American Pravda: Mutually-Assured Political Destruction – Ron Unz 9/18/23


I launched my American Pravda series just over a decade ago and during the last five years it has grown enormously, now including many dozens of individual articles and encompassing more than a half-million words of text. I’d still stand behind at least 99% of its contents, and the series probably constitutes one of the most comprehensive historical counter-narratives of the modern era found anywhere on the Internet.

Yet its roots actually go back a few years earlier than that and the entire series might never have come into existence if a link on a fringe website hadn’t caught my eye. I told that story in a short piece I published in 2010:

In the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign, I clicked an ambiguous link on an obscure website and stumbled into a parallel universe.

During the previous two years of that long election cycle, the media narrative surrounding Sen. John McCain had been one of unblemished heroism and selfless devotion to his fellow servicemen. Thousands of stories on television and in print had told of his brutal torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors, his steely refusal to crack, and his later political career aimed at serving the needs of fellow Vietnam veterans. This storyline had first reached the national stage during his 2000 campaign, then returned with even greater force as he successfully sought the 2008 Republican nomination. Seemingly accepted by all, this history became a centerpiece of his campaign. McCain’s supporters touted his heroism as proof that he possessed the character to be entrusted with America’s highest office, while his detractors merely sought to change the subject.

Once I clicked that link, I encountered a very different John McCain.

I read copious, detailed evidence that hundreds of American POWs had been condemned to death at enemy hands by top American leaders, apparently because their safe return home would have constituted a major political embarrassment. I found documentation that the cover-up of this betrayal had gone on for decades, eventually drawing in a certain Arizona senator. According to this remarkable reconstruction of events, the average teenage moviegoer of the 1980s watching mindless action films such as “Rambo,” “Missing in Action,” and “Uncommon Valor” was seeing reality portrayed on screen, while the policy expert reading sober articles in the pages of The New Republic and The Atlantic was absorbing lies and propaganda. Since I had been believing those very articles, this was a stunning revelation.

But was this alternate description of reality correct? Could this one article be true and all the countless contrary pieces I had read in America’s most prestigious publications be false, merely the presentation of official propaganda endlessly repeated? I cannot say. I am not an expert on the history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

Yet consider the source. The author of that remarkable 8,000-word exposé—“McCain and the POW Cover-Up,” published on The Nation Institute’s website—was Sydney Schanberg, one of America’s foremost Vietnam War journalists. His reporting won him a Pulitzer Prize, and his subsequent book on Cambodia was made into “The Killing Fields,” an Oscar-winning movie. Schanberg later served as one of the highest-ranking editors at the New York Times, with a third of the reporters at our national newspaper of record working under him. A case can be made that no living American journalist can write with greater credibility on Vietnam War matters. And he had labored for years researching and exhaustively documenting the story of American POWs abandoned in Indochina—a story that if true might easily represent the single greatest act of national dishonor ever committed by our political leaders.

He presented a mass of evidence with names, dates, and documentary detail. Many of the individuals mentioned are still alive and could be interviewed or called to testify. Sealed government records could be ordered unsealed. If America wishes to determine the truth, it can do so.

In the years following the 9/11 Attacks and the Iraq War WMDs, I’d grown increasingly suspicious of the mainstream media, beginning to suspect that it was far less reliable than I’d always assumed. The growth of the Internet had unleashed a vast torrent of additional material, much of it from alternative or fringe sources that sometimes made wild, conspiratorial claims about all sorts of things. My own views on such matters had always been quite mainstream and conventional, so I was very reluctant to abandon a lifetime of media habits and begin navigating an information jungle of implausible or often contradictory claims. Could I really take that sort of material seriously compared to the professionally-printed pages of my regular newspapers and magazines?

