February 6 marked Ronald Reagan’s 96th birthday — coincidentally, it’s the same birth month as two of America’s greatest Presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and also the same month that the nation celebrates Presidents’ Day.
When we think of Ronald Reagan’s relationship with Presidents or presidential families, we might think of the Bushes, or perhaps even the Fords, but we do not think of the Kennedys. Yet, throughout his political life, Ronald Reagan had some fascinating and sometimes even moving run-ins with the Kennedys. These instances have fallen through the cracks of history, which is unfortunate, since each offers a telling tale of sharp political differences — of ups and downs.
Reagan began his political life as a liberal Democrat, the type that a staunchly anti-Communist Democrat named John F. Kennedy judged naïve about the Communist threat. An ironic example of the early Reagan’s being too liberal for the Kennedys took place when Jack, Bobby and their father crossed party lines and loyalties to support Republican Richard Nixon in his 1950 Senate bid against the “Pink Lady,” Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas — for whom an actor named Ronald Reagan had been campaigning.
Transition to the Right
By the 1960s, however, Reagan had completed a long transition to the right. And on May 15, 1967, Reagan, then the conservative Republican governor of California, agreed to debate Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D.-N.Y.) on the Vietnam War. The debate was broadcast from 10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT by the CBS TV and Radio Networks, and was watched by 15 million Americans. There was almost complete agreement, including among media sources who revered Bobby Kennedy, from the San Francisco Chronicle to Newsweek, that Reagan overwhelmingly won the debate. Historian David Halberstam acknowledged that “the general consensus” was that “Reagan … destroyed him.” Reagan biographer Lou Cannon agreed that “Reagan clearly bested Kennedy.”
Even RFK agreed. He immediately asked after the debate, “Who the f— got me into this?”
Equally intriguing were unrelated remarks made by Reagan a year later, on June 5, 1968, the day Bobby Kennedy was assassinated.
Reagan was invited to talk about the tragedy on entertainer Joey Bishop’s television show. Reagan spoke at length about Kennedy and the loss, even offering spiritual advice on how to cope with the grief: “I am sure that all of us are praying not only for him but for his family and for those others who were so senselessly struck down also in the fusillade of bullets. . . . I believe we should go on praying, to the best of our ability, to ask for God’s mercy in what has happened to us.”
Soviet Links to Assassinations
Particularly interesting was how the cold warrior found a way to direct the discussion to America’s real enemy: the U.S.S.R. Reagan noted that Kennedy’s killer, a radical Arab, committed the crime because of the senator’s support of Israel, specifically during the Six Day War that had occurred exactly one year earlier. That conflict was intentionally precipitated by the Kremlin, which concocted false intelligence reports about alleged Israeli troop movements. Moscow shared the phony information with Egypt and other Arab states for the explicit purpose of creating a military confrontation with Israel, which the Soviets believed would advance their broader foreign-policy interests in the Middle East and the world. This shameless maneuver led to a war.
Ronald Reagan thus linked Bobby Kennedy’s assassination to the U.S.S.R. “The enemy sits in Moscow,” he told Joey Bishop. “I call him an enemy because I believe he has proven this, by deed, in the Middle East. The actions of the enemy led to and precipitated the tragedy of last night.”
Reagan was not finished. Later in the week, he connected the earlier assassination of another Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, to Soviet communism. Speaking at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis, Reagan was eager to remind Americans of the worldview that had motivated JFK’s murderer: “Five years ago, a President was murdered by one who renounced his American citizenship to embrace the godless philosophy of communism.”
Reagan had formulated a new angle in his outrage toward Soviet communism: Moscow’s nefarious ways were leading, directly or indirectly, to the extermination of some of America’s most beloved political figures — the two Kennedy boys.
The Third Kennedy Boy
A third Kennedy boy who made it to the U.S. Senate and had his eyes on the presidency was Ted, who was politically to the left of his brothers, especially with regard to the Cold War and the Soviet threat.
Once Reagan was President, he found himself at odds with the latest Sen. Kennedy. Reagan ideas such as deploying intermediate-range nuclear forces (INFs) in Western Europe and the Strategic Defense Initiative infuriated Ted Kennedy, who, according to a highly sensitive KGB document discovered by reporter Tim Sebastian of the London Times (which ran an article on the document Feb. 2, 1992), was motivated to do something quite unusual:
On May 14, 1983, KGB head Viktor Chebrikov sent a message of “Special Importance” with the highest classification to General Secretary Yuri Andropov. The subject head to the letter read: “Regarding Senator Kennedy’s request to the General Secretary of the Communist Party Y. V. Andropov.” According to Chebrikov, Sen. Kennedy was “very troubled” by the state of U.S.-Soviet relations. Kennedy believed that the main reason for the dangerous situation was “Reagan’s belligerence” and particularly his INF plan. “According to Kennedy,” reported Chebrikov, “the current threat is due to the President’s refusal to engage any modification to his politics.”
