To those who spent time with John McCain, his qualities of character are what will be remembered most. The longtime Arizona Republican senator was honest and humble about himself. He lived a life of honor and duty. His colleagues called him a maverick. In his younger days, his mother called him a scamp. For his military service and as a prisoner of war from 1967 to 1973, he will always be viewed by Americans as heroic.
Yet one quality will stand out in the history books because it was the moral force that helped heal a rupture between two nations, Vietnam and the United States, in the late 20th century.
Despite the years of torture that he suffered as a POW in a Hanoi jail, Mr. McCain decided not to be bound by bitterness but to forgive. In 1995, his magnanimity toward a then-unified Vietnam provided the political cover in Congress for President Bill Clinton – who had avoided serving in the war – to establish diplomatic relations with Hanoi. McCain’s forgiveness was an invitation to a different future between former adversaries. “My job has been reconciliation and healing,” he told CNN in 1999.
His embrace of Vietnam may not have been widely noticed at the time because the world was newly inspired by a similar use of forgiveness in public reconciliation.
Just a few years earlier, Nelson Mandela had been released from 27 years in a South African prison. Without an atom of anger, he embraced the white society that had imposed apartheid on the majority blacks.
In a 2005 book about 35 virtuous character traits, McCain used a chapter about forgiveness to focus on Mandela, noting how he had helped his countrymen forgive one another. He included this quote from Mandela: “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
McCain’s role in reconciling Vietnam and the US is not just a nice piece of history. It is the kind that allows us to see beyond the limits of the senses, as American historian John Lewis Gaddis has written. When human events are transformed by qualities of character, history transcends time and space with a wider view.
Despite his essential role in normalizing ties with Vietnam, McCain was critical of the communist rulers who still suppress their people. And he could never bring himself to personally forgive those who tortured him or who killed his fellow POWs. Then again, many of the Vietnamese who suffered during the war could not forgive American troops.
Many post-conflict societies that have achieved some reconciliation, such as Rwanda and Northern Ireland, relied to a degree on contrition and forgiveness. Entire nations, if not every individual, can and often must move beyond hostility to healing.
Today, Vietnam and the US have found they have too much in common not to maintain close relations. As the world remembers McCain, it can also recall how a man with a good and heroic heart found some capacity to forgive and thus provided the moral groundwork for those close ties.