However, I explained that Sydney Schanberg’s astonishing John McCain revelations had finally tipped the balance and forced me to recognize that I had long been living in a world of comforting illusions based upon media lies:

Yet what I found most remarkable about Schanberg’s essay were not its explosive historical claims but the absolute silence with which they were received in the mainstream media. In 2008, John McCain’s heroic war record and personal patriotism were central to his quest for supreme power—a goal he came very close to achieving. But when one of America’s most eminent journalists published an exhaustive report that the candidate had instead served as one of the leading figures in a monumental act of national treachery, our media took no notice. McCain’s public critics and the operatives of his Democratic opponent might eagerly seize upon every rumor that the senator had had a private lunch with a disreputable corporate lobbyist, but they ignored documented claims that he had covered up the killing of hundreds of American POWs. These allegations were serious enough and sufficiently documented to warrant national attention—yet they received none.

A couple of years ago, in one of my last exchanges with my late friend Lt. Gen. Bill Odom, who ran the National Security Agency for President Ronald Reagan, we agreed a case could be made that today’s major American media had become just as dishonest and unreliable as the old Soviet propaganda outlets of the late 1970s. At the time, we were discussing the coverage of our road to the Iraq War, but subsequent events have demonstrated that this national illness is far more advanced than either of us had suspected. Whether or not Schanberg is proven correct, the shameful cowardice of our mainstream media is already proven by the wall of silence surrounding his work.

  • American Pravda: Was Rambo Right?
    Hundreds of POWs may have been left to die in Vietnam, abandoned by their government—and our media
    Ron Unz • The American Conservative • May 25, 2010 • 1,300 Words

Once a single large hole has breached a dam of disbelief, the forces of hydraulic pressure will steadily widen it, and I gradually became convinced that many of the astonishing claims I’d seen mentioned on alternative websites over the years were probably correct. Three years later, I published my original American Pravda article, summarizing much of that surprising material.

A couple of years after that I delved much deeper into the John McCain story and concluded that it was far more shocking than I had realized. I found very strong evidence that the senator had spent most of his Vietnam War years serving as a leading Communist propagandist and collaborator, then afterward returned home to be proclaimed one of our greatest war heroes and soon launched his very successful political career based upon that foundation. A story like that was so twisted and implausible it surely would never have passed muster even as a satirical Hollywood film, but it seemed to be true. I summarized this apparent history and the broader implications in a 2015 article that represented something of a sequel to Schanberg’s seminal McCain/POW blockbuster.

A year or two after we had republished Schanberg’s remarkable McCain expose as part of our cover-symposium, someone had released a video on Youtube that collected together portions of interviews by those accusing McCain of concealing his true Vietnam War record. Although I only very recently came across it, the claims made seem generally correct.

McCain’s eventual death in 2019 unleashed a flood of adulation and sorrow that swept across nearly every prominent organ of the mainstream media, with most of these pieces scarcely containing a single skeptical paragraph. This complete airbrushing of McCain’s very questionable record had troubling implications that I explored in a long article, arguing that blackmail probably served as an important political lubricant within the higher reaches of the American government:

On the face of it, such undiluted political love for McCain might seem a bit odd to those who have followed his activities over the last couple of decades. After all, the Times and most of the other leading lights of our media firmament are purportedly liberal and claim to have become vehement critics of our disastrous Iraq War and other military adventures, let alone the calamitous possibility of an attack upon Iran. Meanwhile, McCain was universally regarded as the leading figure in America’s “War Party,” eagerly supporting all prospective and retrospective military endeavors with gleeful fury, and even making his chant of “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran” the most widely remembered detail of his unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign. So either our major media outlets somehow overlooked such striking differences on an absolutely central issue, or perhaps their true positions on certain matters are not exactly what they seem to be, and merely constitute elements of a Kabuki-performance aimed at deceiving their more naive readers.

Even more remarkable were the discordant facts airbrushed out of McCain’s history.

The story of the abandoned Vietnam POWs and McCain’s own Communist propaganda broadcasts hardly exhaust the catalog of the major skeletons in the late Senator’s closet. McCain was regularly described by reporters as being remarkably hot-headed and having a violent temper, but the national press left it to the alternative media to investigate the real-life implications of those rather suggestive phrases.

