US Vice President Kamala Harris blundered into a series of cultural faux pas while visiting Vietnam, her first official journey to a foreign state in office, as she attempted to pay homage to former prisoner of war John McCain.
Harris on Wednesday stopped by a lakeside monument in the capital city of Hanoi to place a bouquet of flowers, as if believing the structure was meant to honor deceased Arizona Senator, and former US fighter pilot, John McCain. The stop marked the third anniversary of McCain’s death from a brain tumor.
The Republican politician, who became a darling of the Democratic party during Donald Trump’s tenure for his unrestrained loathing of the former president, was shot down over Truc Bach Lake during the Vietnam War in 1967 and pulled out by Vietnamese civilians, who turned him over to the Vietnamese Communist army as their prisoner.
However, the “memorial” where Harris placed her flowers, positioned at the site of the crash, was intended as a tribute to the Vietnamese defenders who captured the pilot – not the American who’d crash-landed in their lake after already bombing their country 22 times, likely killing multiple innocent civilians along the way. A plaque at the crash site indicates as much:
On 26 October 1967 near Trúc Bạch Lake in the capital, Hanoi, the citizens and military caught Pilot John Sidney McCain. The US Navy Air Force Aviator was flying aircraft A4, which crashed near Yen Phu power station. This was one of ten aircraft shot down that same day.
Harris praised the dead congressman as a “hero” who “loved our country” and “always fought for the best of who we are.” Whether or not McCain was a “hero,” however, Harris was far from the only person to be seemingly duped by the nature of the memorial by the lake.
Several commenters on social media couldn’t help but wonder why even the most egocentric American officials would believe Vietnam would erect a memorial in honor of a pilot who bombed their country and possibly killed civilians.
A few who had initially mistaken the war memorial for a monument to McCain tweaked their comments to save face.
McCain spent five years as a prisoner of war following his capture, the incident Trump infamously referred to when he inflamed the rivalry between the two politicians with the dry observation that he preferred “heroes who don’t get captured.” McCain himself reportedly “cracked” after just three or four days under interrogation by the Vietnamese, volunteering to give up “military information” if they would take him to a hospital, where he revealed he was the son of the senior naval commander for all US forces in the Pacific (John McCain, Sr.).
The younger McCain subsequently received favorable medical treatment, much unlike his fellow POWs, many of whom would later accuse him of not doing enough to bring back their comrades-in-arms when he was a Senator. Indeed, the stories he tells of five-and-a-half years of being “tortured” by the Vietnamese differ greatly from the stories told by his captors, who explained to the BBC back in 2008 that they forgave his “lying” about being tormented at the “Hanoi Hilton.” McCain, who was running for president at the time, had no choice but to talk up his wartime exploits, one of his keepers reasoned.
Harris’ official reason for visiting Vietnam was a charitable mission of sorts, promising to donate over a million Covid-19 vaccines to the southeast Asian country. However, as she was on her way, China – whose “bullying” in the South China Sea she’d just urged Vietnam to join the US in opposing – donated 2 million of its own vaccines, rather deflating the “bully” narrative.
The US has nevertheless promised to maintain a “strong presence in the South China Sea” to keep Beijing at a distance, and pledged $23 million and several dozen freezers to store vaccines nationwide as the country deals with a Covid-19 flare-up that has put its economic center, Ho Chi Minh City, on lockdown.
Harris’ visit comes at a sensitive time for the US, amid a chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan, freshly recaptured by the Taliban militants that the US-led coalition drove into the mountains 20 years ago. The humiliating scenes, starting from the US embassy evacuation by military helicopters and then escalating into violent mayhem at the Kabul airport, have been widely compared to the fall – or liberation of – the city of Saigon that spelled the end of the American withdrawal from Vietnam in April 1975.