When Reagan battled the Soviets — and American journalists

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This February 6th marks the birth centennial of Ronald Reagan, a president so universally admired that much of the media is doing tributes, from front-page profiles to full-blown commemorative issues. Many of these, even from mainstream/liberal sources, will unhesitatingly acknowledge Reagan’s bold, successful effort to undermine what was indeed an “Evil Empire.”

Ah, but it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1980s, liberals in the media viewed Reagan as a simpleton, even a Neanderthal, when it came to appraising the USSR and Marxist-Leninist ideology — and didn’t hesitate to say so. The Soviets recognized this and exploited it in ways that have never been acknowledged. There was, in effect, a sort of double-team against Reagan by liberals in our press and Soviet propagandists in Moscow. It wasn’t a conspiracy. The liberals were dupes, unwitting participants, as the Soviets constantly looked for ways to prod them and, more blatantly, pick up their anti-Reagan screeds as headlines in Soviet publications.

Again, this is not to suggest the two sides coordinated. Both were merely moving along the same leftward track, looking to ridicule their common political adversary — Ronald Reagan, conservative, anti-communist, simpleton.

I have read thousands of transcripts from Soviet media archives: Pravda, Izvestia, “Studio 9” TV broadcasts (Moscow’s leading “news” program), and innumerable less-known publications. They often featured encomiums raving about the sagacity of American liberals who excoriated Reagan. It was commonplace to catch a Soviet commentator authoritatively citing a liberal columnist or politician in making the case du jour against Reagan. It was not surprising for TASS, the official Soviet news agency, to take, say, a Washington Post op-ed — such as a lengthy November 1, 1983 piece blasting Reagan’s invasion of Grenada — and excerpt it into basically a press release disseminated throughout the Soviet empire. Liberals provided grist for the Kremlin propaganda mill.

Particularly interesting is that liberal journalists had no idea, amid their self-superiority, that Reagan was right on Soviet communism and they were wrong.

The new president spoke fearlessly, unapologetically, about the dangers of the USSR and its expansionary tendencies. He had strategic reasons, wanting to declare a just war against the foundations of Marxism-Leninism. The Great Communicator would use the bully pulpit to educate Americans on the nature of the beast.

Imagine the astonishment of liberal journalists: They had been educated in our universities, taught that uncompromising anti-communism was a bigger threat than uncompromising communism. Joe McCarthy was their demon in understanding the Cold War. Thus, Reagan’s warnings jolted their sensibilities. They reflexively went after Reagan when he dared to negatively quote Vladimir Lenin or insist the USSR was pursing global communism.

Surely, mused these liberals, Lenin could not have been as horrible as Reagan was suggesting. The Soviet leadership could not be that bad.

Criminals, liars, cheaters

This actually began with Reagan’s first press conference on January 29, 1981. The new president calmly explained to the press corps that the Soviet leadership had “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat….”

The press was horrified. Leading journalists, from the front pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to CBS Evening News — including an interview between Reagan and Walter Cronkite on March 3, 1981 — repeatedly pressed the president for clarification. And so, Reagan clarified, again and again. He did not back down. And why would he? What he said was accurate.

Did our liberals learn anything from Reagan’s initial tutorial on Marxism-Leninism? No, but the Soviets did. They sensed a major propaganda opportunity, firing back in full force from all three legs of their unholy trinity of government-controlled information: TASS and the twin “newspapers” Pravda and Izvestia.

The analysis in Izvestia was typical, reporting that it was “already apparent” that Reagan’s words were “certainly no indication of constructive intentions. On the contrary….” As evidence, Izvestia highlighted reactions from the Washington Post and Reuters.

For the newest Kremlin propaganda push, liberals would be imperative. It would be tremendous if the liberal America media resounded with criticisms against Reagan, especially dispelling his assertions about Soviet morality and expansionism. And liberals were game, relishing the opportunity to contest Reagan’s anti-communist claims.

On Reagan’s “hostile speeches”

I could cite numerous examples of how this played out, but one instance was especially telling.

On September 25, 1985, the Soviet Central Committee issued a secret memorandum titled, “On the Hostile Speeches of the President of the U.S.A.” Signed by the chief of the Propaganda Department and the chief of the Department of Foreign Political Propaganda, the memorandum claimed that Reagan “frequently resorted to falsified quotes, attributing them to V.I. Lenin.” For Reagan, this was “standard practice.”

