Miller Center

LBJ, Nixon, and John S. McCain, Sr., Jr., and III

by Ken Hughes and David Coleman

John S. McCain IIIAdmiral John S. McCain, Jr.Admiral John S. McCain, Sr.
Senator John S. McCain III, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr.,
Admiral John S. McCain, Sr.

John S. McCain III, (1936-) currently a Republican Senator from Arizona and Republican nominee for President in the 2008 Presidential election, was a U.S. Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. In October 1967 he was shot down over North Vietnam, taken prisoner, and held captive as a prisoner of war for five and a half years. His father, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., was Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (CINCPAC) during much of the time his son was a POW.

We've compiled transcripts of the most substantive mentions of the McCain family in the LBJ and Nixon recordings. Given the time period the tapes span, most of these discussions relate to the Senator's father, Admiral John S. McCain, Jr. (1911-1981), who became a four star admiral in the U.S. Navy and served during the Vietnam War as CINCPAC from 1968 to 1972. Senator McCain's grandfather, John S. McCain, Sr. (1884-1945), had also been an Admiral in the U.S. Navy.

At the time of the first two conversations, Vice Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., was a senior member of the military staff committee at the United States mission to the United Nations, working under Ambassador Arthur Goldberg. That was a desk job; to be promoted to full admiral (ie. a fourth star), McCain would need a major field command.

April 25, 1966 | 10:35AM | WH6604.04 #10048

Admiral John McCain, Jr.’s 4th Star
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Everett Dirksen: How are you?

President Johnson: Fine.

Dirksen: You’re up and about, aren’t you?

President Johnson: Yes.

Dirksen: Oh, you sound a little sleepy.

President Johnson: No. No.

Dirksen: Do you remember early last year I talked to you about Admiral Jack McCain?

President Johnson: Yeah.

Dirksen: And his father was an admiral before him.

President Johnson: I knew him well.

Dirksen: And Jack wanted that fourth star.

President Johnson: Yeah.

Dirksen: Now, I get some overtones that changes are in prospect over in [the] Pentagon, and the only way he’ll get that fourth star is either to be CNO [Chief of Naval Operations], or Vice-CNO, or Commander of the Atlantic Fleet, or Commander of the Pacific Fleet.

President Johnson: Yeah, Jack went over this with me, I think—Jack Valenti—over the weekend, and I told him to look into it with the people over there, and I haven’t got a report back on it. I’ll check it and see if he can get back to you today.

Dirksen: Yeah, well, that’ll be all right.

President Johnson: I don’t know what the story is. My . . . I’ve met—I know this one, but—pleasantly, but not well.

Dirksen: Yeah.

President Johnson: I knew his father well.

Dirksen: Yes.

President Johnson: And I liked his father.

Dirksen: Yeah, one other thing while you’re on . . . [continues on different topics]

April 25, 1966  |  WH6604.04 #10049

Admiral John McCain, Jr.’s 4th Star
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President Johnson: [Everett] Dirksen’s calling and he’s all upset about [Admiral John] McCain, again. He wants him to be Chief of Naval Operations.

Robert McNamara: Oh, boy. That’s just impossible.

President Johnson: A fourth star, or something.

McNamara: Yeah.

President Johnson: And he’s listed four or five things. I told him I didn’t know anything about it, I took my recommendation from you, and I’d ask you to come see him some time in the next two or three days.

McNamara: Right, I sure will.

President Johnson: I don’t know whether McCain’s in town or what it is, but it seemed like he’s up with [Arthur] Goldberg, and maybe Goldberg’s urging something be done for him. I don’t know. They may have a deal on him.

McNamara: Well, we’ll just have to do something, that’s all. I don’t know—

President Johnson: He’s got—He says that there’s a change of some kind in prospect and that there’s a command of the Atlantic [Fleet] or command of the Pacific [Fleet] or command of something, and . . . Is McCain a competent fellow?

