Bernie Sanders’ Soviet Sister City

There's nothing to see here, folks.

The New York Times conducted an exhaustive study of the Russian archives involving then-Burlington, Vermont Mayor Bernie Sanders’ efforts to find a sister city in the Soviet Union. It published its findings in a report titled “As Bernie Sanders Pushed for Closer Ties, Soviet Union Spotted Opportunity.” It has the ominous subhed “Previously unseen documents from a Soviet archive show how hard Mr. Sanders worked to find a sister city in Russia when he was a mayor in the 1980s. Moscow saw a chance for propaganda.”

I read the report twice-biased against Sanders. First, he’s by far my least favorite of the major contenders for the Democratic nomination and I would welcome an exposé that further diminishes his chances in that contest. Second, I already think he is a fellow traveler and Communist sympathizer.

But there’s nothing even the least bit damning here.

The mayor of Burlington, Vt., wrote to a Soviet counterpart in a provincial city that he wanted the United States and the Soviet Union to “live together as friends.”

Unbeknown to him, his desire for friendship meshed with the efforts of Soviet officials in Moscow to “reveal American imperialism as the main source of the danger of war.”

That mayor was Bernie Sanders, and the story of his 1988 trip to the Soviet Union has been told before. But many of the details of Mr. Sanders’s Cold War diplomacy before and after that visit — and the Soviet effort to exploit Mr. Sanders’s antiwar agenda for their own propaganda purposes — have largely remained out of sight.

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.

Now, that above-linked report from last year, “Mayor and ‘Foreign Minister’: How Bernie Sanders Brought the Cold War to Burlington: Referendums, rallies, a trip to Nicaragua — all were part of his effort to infuse left-wing activism into local politics,” is indeed damning. It shows him in the mid-1980s as a willing stooge and apologist for the brutal socialist dictatorship in Nicaragua. It also shows him as a rather lousy mayor—more interested in undermining his country’s foreign policy than fixing potholes and otherwise tending to his constituent’s interests.

But the sister city relationship with Yaroslavl was harmless. It was part of a longstanding effort that began under President Eisenhower in 1956 and was still enthusiastically supported by President Reagan three decades later.

That the Soviets saw the project differently than the Americans is, well, not surprising.

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.

But there’s no evidence presented that they gained any advantage or that Sanders meaningfully contributed to it. And, as much a Cold Warrior as I was at the time—I was commissioned and started field artillery training at Fort Sill the year in question—we were in fact in the era of Glasnost and Perestroika and near the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This is as bad as the report gets:

Mr. Sanders’s involvement in the Cold War debate grew in the 1980s as he forcefully opposed the Reagan administration’s plans to have Burlington and other American cities make evacuation plans for a potential nuclear war.

Instead, Mr. Sanders reached out to the Soviet Union via an organization based in Virginia, requesting a sister-city partnership with the Cold War adversary in an effort to end the threat of nuclear annihilation.

“We were saying: The goal is to not have a nuclear war, not to plan and prepare for it,” said Terry Bouricius, a Burlington alderman at the time who accompanied Mr. Sanders on the trip.

While I very much support the goal of avoiding nuclear war, that doesn’t mean it’s not prudent to plan and prepare for the eventuality. And, again, it’s not the remit of the mayor of fucking Burlington to decide United States foreign policy.

This report is yet another reminder that Sanders is something of a simpleton when it comes to foreign policy. But there’s no evidence of wrongdoing. He may well have been an idiot, but he was not a useful one.

Correction: In the original version of the post, I misidentified the Sandinista government as “communist” when they self-identified as “socialist.” Still, Daniel Ortega considered himself a Marxist-Leninist, he was trained in Communist Cuba, and “his first period in office was characterized by a controversial program of nationalization, land reform, wealth redistribution and literacy programs.It wasn’t Scandinavian social democracy.

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, US Politics, World Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    As anyone who’s reads these comment sections knows, I’m certainly no fan of Bernie. But I read the article and came away with the same conclusion as you. And though the article was fair, the headline (at the least the one that was showing in my browser this morning) seemed to be putting a thumb on the scale against Bernie.

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  2. drj says:

    Not really the main issue here, but this:

    It shows him in the mid-1980s as a willing stooge and apologist for the brutal communist dictatorship in Nicaragua.

    …is complete bullshit.

    From Wiki:

    In 1980, the Carter administration provided $60 million in aid to Nicaragua under the Sandinistas, but the aid was suspended when the administration obtained evidence of Nicaraguan shipment of arms to El Salvadoran rebels.

    In response to the coming to power of the Sandinistas, various rebel groups collectively known as the “contras” were formed to oppose the new government. The Reagan administration authorized the CIA to help the contra rebels with funding, armaments, and training. The contras operated out of camps in the neighboring countries of Honduras to the north and Costa Rica to the south.

