The KGB’s Useful Idiots
By Paul Kengor
FrontPageMagazine.com | December 21, 2006
I was recently the subject of a FrontPage Interview on a revelation in my book on Ronald Reagan and the fall of Communism, in which I feature a May 1983 KGB memo concerning an offer from Senator Ted Kennedy to Yuri Andropov. In response, I received several e-mails calling Kennedy a useful idiot – or worse.
In fact, there are numerous examples of leftists unwittingly serving the Soviet cause in the 1980s, which today sit in Communist government and media archives, some of which have been translated and are easily accessible in the United States. There they gather dust, as liberal historians and journalists ignore them, failing to do their jobs, never reporting the real history that exists.
I would like to here cite just two examples from 1983, one of the hottest years in the Cold War: Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and his decision to invade Grenada.
On March 23, 1983, Reagan announced SDI. “My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history,” he declared in a nationally televised address. He announced his vision for a space-based missile-defense system—his “dream.” “With every ounce of my being,” he said later, “I pray the day will come when nuclear weapons no longer exist anywhere on Earth.” Reagan hoped SDI might one day “render nuclear weapons obsolete.” He also came to see it as an extraordinary weapon to help bankrupt the USSR.
Coming only two weeks after the Evil Empire speech and amid his push to place intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Western Europe, Reagan’s remarks left Moscow shell-shocked. SDI terrified the Soviets. It became an obsession to Mikhail Gorbachev, who spent entire summit sessions doing nothing but hysterically protesting SDI, begging Reagan not to go forward.
Leftists, however, had other plans. They dubbed the initiative “Star Wars,” a term popularized by Senator Ted Kennedy, who the morning after Reagan’s speech assailed the president’s “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.”
Kennedy had started something. “Star Wars” became a vehicle to lampoon SDI. In the 1980s, the Left caricatured Reagan as a dawdling, nostalgic ex-actor who lazily wasted his time watching movies, losing himself in a world of fantasy. Surely, suggested the ridiculers, the old fool must have gotten the idea for SDI from the movie “Star Wars,” envisioning himself as a kind of presidential Luke Skywalker combating the forces of darkness. As an amazing New York Times news story put it a week after the speech, SDI was “Mr. Reagan’s answer to the film ‘Star Wars.’”
If Kennedy had hoped to discredit the concept, he was making strides. His “Star Wars” term became extremely damaging, especially once the partisan press ran with it.
The media embrace of the term was evident in an exchange between Reagan and White House correspondent Helen Thomas:
Thomas: Mr. President, if you are flexible, are you willing to trade off research on “Star Wars”…or are you against any negotiations on “Star Wars”?
Reagan: Well, let me say, what has been called “Star Wars”—and, Helen, I wish whoever coined that expression would take it back again—
Thomas: Well, Strategic Defense—
Reagan: —because it gives a false impression of what it is we’re talking about.
Immediately after Reagan’s plea, Thomas continued: “May I ask you, then, if ‘Star Wars’—even if you don’t like the term, it’s quite popular….”
The term was popular because reporters used it. Reagan’s request was reasonable: the program’s name was the Strategic Defense Initiative. Objective reporters ought to be expected to use its proper name, not the name of derision invented by partisan detractors.
Reagan rightly feared that “Star Wars” 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.” Always kinder than his critics, Reagan charitably allowed that the media probably did not envision such a deleterious effect, instead using “Star Wars” merely “to denigrate the whole idea.” Privately, he told one friend that he “bristle[d]” each time the media used the label and complained to two others that the term was “never mine” but the media’s, “and now they saddle me with it.”
They sure did. In Moscow, the Communist media loved Kennedy’s term. To say that the Soviets likewise embraced “Star Wars” is inadequate; they used the label in every story on SDI. In fact, Soviet reporters rarely used the words Strategic Defense Initiative or the acronym, as they possessed more sinister motives: Significantly, whereas American journalists typed “Star Wars” in upper case to ridicule the idea as movie fiction, the Communists placed it in lower case to suggest SDI sought war amid the stars—“preparations for ‘star wars,’” as the Moscow International Service, Pravda, Izvestia, and all other Soviet media put it. The Kremlin seized the term to further portray Reagan as a nuclear warmonger—an image that another set of dupes in the West, the nuclear freeze movement, reinforced.
