Allegations of Russian dirty tricks in the 2016 US presidential campaign often treat the issue of interference as if it were a historic, unprecedented transgression. But although the means used for such meddling (WikiLeaks, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) may have been new in 2016, the meddling itself was much more a matter of routine. During the Cold War, the US and USSR regularly engaged in both spying and “active measures,” a Russian euphemism for the dissemination of negative propaganda and misinformation.
US agencies such as the CIA typically paid little attention to Soviet elections, insofar as they were uncontested, single-party affairs. The Soviets, however, proved much more interested in US campaigns. According to Mark Kramer, the KGB’s First Main Directorate (its foreign intelligence agency) organized a special unit in the 1950s to undermine the legitimacy of US institutions. During the early 1960s, it spread disinformation in the US that linked the government to Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination. According to Seth Jones, this unit coordinated Czechoslovak and Soviet attacks on Barry Goldwater during the run-up to the 1964 presidential election, accusing him of links to the KKK and other racist groups. According to Kramer, it also attacked the credibility of other prominent public figures during the mid-1960s, ranging from Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover to Martin Luther King Jr. Johnson was labeled a white supremacist. Homophobic letters to the editor, ostensibly written by ordinary Americans, were sent to newspapers alleging that Hoover was a transvestite who had assembled a “network of like-minded homosexuals” within the FBI. Martin Luther King Jr. was accused of being an “Uncle Tom” who colluded with white supremacists within the US government.
In 1968, the USSR sought to undermine the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon and instructed Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to offer Hubert Humphrey covert financial support. In 1976, the KGB again attempted to kneecap presidential candidates known for their anti-communist credentials. Letters were mailed to newspapers alleging that Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson was a closeted homosexual at the same time that articles were placed in the Western European press criticizing former California Governor Ronald Reagan. According to Calder Walton, the KGB resumed its efforts to discredit Reagan in the US and European press in 1983-1984 in an attempt to prevent his reelection.
Such Soviet efforts faded only with the fall of the USSR a few years later.
Curiously, such Cold war-era “active measures” followed upon earlier Soviet international propaganda dating back to just after the October 1917 Revolution. Key within this revolutionary phase of Soviet agitprop was the Third Communist International—the Comintern—which was founded a hundred years ago in 1919 as an ostensibly independent institution tasked with coordinating communist parties worldwide. Both a symbol of international revolution and an agent of its realization, the Comintern was—in the eyes of many—almost as important as the Bolshevik party itself. Such sentiments were not far from the truth, insofar as the Comintern often functioned as an unofficial arm of Soviet foreign policy during the 1920s and 1930s.
Active in Europe and Asia, the Comintern was also heavily involved in the promotion of Soviet propaganda in the US through the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA). This agitational work helped CPUSA grow to the point where it functioned as a third party in several presidential elections. CPUSA’s general secretary, Earl Browder, styled his party as a progressive, home-grown labor movement under the slogan “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” And CPUSA’s ranks swelled to about 66,000 members during these years.
Despite the Comintern’s leading role in disseminating Soviet propaganda abroad, Stalin appears to have soured on the organization between 1936 and 1938. Perhaps he had grown frustrated with the Comintern’s ineffectiveness in preventing Hitler’s rise to power. Perhaps he lost faith in the Comintern after much of its leadership was arrested as spies in 1937. Whatever the reason, Stalin effectively wrote the Comintern out of party history when he personally edited the canonical History of the CPSU: Short Course during the summer of 1938.
Ironically, despite Stalin’s purge of the Comintern, he required the organization to assist with the Short Course’s translation and dissemination abroad after the Politburo authorized such a campaign in September 1938. As a result, the Comintern launched a mobilization drive in the US in early 1939 oriented around the Short Course that stressed the importance of supporting the USSR and the CPSU instead of the Comintern or the cause of world revolution.
Although the Short Course would dominate Soviet propaganda at home for decades, its impact in the US was much more short-lived. After all, less than six months after the start of the campaign, the USSR confounded by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty with Nazi Germany on August 23, 1939. In the US, news of the pact was received with dismay within CPUSA ranks. Thousands of members left the party, hobbling the organization. Struggling to stem this hemorrhage, the CPUSA leadership quickly abandoned its drive surrounding the Short Course.
Despite the purge, the Comintern continued to try to rally international support for the USSR until 1943, when it was shuttered by Stalin as a concession to the US and Great Britain. That said, one shouldn’t make too much of this sea-change in Soviet foreign policy, insofar as most of the Comintern’s responsibilities were quietly transferred to the party’s Central Committee and organs of state security. As such, this turnabout did not compromise the USSR’s readiness to resume its propaganda and “active measures” abroad a few years later after the start of the Cold War.