In a September 1, 2008 Counterpunch expose later published online, Alexander Cockburn reported that interviews with two emergency room physicians in Phoenix revealed that around the time that McCain was sucked into the political maelstrom of the Keating Five Scandal, his wife Cindy was admitted to her local hospital suffering from a black eye, facial bruises, and scratches consistent with physical violence, and this same situation occurred two additional times over the next few years. Cockburn also noted several other highly suspicious marital incidents during the years that followed, including the Senator’s wife appearing with a bandaged wrist and her arm in a sling not long after she joined her husband on the 2008 campaign trail, an injury reported by our strangely incurious political journalists as being due to “excessive hand-shaking.” It’s an odd situation when a tiny leftist newsletter can easily uncover facts that so totally eluded the vast resources of our entire national press corps. If there were credible reports that Melania Trump had repeatedly been admitted to local emergency rooms suffering from black eyes and facial bruises, would our corporate media have remained so uninterested in any further investigation?

McCain had first won his Arizona Congressional seat in 1982, not long after he moved into the state, with his campaign bankrolled by his father-in-law’s beer-distributorship fortune, and that inheritance eventually elevated the McCain household into one of the wealthiest in the Senate. But although the Senator spent the next quarter-century in public life, even nearly upsetting George W. Bush for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination, only in late 2008 did I learn from the Times that the Phoenix beer-monopoly in question, then valued at around $200 million, had accrued to a man whose lifelong business partner Kemper Marley had long been deeply linked to organized crime. Indeed, close associates of that latter individual had been convicted by a jury of the car-bomb assassination of a Phoenix investigative crime reporter just a few years before McCain’s sudden triumphal entrance into Arizona politics. Perhaps such guilt-by-association is improper, but would our national press-corps have remained silent if the personal fortune of our current president were only a step or two removed from the car-bomb assassins of an inquisitive journalist who died while investigating mobsters?

As I gradually became aware of these enormities casually hidden in McCain’s background, my initial reaction was disbelief that someone whose record was so deeply tarnished in so many different ways could ever have reached such a pinnacle of American political power. But as the media continued to avert its eyes from these newly revealed facts, even those disclosed in the pages of the Times itself, I gradually began to consider matters in a different light. Perhaps McCain’s elevation to great American political power was not in spite of the devastating facts littering his personal past, but because of them. As I wrote a few years ago:

Today when we consider the major countries of the world we see that in many cases the official leaders are also the leaders in actuality: Vladimir Putin calls the shots in Russia, Xi Jinping and his top Politburo colleagues do the same in China, and so forth. However, in America and in some other Western countries, this seems to be less and less the case, with top national figures merely being attractive front-men selected for their popular appeal and their political malleability, a development that may eventually have dire consequences for the nations they lead. As an extreme example, a drunken Boris Yeltsin freely allowed the looting of Russia’s entire national wealth by the handful of oligarchs who pulled his strings, and the result was the total impoverishment of the Russian people and a demographic collapse almost unprecedented in modern peacetime history.

An obvious problem with installing puppet rulers is the risk that they will attempt to cut their strings, much like Putin soon outmaneuvered and exiled his oligarch patron Boris Berezovsky. One means of minimizing such risk is to select puppets who are so deeply compromised that they can never break free, knowing that the political self-destruct charges buried deep within their pasts could easily be triggered if they sought independence. I have sometimes joked with my friends that perhaps the best career move for an ambitious young politician would be to secretly commit some monstrous crime and then make sure that the hard evidence of his guilt ended up in the hands of certain powerful people, thereby assuring his rapid political rise.

Once I properly understood the implications of the terrible secrets that had probably been used to control a powerful senator such as John McCain, other such examples became obvious, as I noted in one of those same articles:

John McCain is hardly the only prominent political figure whose problematic Vietnam War activities have at times come under harsh scrutiny but afterwards been airbrushed away and forgotten by our subservient corporate media. Just as McCain was widely regarded as the most prominent Republican war-hero of that conflict, his Democratic counterpart was probably Vietnam Medal of Honor winner Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and senator who had run for president in 1992 and then considered doing so again in the late 1990s.

