This is one of the best stories I have ever read about honor. It appeared in the Wall Street Journal a while ago but it will always be worth reading.
To do justice to the life and accomplishments of Henry Kissinger would take—as Henry would be the first to agree—a vehicle longer than my few brief remarks. A mere single-volume biography couldn’t really manage the task competently, could it, Henry?
So I’ll limit my remarks to recalling one anecdote that I think illuminates the character of my friend.
For several years, a long time ago, I struggled to preserve my honor in a situation where it was severely tested. The longer you struggle with something, the more you come to cherish it. And after a while, my honor, which in that situation was entirely invested in my relations and the reputation I had with my fellow POWs, became not just my most cherished possession, it was my only possession. I had nothing else left.
When Henry came to Hanoi to conclude the agreement that would end America’s war in Vietnam, the Vietnamese told him they would send me home with him. He refused the offer. “Commander McCain will return in the same order as the others,” he told them. He knew my early release would be seen as favoritism to my father and a violation of our code of conduct. By rejecting this last attempt to suborn a dereliction of duty, Henry saved my reputation, my honor, my life, really. And I’ve owed him a debt ever since.
So, I salute my friend and benefactor, Henry Kissinger, the classical realist who did so much to make the world safer for his country’s interests, and by so doing safer for the ideals that are its pride and purpose. And who, out of his sense of duty and honor, once saved a man he never met.