When Reagan tried to clarify his intentions and defend himself, the Soviets corrected him by citing American leftists. For instance, speaking on the vile “Studio 9,” the leading news program in the USSR, propagandist Valentin Zorin, the KGB’s Vitaly Kobysh, and academic Yevgeny Velikhov hammered Reagan’s alleged “plans” “to fill the space around the entire planet with battle stations.” “Only in his speech of 23 March 1983 did he formulate his idea, which became known as ‘star wars,’” explained Kobysh to the captive audience. This name, said Kobysh, was “very irritating” because of what it (allegedly) advocated. One group not fooled by Reagan, however, were left-wing Democrats at home: “U.S. politicians,” said Kobysh, “call it [SDI] the greatest deception of our time.”
The Moscow Domestic Service was particularly grateful to politicians like Senator Kennedy and the American media for “properly” labeling SDI:
They christened it [“star wars”] with full justification, since this initiative envisages deploying strike weapons systems in space aimed at targets not only in earth orbit, but also on the ground. All the while, the White House has convinced itself that they have been misunderstood, that they have goodwill toward all mankind…[The White House believes that] certain forces, it seems, have distorted the essence of the Strategic Defense Initiative by labeling it the “star wars” program…However, Washington is resorting to mediocre verbal balancing acts in vain. There is nothing defensive about it.
Reagan was left alone to deal with the consequences of how SDI was mislabeled and misreported. In one interview with hostile Soviet reporters, he protested: “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.” The Soviet reporters were incredulous; after all, they had gotten the term from Reagan’s own media, which, the Soviets naturally surmised, was certainly more objective on the matter than Reagan.
SDI was just one example of leftists unknowingly pumping the Bolshevik propaganda machine. Another case in point came a few months later, in October.
On October 19, 1983, a Marxist group inside Grenada murdered Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. A violent military council trained by Cuba put itself in charge, jailed and killed Bishop supporters, enacted martial law, and imposed a shoot-on-sight, 24-hour curfew. These edicts threatened not only citizens but also the roughly 1,000 Americans present, most of which were students at the St. George’s School of Medicine.
Reagan decided that this Communist advance would not be tolerated in the Western Hemisphere on his watch. Prior to Reagan, from 1974-79, under Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the Soviets acquired 11 satellite or proxy states around the world. Reagan was committed to not “ceding one inch” of ground to Moscow.
On October 25, 1983, 5,000 U.S. troops charged the shores of Grenada in the largest U.S. military operation since Vietnam. There were remarkably few casualties, particularly when measured against what Americans had been tragically accustomed to only eight years earlier. Only 19 soldiers died. By comparison, the United States lost 58,000 dead to the Vietnam experience. The commander of the task force in Grenada, Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf III, boasted: “We blew them away.”
U.S. troops found an enormous cache of weapons, armored vehicles, and military patrol boats, and engaged 800 Cuban soldiers. Only 30 hours after the start of the “rescue mission” (as Reagan called it), the first evacuated medical student to debark the airplane dropped to his knees and kissed the tarmac as he touched the soil of Charleston, South Carolina. The student’s gesture brought a lump to the throat and tear to the eye of many Americans, including President Reagan. It was the sort of smiling military triumph that had become unfamiliar to Americans of the Desert One generation.
While Americans supported the attack, it was quickly denounced by the international community – even by Reagan’s pal, Margaret Thatcher. The vote at the UN Security Council was 11-to-1 against the United States, while the General Assembly vote was a staggering 108 to 9, with America joined only by El Salvador, Israel, and (tellingly) the six Caribbean neighbors that requested U.S. assistance in the first place.
Still, Reagan succeeded in Grenada, a reality that nauseated the USSR. The Kremlin knew that Reagan’s run for a second presidential term was only a year away. Moscow hoped upon hope that Reagan would lose. To the Soviets, the win in Grenada was bad news, not only because it stemmed Communism’s advance, but because it boosted Reagan politically.
