Fact Check

Did Kamala Harris Honor McCain's Captors at Monument in Vietnam?

The vice president allegedly dishonored McCain by laying a wreath at the monument, instead of honoring him.

Published Sept. 22, 2021

 (Rolf Müller/Wikimedia Commons)
Image courtesy of Rolf Müller/Wikimedia Commons
In late August 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris mistakenly laid a wreath commemorating John McCain at a memorial in Hanoi that supposedly celebrates the shooting down of his plane and his capture by the North Vietnamese.

Harris did not "mistakenly" visit the Hanoi monument, nor did she inadvertently celebrate McCain's captors. The monument does mark the location where John McCain was captured, but, though the meaning and intention of the monument are debated, it does not carry language explicitly celebrating his capture. When McCain died in 2018, both Vietnamese and Americans laid flowers at the site. Republican senators and even McCain himself had visited the monument in the past.

In late August 2021, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris visited Vietnam and conducted bilateral meetings with the prime minister and president, while on a trip across Southeast Asia. Three years after the passing of Sen. John McCain, who was also a prisoner of war in Vietnam, Harris stopped at a monument marking the spot where McCain’s plane was shot down in 1967, placing flowers there.

After videos of her visit to the monument spread, many online claimed that she had inadvertently celebrated McCain’s captors, and laid flowers at a monument that celebrated his capture at the hands of the Vietnamese forces. Wire Daily News, a right-leaning website, claimed that she “Mistakenly Pays Tribute To The Communist Vietnamese Who Shot Down And Captured John McCain.” The website quotes a number of Twitter accounts including one user who says they are from Vietnam:

While many accused Harris of inadvertently or mistakenly commemorating the Vietnamese captors by visiting the site, Harris and her team appeared fully aware of the significance and history of the monument. During her visit, she mainly spoke to media about McCain’s heroism:

John McCain was an extraordinary American hero. I was honored and privileged to serve with him for a short time in the United States Senate. John McCain, he loved our country. He was so courageous and really lived the life of a hero—the sacrifices he made that were on every scale imaginable, loved our country and really always fought for the best of who we are. And it turns out today is the anniversary, so there we are.

Rachel Palermo, Harris’ assistant press secretary, tweeted that the monument “serves as a reminder of the cost of war and a symbol of the continued growth in the U.S.-Vietnam relationship.”

The structure was built in 1967 after McCain’s plane was shot down and he was pulled out of Truc Bach lake by villagers. He spent the next five and a half years as a high-profile prisoner in Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, also referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton.” He said he and others had been tortured while in prison, and spent years in isolation. The monument depicts a pilot with his hands up in the air in front of a broken plane wing. On one side it states, “USA” with a star, and on the other is an inscription in Vietnamese.

One translation of the inscription, according to a CNN report states: “On 26 October 1967 near the Truc Bach Lake, the Vietnamese people in Hanoi caught [John Sidney McCain]. He was the captain of a group who flew planes in the sky who attacked Hanoi. The number of the plane was A4. The plane fell on Yen Phu power plant. This was one of 10 planes that fell on the same day.”

Another Salon report by Jake Tapper, which described McCain visiting the site in 2000, said the inscription described McCain as an “air pirate” and misidentified the then-navy pilot as a member of the U.S. Air Force. During that visit, McCain announced that the misidentification was “the greatest insult of all.”

McCain visited the site of his capture a number of times over many decades, even tweeting about it in 2012, and describing it as a “monument” to his capture:

McCain spent much of his political career developing U.S.-Vietnam relations, visiting the country of his capture, and despite saying he still bore his prison guards “ill will” for the way they mistreated his friends, he said he always received a warm welcome from the Vietnamese whenever he returned. He said in an interview, "There is no reason for me to hold a grudge or anger. There's certainly some individual guards who were very cruel and inflicted a lot of pain on me and others but there's certainly no sense in me hating the Vietnamese ... I hold no ill will toward them."

When he died in August 2018, the monument depicting his capture turned into a condolence site, Americans and Vietnamese came to pay their respects there, leaving flowers and incense.

Republicans have visited the monument over the years as well. In 2019, Sen. Lisa Murkowski tweeted about visiting the site of McCain’s capture, and described feeling “pride.” She added, “This monument represents the service of one incredible patriot, but also embodies the tremendous sacrifices of our nation’s military.”

The monument was indeed created to commemorate the capture of McCain during the Vietnam war, but its meaning appears to carry an evolving significance as US-Vietnam relations have normalized, and was certainly considered to be a point of pride for Republicans and Democrats. It was also a place where Vietnamese and Americans commemorated McCain’s death. Whatever viewers may interpret the monument to be, Harris’ did not mistakenly visit it, nor was she or her team unaware of its history. As such, we rate this claim as “False.”

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.