As the film Chappaquiddick brings Ted Kennedy’s ugliest public scandal to the big screen, I here propose a sequel of equally high drama and even higher stakes, rising to the highest levels of national security. It was another Kennedy outrage, made more scandalous by the Massachusetts senator’s protectors in the press.
We might call this film adaptation something like, “Kennedy and the Kremlin,” or “Ted’s Russian Romance.” (Proposals?)
There are actually several facets to the Kennedy-Kremlin story. One was nicely summarized this week at The American Spectator by George Parry, who captured my original reporting. Readers know that story, as do many conservatives, but there’s much they don’t know. I urge all to read this article in full.
“Senator Kennedy’s request”
First, in brief recap, here’s what Parry noted: In books published in 2006 and 2010, I reported a highly classified May 14, 1983 memo from the head of the KGB, Victor Chebrikov, to his boss, the head of the USSR, Yuri Andropov. The lead words atop the document stated in caps: “SPECIAL IMPORTANCE.” The next words: “Committee on State Security of the USSR.” That’s the KGB. Under that followed this stunning header: “Regarding Senator Kennedy’s request to the General Secretary of the Communist Party Y. V. Andropov.” Kennedy’s request was delivered directly to Moscow by his law school roommate, John Tunney, a former Democratic senator from California.
In the memo, Kennedy was described by Chebrikov as “very troubled” by U.S.-Soviet relations, which Kennedy attributed not to the odious dictator spearheading the USSR but to President Ronald Reagan. The problem was Reagan’s “belligerence,” compounded by his alleged stubbornness. “According to Kennedy,” reported Chebrikov, “the current threat is due to the President’s refusal to engage any modification to his politics.” This was made worse, said the memo, because the 1984 presidential campaign was just around the corner, and Reagan was looking easily re-electable.
Was Reagan vulnerable anywhere? That was the launch point of the letter, namely: seeking and securing Russian involvement against Reagan.
The KGB memo speculated — compliments of Kennedy’s appraisal — that the chink in Reagan’s political armor was matters of war and peace. Thus, said the head of the KGB: “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.”
Let me repeat that: “undertake the following steps to counter… Reagan.”
That is very significant. Here was a letter from the head of the KGB to the head of the USSR initiated by an offer from Ted Kennedy, amid the context of the coming presidential race, to “counter” Ronald Reagan.
We must inevitably draw an analogy to our current political landscape. Today we have the Mueller team and every liberal in Washington frantically searching for any shred of evidence of even the lowest-level contact between a Trump campaign official and someone in Moscow to work against Hillary Clinton in 2016. Well, here, in this May 1983 document, we have indisputable hard evidence — an actual KGB memo — communicating straight to Andropov a direct offer from Ted Kennedy. There’s nothing like this in 2016. The modern equivalent would be, say, a direct memo from the current head of the Russian FSB to Vladimir Putin underscoring a direct offer from Donald Trump (or a top Trump liaison) against Hillary. If something like that were to emerge, liberals would go bonkers. And yet, this KGB memo from 1983 elicited no response from American liberals in the long period between when the memo was first reported from Soviet archives in January 1992 through the death of Kennedy in August 2009.
In the memo, Chebrikov then delineated for Andropov a series of specific steps proposed by Kennedy to help the Soviets “influence Americans.” This included Kennedy arranging for Kremlin officials to meet with certain American media. Which media? The memo went so far as to directly name Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters. Kennedy offered to help bring Soviet political and military officials to New York and Washington to connect them with friends in the press. And further, the memo included an offer from Kennedy himself to personally fly to the Kremlin to meet with Andropov.
Yes, a direct one-on-one between Kennedy and Andropov.
All of this was pursued in the deliberate service of countering this “belligerent” Reagan. Besides, noted Chebrikov, “Kennedy is very impressed with the activities of Y. V. Andropov and other Soviet leaders.”
Ted Kennedy: impressed with Andropov; unimpressed with Reagan.
The memo then wrapped up with an assessment of Kennedy’s own presidential prospects in 1984 (which even Chebrikov noted weren’t good). The memo instructed Andropov that Kennedy “underscored that he eagerly awaits a reply to his appeal.”