The Soviets searched for an angle to criticize the operation. The American Left provided one: Future Clinton administration Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dismissively likened the operation to a football game pitting an NFL team against “The Little Sisters of the Poor.” Her words were mimicked by a future Democratic presidential candidate from Massachusetts named John F. Kerry, who said the invasion was like “Boston College playing football against the Sisters of the Mercy.” Senator Kerry called Grenada “a bully’s show of force.” The sarcasm of Kerry and Albright was mild compared to Democratic Party voices like former Vice President Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson, Senator Pat Leahy, and the editorial pages of The New York Times.
This form of criticism was as disturbing as it was baffling: The Grenada operation was not simple, as is true for any military operation—a fact painfully obvious to those of the Vietnam generation, like Madeleine Albright and John Kerry. Recent U.S. interventions had become easy fiascoes. Would critics have preferred that Grenada not have seemed easy?
No matter, liberals had their spin, and so did Moscow: This line became a talking point for the Communists. TASS, the official Soviet news agency, decried how “the master of the White House” had “strived to convince his compatriots that they ‘can be proud’ of that operation.” What was there to be proud of? America, exclaimed TASS, had flung a “mighty naval armada” and thousands of Marines at a “tiny island state” that did nothing wrong.
Like the American Left, a popular tactic on the Soviet side was to downplay the U.S. action as a petty operation by a bully, directed at a tiny, and thereby unimportant, country—a line that contradicted Moscow’s obsessive attention. To buttress this viewpoint, the Soviets again borrowed from American leftists. To cite just one example, TASS devoted an entire statement to an article by Washington Post associate editor Robert Kaiser, titled, “Is This a Foreign Policy or a Recipe for Disaster?” Kaiser’s 3,000-word op-ed in the Sunday “Outlook” section excoriated Reagan policy: “History?” Kaiser begged. “It has no apparent place in Ronald Reagan’s view of the world, except for the caricatured version he has carried around in his head for years.”
The Soviets adored the piece. TASS seized it, quoting it liberally and circulating it around the Communist world, effectively turning the article into a Communist press release.
Nonetheless, the Soviets were frustrated to find that most Americans supported the operation. The odious Valentin Zorin, who, echoing the New York Times’s Anthony Lewis, judged Reagan a “blockhead” who “does not care to think,” deduced that Americans were “the most misinformed people on earth.” He reluctantly conceded that “a considerable number of Americans applauded Reagan” for his actions in Grenada.
Try as they might, the Soviets could not curb the operation’s boost to U.S. morale.
Perhaps left-wingers ignore this information today because doing so enables them to recast history in their own image, to draw up their favorite politicians as onetime Cold Warriors who helped defeat the Soviet empire. Indeed, on Grenada, as the Boston Globe noted during the 2004 election campaign, John Kerry has today changed his tune: “Campaigning now for president,” reported the Globe. “Kerry is rewriting that history…Kerry often lists Grenada among the U.S. military incursions he says he has supported.” Kerry now says of the invasion, with a straight face: “I never publicly opposed it.”
This laughable revisionism seems contagious among Massachusetts senators in particular: In response to the report in my book on the KGB memo, Ted Kennedy’s office maintains, “Senator Kennedy was a strong opponent of Star Wars, but had a constructive relationship with President Reagan on the Soviet Union.” Not exactly. (As their response demonstrates, even now, Kennedy and his staff still use the term “Star Wars,” naïve to the damage it once caused.)
Today, leftists try to claim that they, too, were Cold Warriors. That, however, is a fictional rewriting of history – which, of course, would not be the first time.
With the leadership, ingenuity, and courage of the Reagan administration, we managed to win the Cold War in the 1980s, and did so in spite of the American Left.
Paul G. Kengor, Ph.D., is the author of the New York Times Extended List bestsellers God and Ronald Reagan and God and George W. Bush. He is a professor of political science and director of the Center for Vision and Values at Grove City
College. He is the author of the new book The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.