To the people who contacted me, McCain was a collaborator with the enemy, the Manchurian Candidate. The reason for the vehemence, I sus¬pected, had little to do with his conduct as a prisoner. It had everything to do with the fact that he had abandoned “the cause,” introducing legisla¬tion in 1987 to open a U.S.-interests section in Hanoi. He was at the fore¬front of the movement to reconcile differences between the United States and Vietnam and thought the MIA issue, although important, was not the top priority facing the two countries.
Every U.S. administration after the war tied improved diplomatic rela¬tions with Vietnam to increased cooperation on MIAs. It was never a Democrat-Republican issue or a conservative-liberal wedge—it was an American problem. Hanoi was perplexed and slow to cooperate. It didn’t take linkage seriously and didn’t understand the emotional depth of Americans’ commitment to bringing home their sons and husbands: “We’ve fought wars before, and, when they were over, we exchanged pris¬oners and that was it,” said Le Van Bang, Vietnam’s ambassador to the United States. “The unaccounted-for issue wasn’t even raised. So this was an issue many Vietnamese had a hard time understanding.”
Nguyen Ngoc Hung, the university professor and former NVA soldier who toured the United States in 1992, encountered protests and hostile questions when he appeared on U.S. college campuses and talk-radio shows and in town forums. But Hung was a moderate man, sensible and articulate, who spoke perfect English in a soft voice, and the people he won over were veterans. He would tell their groups, “I was drafted, too. I didn’t want to go to war.” He’d mention that the war had devastated his life—and his country’s—and that his brother was an MIA. Usually the meetings ended with hugs and handshakes.
“I was amazed how the MIA issue had galvanized the United States,” Hung said. “I’d pull into a gas station in Georgia, and every car seemed to have an American flag and one of those POW/MIA stickers. I got back to Hanoi and was debriefed at the foreign affairs and interior ministries. They said, ‘Well, it looks like just a matter of a short time before Wash¬ington normalizes relations, right?’ And I said, ‘Dead wrong. Relations aren’t going anywhere until the MIA issue is resolved.’”
Yet some in the United States who could never accept a Vietnam lost to communism seized on the MIA issue as the wedge to keep Hanoi and Washington apart, convinced Vietnam would never be a partner in the search for missing GIs. It was a way, they believed, of keeping Vietnam isolated indefinitely. But they had it wrong. Vietnam started cooperating. Instead of a being a wedge, the MIA issue became the bridge that led to full diplomatic relations. The Vietnamese secretly let U.S. searchers into Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to check out the wild rumor that American prisoners were being held in underground caves. It let U.S. teams into Buddhist cemeteries under the cover of darkness to exhume bodies, which reports had indicated might be those of Americans. It allowed U.S.-Vietnamese teams to fly off to remote villages on an hour’s notice to check accounts that remains had been found or an American had been seen. The teams investigated 21,000 reported sightings of live Americans. None held up. More than 30,000 pages of archival material was handed over to the Americans.
“Although questions remain about archival access,” McCain said when I met him in His Washington office, “the Vietnamese military has let us do things the American military would never allow a foreign country to do. We’ve gone into their prisons, gone into their defense headquarters. Can you imagine us letting a bunch of Vietnamese into the Pentagon to run around under similar circumstances?”
I called Delores Alfond in Bellevue, Washington, who ran the Na¬tional Alliance of Families and whose brother is an MIA. I said to her that everything I had seen and learned didn’t square with statements from some POW/MIA groups that live Americans were still in captivity and that the Vietnamese government was more a hindrance than a help to the U.S. effort to obtain “the fullest possible accounting.”
“Definitely I believe Americans are left alive there,” she said. “Specifi¬cally they’re probably moved around and moved out of the way. American investigators come into a location and they’re not allowed to speak with any Vietnamese . . . until they’ve been rehearsed and checked. The state¬ments you hear in the media and from the JTF [the joint U.S.-Vietnamese MIA task force] are basically lies, misrepresentations. Americans cannot go into a village without having a Vietnamese with them. So it you’re a Vietnamese peasant, are you going to tell the truth?”
Would the search ever be called off? Probably not in my lifetime. The MIA issue had become institutionalized. It had created military career paths and civilian livelihoods. Dozens of independent researchers had de¬voted years to tracking down leads and developing theories. Lobbying groups had been formed, with offices in Washington and access to key figures on Capitol Hill. But as McCain said, “We’re spending a lot on this effort, and at some point we have to decide priorities. Would, for in¬stance, the money be better spent on veterans hospitals?”

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