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US Senator John McCain dies

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Senator John McCain during his last visit to Estonia in December 2016.
Senator John McCain during his last visit to Estonia in December 2016. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

US politician, former Presidential nominee, decorated war veteran and staunch friend of Estonia Senator John McCain has died. He was 81.

Senator McCain (Republican) had been suffering with brain cancer for a little over a year after a routine surgery to remove a blood clot above the eye in July 2017 revealed the presence of an aggressive brain tumour. Mr. McCain had reportedly survived previous brushes with cancer. His death was announced at 16.28 MTC on 25 August (01.28 EEST on 26 August) from his home in the US at Cornville, Arizona, one day after his family had announced that he would no longer be receiving treatment for his brain cancer.

Senator McCain visited Estonia in an official capacity three times, in 2014, 2015 and 2016. In his last visit in December 2016 Senator McCain met with President Kersti Kaljulaid and Prime Minister Jüri Ratas, and discussed mostly security-related topics including Estonia's membership of NATO and continued US commitment to the organisation and region, as well as cybersecurity.

He was also awarded the General Staff Cross of Merit of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) from Lt. Gen. Riho Terras, for his contribution to the guarantee of Estonia's security, during the 2016 visit.

Early life

Born in 1936 to a prominent naval family and of Scottish, Irish and English descent, John McCain would have celebrated his 82nd birthday on 29 August. His father, John S. McCain Jr., was a naval officer who rose to the rank of Admiral; his grandfather was a junior officer on armoured cruiser the USS Washington at the time of his father's birth in 1911.

Senator McCain graduated from the US Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1958 and subsequently trained to become a Naval Aviator, but it was his service some years later in the Vietnam War which first brought him into the public eye due to his key involvement in a particularly notorious incident and later capture and incarceration in North Vietnam.


On 29 July 1967, a fire broke out on board the aircraft carrier which Senator McCain was serving on at the time, the USS Forrestal, after an electrical problem caused the misfiring of a Zuni rocket on a McDonnell Douglas F-4B Phantom. This struck the external fuel tank of another plane which started a chain reaction of explosions and fires that ultimately killed 134 sailors. John McCain was nearly trapped in the cockpit of his burning A4 Skyhawk but managed to escape and aid a fellow pilot in doing the same.

In October of the same year, his Skyhawk was shot down over Hanoi, North Vietnam, by a Soviet-made SA-2 anti-aircraft missile. McCain bailed out and parachuted into a lake, soon being captured by north Vietnamese personnel. This began a long period as a prisoner of war, during which he came close to death on several occasions and was first imprisoned at the ill-famed 'Hanoi Hilton'. He received some minimal medical treatment after it became clear he was the son of a high-ranking naval officer, and was even captured on film in prison hospital by a French film crew, but it was his refusal to be released individually, a chance which he was offered, without being joined by all his fellow POWs, which landed him a two-year stint in solitary confinement courtesy of the enraged North Vietnamese authorities.

John McCain being escorted to Hanoi Airport following his release from captivitiy in March 1973. Source: Horst Faas/AP/Scanpix

During the solitary confinement period he was beaten and tortured at regular intervals; for the rest of his life Senator McCain was unable to raise his arms above an approximately 90 degree angle due to the inhumane treatment he received whilst a POW, and was finally released from captivity in March 1973.

Entry into US politics

After retiring from the Navy in 1981, his career moved towards the somewhat more comfortable field of politics, entering Congress in 1982 and the Senate in 1987 (from Arizona in both cases). Senator McCain announced his first candidacy for the presidency in 2000 but lost to George W. Bush and after sitting out 2004, became Republican nominee for the 2008 elections, with Sarah Palin as his running mate. Despite gaining 46 per cent of the national vote, the McCain-Palin ticket was roundly defeated in terms of electoral college votes: 173 to Barack Obama's 365.

Senator McCain remained for two more terms as a senator after the 2008 defeat; during the 2016 Presidential elections he spoke out against Donald Trump on issues such as security and the treatment of women, ultimately withdrawing his support for the nominee and saying that, whilst he would not vote for Hilary Clinton instead, he would ''write in the name of some good conservative Republican who is qualified to be president'' come election day. He nevertheless secured his sixth term as Arizona senator at the age of 80, and was halfway through the term upon his death.

Reactions in Estonia

President Kersti Kaljulaid stated on her social media account that ''A Great politician, wonderful person, true friend and a Statesman has left. John, you will be missed.''

Former President Toomas-Hendrik Ilves: ''Thank you for all you did to help my people, my country, from back when we were a still captive nation and through the years since we again became free. Thank you for being a hero. Thank you for teaching me how to lead a righteous life and to lead righteously.''

Prime Minister Jüri Ratas: ''The passing of John McCain is a sad day for the whole world, for he was a courageous and determined man, showing a remarkable understanding of global affairs. His contributions into the security of the Baltic states will never be forgotten. My deepest condolences to his family.''

Minister of Foreign Affairs Sven Mikser: ''I am deeply saddened by the news on passing of Senator John McCain, a great friend of Estonia, war hero, defender of freedom and human dignity all around the world. My sincere condolences to his family and friends.''


Senator John McCain was married twice and had a total of seven children including his first wife's two children from a previous marriage, and five grandchildren.

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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