Weird History

The Surprisingly Long History Of Foreign Countries Meddling In American Elections  

Stephan Roget
9 items

There was plenty of discussion about the possibility of rigged elections in America before the 2016 presidential election even occurred, and the discourse on foreign involvement in US elections has only grown more intense since. While the full details and implications of Russian interference in the 2016 election are still unknown - and may not ever be fully revealed - the multiple indictments of Russian nationals with direct ties to the Kremlin make it clear the meddling was both real and impactful. While this story has shocked most American observers, and rightfully so, it's not without historical precedent.

The United States of America became a major power player on the international stage as the 20th century began, and that meant political happenings within the country had a direct effect on the other nations of the world. As such, it was only natural that those other nations might want to have a hand in choosing the person who would occupy the White House. It's impossible to know how many influence campaigns have gone undetected over the decades, but foreign meddling in US elections dates back at least as far back as 1940 - and in nearly every election since then, too.

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The British Influenced The 194... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Surprisingly Long History Of Foreign Countries Meddling In American Elections
Photo: Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The British Influenced The 1940 Election To Get America Into WWII

The first foreign power discovered to be meddling in a US election was a nation that used to have enormous influence over American politics: the United Kingdom. The Secret Intelligence Service engaged in a seemingly unprecedented campaign for the 1940 election, and it's easy to understand why, given the stakes of World War II. The SIS hoped to ensure President Franklin Delano Roosevelt - who favored supporting the Allied war effort - was re-elected, but they even went as far as to back pro-war Republicans as well. The overall goal was to get the United States as involved as possible in WWII; to this end, the British also made attempts to undermine any isolationist, "America First" candidates.

The influence campaign had the authorization of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and although it is impossible to know how much of a difference it made in Roosevelt's re-election, the sheer breadth of methods employed suggests a definite impact. The SIS - acting through a front known as the British Security Coordination - spread fake news stories and propaganda, shared forgeries and intercepted letters, and engaged in outright espionage against their ally. They supported pro-intervention organizations and politicians, and they undermined isolationist candidates with well-coordinated "October surprises." The history of the BSC's actions wasn't declassified until 1999, long past the point anyone could be reasonably upset about it.

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Photo: Captain Horton/War Office/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Nazis Tried To Keep America Out Of WWII In 1940

The British had an obvious interest in influencing the United States of America to join World War II on the Allied side, and the Germans had just as much reason to try to keep the Americans out of it. Nazi spies had a wide range of effects on US affairs before the Americans officially entered WWII, but they made a specific and concerted effort to stop the re-election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. The Nazi strategy mainly revolved around bribing newspapers to publish anti-war advertisements in what one German diplomat described as "a well-camouflaged lightning propaganda campaign."

The Nazis even went as far as to bribe a US newspaper into publishing a document they had captured from the occupied Polish government they thought made Roosevelt look like a "warmonger" and a "criminal hypocrite." Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop orchestrated this plot, but it didn't have its intended effect of shock and awe. Instead, the document met with little interest. Roosevelt won his re-election easily, so this particular bit of meddling ultimately proved ineffective.

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Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The Soviets Went After Harry Truman In 1948

Russian interference in US elections was also a major talking point in the 1940s. In those days, however, Russian collusion was perhaps even more brazen than it is in the modern era. In 1945 former vice president and active Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace met with the chief of the NKGB to seek assistance in deposing President Harry Truman, whom Wallace felt was subject to an "anti-Russian bias."

Wallace got fired when it came to light that he had conspired to share state secrets with the Soviets in exchange for their cooperation. He resurfaced during the 1948 election as a candidate for the Progressive Party - which had been created by American Communists on direct orders from the Soviet Union. Wallace's platform was a veritable checklist of Soviet wishes, including not forming NATO, abandoning the Marshall Plan, and giving up on Berlin.

Of course, Wallace didn't come close to winning the election, and Truman remained president. But the fact that the Soviets created an entire political party in an attempt to influence American politics likely qualifies as the boldest act of meddling ever conducted.

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Photo: Associated Press/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
The USSR Attempted To Sink Richard Nixon In The 1960 Election

The 1960 presidential election came at the height of tension in the Cold War, and the Soviet Union had a vested interest in which candidate won. While no serious candidate had anything that could be considered a pro-Soviet platform, the USSR preferred a Democratic president over Republican Richard Nixon, who had previously clashed with Nikita Khrushchev. The Soviets offered to create propaganda for Adlai Stevenson if he decided to run a third time, but when he declined, they threw their full support behind John F. Kennedy - who, perhaps ironically, went on to stare Khrushchev down a couple of years later during the Cuban missile crisis.

The Soviets made contact with the Kennedy campaign to offer help officially but were reportedly rebuked, so they set out on a mission of propaganda and other diplomatic tricks. The USSR's most direct interference in the 1960 election came as a result of their decision to apprehend and imprison multiple American pilots in the months before the election, thus undermining Vice President Nixon's claims of working well with the Soviets. They released the pilots shortly after President Kennedy's inauguration.

Khrushchev later cheekily referred to the incident by remarking to Kennedy, "You know, Mr. Kennedy, we voted for you." For his part, Kennedy acknowledged the Soviet meddling, but denied it ever had an impact on his victory. It is impossible to determine the truth.