McNamara: I’m told he isn’t, Mr. President. I don’t know him very well myself. I work with him off and on. He’s a nice little fellow, talks well, pleasing appearance, but is not a good, strong, tough commander and couldn’t therefore be Commander-in-Chief of the Atlantic [Fleet] or Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific or something like that, both of which are 4-star jobs and neither of which, by the way, is open and as far as I know won’t be open anytime soon. But there are other 4-star jobs around here and conceivably we can find one we could put him in. I think the thing for me to do is first of all get a list of all 4-star jobs, just look at them myself, and see what I could figure out.3

President Johnson: I think that’s right. Then go sit down with Dirksen and try to keep him on board.

McNamara: I sure will.

President Johnson: What about our MiGs, last night?

The conversation then turns to an update on recent military developments in Vietnam.

Admiral John S. “Jack” McCain, Jr., was up for consideration to become Richard Nixon’s “supreme allied commander” in Vietnam in May of 1972.

General Creighton W. Abrams, commander of the U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), had angered Nixon by countermanding one of the President’s orders during North Vietnam’s Easter Offensive of 1972. In the first week of May, Nixon ordered a retaliatory B-52 strike on the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi and its largest port, Haiphong. Abrams, however, believed he needed every B-52 at his disposal to use against North Vietnamese forces that were then engaged in a full-scale invasion of South Vietnam. Abrams postponed the strike the President had ordered. Nixon wanted to divert B-52s “away hunting rabbits while the backyard was filled with lions,” Abrams told another general. Nixon decided to recall Abrams.

Admiral McCain, then the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Command headquartered in Hawaii, was Abrams’ immediate superior. McCain was slated to retire that summer. Nixon, determined not to have future orders countermanded, discussed putting McCain in charge during a May 4, 1972, conversation with Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander M. Haig.

May 5, 1972 | 2:10-3:15pm | Executive Office Building | Conversation 335-033

The “Little Admiral”
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President Nixon: The other thing that occurred to me, you know, Al, is this: Is there a [unclear] command? In other words, is CINCPAC in charge of the mining as they were in charge of the war in South Vietnam?5

Alexander M. Haig: That’s right. So—

President Nixon: I think I have a solution for this situation. I think we—I just feel so—let me tell you—let me be quite blunt. I’m sure you know how much is on the line here. There’s no question from a personal standpoint—and I told [National Security Adviser] Henry [Kissinger] forget this part, don’t worry as much about it—from a personal standpoint as I’ve told you [unclear] we are very seriously jeopardizing [unclear] in my view, critically, desperately jeopardizing the summit. We’re seriously jeopardizing the election. I understand that. But we’re doing it for a cause that is more important, and that is not losing a war. By that I mean the United States not losing a war.

Haig: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: [Unclear.] With all that on the line, we can’t crap around with a half-assed command. I would like to put in charge . . . maybe—why can’t we have a supreme allied commander for the Southeast Asian area? What I’m getting at is this: I can’t—if I had the little admiral, I’d leave him, you know what I mean?6

Haig: Oh, he actually is in command, sir. [Admiral John S.] McCain. McCain is.

President Nixon: But he’s not there now. He left them.

Haig: Oh, no, he’s still there. He’ll be there until tomorrow. He’s still there. In fact, he’s already got a plan ready to . . . we’ve got a [unclear] plan that starts today with these—

President Nixon: Well, now, look, how about having the little admiral all that—how about giving the goddamn commands, me direct to the admiral? Can he tell [General Creighton W.] Abrams [Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam] what to do or can’t he tell Abrams what to do? I just want to know.

Haig: He can.

President Nixon: I have more confidence in the admiral than I have in Abrams, basically. I think the admiral—actually, you know, he’s got a son who’s a POW.

Haig: That’s right.

President Nixon: And he is a hard-line little son of a bitch. Now, I know he’ll make the mining work. But for example, with regard to the allocation of bombers and everything else, I want him to do it rather than Abrams. And I have no confidence in Abrams because of the fact that [Defense Secretary Melvin R.] Laird is too close to him. I know you respect him as a great soldier and I do, too.

Haig: No, well—

President Nixon: I think he’s run his course. That’s all.

