In my new book on Ronald Reagan and the Cold War, I report on a May 14, 1983 letter from the head of the KGB, Viktor Chebrikov, to the head of the USSR, Yuri Andropov, concerning (as Chebrikov put it), “Sen. [Ted] Kennedy’s request” to Andropov.
Classified at the highest level, Chebrikov reported that Mr. Kennedy wanted to meet with Andropov in Moscow and hoped to bring Andropov to the United States to help the Democratic senator from Massachusetts counter Reagan’s alleged militaristic defense policies, which Kennedy believed were the culprit for a volatile world situation that was spiraling out of control. This document, which resides in KGB archives that have been since resealed, constitutes a remarkable example of the depths to which Reagan frightened many liberals and the degree to which some on the left were willing to go to stop the 40th president.
The episode appears to be one of numerous examples of Ted Kennedy failing to realize the perception and consequences of his actions. A likewise striking illustration of this was Mr. Kennedy’s use of the term “Star Wars,” which he used to ridicule Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.
On March 23, 1983, Reagan announced SDI in a major speech. The next morning, Mr. Kennedy lampooned Reagan’s “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.”
Mr. Kennedy’s “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, lost in a world of fantasy. Surely, suggested the sophisticated people, Reagan must have picked up the idea for SDI from the blockbuster movie “Star Wars,” envisioning himself as kind of presidential Luke Skywalker combating the forces of darkness.
If Mr. Kennedy had hoped to discredit the concept, he was making strides, especially once the partisan media delightfully ran with it. Reagan rightly feared that Mr. 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.”
The term “Star Wars” 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 used by partisan detractors.
In Moscow, the communist media loved Ted Kennedy’s term. 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 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.
The Soviet press admired certain American politicians and columnists. Its most quoted U.S. senator in the 1980s was likely Ted Kennedy, whereas its most approved of columnist was James Reston of the New York Times.
For its part, the Moscow Domestic Service was grateful to the American media and to politicians like Mr. Kennedy: “They christened it [“star wars”] with full justification, since this initiative envisages deploying strike weapons systems in space.”
Reagan was left alone to deal with the consequences of how SDI was mislabeled and misreported, including against 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.”
Ted Kennedy’s phrase was more destructive to Ronald Reagan’s efforts than anything contained in that classified May 1983 KGB document. The senator from Massachusetts had inadvertently handed to the Kremlin a gem of a propaganda tool, which Moscow played for all it was worth. The power of that label has never been adequately appreciated by the American people, though it certainly was felt by their president.
Paul Kengor is author of “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” (2006), and associate professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa.