On the evening of March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan disclosed to the world a secret he had shared with only his most trusted advisers. “My fellow Americans,” he declared in a nationally televised address, “tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history.” The president announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a vision for a space-based missile-defense system.
Not even twenty-four hours after Reagan’s speech, Senator Ted Kennedy rushed to the Senate floor to rebuke the president for “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.” The “Star Wars” term of derision immediately struck a chord. The New York Times included it in headlines typed the same day Kennedy gave his speech. “Star Wars” became the epithet of choice to ridicule SDI throughout the Reagan administration.
The liberal intelligentsia was having a terrific laugh at the expense of Reagan’s supposed Tinseltown fantasy.
But Moscow wasn’t laughing.
Reagan’s SDI speech, coming only two weeks after his famous “Evil Empire” speech, sent the Soviets into a panic. The intelligence streaming into the CIA made clear that the Soviet leadership was terrified. Herb Meyer, special assistant to CIA director William Casey, was in the rarest of positions, able to observe simultaneously the Soviets’ private response to SDI and the American liberals’ public denouncements. He recalls the jarring contrast between the Kremlin’s frightened reaction and Kennedy’s dismissive caricature. “I had Kennedy saying that on my radio,” says Meyer, “and on my desk [I had] the report from Moscow showing the Soviet leadership saying, effectively, ‘Oh, no, it’s over.’”
Ted Kennedy unwittingly handed Moscow a glistening pearl of propaganda with which to publicly attack Reagan’s powerful idea.
For whatever reason, Senator Kennedy liked the Soviets. And he thought they liked him—when, in fact, they used him, wining and dining and duping him.
An eyewitness to this was Yuri Bezmenov, a journalist and editor for Novosti, the Soviet press agency (where he also worked for the KGB), before he defected to the West in the 1970s. Among Bezmenov’s chief duties was to handle Western visitors through propaganda and misinformation. “One of my functions,” recalled Bezmenov in a 1984 television interview, “was to keep foreign guests permanently intoxicated from the moment they landed at Moscow airport.” He would “accompany groups of so-called ‘progressive intellectuals’—writers, journalists, publishers, teachers, professors of colleges. . . . For us, they were just a bunch of political prostitutes to be taken advantage of.”
Bezmenov had come to see the rotten totalitarianism of the Soviet system and was quite bothered that these Western progressives could not discern the obvious. “I did my job,” he lamented, but “deep inside I still hoped that at least some of these useful idiots [would catch on].”
Among the worst of them, said Bezmenov, was Senator Ted Kennedy.
Pointing to a photo that he said showed Ted Kennedy dancing at a wedding at Moscow’s Palace of Marriages, Bezmenov stated, “Another greatest example of monumental idiocy [among] American politicians: Edward Kennedy was in Moscow, and he thought that he’s a popular, charismatic American politician, who is easygoing, who can smile, [who can] dance at a wedding at Russian Palace of Marriages. What he did not understand—or maybe he pretended not to understand—is that actually he was being taken for a ride.” Bezmenov noted that Kennedy, in this particular instance, was participating in a “staged wedding used to impress foreign media—or useful idiots like Ed Kennedy. Most of the guests there [had] security clearance and were instructed what to say to foreigners.” Bezmenov himself worked these weddings. He noted that Kennedy “thinks he’s very smart,” but “from the viewpoint of Russian citizens who observed this idiocy,” he was “an idiot,” a “useful idiot,” participating in “propaganda functions like this”—a so-called wedding that was really a “farce,” a “circus performance.”
The Soviets saw Ted Kennedy as someone they could entertain and manipulate. And for the senator from Massachusetts, the Russian romance was ongoing. In March 1983 he reciprocated whatever wedding prize Soviet handlers gave him with a gift of his own: ridicule of Ronald Reagan’s self-described “dream” of missile defense. Around this same time the Massachusetts senator also made an extraordinary private bequest to the Kremlin—and he did so quite consciously.
As we now know from a highly sensitive KGB document, the liberal icon, arguably the most important Democrat in the country at the time, so opposed Ronald Reagan and his policies that the senator approached Soviet dictator Yuri Andropov, proposing to work together to undercut the American president.
This episode was stunning. Had Americans known of Kennedy’s overture to the Soviets at the time, it would have been a scandal. To this day it has not received the attention it demands.
The KGB report is dated May 14, 1983, less than two months after Kennedy first ridiculed SDI. KGB head Viktor Chebrikov sent the memo with “Special Importance,” under the highest classification, directly to General Secretary Andropov. The subject line read: “Regarding Senator Kennedy’s request to the General Secretary of the Communist Party Y. V. Andropov.” It concerned a “confidential” Kennedy offer to Andropov.
