For Russia and America, Election Interference Is Nothing New: 25 Stories
Not a week goes by without a major newspaper or cable news show reporting on Russia’s “unprecedented” interference in American domestic politics. It is the view of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election using cyber operations and other tools. Russia has vigorously denied the allegations and this month there has been skepticism about the technical evidence supporting them, with some of the key findings and even the Russian origins of the hacking coming into question. As the story continues to unfold with shocking headlines, the FBI and both chambers of Congress seek answers in ongoing investigations.
What seems to be lost in the incessant stream of political outrage, however, is a historically attuned recognition of the many precedents of foreign interference in U.S. elections—and vice versa. Political scientist Dov Levin has calculated that the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia intervened in 117 elections worldwide from 1946 to 2000—once in every nine competitive elections if averaged out.
This explainer provides a rundown of notable cases of alleged international election interference involving Washington or Moscow. This list is by no means exhaustive, and many of the allegations—especially in more recent cases for which information has not yet been declassified—remain disputed. Nevertheless, the following examples provide useful historical context that can help sharpen analysis of “Russiagate” and related stories.
1796, France-United States
For the United States, the story of interference in its electoral affairs begins in the very earliest years of the American republic, when in 1796 the French ambassador to the United States issued a series of public statements in a Philadelphia newspaper signaling his support of the pro-French candidate, Thomas Jefferson, against pro-British candidate John Adams. So dire was the ambassador’s message that he warned of a potential war between France and the United States if Adams won the election—which he went on to do without hostilities ensuing. (Main source: Dov Levin, writing in Monkey Cage / Washington Post)
1940, Germany-United States
In hopes of preventing the reelection of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Nazi government obtained and leaked a Polish government document painting the president as a “criminal hypocrite” and “warmonger.” In order to have the document published in American media, the German Embassy in Washington bribed an American newspaper. (Main source: Dov Levin, writing in Monkey Cage / Washington Post)
1947, United States-France
At the dawn of the Cold War, the U.S. government sought to halt the spread of communism into Western Europe. It funded anti-communist forces in the French elections of 1947, as well as non-communist elements in French labor unions and even the French Socialist Party, in an effort to siphon off working-class support from the communists. (Main source: New York Times)
1948, United States-Italy
The Central Intelligence Agency, newly formed by the National Security Act of 1947, spent millions of dollars to support the centrist Christian Democrats in the 1948 Italian elections. Covert operations designed to crack the leftist political coalition buttressed by the Italian Communist Party included forging documents linking communist leaders to fabricated sex scandals, initiating a mass letter-writing campaign from Italian Americans to local voters and spreading word of a possible Russian takeover of government that could weaken the Catholic Church. As one CIA officer recalled, “we had bags of money that we delivered to selected politicians, to defray their political expenses, their campaign expenses, for posters, for pamphlets.” The CIA continued to provide funding to favored political forces in Italy in every election over the next 24 years. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
1948, Soviet Union-United States
This story, like a few others recounted here, is less about real meddling and more about public statements intended to influence electoral outcomes. Henry Wallace, Franklin Roosevelt’s former vice president and the 1948 Progressive Party presidential candidate, ran on a foreign-policy platform of warming relations with Russia in contrast to President Harry Truman’s tough stance. In a May 1948 speech at New York City’s Madison Square Garden (“heard by a capacity crowd of 19,000,” as well as radio and TV audiences, according to the New York Times), Wallace read an open letter addressed to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin laying out a six-point plan on how to thaw U.S.-Soviet ties, even saying that neither the U.S. nor the USSR should maintain military bases in other U.N. countries. Stalin loved the idea of a restrained, more isolationist America, and one week later endorsed Wallace’s campaign in a radio broadcast that was reprinted in American newspapers. “The program of Wallace could be a good and fruitful foundation for … understanding [between the USSR and the USA] and for the development of international cooperation,” Stalin said. Wallace went on to lose the election badly with a mere 2.37% of the popular vote. (Main source: analyst Will Moreland, writing in Vox.)