    They engaged in a systematic campaign of terror amongst the rural Nicaraguan population to disrupt the social reform projects of the Sandinistas. Several historians have criticized the contra campaign and the Reagan administration’s support for it, citing the brutality and numerous human rights violations of the contras. LaRamee and Polakoff, for example, describe the destruction of health centers, schools, and cooperatives at the hands of the rebels, and others have contended that murder, rape, and torture occurred on a large scale in contra-dominated areas. The United States also carried out a campaign of economic sabotage, and disrupted shipping by planting underwater mines in Nicaragua’s port of Corinto, an action condemned by the International Court of Justice as illegal. The U.S. also sought to place economic pressure on the Sandinistas, and the Reagan administration imposed a full trade embargo. The Sandinistas were also accused of human rights abuses.

    In the Nicaraguan general elections of 1984, which were judged to have been free and fair, the Sandinistas won the parliamentary election and their leader Daniel Ortega won the presidential election. The Reagan administration criticized the elections as a “sham” based on the charge that Arturo Cruz, the candidate nominated by the Coordinadora Democrática Nicaragüense, comprising three right wing political parties, did not participate in the elections. However, the administration privately argued against Cruz’s participation for fear his involvement would legitimize the elections, and thus weaken the case for American aid to the contras. According to Martin Kriele, the results of the election were rigged.

    The “brutal communist dictatorship in Nicaragua” were, in fact, the good guys.

    Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, mind you, but much, much better than the US-supported terrorists who opposed them.

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  3. drj says:

    To add to my previous comment, there was a brutal, US-backed, right-wing dictatorship in Nicaragua until 1979. No previous tradition of serious democracy whatsoever.

    Then the right-wing dictator gets overthrown by some lefty rebels. They make serious efforts in trying to get a democracy going, while simultaneously facing a brutal, US-funded terror campaign.

    Shit isn’t perfect and the former lefty rebels don’t succeed in keeping clean hands, while still being far less evil than either the Somozas who came before them or the Contras who are meanwhile out there killing and raping in the countryside.

    And suddenly THEY are the brutal dictatorship?

    Maybe Sanders isn’t the only simpleton around.

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  4. Even about Nicaragua, I think FSLN was not even communist – the communists in Nicaragua were the pro-soviet Nicaraguan Socialist Party and the pro-albanian Marxist–Leninist Popular Action Movement; the private sector produced most of the GDP, there was oposition parties, and independent newspapers (like the La Prensa), etc. At least since 1984, Nicaragua was more a kind of “illiberal democracy” than a classical dictatorship .

    About the “brutal”, well, this is a very polemic field, but, for what I know and have read, I had the suspicion that the Daniel Ortega’s government is more brutal today than it was in the 1980s (or perhaps was a question of having less open repression simply because there was less civil unrest?).

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Miguel Madeira: You’re correct that the Sandinistas called themselves “socialist” rather than “communist,” even if they drew inspiration from Castro’s Cuba. I’ve corrected the post accordingly.

    @drj: It was far more than “not being perfect.” From the wiki on Sandinista rule:

    In March 1982 the Sandinistas declared an official State of Emergency. They argued that this was a response to attacks by counter-revolutionary forces.[45] The State of Emergency lasted six years, until January 1988, when it was lifted.

    Under the new “Law for the Maintenance of Order and Public Security” the “Tribunales Populares Anti-Somozistas” allowed for the indefinite holding of suspected counter-revolutionaries without trial. The State of Emergency, however, most notably affected rights and guarantees contained in the “Statute on Rights and Guarantees of Nicaraguans”.[46] Many civil liberties were curtailed or canceled such as the freedom to organize demonstrations, the inviolability of the home, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the freedom to strike.[46]

    All independent news program broadcasts were suspended. In total, twenty-four programs were cancelled. In addition, Sandinista censor Nelba Cecilia Blandón issued a decree ordering all radio stations to take broadcasts from government radio station La Voz de La Defensa de La Patria every six hours.[47]

    The rights affected also included certain procedural guarantees in the case of detention including habeas corpus.[46] The State of Emergency was not lifted during the 1984 elections. There were many instances where rallies of opposition parties were physically broken up by Sandinista Youth or pro-Sandinista mobs. Opponents to the State of Emergency argued its intent was to crush resistance to the FSLN. James Wheelock justified the actions of the Directorate by saying “… We are annulling the license of the false prophets and the oligarchs to attack the revolution.”[48]

    Some emergency measures were taken before 1982. In December 1979 special courts called “Tribunales Especiales” were established to speed up the processing of 7,000-8,000 National Guard prisoners. These courts operated through relaxed rules of evidence and due process and were often staffed by law students and inexperienced lawyers. However, the decisions of the “Tribunales Especiales” were subject to appeal in regular courts. Many of the National Guard prisoners were released immediately due to lack of evidence. Others were pardoned or released by decree. By 1986 only 2,157 remained in custody and only 39 were still being held in 1989 when they were released under the Esquipulas II agreement.[46]

    On October 5, 1985 the Sandinistas broadened the 1982 State of Emergency and suspended many more civil rights. A new regulation also forced any organization outside of the government to first submit any statement it wanted to make public to the censorship bureau for prior approval.[49]

    So, the 1984 elections were far from “free and fair.” It’s also hard to see these as “the good guys.”