Haig: That’s true. But also what’s fundamentally true is that, and we got confirmation back from [U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ellsworth F.] Bunker on the fact that [unclear].

President Nixon: Laird’s been [unclear].

Haig: Laird has been giving him contrary instructions. That's an incredible position for that man to be in.

President Nixon: Well, how will we get direct communications with Abrams? Through Bunker? Backchannel through Bunker?

Haig: We had done that before yesterday’s meeting.

President Nixon: How?

Haig: We told Bunker to meet with Abrams and to tell him [unclear] absolutely astonishing [unclear] our trip [unclear] recognizing we’re dealing with far more important [unclear]—

President Nixon: That isn’t enough. I want a message to go directly to Abrams from me, signed by the President of the United States. Abrams’ Eyes Only. “During the next critical—” or “In the next critical three months you are to report directly to me and to take orders directly from me in those cases that I consider vital to the success of our operation.” Now just send that telegram.

[Edit.]

President Nixon: The communication is to be direct through back channel not through Laird and not through the chairman of the chiefs.

Haig: We have a special machine.

President Nixon: Tell him that I will in my judgment determine when it is necessary to inform the Secretary of Defense and the rest. Now listen, I tell him that, and you think he can be trusted with that kind of a message?

Haig: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: All right, send it to him.

Haig: Especially after the one he's just [unclear].

President Nixon: Send it to him. From me. Now we’re gonna get this straight.

[Edit.]

Haig: No, we have two options. I mean, one is to pull him out and replace him.

President Nixon: That we can’t do. You agree we can’t do that?

Haig: I think it would be a high-risk move.

President Nixon: Yeah. OK.

Haig: Because in my heart I know that the poor bastard’s been whipsawed.

President Nixon: All right, fine. We won’t do it now. Go ahead.

Haig: If you put anybody over his shoulder, the man would be, especially [unclear] it wouldn’t be of any value.

President Nixon: [Unclear.] But if, Al, winning or losing this war depends upon hurting his feelings.

Haig: No, no, don’t worry about his feelings.

President Nixon: Well, what about it, [unclear], just pull him out? Shake up that command?

Haig: My only fear about pulling him out is not him at all. It is the fear of the demonstration that we think something’s failed. And that Vietnamization’s failed. And that the ARVN [Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam] will derive the same kind of psychological picture from it. I feel far less—

President Nixon: All right, the thing to do—

Haig: —[unclear] to do it after you’ve done what you’ve done.

President Nixon: So you would do this first. Oh, I don’t mean to do it now. I meant, though, that after I’ve executed this plan, taken this bold move, I just feel then that I—

Unclear exchange.

Haig: The sooner he’s out of there, the better.

[Edit.]

President Nixon: What?

Haig: The sooner he’s out of there, the better.

President Nixon: All right, now, my point is, after we’ve ordered the blockade, do you think we could do it?

Haig: That would be far more manageable—

President Nixon: How would it be more manageable?

Haig: —but only if we get a very strong man to replace him.

President Nixon: Well, can that little guy do it? I don’t know whether he’s all that impressive. He may be a damn good division commander, but division commanders sometimes aren’t—

Haig: Yes, he doesn’t work well with army, and that’s above all what you need there now [unclear]. We don’t have any troops to fight of our own. He’s a great tactician and a great division commander. We need a man that can work [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu over and [unclear] and dominate that South Vietnamese military.

[Edit.]

President Nixon: Now the little admiral, do you have confidence in him? You don’t. Not much.

Haig: I don’t have much confidence in his brainpower. His heart is great.

President Nixon: I see.

Haig: His heart is great.

President Nixon: Then we’ve got to decide this one here, huh? Well, you see, my point is, who the hell’s the commander in there? Who’s gonna run this damn thing? This coordinated business, Al, for example, [unclear] you determine, are you going to use your airpower in Hue or are you going to use it to take out a dam in North Vietnam? Goddamn it, that should not be done in a half-assed way where two commanders send in different [unclear]. You see my point?

Haig: Yes, I do, and we had some real difficulty [unclear] a guy sitting in Hawaii.