His seemingly unblemished record of wartime heroism suddenly collapsed in 2001 with the publication of a devastating 8,000 word expose in The New York Times Magazine together with a Sixty Minutes II television segment. Detailed eyewitness testimony and documentary evidence persuasively established that Kerrey had ordered his men to massacre over a dozen innocent Vietnamese civilians—women, children, and infants—for being witnesses to his botched SEAL raid on a tiny Vietnamese hamlet, an action that somewhat recalled the infamous My Lai massacre of the previous year, though certainly on a much smaller scale. Kerrey’s initial response to these horrific accusations—that his memory of the incident was “foggy”—struck me as near-certain proof of his guilt, and others drew similar conclusions.

As a supposed war-hero and a moderate Democrat, Kerrey had always been very popular in political circles, but even the once-friendly New Republicwas shocked by the alacrity with which pundits and the media sought to absolve him of his apparent crimes. The revelations also seem to have had no impact on his tenure as president of the prestigious New School in New York City, an academic institution with an impeccable liberal reputation, which he held for another decade before leaving to make an unsuccessful attempt to recapture his old Senate seat in Nebraska. Bob Dreyfuss, a principled left-liberal journalist, might still characterize him as a “mass murderer” in a 2012 blog post at The Nation, but for years almost no one else in the mainstream media had ever alluded to the incident in any of the articles mentioning Kerrey’s activities, just as the media also completely ignored all of Schanberg’s remarkable revelations. I suspect that Kerrey’s war crimes have almost totally vanished from public consciousness.

We must always draw an important distinction between the actions of individual journalists and the behavior of the American media taken as a whole. I believe that the overwhelming majority of reporters and editors are honest and sincere, and although their coverage may sometimes be slanted or mistaken, they do seek to inform rather than to mislead. Consider how many of the explosive facts discussed above or in Schanberg’s massive expose were drawn directly from the New York Times and other leading media outlets. But after those crucial stories run, the facts they have established often seem to vanish from subsequent coverage, causing them to be forgotten by most casual readers. Thus, the detailed account of Kerrey’s apparent massacre of civilians received the greatest possible initial coverage—a huge cover story in The New York Times Magazine and a top-rated CBS News television segment—but within a year or so the history had seemingly been flushed down the memory hole by almost all political reporters. The facts are still available for interested readers to uncover, but the latter must do the work themselves rather than simply relying upon the summary narratives produced by mainstream publications.

The realization that many of our political leaders may be harboring such terrible personal secrets, secrets that our media outlets regularly conceal, raises an important policy implication independent of the particular secrets themselves. In recent years I have increasingly begun to suspect that some or even many of our national leaders may occasionally make their seemingly inexplicable policy decisions under the looming threat of personal blackmail, and that this may have also been true in the past.

Consider the intriguing case of J. Edgar Hoover, who spent nearly half a century running our domestic intelligence service, the FBI. Over those many decades he accumulated detailed files on vast numbers of prominent people and most historians agree that he regularly used such highly sensitive material to gain the upper hand in disputes with his nominal political masters and also to bend other public figures to his will. Meanwhile, he himself was hardly immune from similar pressures. These days it is widely believed that Hoover lived his long life as a deeply closeted homosexual and there are also serious claims that he had some hidden black ancestry, a possibility that seems quite plausible to me given his features. Such painful personal secrets may be connected with Hoover’s long denials that organized crime actually existed in America and his great reluctance to allocate significant FBI resources to combat it.

That last example of the likely sexual secrets held over Hoover seemed to represent the most typical form of political blackmail. Indeed, as I noted, such methods had apparently been widely used to exert control over powerful political figures, both earlier in the twentieth century and in more recent years:

In physics, when an object deviates from its expected trajectory for inexplicable reasons, we assume that some unknown force has been at work, and tracing the record of such deviations may help to determine the characteristic properties of the latter. Over the years, I’ve increasingly become aware of such strange ideological deviations in public policy, and although some are readily explained, others suggest the existence of hidden forces far beneath the surface of our regular political world. This same situation may have occurred throughout our history, and sometimes the reasons for political decisions that so baffled contemporaries eventually came to light decades later.

