Tapping Into History
Updated: Mar 7
If the idea is good, sometimes plans effortlessly fall into place. Such was the case one magical night in the rotunda of the National Archives in Washington, DC.
It was 1993 and we were putting the U.S. copy of the Paris Peace Accords on display to mark its 20th anniversary. Officially titled “The Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring the Peace in Viet Nam”, this was the treaty that ended the U.S. and allied involvement in the war and resulted in the release of 591 American prisoners by the North Vietnamese. The treaty was violated before the ink dried and the war raged on for two more years, but American casualties were dramatically reduced.
On the day before the document was going to be unveiled for its first public showing, I am sitting at my desk, and it hit me that this piece of paper had very special meaning to three sitting members of Congress. Senator John McCain, Congressman Sam Johnson, and Congressman Pete Petersen had been released as prisoners of war because of the Paris Peace Accords. I’d bet that they had never seen it, would like to see it, and would like to be together when they did.
After checking in with Acting Archivist of the United States Trudy Peterson (who liked the idea), I called McCain’s Chief of Staff Mark Salter. I clearly remember not only the enthusiasm that came through the phone, but Salter’s willingness to call Johnson and Peterson’s staffs to coordinate the visit. The Congress was in session, it was now 3:00pm and we decided to shoot for a 7:00pm arrival. He assured me that while the drop-by may be brief, this was the kind of invitation that they would alter their schedules to fulfill.
I then turned to biographies of these three national heroes so I could properly brief the Archivist on the stories of our visitors.
We all know the story of Senator John McCain. As the son and grandson of Naval legends, he had been targeted by the North Vietnamese while in captivity and highlighted by the national media upon his release. Labelled a maverick during his years at the US Naval Academy, he would carry that moniker as a pilot, a prisoner of war, a Member of Congress, and a candidate for president. Having already survived a near death experience in the 1967 USS Forrestal fire, McCain was shot down during a bombing mission over Hanoi in October 1967, was captured and endured repeated torture due to his unwillingness to cooperate with his captors. He was held in the infamous Hỏa Lò Prison nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POW’s.
When he visited us that evening in 1993, he had been a two-term congressman from the first district of Arizona and was beginning his second term as the US Senator from Arizona. When he ran for the first time for Congress, he was labelled by his opponent a “carpetbagger” * having recently moved to Phoenix to work for his father-in-law's large Anheuser-Busch distributorship. He met the charge with the kind of blistering response for which he became famous:
Listen pal, I spent 22 years in the Navy. My father was in the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. We in the military service tend to move a lot. We have to live in all parts of the country, all parts of the world. I wish I could have had the luxury, like you, of growing up and living and spending my entire life in a nice place like the First District of Arizona, but I was doing other things. As a matter of fact, when I think about it now, the place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.
It was that kind of edge that made me a little wary of meeting Senator McCain that night, but he did me a little favor that I’ll never forget.
Congressman Sam Johnson was beginning his second term in Congress representing Plano, a Texas community north of Dallas. He had a 29-year career in the U.S. Air Force and was a decorated combat veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He was flying his 25th combat mission in Vietnam when he was shot down over North Vietnam and suffered a broken right arm, a broken back, and a dislocated shoulder. He was a prisoner of war for nearly seven years including 42 months in solitary confinement. Like McCain, he was held in the Hanoi Hilton and was repeatedly tortured. They shared a cell for the last 18 months of their captivity.
After his military career, Johnson established a successful homebuilding business in Plano. He was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, reelected three times, and won his seat in the US House of Representatives in a special election to fill the seat of Steve Bartlett who had resigned to become Mayor of Dallas. One of, if not the most conservative members of Congress, he was known to make harsh, provocative statements against those whose patriotism did not meet his standard.