Nixon announced the bombing of the North and the mining of its harbors in a May 8, 1972, television speech. He dispatched Vice President Spiro T. Agnew to Vietnam. Abrams stuck by his guns, telling Agnew that if not for the deployment of B-52s against invading Communist troops on the ground, South Vietnam would not have survived. Agnew also spoke to Admiral McCain, who had his own complaint about the bombing of the North.

May 19, 1972 | 10:30-11:42am | Oval Office | Conversation 726-001

“He’s a Little Fighter and He’s on Our Side”
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Spiro Agnew: Apparently, the attitude that I understood was that there’s some remorse over the fact that there have again been limits put on bombing, the fact that they can’t—

President Nixon: Now what in the hell is—

Henry Kissinger: Those sons of bitches of the Air Force! I—

President Nixon: What are they talking about?

Kissinger: If we hit this once more, I’m going to recommend to the President to fire that bastard of a Chief of Staff of the Air Force. There are no limits on the bombing.

Agnew: [Unclear] he’s raising hell, he can’t go inside these limits.

Kissinger: He cannot go for the next two weeks inside of 10 miles of Hanoi. That’s the only limit that’s been put on.

President Nixon: For God’s sakes, the goddamn Air Force won’t bomb where we talked about.

Kissinger: Exactly! For the last week, these bastards, we’ve told them to bomb, to take out the targets within this 10-mile circle because we had promised the Russians while we were in Moscow we wouldn’t bomb inside Hanoi. They asked us not to bomb above the 20th parallel; we rejected it. They asked us not to bomb Hanoi, Haiphong, we rejected it. They said, you cannot bomb the capital of an allied country—

President Nixon: He said, you might knock off the Russian embassy.

Kissinger: But then—

President Nixon: The Air Force, now who’s—

Kissinger: These bastards—

President Nixon: Who’d you get this from? Abrams?

Agnew: McCain. McCain and—

Kissinger: But these bastards, it’s an outrage. These bastards are thinking only of their own alibis.

President Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: For a week, Mr. Vice President, I have told those guys, bomb inside that circle—

President Nixon: [into phone] Admiral [Thomas H.] Moorer [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff], please.

Kissinger: —to take care of these targets.

President Nixon: Admiral Moorer.

Kissinger: I think he’s in my office.

[Edit.]

President Nixon: They’ve never been given the latitude—the Air Force just dropped the ball in a miserable way. They aren’t worth a goddamn. They aren’t worth a goddamn. Incidentally, I want the head of that son of a bitch at the Air Force [General John D.] Ryan today. He’s out. Out, out, out.

Kissinger: I mean, they’ve been bitching around town—

President Nixon: Right!

Kissinger: —and I’ve been—I’ve not been telling it to the President, because I’ve—

President Nixon: Well, for God’s sakes, they’ve never had such—they’ve got total freedom to bomb anyplace they want.

Kissinger: Of course.

President Nixon: And they know it. And they are refusing. They’re the ones that haven’t been—

Kissinger: We have been kicking their asses—

President Nixon: —but they’re scared. They’re scared to go in if the ceiling is not—

Kissinger: They won’t—

President Nixon: —five thousand. The goddamn Israelis will fly at [unclear].

[Edit.]

President Nixon: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Ryan has got to get off his goddamn ass or he’s out. I’m tired of him anyway. He’s a soft man. I mean, of course, he should be, I mean, his son killed and all that sort of thing, but let me say, you know and I know, I’ve ordered that goddamn Air Force time and time and again to do anything, and they can’t bomb, because they say they need a 4,000-foot ceiling. You know and I know that they do not have restrictions. The only restriction they’ve got is the one within ten miles of Hanoi at the present time, which they didn’t have before and the Air Force didn’t do a goddamn thing for the last three days, as you know. Not one goddamn thing in North Vietnam, because the little bastards were afraid that they might not—they might lose a plane because they couldn’t see. I am tired of this bullshit. It’s been in every paper in this town. They’re telling the Vice President this. As you know, they’re whining around. Now, never have they had the backing they’ve got today and I want the military to shape up or there’s going to be a new Chief of Staff all up and down the line. Now you go take care of it [slams desk] right now. Is that clear?

