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‘Wrong Guys’ Won War, McCain Tells His Stunned Vietnamese Hosts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sen. John McCain stunned his Vietnamese hosts Friday, saying the “wrong guys” had won the Vietnam War and questioning this country’s desire for closer relations with the United States.

Even U.S. officials here were taken aback by the timing and bluntness of McCain’s comments, which they feared could upset the fragile but improving relationship between Washington and Hanoi. McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has been an influential voice for reconciliation between the countries.

Chatting casually with reporters while touring Ho Chi Minh City, McCain (R-Ariz.) said: “I think the wrong guys won. I think that they lost millions of their best people who left by boat, thousands by execution and hundreds of thousands to reeducation camps.”

McCain has made similar comments during eight previous visits to Vietnam. But his remarks Friday came at a sensitive time, with Vietnam preparing to celebrate on Sunday the 25th anniversary of the Communists’ takeover of Saigon, as Ho Chi Minh City was once known.

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Although the government had no formal response, a senior official who has served in the Vietnam Embassy in Washington said privately: “McCain was always one of my heroes. I don’t understand why he’d come here and say those things now. To say them in the U.S. for hometown consumption is one thing--to say them here is another. It will not be easy for me to forget this.”

McCain, though widely admired in this country, has also angered Vietnam before. Earlier this year, he referred to his captors from 1967-72 as “gooks,” and on Wednesday, touring the prison in Hanoi where he had been held, said, “I bear them ill will, not because of what they did to me but because of what they did to some of my friends, including killing some of them.”

Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pham Thuy Thanh reacted angrily to that comment. “It is the United States, initiator of the war of aggression in Vietnam, which has committed horrendous crimes against the Vietnamese people,” she said in a statement.

Although the torture of American POWs during the war is well documented, Vietnam maintains that it always treated prisoners humanely. Hanoi has said it so often that young Vietnamese were shocked when McCain spoke during his recent U.S. presidential campaign of being tortured.

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McCain told reporters Friday that he would continue to advocate putting the past aside and moving toward a bilateral relationship.

“The objective of my relationship with Vietnam has been to heal the wounds that exist, particularly among our veterans, and to move forward with a positive relationship. Apparently, some in the Vietnamese government don’t want to do that.”


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