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Woodstock May Have Saved Senator McCain’s Life


Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain scored a standing ovation at one of the presidential debates when he attacked Sen. Hillary Clinton for proposing — unsuccessfully — to spend a million taxpayer dollars on a museum commemorating the 1969 Woodstock festival. In an obviously well-planned moment, McCain told the audience,

Now, my friends, I wasn’t there. I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time. But the fact is, my friends, no one can be president of the United States that supports projects such as these.

McCain went on to make a television commercial using the video of that moment, standing ovation and all.

McCain was clearly exploiting for political purposes his five and a half years of suffering as a captive of the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. And he could easily be criticized for doing so. Even a McCain partisan would have to admit that his ordeal hardly qualifies him to be president.

But there’s a more important point to be made.

Had McCain simply attacked Clinton’s attempt at pork-barrel spending — the museum is set to open next year in Bethel, New York, the state she is elected from — that would have been fine (although McCain too has some pork-barreling on his record). Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to support any kind of museum.

But McCain had much more on his mind than presidential ambitions and protection of the taxpayers. He was making a point about war and dissent. And here’s where he gets it very wrong.

Look at McCain’s final sentence: “No one can be president of the United States that supports projects such as these.” What’s he talking about? Presidents and presidential candidates have always supported petty spending projects that were little more than favors to one or another constituency. What’s new about that?

Perhaps McCain had something else in mind. Perhaps it was something about Woodstock per se that he finds objectionable. Let’s explore this angle and see where it takes us.

McCain says he was unable to make it to Woodstock because he was “tied up.” Specifically, he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese government. How did this come to be? Was he kidnapped while sleeping in his own bed and carried off to the Hanoi Hilton?

No, he was a U.S. naval pilot flying an A-4 Skyhawk over Hanoi. The A-4 is an attack aircraft; that is, it’s designed to kill people and destroy property. Wikipedia says it was “the Navy’s primary light bomber over … North Vietnam during the early years of the Vietnam War.” It was used to drop some of the first and last bombs on that country during the long war, which is estimated to have killed 2 million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans. On October 26, 1967, anti-aircraft fire brought down McCain’s plane. He was beaten by a mob, then taken as a POW and tortured and permanently disabled during his long captivity.

While McCain undoubtedly suffered beyond imagination, the full context of his situation needs to be maintained. In the eyes of the North Vietnamese — and by any objective standard — McCain was the aggressor. He was dropping bombs on their country — about 8,000 miles from his home. Yes, he suffered. But how many people did he inflict suffering on before he was shot down? We’ll never know.
The United States was the aggressor

He and his defenders would respond that he was serving his country and protecting Americans’ freedom. He wasn’t. North Vietnam never attacked the American people. The public was told it had attacked an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin on August 4, 1964, but the U.S. government knew this was not true. Daniel Ellsberg discusses the infamous Tonkin Gulf Incident in his book Secrets. And in any case, U.S. naval forces were gathering intelligence in behalf of the South Vietnamese government, with whom the North Vietnamese were at war. The U.S. navy was hardly minding its own business.

Nevertheless, Lyndon Johnson told the American people that North Vietnam had perpetrated an “unprovoked” attack on U.S. warships [!] while on “routine patrol in international waters.” As Ellsberg, a Pentagon analyst at the time, writes,

There was no official hint, either to Congress or to the public, that in the minds of various experienced navy operators and intelligence analysts at the time of our retaliation, as well as earlier and later, doubt adhered to every single piece of evidence that an attack had occurred at all on August 4. [Emphasis added.]

McCain, then, was not protecting the American people or their liberties. In fact, he was interfering in a civil war, and protecting a repressive, corrupt South Vietnamese government and an American president (Johnson) who knew that Americans and Vietnamese were dying in a futile U.S. intervention. That was the upshot of the Pentagon Papers, which Ellsberg leaked later to the New York Times.
Government and country

It is widely, if implicitly, believed that whenever an American joins the armed forces — and especially when he goes off to war — he’s serving his country. But this assumption cannot withstand historical scrutiny. Wars are things that presidents, their advisors, and patrons engage in for political-economic-ideological purposes. Rarely do they have anything to do with the public’s security. So unless we wish to endorse the L’état, c’est moi (I am the state) doctrine attributed (apparently falsely) to King Louis XIV of France, there is no necessary connection between serving one’s country (whatever that may mean) and serving one’s president. When right-wing radio talk-show hosts gush to a military caller, “Thank you for your service to our country,” it should be translated to, “Thank you for your service to President Bush, Vice President Cheney, a coterie of neoconservative intellectuals, and Halliburton.” The knee-jerk homage paid to people who eagerly go off to fight wars whenever a president embroils the country in one is a sign of a failure to think. Such failure has brought untold misery both here and especially abroad.

McCain’s self-righteous excuse for missing Woodstock is tissue-thin.

What about the folks who were able to attend Woodstock? (Lots of Republican war hawks, including Bush and Cheney, were available, but apparently did not attend.) It’s safe to say that everybody at Woodstock was against the war in Vietnam and the draft that was sending young guys over there to kill and risk being killed or maimed. They cheered to songs such as the one by Country Joe and the Fish (“I Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag”) that says,

Well, come on mothers through-
out the land,
Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on fathers, don’t hesitate,
Send ‘em off before it’s too late.
Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
And it’s five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain’t no time to wonder
Whoopee! we’re all gonna die.

Thus if the Woodstock position on the Vietnam War had prevailed earlier, McCain wouldn’t have been dropping bombs on Hanoi and wouldn’t have been shot down, imprisoned, and tortured. He’d be healthy today, but probably not a prominent political leader, much less a presidential candidate.

Moreover, as one blogger speculates, had it not been for the anti-war movement, which (as the right-wing hawks like to say) forced an early end to the combat and a withdrawal of U.S. forces and a release of the POWs, McCain might have been executed rather than freed by the North Vietnamese.

This article originally appeared in the January 2008 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.