defined in the aftermath of a bitter war. Perhaps in a topsy-turvy Monty Python world, wartime traitors would be given medals, feted at the White House, and become national heroes, but any real-life country that allowed such insanity would surely be set on the road to oblivion. If Tokyo Rose’s wartime record had launched her on a successful American political career and nearly gave her the presidency, we would know for a fact that some cruel enemy had spiked our national water supply with LSD.
The political rise of Sen. John McCain leads me to suspect that in the 1970s some cruel enemy had spiked our national water supply with LSD.
My earliest recollections of John McCain are vague. I think he first came to my attention during the mid-1980s, perhaps after 1982 when he won an open Congressional seat in Arizona or more likely once he was elected in 1986 to the U.S. Senate seat of retiring conservative icon Barry Goldwater. All media accounts about him seemed strongly favorable, describing his steadfastness as a POW during more than five grim years of torture by his Vietnamese jailers, with the extent of his wartime physical suffering indicated by the famous photo showing him still on crutches as he was greeted by President Nixon many months after his return from enemy captivity. I never had the slightest doubts about this story or his war-hero status.
McCain’s public image took a beating at the end of the 1980s when he became one of the senators caught up in the Keating Five financial scandal, but he managed to survive that controversy unlike most of the others. Soon thereafter he became prominent as a leading national advocate of campaign finance reform, a strong pro-immigrant voice, and also a champion of normalizing our relations with Vietnam, positions that appealed to me as much as they did to the national media. By 2000 my opinion had become sufficiently favorable that I donated to his underdog challenge to Gov. George W. Bush in the Republican primaries of that year, and was thrilled when he did surprisingly well in some of the early contests and suddenly had a serious shot at the nomination. However, he then suffered an unexpected defeat in South Carolina, as the large block of local military voters swung decisively against him. According to widespread media reports, the main cause was an utterly scurrilous whispering campaign by Karl Rove and his henchmen, which even included appalling accusations that the great war-hero candidate had been a “traitor” in Vietnam. My only conclusion was that the filthy lies sometimes found in American politics were even worse than I’d ever imagined.
Although in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I turned sharply against McCain due to his support for an extremely bellicose foreign policy, I never had any reason to question his background or his integrity, and my strong opposition to his 2008 presidential run was entirely on policy grounds: I feared his notoriously hot temper might easily get us into additional disastrous wars.
Everything suddenly changed in June 2008 when I read a long article by an unfamiliar writer on the leftist Counterpunch website. Shocking claims were made that McCain may never have been tortured and that he instead spent his wartime captivity collaborating with his captors and broadcasting Communist propaganda, a possibility that seemed almost incomprehensible to me given all the thousands of contrary articles that I had absorbed over the decades from the mainstream media. How could this one article on a small website be the truth about McCain’s war record and everything else be total falsehood? The evidence was hardly overwhelming, with the piece being thinly sourced and written in a meandering fashion by an obscure author, but the claims were so astonishing that I made some effort to investigate the matter, though without any real success.
However, those new doubts about McCain were still in my mind a few months later when I stumbled upon Sidney Schanberg’s massively documented exposeabout McCain’s role in the POW/MIA cover up, a vastly greater scandal. This time I was presented with a mountain of hard evidence gathered by one of America’s greatest wartime journalists, a Pulitzer Prize winning former top editor at The New York Times. In the years since then, other leading journalists have praised Schanberg’s remarkable research, now giving his conclusions the combined backing of four New York Times Pulitzer Prizes, while two former Republican Congressmen who had served on the Intelligence Committee have also strongly corroborated his account.
In 1993 the front page of the New York Times broke the story that a Politburo transcript found in the Kremlin archives fully confirmed the existence of the additional POWs, and when interviewed on the PBS Newshour former National Security Advisors Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski admitted that the document was very likely correct and that hundreds of America’s Vietnam POWs had indeed been left behind. In my opinion, the reality of Schanberg’s POW story is now about as solidly established as anything can be that has not yet received an official blessing from the American mainstream media. And the total dishonesty of that media regarding both the POW story and McCain’s leading role in the later cover up soon made me very suspicious of all those other claims regarding John McCain’s supposedly heroic war record. Our American Pravda is simply not to be trusted on any “touchy” topics.
I have no personal knowledge of the Vietnam War myself nor do I possess expertise in that area of history. But after encountering Schanberg’s expose in 2008, I soon got in touch with someone having exactly those strengths, a Vietnam veteran who later became a professor at one of our military service academies. At first, he was quite cagey regarding the questions I raised, but once he had read through Schanberg’s lengthy article, he felt he could respond more freely and he largely confirmed the claims, partly based on certain information he personally possessed. He said he found it astonishing that in these days of the Internet the POW scandal had not attracted vastly more attention, and couldn’t understand why the media was so uniformly unwilling to touch the topic.
He also had some very interesting things to say about John McCain’s wartime record. According to him, it was hardly a secret in veterans’ circles that McCain had spent much of the war producing Communist propaganda broadcasts since these had regularly been played in the prisoner camps as a means of breaking the spirits of those American POWs who resisted collaboration. Indeed, he and some of his friends had speculated about who currently possessed copies of McCain’s damning audio and video tapes and wondered whether they might come out during the course of the presidential campaign. Over the years, other Vietnam veterans have publicly leveled similar charges, and Schanberg had speculated that McCain’s leading role in the POW cover up might have been connected with the pressure he faced due to his notorious wartime broadcasts.
In late September 2008 another fascinating story appeared in my morning New York Times. An intrepid reporter decided to visit Vietnam and see what McCain’s former jailers thought of the possibility that their onetime captive might soon reach the White House, that the man they had spent years brutally torturing could become the next president of the United States. To the journalist’s apparent amazement, the former jailers seemed enthusiastic about the prospects of a McCain victory, saying that they hoped he would win since they had become such good friends during the war and had worked so closely together; if they lived in America, they would certainly all vote for him. When asked about McCain’s claims of “cruel and sadistic” torture, the head of the guard unit dismissed those stories as being just the sort of total nonsense that politicians, whether in America or in Vietnam, must often spout in order to win popularity. A BBC correspondent reported the same statements.
Let us consider the implications of this story. Throughout his entire life John McCain has been notable for having a very violent temper and also for holding deep grudges. How plausible does it seem that the men who allegedly spent years torturing him would be so eager to see him reach a position of supreme world power?
But what about the famous photo, showing McCain still on crutches even months after his release from captivity? In early September 2008, someone discovered archival footage from a Swedish news crew which had filmed the return of the POWs, and uploaded it to YouTube. We see a healthy-looking John McCain walking off the plane from Vietnam, having a noticeable limp but certainly without any need of crutches. After returning home he had eventually entered Bethesda Naval Hospital for corrective surgery on some of his wartime injuries, and that recent American surgery was what explained his crutches in the photo with Nixon.
It is certainly acknowledged that considerable numbers of American POWs were indeed tortured in Vietnam, but it is far from clear that McCain was ever one of them. As the original Counterpunch article pointed out, throughout almost the entire war McCain was held at a special section for the best-behaving prisoners, which was where he allegedly produced his Communist propaganda broadcasts and perhaps became such good friends with his guards as they later claimed. Top-ranking former POWs held at the same prison, such as Colonels Ted Guy and Gordon “Swede” Larson, have gone on the record saying they are very skeptical regarding McCain’s claims of torture.