Thomas Moorer: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: Now get off your ass. Now I want you to get that son of a bitch Ryan on the phone. I want you to get McCain on the phone. Are you restricted?

Moorer: No, sir, except for this [unclear].

President Nixon: Yeah, yeah. Are you bitching about it?

Moorer: No, sir.

President Nixon: What the hell is the matter with these people? Why are they whining? Because they’re afraid to go in and do the job that they’ve been ordered to do? What in the hell is the matter with them now?

Moorer: [Unclear.]

President Nixon: That is absolutely false. Not only have they been able, but I have watched every day, and the goddamn air force doesn’t go back, because they’re afraid that the weather isn’t good enough. They’ve got to have 5,000-foot ceilings. The goddamned Israelis fly at a thousand-foot ceilings. Now tell them to get off their goddamn ass and do the job. And I, like, for example, I want some -52s to hit them. Oh, no, Abrams needs them in the South. All right, fine, we’ll keep them in the South, but for Christ’s sakes, why does the air force constantly undercut us and bitch when they’ve never been backed as they're backed today. Tell them to do the job. Now incidentally, I really mean it. Ryan is going to have a resignation on this desk. I’ll fire his ass out of here unless he gets some discipline in that outfit. Is that clear?

Moorer: Yes, sir

President Nixon: Now get off your ass. Now I want you to get that son of a bitch Ryan on the phone. I want you to get McCain on the phone. Are you restricted?

Moorer: No, sir, except for this [unclear].

President Nixon: Yeah, yeah. Are you bitching about it?

Moorer: No, sir.

President Nixon: What the hell is the matter with these people? Why are they whining? Because they’re afraid to go in and do the job that they’ve been ordered to do? What in the hell is the matter with them now?

Moorer: [Unclear.]

Agnew: I must say that, for example, there was a spot where they had taken out some very important rail that if they had been able to go back and really take it out, they were told they couldn’t go back, so . . .

President Nixon: Now that is absolutely false.

Moorer: [Unclear.]

President Nixon: [Unclear.]

Moorer: Yes, Mr. President, [unclear] they dispatched [unclear] about 40 percent of the [unclear].

President Nixon: But why are they bitching to the Vice President of the United States that the President is limiting what they can do. Now why are they saying that? Now, it’s not true.

Agnew: They are complaining about the restricted areas.

Kissinger: There are no restricted areas.

President Nixon: There are none. What the hell is restricted?

Agnew: I guess they’re talking about that 10-mile—

President Nixon: No, no, no, it wasn’t there when you—

Kissinger: The 10-mile limit only goes into effect tomorrow morning.

President Nixon: Tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning. It hasn’t even been there.

Agnew: That’s what they’re talking about.

President Nixon: Well, we have—talking about it? Bullshit, they just told you, I mean, you’ve got to get your story a little bit straight here, too. They told you they couldn’t go back and get the railroad. There has been absolutely no restriction whatever. There’ll be no limit until tomorrow morning. Now let’s get this straight, and I want to shape up this goddamn outfit. Now you shape it up.

Moorer: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: That’s your job.

Moorer: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: And get it done fast.

Moorer: Yes, sir.

President Nixon: Make some heads roll. All right.

[Edit.]

Kissinger: There’s a restriction that they can’t closer than 20 miles to the Chinese border—

President Nixon: Which, of course is for their own protection, so they don’t get their ass shot.

Kissinger: But there are only two bridges in there, of which we gave them special permission to knock one out, which they did.

President Nixon: Right, which is 12 miles from it. But the one in Hanoi makes sense for a week because we don’t want to have a bomb drop on the Russian embassy, let’s face it.

[Edit.]

Kissinger: You were the one that made them fly up North to begin with. They didn’t want to do it.

President Nixon: They didn’t want to go there. Abrams flatly refused to go until I ordered him to do it.