What was the reply? What happened next? We don’t know. Our media never asked Kennedy. The press response was the exact opposite of today’s maniacal digging on Donald Trump. Sources like CNN, which have now launched into 24/7 “breaking news” mode on Trump and the Russians, didn’t do a single news story on Kennedy and the Russians. I can tell you unequivocally that I was never contacted once by CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on and on. And my 2006 book was published by HarperCollins, one of the top publishing houses. My publisher couldn’t be dismissed as the “right-wing press.”
And then I published more. In 2010, I published for the first time the KGB memo in both the original Russian and an English translation in my book Dupes. We’ve just completed the first updated edition of Dupesin paperback. Kennedy’s mug is on the cover of that new edition. The Appendix of the book includes those documents on pages 497-505. You can read the full text there yourself — as can the liberal media.
Dancing with the Bride
But even then, there’s much more to what I’ve reported on Kennedy and the Soviets. It’s this material that even conservatives have missed and largely glossed over from Dupes. Again, I urge readers to continue on.
One of these is an almost comical case of Russian manipulation smack on Moscow territory. On page 406 of Dupes is a photo of Ted Kennedy merrily dancing with a Russian bride at a reportedly staged Soviet wedding.
The source for the photo was Yuri Bezmenov, journalist and editor for Novosti, the Soviet press agency. A KGB hand himself, Bezmenov defected to the West in the 1970s. Among his chief duties in Moscow had been to handle Western visitors through propaganda and disinformation. This entailed some unique skills that applied to the likes of Kennedy. “One of my functions,” explained Bezmenov, “was to keep foreign guests permanently intoxicated from the moment they landed at Moscow airport.” He managed “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, sickened by the stench of the Soviet system, was deeply troubled that these progressives, who prided themselves on intellectual superiority, couldn’t detect the rot. (I’ve heard this lament many times from communist dissidents.) It nagged at his conscience. “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. With that, Bezmenov offered as an exhibit the photo of Kennedy dancing at a wedding at Moscow’s Palace of Marriages, but it wasn’t a real wedding. Gesturing to the photo, Bezmenov commented: “Another greatest example of monumental idiocy [among] American politicians: Edward Kennedy was in Moscow, and he… was being taken for a ride.” This was 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.”
I know this seems absurd to modern eyes and ears, but such were the wretched lengths to which the Soviets descended. They were outstanding liars. They built phony factories, schools, and villages to hoodwink Western visitors, beginning back in the 1920s, when they went full force in cynically suckering what I call “Potemkin Progressives”: John Dewey, Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, etc.
And thus, one of the slicker gimmicks was a staged wedding, with lots of dancing, frolicking, girls, and booze. This was so well-known than even the New York Times, on March 10, 1958, published an article on these fake weddings, titled “Comrades Have Lovely Soviet Wedding; But Irked Party Finds It Was a Fraud.”
So, this was old hat to the Kremlin.
Bezmenov said 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.”
“Reckless Star Wars schemes”
Here, too, that’s just the start of the scandal that was Teddy Kennedy and the Russians. Another egregious case, very damaging at the level of propaganda and policy, came in March 1983, two months before the Chebrikov-KGB memo. And this one was out in the open, on the Senate floor.
On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative. It would become a silver bullet to the Soviet Union — that is, if someone didn’t screw up things in the meantime. That very nearly happened. The next morning, the “Lion of the Senate” went to the Senate floor to lampoon Reagan’s “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.”
Kennedy thereby had started something quite significant in its potential damage. “Star Wars” immediately became a vehicle to ridicule SDI. In the 1980s, Reagan was caricatured by the left as a dawdling fool, a lazy man and nostalgic ex-actor, who spent his time watching movies, where he lost himself in a world of fantasy. Surely, sniffed the effete snobs, Reagan must have picked up the idea for SDI from the blockbuster movie Star Wars, laughably envisioning himself as a kind of presidential Luke Skywalker combating the forces of darkness of Darth Vader’s Evil Empire. As an outrageous New York Times news story put it a week later, the SDI proposal was “Mr. Reagan’s answer to the film ‘Star Wars.’”
No, no. That was Ted Kennedy’s answer, not Reagan’s.
If Kennedy had hoped to discredit the concept, he was making strides, especially once the partisan media delightfully ran with it. Reagan rightly feared that Kennedy’s label suggested that he desired not a defensive system but an offensive war in space. It conjured “an image of destruction,” he said, when, in fact, “I’m talking about a weapon, non-nuclear… [that] only destroys other weapons, doesn’t kill people.” SDI “isn’t about war, it’s about peace.” Reagan privately told a friend that he “bristles” each time the media used the label. He privately complained that the term was “never mine” but the media’s, “and now they saddle me with it.”
