The U.S. Institute of Peace mourns the loss of Senator John McCain, a military veteran who personally bore the costs of war and used his experience to seek reconciliation with former foes. Senator McCain was admired across the United States and abroad for his candor and his example in prioritizing national and human values over partisan politics. A former combat pilot during the Vietnam War, McCain became a leader in seeking American reconciliation and peace with the country where he fought, was captured and imprisoned, and suffered physical torture.

Senator John McCain delivered the 2011 Dean Acheson Lecture at the U.S. Institute of Peace, May 19, 2011.
Senator John McCain delivers the 2011 Dean Acheson Lecture at the U.S. Institute of Peace, May 19, 2011.

“Senator McCain was fearless in his support for human rights and a just peace around the world,” said USIP President Nancy Lindborg. She noted that McCain was a frequent partner of the Institute. 

“We are grateful for his steadfast support of USIP over the decades,” Lindborg said. “USIP was founded by Americans who, like Senator McCain, fought in the devastating wars of the 20th century, who understood deeply the costs of war, and who valued a having a national institution dedicated to resolving human conflict without violence. All of us at USIP, like our country, will greatly miss him.”

Vietnam: War and Reconciliation

John Sidney McCain III was born in 1936 on a naval air station in the Panama Canal Zone, the son and grandson of four-star Navy admirals. He followed them to study at the Naval Academy at Annapolis. With the Vietnam War raging, McCain was assigned as a combat pilot to duty aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific. On a 1967 bombing mission over the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, McCain was shot down and captured. He remained a prisoner of war for more than five years, during which he suffered physical torture and abuse.

Two decades later, McCain helped lead bipartisan U.S. efforts to build reconciliation and normal relations with Vietnam. In Congress and through his leadership of the International Republican Institute, McCain also steadily pressed Vietnam to improve governance and human rights as the country’s only way to ensure long-term stability and prosperity. Speaking to Americans and Vietnamese in 2010, he said: “Perhaps my greatest hope for the U.S.-Vietnam relationship is this—that our current partnership of common interests will ultimately become a partnership of common values as well. The tolerance of peaceful dissent, the protection of freedom and human rights, and rule by the consent of the governed—these are not causes of weakness; they are the most enduring sources of strength for states and societies in the modern world.”

In 2015, Senator McCain joined Vietnamese Embassy diplomats at the U.S. Institute of Peace to celebrate the countries’ restoration of diplomatic relations. Standing before the two national flags, he recounted a personal conviction—that reconciliation is both a pragmatic national policy and an essential personal step for those who have suffered war’s costs. In an essay on the theme, McCain wrote: “from the moment I regained my freedom I was intent on not letting Vietnam, or at least the most difficult memories of my time there, intrude on my future happiness. Looking back in anger at any experience is self-destructive, and I am grateful to have avoided it.”

Senator John McCain listens to testimony from USIP staff member Andrew Wilder at a hearing on the war in Afghanistan in 2013.
Senator John McCain listens to testimony from USIP staff member Andrew Wilder at a hearing on the war in Afghanistan in 2013.

On Preventing War

McCain’s conversion of his wartime experience into a campaign for reconciliation echoed the work of World War II veterans in the Senate who were establishing the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1984 as McCain was first elected to Congress from Arizona. Four years later, McCain was elected to the Senate, where he served for more than two decades and became a leading American voice on foreign relations—including, in recent years, as chairman of the Committee on Armed Services. Like many combat veterans who have served in Congress, McCain supported USIP as a national institute dedicated to reducing violent conflict abroad.

As a foreign policy leader, McCain regularly worked on and traveled to conflict zones where USIP teams are active: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Tunisia, Colombia and others. In a 2011 speech at USIP, McCain addressed himself to the Institute’s staff. “I appreciate the essential work, the … very large amount of work that you do, here in Washington [and] in the field, to help prevent conflict, which is directly relevant to, and supportive of, our men and women in uniform,” he said.

In that speech, the Institute’s annual Dean Acheson Lecture, McCain called for a bipartisan U.S. policy to support human rights and democracy in the Middle East. He described the popular uprisings in the Arab world that year as a “collective demand for human dignity, economic opportunity and peaceful political change.”

Near the end of that address, Senator McCain delivered a prescription for the Middle East that reflects the pragmatic policies he often advocated worldwide:

“Ultimately, a more democratic Middle East and North Africa will be one in which countries are more willing to go their own way, to do their own thing, to reject our advice and protestations. … We may not like the decisions that free peoples will make, but we must recognize that it is this freedom, this dignity to choose and govern oneself, that is the true source of lasting stability in the world and the ultimate remedy for violent radicalism.”

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