Kissinger: Every B-52 strike in the North you’ve rammed down their throats. They didn’t want to do it. We’ve had to order it from here against cables from the air force and Abrams telling us not to do it.

[Edit.]

Agnew: [Admiral John S. "Jack"] McCain [Jr.] has asked that [unclear] relay his thoughts. He’s very upset about his coming retirement and he says, “Right now, please don’t take me out of here.”

President Nixon: We’re not going do it. We’re going to keep him.

Agnew: I’ve got to say, I think the guy’s—

President Nixon: Well, he’s a fighter. His son is a prisoner of war, you know.

Agnew: Yeah.

President Nixon: And he’s a little fighter and he’s on our side, so as a matter of fact we’ve decided to extend him. Just for your information. I just told him that we’re extending his duties [unclear].

Agnew: That’s wonderful.

President Nixon: How does [General Creighton W.] Abrams impress you? Is he getting a little bit of . . . he’s got such a thick head that it’s hard [unclear].

Agnew: Uh, he’s very emotional about this.

President Nixon: Is he?

Agnew: Particularly the bomb allocation. He’s very defensive. He’s got a [unclear] out of this attack on Hanoi [unclear].

President Nixon: He doesn’t want to hit the North?

Agnew: He wants to, but he says we can’t let any of these places collapse because South Vietnamese morale is involved. [Unclear] and then he said we could move the bombing once we stabilize these areas. And of course [South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van] Thieu agrees with that strategy.

McCain’s complaint had political implications. Throughout the Vietnam War, conservatives had claimed that restrictions on military action, particularly on bombing targets in North Vietnam, were hindering the war effort. Despite Nixon’s anger, Air Force Chief of Staff John D. Ryan kept his job until the following year, but the incident dampened his enthusiasm for Admiral McCain.

May 19, 1972 | 12:55-1:04pm | Oval Office | Conversation 726-008

“I Just Gave Hell to McCain”
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President Nixon: The Pentagon is bad. Bunch of spineless bastards.

Henry A. Kissinger: Well, I just gave hell to [Admiral John S. "Jack"] McCain [Jr.].

William J. Porter: Yes.

President Nixon: Well, the thing—what’d he say?

Kissinger: Well, I said—

President Nixon: [Unclear.] You know Agnew. Now [Vice President Spiro T.] Agnew is a [unclear]. Agnew is a wonderful guy, he’s a super-hawk, very simplistic even if he understands these things. So he goes out there and McCain says, “Oh, gee whiz, we’d do a lot better but our orders restrict us in bombing the North. That’s just bullshit, absolute—they have restricted themselves. They won’t bomb. They haven’t bombed for four days because they say the ceiling isn’t high enough. Five thousand feet, now for Christ’s sakes, how in the name of God, I mean, we should be hitting the North before this trip every goddamned day. Right?

Porter: Yes.

Unclear exchange.

President Nixon: What’d McCain say?

Kissinger: Well, he said he’d have to check into . . . I said I’ve never seen the President so angry. I said—

President Nixon: Yeah, well, he’s going to see it a lot more, because he’s supposed to be our guy.

Kissinger: I said—

President Nixon: And he wants to stay on the job, and I want him to stay on, I like him. But not this way. He’s going to start taking his orders from here, or else. Now, I’m not going to have this crap anymore.

McCain’s retirement went ahead as scheduled. Nixon removed Abrams from Vietnam by promoting him to Army Chief of Staff. His replacement as commander of MACV was his deputy, General Frederick C. Weyand.

  • 1. Draft transcript
  • 2. Draft transcript
  • 3. This recording was originally released with McNamara's comments excised. In response to a Mandatory Review Request initiated by David Coleman, the archivists at the LBJ Library reviewed the excised portion and judged that it could be released. This section of the recording was publicly released in early August 2008 along with the LBJL transcript, a copy of which is available here. Later in the same conversation there is another, shorter excision related to national security information; that portion remains closed.
  • 4. Draft transcript
  • 5. Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Command Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., the father of Senator John S. McCain, R-Arizona.
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. Draft transcript
  • 8. Draft transcript

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