Democrats have pursued allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election with a convert’s fervor, but there was a time when much of the American Left was more ambivalent about the Kremlin’s intentions.
Liberal activists during the “nuclear freeze” movement of the early 1980s had no problem lining up on the same side as Moscow when it arguably posed a much greater threat to U.S. security as the capital of the Soviet Union.
“Teddy Kennedy, himself, reached out to the Kremlin asking for anything he could use against Reagan.”
“I find it fascinating that liberals were opposed to fighting the Russians when it was hard, but now that it’s easy, they’re right there,” said historian Craig Shirley, author of three books on Ronald Reagan. “It’s not principles, I guarantee you. It’s all political.”
Shirley pointed to a document released after the collapse of the Soviet Union that, if true, represents a far more egregious breach than anything Trump may have benefited from during the 2016 campaign. A 1983 memo purportedly written by Victor Chebrikov, the top KGB official at the time, informed Soviet leader Yuri Andropov of an overture made on behalf of progressive icon Ted Kennedy by the Massachusetts senator’s confidant, John Tunney.
The proposal was for Kennedy to help Andropov in dealing with Reagan in exchange for helping the Democratic Party in the upcoming 1984 election.
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“The only real potential threats to Reagan are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations,” the memo states. “These issues, according to the senator, will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign.”
Times of London reporter Tim Sebastian found the memo in 1991 while researching Soviet archives that then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin opened up after the fall of Communism.
Kennedy backers have fiercely denied that the senator played any role in a plot to collude with the Soviets. A spokesman for the senator, Paul Donovan, acknowledged to the Boston Herald in 1992 that the senator tried to arrange a meeting with Andropov but added that, “The rest of the memo is KGB fiction.”
Tunney, a law school roommate of Kennedy’s who went on to become a senator from California, used an expletive to deny the report to the Times of London. Years later, Tunney — who was a private businessman in 1983 — told the fact-checking website PolitiFact that the only subject Kennedy ever asked him to raise with Soviet officials was the release of dissidents.
“The idea that I would be handling contacts with Andropov is preposterous,” he told Politifiact. “This memo is completely false.”
What’s more, a Soviet expert told PolitiFact that Soviet archives are filled with false documents.
But historian Paul Kengor, who included the memo in his 2006 book, “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism,” said in a 2009 Forbes article that he believes the memo is authentic.
“The document has stood the test of time,” he said. “I scrutinized it more carefully than anything I’ve ever dealt with as a scholar. I showed the document to numerous authorities who deal with Soviet archival material. No one has debunked the memorandum or shown it to be a forgery.”
Shirley said he believes it, too.
“Teddy Kennedy, himself, reached out to the Kremlin asking for anything he could use against Reagan,” he said.
Less disputed is the role Soviet agents played in supporting and fomenting political movements in the West in an attempt to stop the deployment of medium-range U.S. missiles in Western Europe. A 1983 New York Times article detailed information uncovered by Swiss and Danish intelligence officials pointing to KGB activities. The story said Soviet officials embedded themselves among anti-war protesters, taking advantage of reluctance by Western governments to prosecute, fearing a political backlash against jailing what appeared to be protesters.
Of course, a search for Democratic hypocrisy on Russia does not require a trip back to the 1980s. The Obama administration is the architect of the “Russian Reset” policy that preceded Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its aggressive moves toward in Syria and the Middle East. Obama famously mocked 2012 Republican president candidate Mitt Romney’s assertion that Russia was America’s greatest strategic threat.
Now Obama and his party have discovered dangers emanating from the Kremlin. If Russia did meddle in the U.S. election, there is only one person in a position to respond — the current president.
“Obama has always been more comfortable being a victim than a leader,” Shirley said.
But some experts are not convinced that intelligence officials speaking anonymously to journalists have proven a Russian link.
“I’m not at all convinced from what we’ve seen so far that the Russians were involved,” said Clare Lopez, vice president of research at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy.
Shirley said Trump would realized the criticism coming from the Left is only beginning.
“Trump is getting a little, tiny taste of what he’s in for in the next four years,” he said.