NYT: Soviets saw Sanders as a propaganda opportunity in 1980s

And if they were still around, the Soviets still might. After all, Bernie Sanders still sings praises for Fidel Castro over his literacy program and the Communist Party in China for its efforts on income inequality. In that sense, we don’t truly require the New York Times’ walk down Memory Lane to 1988 they dropped last night to learn that Sanders fits the mold of the “useful idiot.”

But it certainly doesn’t hurt. In that year, Sanders traveled to the Soviet Union in an attempt to establish a sister-city relationship for Burlington, part of an international-friendship effort that had some encouragement from Ronald Reagan at the time. Reagan saw it as a way to export Western democracy, of course, to people who might appreciate the differences. Sanders wanted to leverage it for his own anti-war and socialist views, however, and the Soviets saw an opportunity to exploit that for their own propaganda ambitions:

The New York Times examined 89 pages of letters, telegrams and internal Soviet government documents revealing in far greater detail the extent of Mr. Sanders’s personal effort to establish ties between his city and a country many Americans then still considered an enemy despite the reforms being initiated at the time under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet general secretary.

They also show how the Kremlin viewed these sister city relationships as vehicles to sway American public opinion about the Soviet Union.

“One of the most useful channels, in practice, for actively carrying out information-propaganda efforts has proved to be sister-city contact,” a Soviet Foreign Ministry document provided to Yaroslavl officials said. …

Nothing in the documents suggests that Mr. Sanders was the only local American official targeted for propaganda, or even that he was particularly receptive to it, though they do describe him as a socialist. But the documents do show the Soviets’ intensive preparation to use Mr. Sanders’s interest in their country to their advantage.

By 1988, the Soviet interest in this project would have been acute. The West’s penetration of the KGB’s industrial-espionage programs had crippled their technological progress (the Farewell case especially), and the Soviets couldn’t afford a new arms race. They needed “useful idiots” like Sanders and others to demand a drastic reduction in Western defense spending in order to survive. Reagan’s massive rebuilding of conventional and nuclear forces was driving the Soviets into bankruptcy, and Chernobyl had exposed their dangerous technological and operational deficits to the world. The useful-idiot project was desperately needed, although thankfully ultimately unsuccessful.

The NYT glosses over that reality while not really delivering much on Sanders either. It’s an interesting read from a historical point of view, but it doesn’t reveal as much as one might suspect from its lead. Sanders defends himself by noting that quite a few American communities signed up for sister-city relationships with Soviet towns, which is certainly true. The NYT review of these documents don’t contain anything we haven’t already learned about Sanders from his own mouth, either then or now. The documents apparently have zero evidence that Sanders was acting covertly as a Soviet front man or some kind of co-conspirator; instead, the write-ups are all from the Soviet perspective on their interactions with Sanders and his team, their assessment of him as a socialist, and so on. Even as KGB dossiers go, it’s all either rather tame or contains facts long in evidence.

There’s a lot more interesting material on Sanders than this, some of which the Washington Post belatedly started digging through just before the South Carolina primary. You don’t need access to secret KGB archival material to find it, either — you just need Lexis-Nexis:

But a Fix review of more than 10 hours of Sanders appearances over the past three decades reveals how Sanders has often been quick to downplay abuses of authoritarian regimes, instead focusing on aspects and programs he admired. During his two presidential bids, Sanders has at times appeared to contradict or try to explain away his earlier views on authoritarian regimes, examples of which you can watch in the video above.

In 1985, Sanders praised Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for his education and health-care programs. In 1986, he recalled being “very excited” by Castro’s revolution. And after he returned from a trip to Cuba in 1989, the Rutland Daily Herald paraphrased Sanders as calling Cuba a “model of what a society could be” for Latin America. …

Returning from a trip to Nicaragua in 1985, Sanders downplayed reports of abuses by the Sandinista-led government, instead lauding the country’s democratic rights, civil liberties and food lines. In 1988, Sanders discussed the government’s media censorship by pointing to previous U.S. crackdowns on press freedoms during the Civil War and first and second world wars.

And for that matter, you don’t even need a long memory:

Something he said as recently as February 2019 has even required a bit of a walk-back. Sanders then refused to call Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro a dictator, instead emphasizing the “democratic operations taking place in that country.” Sanders reversed himself less than a year later, calling Maduro a dictator and a tyrant.

Much of Sanders’s past praise for socialist authoritarian regimes was rooted in his criticism of U.S. foreign policy, but as The Fix’s Aaron Blake noted this week, Sanders often went “further than just saying the United States should stay out” of those countries and has struck a different balance than other U.S. politicians who have praised some elements of countries such as Cuba.

Blake had laid out a number of nuggets after Sanders’ 60 Minutes interview opened the floodgates:

  • In 1986, he said of Cuba: “I was very excited and impressed by the Cuban revolution.”
  • In 1987, he said while talking about Cuba that the Reagan administration “seeks to prop up governments of the rich while attempting to destroy genuine revolutionary movements.”
  • In 1985, he said Americans opposed communist and socialist leaders because they didn’t understand the problems of poverty in those countries. “The American people — many of us — are intellectually lazy,” Sanders said.
  • In 1988, while visiting the Soviet Union, he praised it for having lower housing and health-care costs than the United States, while acknowledging the quality wasn’t as good.
  • Last year, he said of China: “China is a country that is moving unfortunately in a more authoritarian way in a number of directions. But what we have to say about China in fairness to China and it’s leadership is if I’m not mistaken they have made more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization, so they’ve done a lot of things for their people.”

Sanders would then repeat that last argument in a CNN town hall event with Chris Cuomo, making the issue acute all over again. The NYT report gives us some mildly interesting historical gloss on the problem, but Sanders has made this crucial failing readily apparent for decades. The real issue is that the national media has studiously ignored it for more than four years, until Sanders’ insistence on doubling down on his useful idiocy.

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