The Long History of Members of Congress Talking Directly with U.S. AdversariesRoundup
tags: Cold War, foreign policy, diplomacy
Sergey Radchenko is professor of international politics at Cardiff University, U.K.
As the Biden administration embraces the world, it will strive to project an image of unity and resolve. But a perennial challenge may remain on actually implementing such an approach: back channels.
Back channels are as old as diplomacy itself and often become useful where normal diplomacy fails because they can be easily disavowed. One famous example was the relationship between Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin. Their secret negotiations ushered in a period of reduced superpower tensions, or detente, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the early 1970s.
But another type of back channel has also long existed: from the leader of one country to the political opposition in another. In fact, newly declassified Russian documents reveal that Soviet leaders had back channels to a wide range of American politicians in and out of power, and tried to use them to influence American policy.
For decades, there have been allegations that Sen. Edward Kennedy, the brother of President John F. Kennedy, had back channels to Moscow. Based on a May 1983 memo first uncovered in 1991 by a reporter for the London Times, conservative scholars and journalists have argued that Kennedy colluded with the Soviet Union in the run-up to the 1984 presidential election, trying to undercut President Ronald Reagan politically. They charge that Kennedy offered to set up a direct, televised appeal from General Secretary Yuri Andropov to an American audience about nuclear forces in Europe in exchange for Soviet electoral assistance on behalf of the Democrats. This argument, however, seems divorced from the context of the time, conflating the work of a prominent U.S. senator to bring the sides away from the abyss during a nadir of U.S.-Soviet relations with a quid pro quo for election interference (in which Kennedy was not a candidate).
Nonetheless, newly uncovered letters from Russian archives confirm the existence of a KGB back channel between Moscow and Kennedy, and show consistent engagement on issues critical to U.S.-Soviet relations. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Kennedy and his staffers traveled to the Soviet Union and conveyed messages on behalf of various administrations, and occasionally on their own behalf, too.
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