After the recent death of John McCain, the U.S. ruling class and its ideologues have been tripping over themselves to confer honors on McCain and laud his accomplishments. In particular, he has been portrayed as a progressive figure playing a key role in the “resistance” to Trump. But McCain was a reactionary and an enemy of the people who spent decades in the service of the U.S. capitalist ruling class. He advanced U.S. interests internationally by coordinating coups and setting up pro-U.S. puppet regimes and parties around the world, and he worked for decades to expand and improve the U.S. military.
Portraying McCain as progressive is part of an overall effort to portray anyone who opposes Trump as a progressive force, and whitewash the history of the U.S. state’s oppression at home and abroad. In reality, many who oppose Trump are, like McCain, reactionary enemies of the people. It is not progressive to support these representatives of U.S. imperialism. This should be a basic dividing line for progressive politics, but the reality is that the ruling class in the U.S. has been able to successfully portray opposition to single representatives of the U.S. ruling class as the only “really” progressive option for decades.
For people looking for a way forward today, a basic starting point has to be the recognition that it is not enough to simply oppose Trump, and that the crimes and the reactionary politics of members of the “resistance” against Trump must be criticized and opposed as well. A closer examination of McCain’s career and actions reveals this whitewashing of U.S. history, and show how many “progressive” critics of Trump actually fully support U.S. imperialism.
McCain began his military career in the late fifties, entering a military school to train as a pilot. He eventually became a pilot for ground attack aircraft, and was deployed to Vietnam aboard the U.S.S. Forestal aircraft carrier. From that carrier, he participated in a brutal bombing campaign against North Vietnam known as Operation Rolling Thunder, until he was shot down during a mission and captured by North Vietnamese forces. After his capture he was held as a prisoner of war for five years.
Over 500 unarmed villagers were killed by U.S. troops in the My Lai massacre. This was just one of many similar killings in the genocidal war.
During this operation, which lasted from 1965 to 1968, the U.S. dropped more bombs on North Vietnam than it did during the entirety of the Korean war from 1950 to 1953 The campaign focused on destroying infrastructure like bridges and railways, and on attacking the economy of North Vietnam. This was part of an overall strategy that was intended to pummel North Vietnam into submission by destroying the country’s economy, leading to shortages of basic goods, starvation, and ultimately the destruction of the North Vietnamese people’s ability to resist. This campaign was ultimately a failure, mainly because of the all-out mobilization of the people in North Vietnam against the U.S. invasion. However, in the course of the bombing at least 50,000 Vietnamese people were killed, and hundreds of thousands of people were exposed to poisonous defoliant chemicals like Agent Orange.
The U.S. war in Vietnam is often talked of as a war to defend “freedom” or “democracy,” but in reality it was nothing of the sort. It was an imperialist war waged by the U.S. to protect their puppet government in South Vietnam, which was enormously unpopular and opposed by a huge section of the Vietnamese people. In fact, many within the U.S. government and intelligence agencies admit that if they had allowed open elections in South Vietnam, their puppet government would have been voted out of office. In the course of the war the U.S. military committed numerous genocidal crimes against the Vietnamese people, including the infamous My Lai massacre, where more than 500 civilians of all ages were systematically raped, tortured, and murdered by U.S. soldiers. There has never been a systematic uncovering of all the war crimes committed by the U.S. military in Vietnam, but many whistleblowers and progressive journalists have uncovered evidence that the My Lai massacre is simply the most well known among hundreds or even thousands of such atrocities.
The genocidal and imperialist nature of the U.S. war in Vietnam was exposed by returning veterans and progressive journalists, which led to the development of a massive anti-war movement. This included protests by soldiers who refused to carry out orders and mass protests at home. The anti-war movement was so widespread that many celebrities and public figures began to get involved, coordinating concerts and other events to galvanize support for ending the war. McCain, by contrast, wanted to participate in the war. After he was released by the North Vietnamese, he returned to military service. In the years since, the only criticism he has made of the Vietnam war was that it was not run better. McCain’s concern was not that the war was a genocidal crime against humanity, but that if it had been managed better perhaps the U.S. could have won. These are clearly not the actions or positions of a progressive person, but instead of a reactionary agent of the U.S. state.
After his release from capitivity in North Vietnam McCain returned to military service for a few years before starting a political career. He was initially elected to the House of Representatives in 1982, later joining the Senate in 1987. Throughout his political career he has done all he could to expand the U.S. military, and he has eagerly supported U.S. military interventions in dozens of countries. In the Senate he joined the Armed Services Committee, which oversees the funding and direction of the military.
McCain speaking in support of Ukrainian Nazi and American ally Oleh Tyahnybok. McCain has long been a supporter of far-right governments that are willing to toady U.S. imperialism.
He supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and said of the invasion of Iraq that the Iraqi people would view the U.S. troops as “liberators.” At the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, in 2011, McCain called for U.S. troops to invade the country. In fact, the only time we could find McCain on record opposing a U.S. military intervention was in 1983, when he opposed Reagan’s plan to keep U.S. Marines deployed in Lebanon. McCain’s reasoning was not that the U.S. had no business being there in the first place, but that the troops were unlikely to be able to achieve their goals because not enough troops had been sent. In short, even when he opposed U.S. military intervention, it was a way of pushing for more war. The wars that the U.S. has been involved in, from Korea and Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, have always involved massive civilian casualties and the creation of huge numbers of refugees. McCain and others like him have played a key role in pushing for these wars, knowing full well the devastating effects they have on the people in the countries the U.S. invades.
The effort to portray McCain as a progressive figure because of his opposition to Trump is a part of the overall effort to portray U.S. wars of aggression abroad in a progressive light. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was justified in part by saying that it would “liberate” the women of Afghanistan from oppression at the hands of the Taliban. Laura Bush gave a radio address in November, 2001, a few months after the U.S. invasion, in which she said: “Afghan women know, through hard experience, what the rest of the world is discovering: The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists. Long before the current war began, the Taliban and its terrorist allies were making the lives of children and women in Afghanistan miserable.”
Her radio address painted a picture of poor oppressed Afghan women, who needed to be liberated and saved by a Western imperialist invasion. While Afghan women did face oppression at the hands of the Taliban, the U.S. military invasion and occupation has not led to their liberation. Instead they have been subjected to torture, rape, killings, bombings, and more at the hands of U.S. soldiers. Portraying McCain as a progressive figure is part and parcel of the same effort to portray the U.S., and in particular its brutal wars of aggression abroad, as a positive force in the world.
In addition to serving as one of the chief hawks in the U.S. Senate, McCain spent the last 25 years of his life as the chair of an organization called the International Republican Institute (IRI). This group is a U.S. government-funded organization which works to, in its own words, “advance democracy worldwide.” In reality, the main thing that they do is set up pro-U.S. political parties and organizations all around the world. In 2002 and 2003 they provided training and support to forces who went on to carry out the 2004 U.S.-backed coup d’état in Haiti. The IRI also helped to form several right-wing parties in Poland after the collapse the Soviet Union, and in several other Eastern European countries.
John McCain and meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. McCain has been a long-time supporter of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
These kinds of maneuvers abroad are a key way that the U.S. maintains its position in the world, by sponsoring a variety of different groups and organizations in other countries. Through elections, media coverage, and various other kinds of “soft power” they work to put pro-U.S. policies into effect, almost always at the expense of the poor and oppressed people in their country. These can take the form of favorable trade deals, agreements to buy U.S. products, or commitments to join a U.S.-dominated military alliance like NATO. The U.S. has invaded countless countries in the name of protecting and spreading just this sort of “democracy.”
The U.S. government and various U.S. capitalists spend millions of dollars to influence elections, buy off politicians, and, when things get out of hand, sponsor coup attempts in other countries. Organizations like the IRI coordinate and carry out these efforts. They also play a key role in distorting what is going on. The work they do, to set up pro-U.S. parties abroad and bamboozle people into voting for them, is described not as meddling in the affairs of other countries but as “spreading democracy.” To cloak their underlying imperialist aims they often adopt vaguely progressive or humanist-sounding language to describe what they do. McCain, as the head of this organization, played a central role in coordinating these projects to advance the interests of U.S. capitalists around the world. This represents a consolidated commitment on his part to meddling in the internal affairs of other countries in order to make them more favorable to U.S. business interests and geopolitical strategy. This is far from a progressive stance, and instead represents a totally anti-people and reactionary worldview.
The ruling class in the U.S. and the media have, for decades, worked to cultivate the image that the U.S. is a progressive force in the world. At times these ideas have been dispelled on a mass level, as was the case during the anti-Vietnam War movement, when many Americans eventually recognized that the U.S. was not fighting to protect “democracy” or “freedom” but instead that it was waging a brutal war of aggression. In our current moment, however, pro-American ideas are largely unchallenged. One form they take is saying that the only progressive option is to oppose or support politicians in elections. By this faulty logic anyone who opposes Trump is a progressive figure, regardless of what kind of role they have played.
John McCain, in particular, has been held up as a progressive hero, and praised for disagreeing with Trump over certain policies. In reality, however, McCain was a massive hawk, calling for as many U.S. military interventions abroad as possible, and he spent decades doing the worst kind of skulduggery abroad for U.S. imperialism. Supporting McCain as a progressive figure totally ignores this reality and whitewashes the crimes that the U.S. commits internationally. To chart a really progressive path forward we need to criticize and expose the crimes of all representatives of the brutal U.S. government, and we need to be clear that opposing Trump is not enough to demonstrate that someone is a positive or progressive figure.
John McCain leaves behind a legacy of death, destruction, and war crimes. While some have mourned his passing because of his meager opposition to a few of Trump’s policies, others are glad to see McCain, a life-long reactionary, dead and gone.