10/01/2009 10:51 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ted Kennedy's Foreign Policy Idealism


"My vote against this misbegotten war is the best vote I have cast in the United States Senate since I was elected in 1962." - Sen. Edward M. Kennedy

Little is talked about when it comes to Sen. Kennedy and foreign policy, even as the right keeps spinning tales. Instead, read Adam Clymer's great piece. Domestic issues pervaded Teddy's mission, but also his image at home. However, he was intensely interested and engaged in world matters, especially where social justice, human rights and the plight of the oppressed, as well as refugees, were concerned. Even if he didn't hold the appropriate Senate committee seat or ranking member slot in the foreign affairs arena.

One obvious link was Sen. Kennedy's work for Ireland, which go back to the 70s. Jean Kennedy Smith, the surviving sister of Teddy, was ambassador to Ireland, appointed by Clinton through Teddy's prodding. But little is still known about the details of his efforts to aid Ireland on the road to peace back in the 90s. What is public is that he lobbied Pres. Bill Clinton, the first president to become engaged in Ireland's struggles, directly and determinedly to give a limited U.S. visa to Sinn Fein's Gerald Adams. It's thought this was a move that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Time magazine has featured a piece about it, exploring the complexities and contradictions.

It was Kennedy who, on Hume's advice, persuaded Bill Clinton to grant a controversial U.S. visa to Gerry Adams, leader of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein, in 1994. At the time, the move was strongly opposed by the British government, but today the visa is seen as an important turning point in Northern Ireland's recent history. Adams was able to convince IRA supporters on U.S. soil of the merits of backing the peace process. Seven months later, the IRA announced its first military ceasefire, ending a 25-year terror campaign, with Protestant paramilitary groups calling their own ceasefires shortly after.

Let's hope more details surface, even as Kennedy refused to take credit at the time, as there is no reason not to tell the history today.

Another story comes out of Bangladesh. That tree at the top of this post was planted by Kennedy at Dhaka University, where it still stands, meant to replace one destroyed by the Pakistan army.

I could write the history of the war of independence between East Pakistan (formerly East Bengal) and West Pakistan and India in 1971, which led to nothing less than a massacre. A civil war for independence that created Bangladesh. When Teddy took on the Administration policies of Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who backed Pakistan against independence. Something the U.S. simply does over and over again to our detriment.

But a friend wrote a piece about it as someone who was impacted personally by the Pakistani horrors inflicted on the Bengalis. But especially the independence won for Bangladesh. From his "The Lion in Winter", which I hope you'll read in full:

Thirty five years ago when the Pakistani military was slaughtering my people by the millions, President Richard Nixon quietly offered arms to continue the killings. Along with Senators Frank Church and William Fulbright, Senator Kennedy took to the floor of the United States Senate and spoke out against the atrocities. His was one of the lonely voices in the United States government that defended the right of the Bengali people to exist. He spoke out against the massacres, the rapes, and the persecution when the Nixon administration chose to look the other way.

On August 11, 1971 Senator Kennedy visited Bengali refugee camps in Calcutta, India. There he visited with some of the 10 million Bengalis who had fled the massacres in East Pakistan. Kennedy was scheduled to visit East Pakistan but was refused entry by the Pakistani government. Nevertheless, with his visit, Senator Kennedy helped shine the world's spotlight on the ongoing genocide. With his visit, he became a friend of the Bengali people.

On December 16, 1971 Bangladesh was liberated from Pakistan. On Valentine's Day the following year, Senator Kennedy visited the newly formed nation. Kennedy arrived in the capital city, Dhaka, as the crowds shouted "Joi Kennedy!' (Victory to Kennedy). He was mobbed everywhere he went:

About 8,000 people crowded into the university courtyard and jammed lecture hall balconies and roofs, to hear the most popular American among Bengalis tell them what they have been telling themselves since their war for independence began last March.

"Even though the United States government does not recognize you," Kennedy said, "the people of the world do recognize you."

In his speech, Kennedy drew parallels between the liberation of Bangladesh and the American Revolution. He said America had prospered despite people who predicted it would collapse following independence, and so would Bangladesh.

Kennedy's early support for the Bengalis' fight against Pakistan's army has made him a symbol of the friendship with the United States which the Bengalis desperately want. When criticizing President Nixon for supporting Pakistan, Bengalis invariably mention Kennedy as the example to prove that the American people sympathize with their cause.

At the time, my friend Mash also cross-posted this piece at DK, where Senator Kennedy made sure his appreciation was noted.

Mash - Thank you for this thoughtful and beautifully written diary. I read it this morning and am grateful for your words. You have reminded us all to be mindful of battles of the past as we fight to change the current course of history.

With warm regards,
Senator Edward Kennedy

There is also South Africa. From Adam Clymer:

He also heartened the opposition in South Africa. He visited that country in 1985, after Archbishop Desmond Tutu persuaded him that his presence would draw attention to apartheid through the American television crews that followed him. He visited slums and resettlement areas. His trip was denounced by the South African government and by the United States ambassador, Herman Nickel. Kennedy staged an illegal protest outside Pollsmoor Prison, where Nelson Mandela was being held. He said, "Behind these walls are men that are deeply committed to the cause of freedom in this land." Years later, Mandela said he knew Kennedy had been at the gate of the prison and that "gave us a lot of strength and hope, and the feeling that we had millions behind us both in our struggle against apartheid but in our special situation in prison."

On his return, Kennedy led an effort to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. In 1986, Congress overrode a veto by President Reagan and enacted a ban on all new investment by Americans in South African businesses and on the importation of such products as steel, coal, ammunition, and food from South Africa. "The time for procrastination and delay is over," Kennedy said. "Now is the time to keep the faith with Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and all those who believe in a free South Africa."

However, Senator Kennedy's most important foreign policy contribution was his vote against the Iraq war. Learning from watching Bobby's anti Vietnam stance, not fully embracing his brother's passion at first, even as they both knew what Jack's legacy on Vietnam was on his death. Though historians like Robert Dallek have offered that JFK would have withdrawn if he'd live. We'll never know.

What we do know is Teddy Kennedy was one of the leaders against the Iraq war from the start. "The best vote I have cast in the United States Senate since I was elected in 1962," said Ted. At the time, I was a very lonely voice on a.m. radio, railing against all the Democrats who didn't have Teddy's courage -- Biden, Kerry and Hillary. He was smarter than them all. was Barack Obama, who, through a little noticed speech at the time, would change the course of history. A beginning for what would develop into a powerful political kinship between Kennedy and Obama.

- Taylor Marsh, with podcasts available on ITunes.