In 2017, as Lynn Novick and I were finishing our film on the Vietnam War, I called Sen. John McCain to see if I could stop by his office and show some clips to him. He agreed, and when I asked if there were any sections of the 18-hour film that he’d particularly like to see, McCain said “the Vietnamese parts” — the stories that included the North Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.
McCain and I had first spoken about the film a decade earlier, just as it was getting underway. I wanted to let him know that, while we didn’t intend to interview him or his then-Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam War veteran John Kerry, we did plan to tell their stories. In typical McCain fashion, he had suggested we avoid his story completely — his service as a Navy pilot, his 5 1/2 years confined and often tortured as a prisoner of war.
The film, he said, should include the stories of the "ordinary" Americans who went to war. Doing so would be a chance to "save lives," he said, by ending the war for some in a deeply personal, even psychological way. At the same time, he noted that any film that truly wanted to understand the Vietnam War had to listen to the Vietnamese as well, both America's allies in the South and adversaries in the North.
McCain had already done the work of ending the war for thousands of American families, bringing them closure by putting to rest the pernicious and persistent lie that U.S. soldiers had been left behind in Indochina. He also helped free hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese veterans who had been imprisoned and he made it possible for the United States and Vietnam to interact as normal nations.
Kerry was McCain's close ally in these efforts. The two men, from different sides of the political aisle, could have been antagonists, given McCain's long family history of military service and Kerry's impassioned antiwar leadership during the 1970s. But they shared a bond that was born in combat and nurtured by love of country. They also shared a belief in our common humanity, including the humanity of former adversaries.
Ultimately McCain and Kerry drew strikingly similar conclusions from their markedly different experience of that very complicated war. They had learned about leadership, hubris, heroism, patriotism and, perhaps most important, the need to be honest with the American people. That was McCain's message when he and Kerry participated in a screening of the film at the Kennedy Center in Washington before its broadcast: "We can learn lessons today because the world is in such turmoil. Tell the American people the truth!"
McCain was, of course, well-known for a personal dedication to truth-telling. His bracing honesty and self-criticism are almost unknown in politics today. Perhaps it was his willingness to engage in self-reflection that allowed him to create bridges to bipartisanship and to see his life beyond narrow party objectives. But he didn't let friendship stand in the way of speaking his mind; during the Obama administration, McCain relentlessly criticized the Iran nuclear deal championed by his old friend Kerry, the secretary of state.
These days, one of the films I'm working on is about the writer Ernest Hemingway. McCain volunteered to be interviewed for it, and not long ago we were able to get him on camera to share a few thoughts about his favorite Hemingway novel, "For Whom the Bell Tolls." As he had noted elsewhere over the years, McCain long identified with the book's flawed hero, Robert Jordan, who struggles with moral dilemmas and is grievously wounded in this tale of the Spanish Civil War. Contemplating Jordan's story, McCain said, helped him survive the horrors of his imprisonment.
McCain might not have appeared on camera for our Vietnam War film, but it is very much his story, as it is everyone else's who either fought in the U.S. military or chose to resist. It is also the story of the Vietnamese who battled against the United States, men and women who eventually gained McCain's respect, even admiration, and with whom he and others sought to create a better future.
He realized we could learn from these stories. But, as with all stories, you have to be willing to listen. In a world where considering opposing views seems increasingly endangered, you can honor the memory of John McCain by stopping to hear the stories of others.
Ken Burns is a filmmaker. “The Vietnam War,” co-directed with Lynn Novick, aired on PBS in 2017.