According to the KGB memo, Senator Kennedy had conveyed his message to the Soviets through his “close friend and trusted confidant” John Tunney. Chebrikov said that Kennedy was “very troubled” by “the current state of Soviet-American relations,” which the senator attributed not to Andropov and the Kremlin but to “Reagan’s belligerence,” especially his defense policies. “According to Kennedy,” reported Chebrikov, “the current threat is due to the President’s refusal to engage any modification to his politics.” Reagan’s political success, said the letter, had made the president more dangerous, since it led him to be even surer of his course, and more obstinate—and reelectable.
Chebrikov said that the Democratic senator held out hope that Reagan’s 1984 reelection bid could be thwarted, “which would benefit the Democratic party.” This seemed unlikely, of course, given Reagan’s undeniable political successes and popularity.
Where was the popular president vulnerable? Kennedy provided an answer for his Soviet friends. In Chebrikov’s words, “The only real threats to Reagan are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations. These issues, according to the senator [Kennedy], will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign.”
At this point in the memo, Chebrikov conveyed the U.S. senator’s precise offer to the USSR’s general secretary: “Kennedy believes that, given the state of current affairs, and in the interest of peace, it would be prudent and timely to undertake the following steps to counter the militaristic politics of Reagan.” Step number one, according to the document, would be for Andropov to invite the good senator to Moscow for a personal meeting. Said Chebrikov: “The main purpose of the meeting, according to the senator, would be to arm Soviet officials with explanations regarding problems of nuclear disarmament so they would be better prepared and more convincing during appearances in the USA.”
Kennedy recommended that he bring along Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon, probably the most liberal Republican in the Senate, and a surefire target for duping. It seems the Democrat felt that the appearance of bipartisanship would “have a strong impact on Americans and political circles in the USA.”
The second step of Kennedy’s plan, the KGB head informed Andropov, was a strategy to help the Soviets “influence Americans.” Chebrikov explained: “Kennedy believes that in order to influence Americans it would be important to organize in August–September of this year , televised interviews with Y. V. Andropov in the USA.” The media-savvy Massachusetts senator proposed to the Soviet dictator that he seek a “direct appeal” to the American people. “Kennedy and his friends,” explained Chebrikov, were willing to help, and even named television reporters Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters as good candidates for sit-down interviews with the dictator.
According to the KGB memo, Senator Kennedy also urged “lower level Soviet officials, particularly from the military,” to do interviews with the press in the United States. Kennedy indicated that he could help organize this media blitz, since he wanted Soviet military and government officials to “have an opportunity to appeal directly to the American people about the peaceful intentions of the USSR.”
Apparently, Ted Kennedy viewed Yuri Andropov, that notorious KGB disinformation master who had become arguably the Soviet Union’s dirtiest leader since Stalin, as an honest broker, a potential partner against the supposedly dangerous anti-Communist Ronald Reagan. As Chebrikov noted, “Kennedy is very impressed with the activities of Y. V. Andropov and other Soviet leaders,” admiring “their commitment to heal international affairs” and to “improve mutual understandings between peoples.” Senator Kennedy was approaching the Soviets with this proposal because they could “root out the threat of nuclear war,” “improve Soviet-American relations,” and “define the safety for the world.”
The memo concluded with a discussion of Ted Kennedy’s political prospects, mentioning that the senator “wants to run for president in 1988” but also “does not discount that during the 1984 campaign, the Democratic party may officially turn to him to lead the fight against the Republicans.” Chebrikov also reported that Kennedy “underscored that he eagerly awaits a reply to his appeal.”
So according to this confidential memo from the head of the KGB to the leader of the Soviet Union, Senator Ted Kennedy had secretly approached a foreign government—an abusive regime with which the United States had been engaged in a Cold War for nearly forty years—in an effort to “counter” the policies of the president of the United States and to weaken that president’s political standing. This is shocking.
It is not clear what happened after Andropov digested the memo. Sadly, reporters never attempted to fill in the blanks by asking some basic questions of Kennedy. American journalists flatly refused to cover the story in the decades since the Times of London first mentioned the KGB document in February 1992. That remained the case even though Kennedy’s office never denied the legitimacy of the document.
The partisan American press chose not to report on an episode that would embarrass a politician frequently hailed as “the Senate’s last lion.”
Paul Kengor is the bestselling author of Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, from which this article is adapted. Dr. Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College, is also the author of A Pope and a President, God and Ronald Reagan, and other books.
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