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The controversy over Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election has grown to the point where President Obama announced new sanctions Thursday against Russia for its cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and Democratic campaigns. What the ongoing coverage misses, however, is that this is not the first, nor the most egregious, example of Russia attempting to “help” Americans select their leaders.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Soviet intelligence not only attempted to sway American public opinion by planting fake news stories, but also backed candidates for office including the presidency. Rather than a sign that American democracy has been compromised, Russian actions instead demonstrate the worsening relations between East and West.

In the 1940s, Soviet intelligence attempted to use their agents in the American media to plant fake news stories. An April 1948 Soviet intelligence cable stated: “We are interested in putting articles in [United States] newspapers from time to time about the anti-democratic foreign policies of capitalist countries … It would be preferable not to publish these articles in Communist, but rather in bourgeois liberal, or at the very least, left publications.”

Another example of Soviet fake news came when Moscow attempted to discredit ex-Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers’ testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee. A Soviet intelligence cable from Moscow suggested that Chambers be painted as a former Gestapo spy and “If we print this in our newspapers and publish a few ‘documents’ that can be prepared at home it would … be seized upon … by the progressive press in all countries, and, as a result … the Committee … would be seriously undermined.” Such examples show Russia has a long history of attempting to influence American opinion with fake news.

Producing fake news stories also had the bonus effect of helping clandestine communist candidates run for office.

In 1938, NKVD Station Chief Peter Gutzeit wrote Moscow that the Soviets should fund U.S. congressman (and Soviet spy) Samuel Dickstein and back other pro-Soviet politicians. As historians Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev note, “Gutzeit’s Moscow superiors approved his proposal and even expanded it to include funding American journalists as well as politicians.”

Gutzeit messaged Moscow his plan, noting that “Congressmen’s election campaigns, paying journalists, maintenance of newspapers—all this means expenditures that are impossible to tally beforehand.” Apparently, those expenditures proved too high and the Soviets abandoned Gutzeit’s plan for cheaper methods of espionage.

Perhaps the most significant, and complicated, Soviet activity in an American election was the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace.

As historian Thomas Devine demonstrates in his book Henry Wallace’s 1948 Presidential Campaign and the Future of Postwar Liberalism, Wallace’s campaign was run by the American Communist Party, which most historians today agree was directly controlled by Moscow. What complicates the picture of the Wallace campaign is that the best evidence suggests that Kremlin leadership was ambivalent to Wallace’s candidacy and American Communist Party leaders likely misinterpreted the murky directions they did receive. The candidate’s position on foreign support was made clear, however, when Wallace told a Soviet agent that Moscow should support his run.

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Wallace ended the election in fourth place in the popular vote. Nevertheless, his campaign shows the supporters of an enemy nation backing a candidate who had the unrealized potential of swinging a close presidential election.

One glimmer of hope that emerges from the long history of Russian interference in American elections is how unsuccessful most of their candidates and fake news were in bringing about a supportive U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. Dickstein was a marginal victory, Chambers won in court and Wallace not only lost, but enabled Truman to run as an anti-communist Democrat and win a close election.

American elections, institutions and good sense proved much stronger than haphazard meddling by the agents of a totalitarian regime. The real lesson from the recent election is not that U.S. institutions are corrupted by foreign influence, but that the U.S. and Russia are once again playing their dangerous game.

Alexander Lovelace is a doctoral student in history at Ohio University. He has published research on Soviet espionage in American media in “The Journal of Slavic Military Studies.” Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.

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