Congressman Douglas Brian “Pete” Peterson served as a U.S. Air Force pilot in Vietnam where his F-4 Phantom II fighter was shot down in September 1966. He spent six years as a POW and was released in 1973. After the war, Peterson remained in the U.S. Air Force and retired in 1981 as a colonel with 26 years of service. In 1990 he ran as a Democrat for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida’s 2nd congressional district which covers Tallahassee and the eastern section of the panhandle. He won the seat and in 1993 had just been reelected for his second term.
His time as a POW was spent mostly in a prison outside Hanoi that the Americans had nicknamed “The Zoo”, but he was shuffled through four locations and went through the Hanoi Hilton twice. Isolation, torture, inadequate food, and medical attention were his plight as well. Once when interviewed after captivity he said that he had used up all the hate he could muster and emerged from the experience a different person.**
I had promised Mark Salter that this would not be a media event and that it would just be our staff photographer covering the visit. We anticipated that when these three American heroes got together it was always special and to view the document that had restored their freedom would be particularly significant.
The rotunda of the National Archives Building was dimly lit as Dr. Petersen and I accompanied our guests toward the free-standing exhibit case in the center of the room. Architect John Russell Pope had designed this space to house the founding documents of our republic and it is more cathedral than museum. It’s domed ceiling rising 70 feet from the floor and 40-foot-tall bronze doors convey an atmosphere of respectful dignity. Pope’s goal of creating a Temple of History had been dramatically achieved.
As I had found in the past, silence befell the group as we travelled through this space.
It occurred to me that to walk with these three men conveyed a small sense of what they had endured. Sam Johnson had a pronounced limp and limited use of his right arm. John McCain had an awkward gate and was unable to raise either arm above shoulder level. Pete Peterson had a slight limp from a shattered knee. The results of their captivity and torture were with them every day and could never be repaid.
Not much was initially said when we reached the document and I had told our photographer to give them their space until I asked for a few shots. They started to point out parts of the treaty to each other, a phrase here, a word there. We maintained our distance, so their conversation was not entirely audible.
At what I judged to be an appropriate interval, I stepped forward and asked whether we could take a few photos of the three of them with the document. They turned toward our staff photographer with their backs to the exhibit case and as the camera began to flash, the magic happened.
I’m not sure who initiated it, but you could hear a tapping on the exhibit case. With their hands at their sides and their fingers reaching back to the flat surface, they began a staccato rhythm, first one, then the others. It was unclear what was happening, but McCain broke into a broad smile and the others began to laugh.
Then I remembered an article that I had read.
Introduced in 1965 by four American POWs at the Hanoi Hilton, the “tap code” was a derivation of a method of communication that dated back centuries. Based on a Polybius square, the template is a 5x5 grid of letters representing all the letters of the Latin alphabet, except for K, which is represented by C. Each letter is communicated by tapping two numbers, the first designating the row and the second (after a pause) designating the column. Easier to learn than Morse Code, it is also easier to transmit because the length of dots and dashes is not required with a tap code. In addition, it is unique and easier to conceal from the enemy.
Through isolation, torture, fear, and malnutrition, the American POWs in Hanoi had survived by tapping messages of support, encouragement, and humor between their cells for years. Their practiced use of this special language came back to them, and they again bonded before our eyes.
When I thought the photo shoot was over, Senator McCain spoke up. “Constance, come over here. Mark tells me you were the one who thought up this reunion. Let’s get a picture with you.”
As I stepped forward to take my place and Mac the photographer fired away, McCain whispered a “true fact”.
“The congressional puke never gets a souvenir.”
He spoke from personal experience. His first job stateside after his captivity was in the U.S. Navy Senate Liaison Office on Capitol Hill. He always described it as his first introduction to politics and public service.
*Carpetbagger originates from a form of cheap luggage made from carpet fabric and is a pejorative historical term that referred to Northerners who travelled south during Reconstruction as financial or political opportunists. In recent times it means someone who “parachutes” into a district simply to run for office.
**Congressman Peterson went on to become the first U.S. Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and married Australia’s senior trade commissioner to Vietnam who was native Vietnamese.