A look back: presidential candidate Ted Kennedy on Afghanistan

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) will, of course, be remembered for his domestic policy achievements. I have been wondering, though, what his involvement was with Afghanistan over his decades-long career in government. My digging turned up an interesting counterfactual that I’m sure the late senator asked himself many times: what if he had won the nomination, ...

581654_090827_carterandkennedy22.jpg
581654_090827_carterandkennedy22.jpg

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass) will, of course, be remembered for his domestic policy achievements. I have been wondering, though, what his involvement was with Afghanistan over his decades-long career in government. My digging turned up an interesting counterfactual that I’m sure the late senator asked himself many times: what if he had won the nomination, and then the election, for president in 1980?

Kennedy was opposed to the U.S. getting involved in Afghanistan after the Soviets invaded in 1979, and used it as a campaign platform when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination against incumbent Jimmy Carter. He belittled Carter’s claim that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the biggest threat to world peace since World War II, saying, “Is it a graver threat than the Berlin blockade, the Korean War, the Soviet march into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, or Vietnam? Exaggeration and hyperbole are the enemies of sensible foreign policy.” (Washington Post, January 29, 1980).

He also postulated that Carter’s response to the discovery of Russian troops in Cuba in 1979 “may have invited the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.” (Associated Press, January 29, 1980), and kept hammering at his Afghanistan policy as the campaign continued. Kennedy argued that Carter was seeking a “blank check” for a “failed foreign policy,” stating that the president had ignored “months of signals” prior to the Soviet move into Afghanistan (Washington Post, February 13, 1980).

At the time, the senator from Massachusetts reportedly called the Soviet invasion “not the end of the world” and hoped the U.S. would “not foreclose every opening to the Soviet Union” (Boston Globe, October 6, 1994). And just a few months later, he encouraged President Carter to open talks with the Soviets to resolve the “Afghanistan crisis,” which would continue for nearly another decade, and called for the Soviets to substantially and unilaterally withdraw their troops as a good-faith gesture (Associated Press, March 20, 1980). They declined.

Of course, Kennedy eventually lost the contest for the Democratic nomination, and of course, Jimmy Carter eventually lost the election to Republican Ronald Reagan, under whose presidency the CIA funneled millions of dollars of aid to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets.

I’m not going to speculate much about the coulda-woulda-shouldas of Kennedy’s failed presidential bid, but it seems like candidate Ted Kennedy wouldn’t have followed the same course of action in Afghanistan that President Ronald Reagan did.

And over two decades later, in an about-face prompted and justified by the attacks of September 11, 2001, Ted Kennedy supported the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban government that took hold in Afghanistan during the 1990s following the Soviet withdrawal.  

BOB PEARSON/AFP/Getty Images

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