The fourth and fifth paragraphs of Chebrikov’s memo held out hope that Reagan’s 1984 re-election bid could be thwarted. But where was the President vulnerable? Chebrikov stated that Kennedy had provided a possible answer. “The only real threats to Reagan are problems of war and peace and Soviet-American relations,” wrote Chebrikov. “These issues, according to the senator [Kennedy], will without a doubt become the most important of the election campaign.” According to Chebrikov, Kennedy lamented that Reagan was good at “propaganda,” whereas statements from Soviet officials were quoted “out of context” or “whimsically discounted.”
Soviet PR Campaign
Chebrikov then relayed Kennedy’s alleged offer to Andropov: “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.” The first step, according to the document, was a recommendation by Kennedy that Andropov invite him to Moscow for a personal meeting. Chebrikov reported: “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.”
Second, wrote the KGB head, “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.” He said the Massachusetts senator had suggested a “direct appeal” by Andropov to the American people. “Kennedy and his friends,” wrote Chebrikov, would hook up Andropov with television reporters such as Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters. Chebrikov said that Kennedy had suggested arranging interviews not merely for Andropov but also for “lower-level Soviet officials, particularly from the military,” who “would also have an opportunity to appeal directly to the American people about the peaceful intentions of the U.S.S.R.”
In essence, Chebrikov reported that Kennedy offered to help organize a Soviet PR campaign, which would “root out the threat of nuclear war” and “improve Soviet-American relations” (and also hurt Reagan’s 1984 re-election prospects). “Kennedy is very impressed with the activities of Y. V. Andropov and other Soviet leaders,” explained Chebrikov.
If Chebrikov’s interpretation is accurate, then the memo constitutes a remarkable example of the lengths to which some on the political left were willing to go to stop Ronald Reagan.
Sen. Kennedy’s office today disputes the characterization that Kennedy offered to work against Reagan, saying that the charge is “way off the mark.” In response to the publication of this Chebrikov document in my book, "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism," Kennedy’s office has attempted to redirect the issue, maintaining that, to the contrary, Kennedy “had a constructive relationship with President Reagan on the Soviet Union,” and pointing not to Kennedy and Andropov but to Kennedy’s support of Reagan’s negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev in the second term.
Ted Rips Reagan
But the KGB memo was not written during the second term. As for the first Reagan term, Kennedy was hardly constructive toward Reagan. The day after Reagan’s speech announcing the Strategic Defense Initiative, he ripped the speech as “misleading Red-scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.” Or take, for instance, Sen. Kennedy’s March 1984 article for Rolling Stone magazine, in which he called Reagan “the best pretender as President that we have had in modern history,” before leveling the allegation that Reagan officials were “talking peace in 1984 as a prelude to making war in 1985.” Kennedy wrote of “fears about an administration whose officials have spoken of winnable nuclear conflict.”
Conservatives will find this response from the senator’s office wanting. Might a better explanation from the senator’s spokespeople be to remind us that this was indeed a very dangerous period when many, including Sen. Kennedy, were deeply fearful that the arms race and Cold War confrontation was spiraling out of control, drawing the two superpowers closer to the precipice of nuclear oblivion. Kennedy, like many liberals, believed that Reagan’s arms build-up and harsh rhetoric were exacerbating the problem.
But that, obviously, is far from a perfect defense of Kennedy’s action. Again, conservatives will find it unsatisfactory, but it would be at least an honest recounting of where many in Kennedy’s political shoes once stood in the Cold War competition.
Perhaps more defensible is where Ted Kennedy now stands on Reagan and the Cold War. On June 5, 2004, the day of Ronald Reagan’s death, Sen. Ted Kennedy judged that the 40th President “will be honored as the President who won the Cold War.”
For Kennedy, that was a remarkably gracious concession, quite an about-face from his position 20 years earlier. And another ironic twist — perhaps even a moving close — in a Reagan-Kennedy relationship that began many decades earlier.