Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s self-serving, secret correspondence with Soviet agents during the height of the Cold War included proposals for collaborative efforts designed to undermine official U.S. policy set by Democratic and Republican administrations, KGB documents show.
With the media now reporting on the late senator’s just released Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) file, now is an opportune time for a more expansive investigation into Kennedy’s KGB contacts. The agency took a keen interest in a 1961 “fact-finding” trip the Massachusetts Democrat took to Mexico and other parts of Latin America where he may have had contact with communist agents, according to the file.
However, the 2,352 pages of FBI files that cover a period ranging from 1961 to 1985 only tell a small part of the story and do not mention Kennedy’s overtures to Soviet officials. These did not become known outside of Moscow until several years after Cold War tensions receded.
Kennedy’s long history with the KGB is well documented, but underreported. It remains available through the writings of the now deceased Vasiliy Mitrokhin, who defected to Britain from the Soviet Union in 1992, and a separate 1983 memo addressed to then General Secretary Yuri Andropov. Kennedy’s actions occurred at the expense of presidential authority and in violation of federal law, according to academics and scholars who are familiar with the documents.
The Mitrokhin papers highlight a meeting that took place at the behest of Kennedy between former Sen. John Tunney (D-Calif.) and KGB agents in Moscow on March 5, 1980. The information exchanged during this encounter is included as part of a report Mitrokhin filed with the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. The former KGB man continued to work with British intelligence until the time of his death.
Noted Cold War author and researcher Herbert Romerstein has described Mitrokhin as a “highly credible source” with vast knowledge of the now-closed KGB archives. Romerstein, who headed up the U.S. government’s Office to Counter Soviet Disinformation and Active Measures during the 1980s, has explained in previous interviews that Mitrokhin made meticulous copies of KGB files by hand prior to his defection.
The KGB files Mitrokhin retrieved indicate that Kennedy fixed the blame for heightened international tensions on the Carter White House, not on the Kremlin. It is important to note that Kennedy was challenging incumbent Carter for the Democratic nomination for president at that time.
Tunney told his KGB counterparts that Kennedy was impressed by the foreign policy statements made by General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. Kennedy saw in Brezhnev a leader who was firmly committed to the policy of “détente,” the report said.
Moreover, Kennedy also blamed the Carter Administration for assuming an overly belligerent posture toward the Soviet Union after the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, according to the papers.
“The atmosphere of tension and hostility towards the whole Soviet people was being fuelled by Carter,” Kennedy argued, as well as by some key advisors, the Pentagon and the U.S. military industrial complex, Mitrokhin wrote.
KENNEDY ALSO OFFERED TO WORK in close concert with high level Soviet officials to sabotage President Ronald Reagan’s re-election efforts and to orchestrate favorable American press coverage for Andropov and Soviet military officials, according to the 1983 KGB document.
Kennedy offered to have “representatives of the largest television companies in the U.S. contact Y.V. Andropov for an invitation to Moscow for the interview,” KGB head Viktor Chebrikov explained in a letter to the general secretary dated May 14, 1983, the file shows. The idea here would be for the Soviet leader to make an end run around Reagan and make a direct appeal to the American people.
The KGB letter to Andropov first came to light in a Feb. 2, 1992 report published in the London Times entitled “Teddy, the KGB and the Top Secret File.” Paul Kengor, a Grove City College political science professor, included the document in his 2006 book: The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and The Fall of Communism.
Kennedy suggested that Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters and Elton Raul, the president of the board of directors for ABC, be considered for the interviews with Andropov in Moscow. He also asked the KGB to consider having “lower level Soviet officials, particularly the military” take part in television interviews inside the U.S. where they could convey peaceful intentions.
Tunney, the former senator, once again served as an intermediary traveling to Moscow in 1983 to relay Kennedy’s intentions. In the interest of world peace and improved American-Soviet relations, the Massachusetts Democrat offered specific proposals built around a public relations effort designed to “counter the militaristic politics of Reagan and his campaign to psychologically burden the American people,” Chebrikov wrote.
Although it is not made clear who Tunney actually met with in Moscow, the letter does say that Sen. Kennedy directed the California Democrat to reach out to “confidential contacts” so Andropov could be alerted to the senator’s proposals.
“Tunney told his contacts that Kennedy was very troubled about the decline in U.S -Soviet relations under Reagan,” Kengor the Grove City professor said in an interview. “But Kennedy attributed this decline to Reagan, not to the Soviets. In one of the most striking parts of this letter, Kennedy is said to be very impressed with Andropov and other Soviet leaders.”
The pattern of behavior should concern members of both political parties, Kengor said, because it shows Kennedy was willing to work against American foreign policy, regardless of who occupied the White House.
In his book, Kengor points out that Tunney acknowledged making 15 separate trips to the Soviet Union where he acted as a conduit not only for Kennedy but for other U.S. senators.
Charles Dunn, dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University, describes Kennedy’s actions as being in “clear violation of the U.S. Constitution and at the expense of presidential authority.”
The secret overtures to the KGB during the Reagan years were particularly insidious, Dunn said, because Tunney and Kennedy were working to undermine what ultimately proved to be a very successful policy that brought an end to the Cold War.
“If another country gets the idea that it can deal outside of official channels then that undermines presidential leadership,” Dunn added.
A strong case could also be made that Kennedy’s Soviet overtures are in violation of the Logan Act, a federal law that has been in effect going back to 1799. The law prohibits American citizens from engaging in private diplomacy with a foreign government with the intention of influencing public policy, but it is rarely enforced.
There is no escaping the “blame America first” mentality that infects and animates Kennedy’s communiqués.
“Senator Kennedy, like other rational people, is very troubled by the current state of Soviet-American relations,” Chebrikov observes in the letter. “Events are developing such that this relationship coupled with the general state of global affairs will make the situation even more dangerous. The main reason for this is Reagan’s belligerence, and his firm commitment to deploy new American middle range nuclear weapons within Western Europe. According to Kennedy, the current threat is due to the president’s refusal to engage in any modification of his policies.”
Tunney also discussed Kennedy’s presidential ambitions with the Soviet contacts, the letter shows. Kennedy was looking to run in 1988 when he would be remarried and his “personal problems” resolved. However, the letter also said he did not rule out 1984.
“Kennedy was afraid that Reagan was leading the world into a nuclear war,” Kengor said. “He hoped to counter Reagan’s policies, and by extension hurt his re-election prospects.”
It is also evident from the letter that Kennedy believed the nuclear freeze movement was gaining momentum in 1983 and could help to short-circuit Reagan’s military buildup. With the economic climate improving in the U.S., Reagan would only be vulnerable politically on matters of foreign policy, Kennedy informed the Soviets.
“The only real potential threats to Reagan (according to Kennedy) are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations,” the KGB official explained to Andropov. “These issues will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign. The movement advocating a freeze on nuclear arsenals of both countries continues to gain strength in the United States. The movement is also willing to accept preparations, particularly from Kennedy, for its continued growth. In political and influential circles of the country, including within Congress, the resistance to growing military expenditures is gaining strength.”
Media outlets that editorialized against Reagan’s military buildup and in favor of disarmament have a special obligation to report on historical documents that provide fresh insight into policy disputes that shaped the final, pivotal years of Cold War.