Poor, peaceful Lenin was being slandered by that reprobate Reagan.

The two propaganda chiefs instructed the Soviet Foreign Ministry, via the Soviet Embassy in Washington, “to categorically protest to the U.S. Department of State the falsifying of the works of the founder of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet state, V.I. Lenin.”

It is fascinating to today observe what quickly followed, particularly in the New York Times. It is difficult to say where the Times got the initial cue to respond, whether reacting to something Reagan recently said, or, worse, swallowing the bait dropped into the water by the memo — or perhaps reacting to the ripple effect. Was the Times goaded by a leak from a friendly source at the State Department?

As in so many of these cases with the American liberal left and the Soviet communist left, it is difficult to pinpoint which side went first or might have prompted the other. What is clear is the uncanny way they magically, repeatedly reinforced one another.

Either way, the Soviets got what they wanted when the Times — the most influential newspaper in the Western world — took Reagan to task in an unusual authored piece that ran not on the op-ed page but on the editorial page on October 8, 1985. The piece carried the by-line of Karl Meyer, a member of the editorial board.

Of all the areas where the Times might have zinged Reagan for allegedly misquoting Lenin, it happened to focus on precisely the one noted in the brief September 25 secret memo. For whatever reason, the Times’s Meyer found it incredible that Lenin might have said that after the Bolsheviks took Europe and Asia, America would be next — even though Lenin had written open letters exhorting American workers (click here) and openly called for America to be communist.

Meyer interviewed various sources on the veracity of the quote. He first cited the loathsome Georgi Arbatov, a full-time, paid Soviet propagandist, though this was not noted in the article. Arbatov claimed Reagan got his phony information from no less than Adolph Hitler. Among other potential Reagan sources, Meyer cited “right-wing generals” in South Africa. And where had these racist apartheid leaders exhumed the supposedly fictitious Lenin quote? Perhaps, Meyer considered, from a 1971 conspiracy tract published by the John Birch Society.

Meyer informed the Times’s readers that he kept digging until he found “what seems to have been President Reagan’s source,” a 1958 publication from Robert Welch titled The Blue Book of the John Birch Society.

From there, Meyer concluded — with no confirmation from Reagan, anyone in the White House, or anything anywhere — that the Birch publication was the president’s source. He finished: “So there it is: an undocumentable Birchite ‘paraphrase’ offered … as a live quotation by a President of the United States.”

As for the Kremlin, this must have been just breathtakingly wonderful, perfect for its aims against Reagan. The Gray Lady was a feeder service to news organizations all over America. The daily Times was daily bread to liberals.

Worse still, this is merely one example from the mainstream media, and hardly unusual. I’ve focused here on a Times piece, but the Washington Post was just as bad.

Reagan’s Nazi sources

As for the Soviets, when they weren’t thrusting this material into their headlines, they were walking it into Washington, where they employed it to confront U.S. officials as high up as Reagan himself. They demanded explanations as to why America’s president was a belligerent falsifier.

To cite two examples, in the spring of 1987, propagandist Valentin Falin came to Washington with a Soviet delegation, and armed with material the Times — and also the Post — had been using against Reagan. Speaking to a group of American officials, Falin, like Arbatov, claimed Reagan’s quoting of Lenin had been manufactured by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief.

Another incident occurred on May 20, 1988, when two Soviet “journalists” interviewed President Reagan at the White House in anticipation of the Moscow Summit. Again, the same material was pulled. They put the president on the spot: “So, I would like to ask you what works of Lenin did you read, and where were those quotations that you used taken from?”

Reagan handled the interrogation with remarkable grace, but it was a shame he was put in such a situation. In truth, Reagan was dealing with inveterate liars and mass murderers, and desperately wanted to inform the world of the destructive nature of this very real enemy. He did not expect help from Soviet propagandists, of course, but he surely wished he had support from American journalists. Instead, the latter aided and abetted the former.

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Alas, it all worked out in the end, didn’t it?

Yes, which is why Americans this week — many liberal journalists included — commemorate the birth and historic achievements of Ronald Reagan. Among the man’s achievements, his triumph over a truly Evil Empire will be front and center. Liberal journalists will hopefully commend Reagan for that victory — a victory he won without them.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of the newly released Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century. His other books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and God and Ronald Reagan.

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