In The Dark Side of Camelot, famed investigative reporter Seymour Hersh claimed that secret blackmail evidence of JFK’s extra-marital affairs probably played a crucial role in having his administration overrule the unanimous verdict of all top Pentagon advisors and award the largest military procurement contract in U.S. history to General Dynamics instead of Boeing, thereby saving the former company from likely bankruptcy and its major organized-crime shareholders from devastating financial losses. Hersh also suggests that a similar factor likely explains JFK’s last-minute reversal in the choice of his Vice President, a decision that landed Lyndon Johnson on the 1960 ticket and placed him in the White House after Kennedy’s 1963 assassination.

As I recently mentioned, Sen. Estes Kefauver shifted the focus of his 1950s Organized Crime Hearings after the Chicago Syndicate confronted him with the photographs of his sexual encounter with two mob-supplied women. A decade later, California Attorney-General Stanley Mosk suffered much the same fate, with the facts remaining hidden for over twenty years.

Similar rumors swirl around events much farther back in history as well, sometimes with enormous consequences. Well-placed contemporary sources have claimed that Samuel Untermyer, a wealthy Jewish lawyer, purchased the secret correspondence between Woodrow Wilson and his longtime mistress, and that the existence of that powerful leverage may have been an important factor behind Wilson’s astonishingly rapid rise from president of Princeton in 1910 to governor of New Jersey in 1911 to president of the United States in 1912. Once in office, Wilson signed the controversial legislation establishing the Federal Reserve system in 1913 and also named Louis Brandeis as the first Jewish member of the U.S. Supreme Court despite the public opposition of nearly our entire legal establishment. Wilson’s swiftly changing views on American involvement in the First World War may also have been influenced by such personal pressures rather than solely determined by his perceptions of the national interest.

Without naming any names, since 2001 it has been difficult to avoid noticing that one of the most zealous and committed supporters of the Neocon party-line on all Middle Eastern foreign policy matters has been a leading Republican senator from one of the most socially-conservative Southern states, a man whose rumored personal inclinations have long circulated on the Internet. The strikingly-sudden reversal of this individual on a major policy question certainly supports these suspicions. There have also been several other such examples involving prominent Republicans.

The decades-long career of the late Jeffrey Epstein seems to have been almost entirely focused upon accumulating a large portfolio of such sexual blackmail evidence against powerful figures in business, finance, and politics.

Once we recognize the likely role of blackmail, we can easily understand many puzzling aspects of the near-total immunity from serious media scrutiny that Sen. John McCain had enjoyed throughout his long political career. One or more powerful hidden factions or puppet-masters probably owned and controlled him, and as a leading Senator, he was an immensely valuable political asset, one that needed to be protected from exposure at all costs. Indeed, I had closed that same article by noting that this protection even extended past the end of his life:

The senator had died on a Saturday afternoon, and readership of Sydney Schanberg’s long 2008 expose quickly exploded, with numerous individuals Tweeting out the story and a large fraction of our incoming traffic therefore coming from Twitter. This continued until the following morning, at which point the huge flood of Tweets continued to grow, but all incoming Twitter traffic suddenly and permanently vanished, presumably because “shadow banning” had rendered those Tweets invisible. My own article on McCain’s very doubtful war record simultaneously suffered the same fate, as did numerous other articles of a controversial nature that we published later that same week.

Perhaps that censorship decision was made by some ignorant young intern at Twitter, casually choosing to ban as “hate speech” or “fake news” a massively-documented 8,400 word expose by one of America’s most distinguished journalists, a Pulitzer-prize winning former top editor at The New York Times.

Or perhaps certain political-puppeteers who had spent decades controlling that late Arizona senator sought to ensure that their political puppet-strings remained invisible even after his death.

Despite all these revelations, one puzzling question still always remained in my mind. Under normal political circumstances, McCain’s hidden masters might have easily warded off any coverage of his true wartime record, but why would his Democratic opponents have given him a pass on that same issue during the heated 2008 Presidential campaign?…

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