1953, United States-Philippines
Supported by covert U.S. funds, famed CIA operative Edward G. Lansdale essentially ran the successful presidential bid of Defense Minister Ramon Magsaysay in the Philippines’ 1953 election. Magsaysay was known for his role in defeating the communist Hukbalahap movement. (Main source: New York Times)
1957, United States-Lebanon
Using a blend of U.S. government funds and donations from American oil companies seeking friendly political partners in the Middle East, the CIA supported Christian parties in Lebanon’s general election. One CIA officer remembered driving to the presidential palace with briefcases full of cash, then returning at night to the embassy for more money. (Main source: New York Times)
1958-1965, United States-Japan
Ahead of the 1958 Japanese general election, the CIA acquired damaging intelligence on Japanese Socialists from paid informants within the party and provided it along with funds to Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (which then remained in power in Japan continuously until the early 1990s); Dwight Eisenhower’s administration approved plans for the CIA to provide pro-American, conservative Japanese politicians with covert financial support and electoral advice from nominally “private” Americans. Funding of favorable political elements within Japanese society continued from 1958 into the 1960s, according to the New York Times. A State Department cable declassified 20 years ago reflects discussions among U.S. officials ahead of a 1965 election in the area including Okinawa, home to a major American military outpost: “The American officials unabashedly discussed the mechanisms of covert financial support for candidates of the Liberal Democratic Party, debating only how to do it, not whether. America's right to interfere in the election was assumed by all the participants,” the Times reported in 1997. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
1964-1973, United States-Chile
Spending $4 million, the CIA helped Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei Montalva win the 1964 presidential election against Socialist Salvador Allende. In the 1970 election, the CIA’s Track I political propaganda effort was designed to once again block Allende from winning the presidency; however, this time Allende won. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger subsequently argued to President Richard Nixon that the Allende government should be overthrown because his “‘model’ effect can be insidious.” Track II efforts were designed to create the framework for a coup, and CIA activities included funding Chile’s oldest and most influential newspaper El Mercurio with $2 million over two years. Allende was eventually ousted from power in 1973 in a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. The U.S. role in the coup was not direct, as the Nixon administration had aborted formal regime-change operations after the murder of General René Schneider in October 1970, but Nixon and Kissinger were hardly displeased with the fall of Allende’s government. (Main source: New York Times)
1968, South Vietnam-United States
Some stories of alleged foreign interference show how blurry a line there can be between “foreign meddling” in elections and bare-knuckled domestic battles in political contests. One such example was a recent Politico article titled “Foreign Governments Have Been Tampering With U.S. Elections for Decades.” It recounts how, during Richard Nixon’s run for the White House in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Hubert Humphrey (Nixon’s Democratic opponent) worked with the North Vietnamese government to stop bombing on both sides and agree to peace talks. Nixon, however, scuttled the talks by having wealthy Republican fundraiser Anna Chan Chennault secretly inform the South Vietnamese that, if elected, he would ensure victory and thus eliminate the need for peace talks. By throwing this monkey wrench into the peace process, Nixon helped convince the South Vietnamese to pull out from the talks—which severely hurt Humphrey’s poll numbers while bolstering Nixon’s. (Main source: Josh Zeitz, writing in Politico.)
1968, Soviet Union-United States
The Kremlin considered Richard Nixon “profoundly anti-Soviet” and offered funding to his rival, Hubert Humphrey, who did not accept the offer. (Main source: Strobe Talbott and Jessica Brandt, writing for Brookings)
1970, Soviet Union-Pakistan
Ahead of general elections, “the KGB leaked false documents tying senior figures in various Pakistani parties to political murders and to pre-1948 opposition to the creation of Pakistan.” The elections ended in the result that the KGB had sought, though there is no evidence that Soviet active measures had led to the outcome. (Main source: Dov Levin, writing in Monkey Cage / Washington Post)
1976, Soviet Union-United States
Ahead of the presidential election, the Soviets fabricated an FBI report to smear Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Cold War hawk, as he vied for the Democratic nomination. They then recruited a mole from among the Democrats to feed them information on Jimmy Carter’s winning campaign. (Main source: Strobe Talbott and Jessica Brandt, writing for Brookings)
1980, Soviet Union-West Germany
In the 1980 West German parliamentary elections, Christian Democratic Union leader Franz-Josef Strauss was hit with fabricated stories spread by the Soviet Union’s KGB that linked him to far-right factions in the German intelligence services. (Main source: Dov Levin, writing in Monkey Cage / Washington Post)
1980, Iran-United States
Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini seems to have delayed the release of American hostages taken in November 1979 until Inauguration Day of 1981 to punish President Jimmy Carter for the sanctions imposed on Iran in the wake of the hostage crisis. Carter lost his 1980 reelection campaign to Ronald Reagan and, although he had faced plenty of problems that year, the hostage crisis had played a notable role. (Main source: Politico)
1983, Soviet Union-West Germany
In 1983, amid debates about U.S. missiles in Europe, the Soviets organized what Chancellor Helmut Kohl's government called a "massive propaganda campaign of interference in West German affairs" to force his ouster in the country’s federal parliamentary election. Despite the interference, Kohl’s party won. (Andrew Weiss, writing in the Wall Street Journal)
1984, Soviet Union-United States
In the run-up to the 1984 presidential election, the Soviet government was determined to prevent the reelection of President Ronald Reagan, who famously called the USSR “the evil empire” in 1982. In April 1982, KGB chairman Yuri Andropov ordered “active measures” against Reagan; by February 1983, the KGB’s main American stations were armed with five “theses” to use against the candidate: Reagan’s cavalier militarism, his role in increasing the arms buildup, his administration’s support for repressive regimes, his clamping down on global national liberation movements and the tensions between America and its NATO allies caused by Reagan’s policies. KGB efforts bore no fruit as Reagan won reelection in a landslide. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
1990, United States-Nicaragua
During the 1980s, the United States tried to weaken the Sandinista government of Nicaragua as part of its decades-long efforts to remove communist governments from the Western hemisphere. Anti-Sandinista measures included the provision of military and financial assistance to the anti-Sandinista Contras, as well as the mining of Nicaraguan harbors. During the 1990 Nicaraguan elections, German newspapers printed damaging stories on alleged corruption by Sandinistas, which helped pro-American candidate Violeta Chamorro defeat Sandinista incumbent Daniel Ortega. The information, which linked Sandinista officials to Swiss bank accounts, was leaked to German media by the CIA. (Main source: Dov Levin, writing in Monkey Cage / Washington Post)
1990, United States-Czechoslovakia
In Czechoslovakia’s first democratic election after communist rule, Vaclav Havel’s political party and its affiliates successfully won a majority of seats in the legislature after being helped by U.S. financial support and training. (Main source: Los Angeles Times)
1996, China-United States
During the 1996 presidential campaign, a U.S. Justice Department investigation found evidence that representatives of the Chinese Embassy in Washington tried to direct contributions from foreign entities to the Democratic National Committee. Attorney General Janet Reno received criticism for not appointing an independent counsel to review the matter, with one May 1998 CNN/TIME poll showing 58% of Americans wanting an independent counsel. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
1996, United States-Russia
With the Russian economy in a downward spiral in the years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s prospects at winning his 1996 election appeared bleak, with his popularity rating in single digits. With Communist opponent Gennady Zyuganov posing a credible challenge, the Clinton administration gave its consent to the International Monetary Fund to give a $10.2 billion loan to Russia. Yeltsin used some of the funds on social spending such as back wages and pensions, and touted his unique ability as a reformer to attract such loans and investment. In addition to the loan, a team of American consultants worked in Yeltsin’s campaign headquarters. Despite having suffered a heart attack in between rounds of voting and claims of electoral fraud, Yeltsin went on to win the election. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
2004, United States and Russia-Ukraine
During the course of the 2004 Ukrainian presidential race, Russian campaign strategists—some of whom also advised the Kremlin at the time—openly worked for then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who was widely seen as a pro-Russian candidate. When Yanukovych was declared the winner after a second round of voting in November 2004, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated him not once, but twice in an effort to seal the outcome. However, massive public protests over electoral fraud forced Ukrainian authorities to hold a rerun of the second round in December 2004. That repeat round was won by Viktor Yushchenko, who advocated Ukraine’s integration into the West and whose wife held an American passport. During the campaign, Washington was arguably more subtle in its support for Yushchenko than Russia in its support for Yanukovych. However, the U.S. government reportedly spent $65 million in 2003-2004 to provide assistance to political organizations in Ukraine, to finance Yushchenko’s travel to meet with U.S. leaders and to help underwrite exit polls indicating that he had indeed won the elections. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
2011, United States-Russia