That was half-right: the term was actually Kennedy’s and then also the media’s.
In Moscow, the communist media loved Ted Kennedy’s term of ridicule. To say that the Soviets embraced “Star Wars” is inadequate; they used the label in every story on SDI. (I can’t summarize this here, but I have a full chapter of examples in Dupes. See Chapter 20, “’Star Wars:’ The SDI Sabotage.”) In fact, the Soviet press rarely used the words “Strategic Defense Initiative” or the acronym “SDI.” Tellingly, whereas the American media typed “Star Wars” in upper case to ridicule the idea as movie fiction, the Soviet communists placed it in lower case to suggest SDI was a vehicle for war amid the stars — “preparations for ‘star wars,’” as the Moscow International Service put it. The Kremlin seized upon the term with abandon to portray Reagan as a nuclear warmonger.
Reagan was left alone to deal with the consequences of how SDI was mislabeled and misreported, including when he was badgered by hostile Soviet reporters, to whom he protested in one interview: “We’re not talking about star wars at all! We’re talking about seeing if there isn’t a defensive weapon that does not kill people.”
Mikhail Gorbachev became obsessed with “Star Wars.” It was the top issue in every negotiation between him and Reagan, and Reagan constantly expressed frustration that Gorbachev didn’t take seriously his promises of peaceful intent with SDI.
Here, Ted Kennedy’s catch-phrase was more destructive to Ronald Reagan’s efforts than anything that came from that classified May 1983 KGB document. The senator from Massachusetts — along with some help from liberals in the American media — had inadvertently handed to the Kremlin a gem of a propaganda tool, which Moscow played for all it was worth.
When Teddy Countered Jimmy
Finally, bringing this back to Teddy helping the Russkies during political campaigns, here’s another crucial example that I report in Dupesthat both sides — liberals and conservatives alike — have ignored or missed. It’s an example that ought to offend even liberal Democrats.
This time the date was March 1980. The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan — their first invasion outside the Warsaw Pact since World War II. It was another betrayal of the bizarre trust that Reagan’s predecessor, President Jimmy Carter, had placed in the Soviet dictatorship. In fact, mere months earlier, Carter and Leonid Brezhnev literally kissed in Vienna. That image, the ultimate symbol of being duped, was proof positive of Carter’s terrible accommodation of Soviet communism.
Actually, it was proof to everyone except Ted Kennedy.
Again going to Soviet archives, here’s what we now know Kennedy relayed to the Kremlin — this time regarding Jimmy Carter, a Democratic president:
According to the Mitrokhin Archive, Kennedy, in March 1980, had sent his liaison to Moscow. That liaison, once again John Tunney, likewise informed the Soviets that Kennedy was troubled by rising Cold War tensions, which Kennedy blamed not on the Kremlin but on the Carter administration. Yes, Kennedy blamed Carter for being provocative — the alleged saber-rattling of Jimmy Carter! An amazing charge.
What exactly did Kennedy say?
In Mitrokhin’s description, the Massachusetts senator maintained that the Carter administration was trying to “distort the peace-loving ideas behind Brezhnev’s proposals.” There was an “atmosphere of tension and hostility” that was being “fueled by Carter.” Yes, note the charge: fueled by Carter! The Carter White House was “feeding public opinion with nonsense about ‘the Soviet military threat’ and Soviet ambitions for military expansion.”
The KGB, for the record, found Ted Kennedy’s words “acceptable to us.”
I’m sure they did. And here likewise, it is reasonable to suspect that Teddy Kennedy had political motivations for his Soviet overture. Remember, after all, what was happening in March 1980. This was the middle of the Democratic Party presidential primaries, with no less than Ted Kennedy himself challenging the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, for the nomination. This was a very intense challenge by Kennedy of Carter at the time, foiled arguably only by a Kennedy scandal the public knew about: Chappaquiddick.
Yes, back to Chappaquiddick. The only scandal to truly uncover Ted Kennedy.
In sum, this was Ted Kennedy, the liberal left’s acclaimed “Lion of the Senate.” It has taken almost 50 years for Kennedy’s catastrophic Chappaquiddick romance to finally reach a wide audience. How long before we get wider exposure of Ted Kennedy’s Russia romance?
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20thCenturyand Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.