    But, yes, the situation was complicated by our previous support for another brutal dictatorship.

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  6. Kurtz says:

    @drj:

    The “brutal communist dictatorship in Nicaragua” were, in fact, the good guys.

    Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, mind you, but much, much better than the US-supported terrorists who opposed them.

    There is (almost) universally too much emphasis placed on regimes or separatist groups without looking at the conditions that give rise to dictatorships or armed rebellions. Typically they are only viewed through ideology, but only if it’s convenient.

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  7. gVOR08 says:

    This sort of thing is why they’re called FTFNYT. I’m just hoping they don’t go all in on Burisma. If it turns into click bait they will.

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  8. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    The Sandinistas in the early 80s were better than anything that came before them. That’s simply a fact. There is still plenty to criticize, of course. I never denied that.

    But the main issue here is that you condemned Sanders for being a “willing stooge and apologist for the brutal communist dictatorship in Nicaragua.”

    If Sanders was a “stooge” and “apologist,” what were YOU at the time?

    I bet you were – using your own terms, of course – a willing stooge and apologist for a brutal right-wing terrorist campaign.

    The fact of the matter is that the Contras were a LOT worse than the Sandinistas and the situation they sought to recreate was a LOT worse than anything the Sandinistas did at the time.

    So it appears that you are condemning Sanders for doing something that was considerably LESS bad than what you did.

    Not even intentionally, I am sure, but out of complete ignorance and the mindless swallowing of GOP propaganda. (You didn’t even know that the Sandinistas largely weren’t communists, for crying out loud.)

    There is this saying about a mote and a beam. I think it is applicable here.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @drj:

    If Sanders was a “stooge” and “apologist,” what were YOU at the time?

    A college freshman.

    Not even intentionally, I am sure, but out of complete ignorance and the mindless swallowing of GOP propaganda. (You didn’t even know that the Sandinistas largely weren’t communists, for crying out loud.)

    I’m sure I bought the propaganda at the time, and certainly saw the situation as more black and white than it was. Ortega was a Castro-trained Marxist-Leninist who followed many of the Castro regime’s policies but, yes, both were replacing pretty awful governments that we backed mostly because they were anti-Communist. Our policy frameworks, on a bipartisan basis, were almost entirely through a Cold War lens.

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  10. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    A college freshman.

    Fair enough. But did you change your mind afterward?

    Our policy frameworks, on a bipartisan basis, were almost entirely through a Cold War lens.

    But then you should acknowledge that in this case Sanders was less hampered by his ideological blinders than e.g. Reagan.

    Or do you think that Nicaraguans should simply be willing to suffer under a right-wing dictatorship in order to keep Americans safe from communist-adjacent ideologies?

    Nicaraguans are people, too, you know. That country deserved more than to be a means to an American end.

    (Also, I am quite sure that the Somozas created more communists than the Sandinistas ever did.)

    In that regard at least, Sanders was 100% right.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @drj:

    But then you should acknowledge that in this case Sanders was less hampered by his ideological blinders than e.g. Reagan.

    Or do you think that Nicaraguans should simply be willing to suffer under a right-wing dictatorship in order to keep Americans safe from communist-adjacent ideologies?

    I don’t fault Sanders for being sympathetic to the plight of the Nicaraguan people. But he showed his consistent pattern of admiration for leftist governments and had a blind spot for their excesses.

    Now, obviously, we have—again, on a bipartisan basis with perhaps the exception of the Jimmy Carter years—tended to turn a blind eye to the excesses of governments who serve our perceived foreign policy interests. Still, I think US foreign policy should be made by the President and Congress of the United States, not the mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

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  12. drj says:

    @James Joyner:

    Still, I think US foreign policy should be made by the President and Congress of the United States, not the mayor of Burlington, Vermont.

    “Dissent not welcome here.” That’s the ultimate implication here, isn’t it?

    So much for that shining city upon a hill.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    LGM has a story on this. Unremarkable except for the entirely appropriate title, https://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2020/03/the-worst-story-on-bernie-sanders-ever-written

    This sort of thing from FTFNYT shows how easily they’ll move from Bernie is a commie to Biden is a socialist, and Burisma!!!!

  14. Steve V says:

    So Bernie was against American policy in Central America at the time was he? Wow, it doesn’t really get any worse than that, does it?