Russian leaders blamed Washington for funding Golos, a Russian NGO that monitored the 2011 elections to parliament's lower house, the State Duma, and said it had documented widespread fraud. Golos acknowledged receiving money from USAID, and the State Department said it had spent $9 million to support and train civil society groups in Russia before the 2011 elections, according to Reuters. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time, accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of inciting the large-scale protests in Russia over the alleged fraud. "She set the tone for certain actors inside the country; she gave the signal," Putin said of Clinton as tens of thousands of Russians hit the streets in anti-regime protests. The Russian leader has not produced any proof of the allegations, but both Clinton and U.S. intelligence officials have cited his belief that Clinton had a hand in the protests as a motivation for Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. At the time of the protests, Clinton did call for a "full investigation" of any irregularities and expressed “serious concerns about the conduct of the election,” but no causal relationship has been established between her words and the launch of protests. Some analysts and scholars, including University of Southern California professor Robert David English, have argued that Moscow has grounds to be skeptical of U.S. democracy-promotion efforts in Russia and views them with as much outrage as Washington views the cyber interference of which Russia now stands accused. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
2014, United States and Russia-Ukraine
As they had a decade earlier, America and Russia faced off in Ukraine ahead of the early presidential and parliamentary elections that were held there in May 2014 and October 2014, respectively. The presidential elections had to be held after pro-Western protesters drove incumbent President Viktor Yanukovych out of office in February 2014. The U.S. recognized the interim government formed by the victorious protesters and the results of the subsequent presidential election, which was won by a pro-Western opposition candidate, Petro Poroshenko. Months before, when Yanukovych was still in office, American diplomats openly supported the protesters. Then, sometime in January 2014, two senior U.S. diplomats were caught in a leaked phone call discussing their preferred candidates for service in the Ukrainian government. In April 2014, then-CIA director John Brennan visited Kiev and, according to some speculations, shared intelligence with Ukrainian leaders on Russian military operations. U.S. actions in Ukraine, however, paled in comparison to Russian interference: Not only did the Kremlin reportedly dispatch a top official from its national security service to advise Yanukovych on dispersing the protestors, it then famously deployed special forces to establish control over Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, which it proceeded to annex, and has been supporting pro-Russian separatists in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
Montenegrin authorities have accused Russia and its secret service operatives of plotting to kill the prime minister of their country on the day it held national elections. Montenegro’s special prosecutor claimed to have “obtained evidence that the plan was not only to deprive of liberty, but also to deprive of life the then prime minister” Milo Djukanovic, who was a driving force behind Montenegro’s effort to join NATO. Russia has vehemently denied the accusations, and respected Russia watchers, such as Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky, have argued that the alleged plot could have been an attempt by Russian ultranationalists at “guessing Putin's secret wishes and earning a reward,” rather than a plan designed by the Kremlin. (Multiple sources, linked above.)
The historical record of international election interference—specifically operations conducted by the United States and Russia—is far from complete. This list, too, is just a sampling. For instance, it does not include the influence exercised by Moscow on the results of national “elections” in the socialist bloc during the Cold War, if only because this interference is well-known and includes too many instances to list here. Nor do we mention cases of Soviet/Russian or U.S. support for coups, political violence or other non-electoral attempts at regime change abroad, because we are focusing on election interference.
Primarily our compilation is meant as a partial remedy for today’s historical amnesia and as an attempt to help steer America’s political discourse out of its corrosive stream of outrage and hyperbole. Too freely tossing around the “unprecedented” label diminishes our ability both to understand the challenges we face and to assess phenomena that truly do not have precedent. As details of the Russian-election-interference story continue to unfold, journalists, analysts, academics and policymakers would do well to de-sensationalize reports and to situate them instead within a more sober analysis, aware of historical precedents and analogues.
Finally, to note the aforementioned historical precedents is by no means to whitewash the actions allegedly taken by the Russian government and its agents in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Indeed, every nation, small or large, should be able to freely decide the outcome of its elections without foreign meddling. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government has adopted new, perhaps subtler modes of influencing political decision-making in other countries via democracy-promotion efforts. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, seems comfortable employing Cold War-era techniques as it seeks to anchor its neighbors and gain leverage inside Western countries. This year’s European elections—already marked by suspicions of Russian involvement—are poised to become a critical new scene in the long movie of international election interference.
Arjun Kapur is a research assistant at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He studies U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy, with a focus on applied history.
Simon Saradzhyan is the director of Russia Matters and assistant director of the Belfer Center's U.S.-Russia Initiative to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.