There it was, placed prominently on the front page of the New York Times, the already told story of Bernie Sanders as Burlington, Vt., mayor taking a delegation to the Soviet Union in 1988 to establish a sister-city relationship with the town of Yaroslavl. “Previously unseen documents,” the subtitle intones, suggest “Moscow saw a chance for propaganda.”

Here’s the reality: In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union, under reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was opening up. Gorbachev had launched perestroika and glasnost, his sweeping reforms to try to modernize the Soviet system. The arch-Cold Warrior President Ronald Reagan visited Moscow at almost the same time as Sanders. I was on Red Square in May 1988 as the two leaders walked together, and Reagan stopped to explain to journalists that the Soviet Union had changed so much under Gorbachev that he no longer considered it an “evil empire.”

Dozens of American cities were forging relationships with Soviet cities with Reagan's encouragement. Known as citizen diplomacy, these efforts sought to break down barriers, to engage citizens directly in learning about one another in the hope of promoting better relations between the two nations and averting a nuclear arms race based on mutually assured destruction.

In a letter to the editor, Jack F. Matlock Jr., former ambassador to the U.S.S.R., denounced the Times article as totally misleading. He notes that at the time, he “gave strong official support to Mayor Sanders’s effort, along with those of other American mayors. . . . Expanding people-to-people ties was one of the important goals of President Ronald Reagan’s policy toward the U.S.S.R., a policy that was continued by President George H.W. Bush.”

“The article,” Matlock writes, in a longer version of the letter he shared with me, and not published by the Times, “is a prime example of the sort of propaganda favored by totalitarian regimes. It takes some local record, pulls selective quotes out of historical context, and tries to use it to smear a political opponent.” The Times, Matlock concludes, owes Sanders and its readers an apology.

Sanders’s trip to Moscow — as well as his praise for Fidel Castro’s literacy program or the Cuban health-care system, or his opposition to Reagan’s not-so-covert war on Nicaragua — is being used as fodder for those trying to paint him as un-American.

Lost in the spin is the simple reality: Sanders has generally gotten it right over the years, even as the national security establishment and Cold Warriors in both parties got it wrong.

While our intelligence agencies thought the Gorbachev reforms were a ruse, Reagan and Sanders understood correctly: Gorbachev was moving to bring the Cold War to an end so that he could reform the U.S.S.R..

While Reagan was bloviating about the threat posed by the Sandinistas in little Nicaragua, Sanders and much of the Catholic Church got it right: The terrorist war that the United States launched against the Sandinistas was shameful and illegal.

While U.S. politicians are taught never to issue a negative word about Israel nor a kind one about Castro, Sanders has been courageous enough to state the obvious. And when established Democratic politicians such as Joe Biden served as cheerleaders for the war in Iraq, Sanders was right to predict the debacle that ensued.

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Sanders poses a tough test to mainstream media. An insurgent candidate, he challenges the shibboleths and failed policies of the bipartisan center. A populist, he indicts the big money and powerful interests that are a major source of its advertisements. Calling himself a “democratic socialist” sets him up for hysterical cheap shots — from Chris Matthews warning about public executions to Donald Trump Jr. tweeting that Sanders “literally wants the US to become the USSR.”

At a time when the failure of the establishment is apparent, it is vital that the United States have a fundamental debate about our priorities and our policies — and about how to deal with the true threats to our democracy posed by staggering inequality, by the existential crisis of climate change and by an economy that is driving too many to “deaths of despair.” This is particularly true in regards to our complicated relationship with Russia. Distorting Sanders’s 1988 trip to the U.S.S.R. isn’t just unfair to Sanders, it too easily contributes to the damaging use of Russia as a punching bag by both conservatives and liberals.

The debate we need simply won’t take place if those challenging the failed policies of the past are met not with argument, but with slurs designed not to help Americans understand the alternatives, but to shut down discussion of them.

It is truly deplorable when the New York Times publishes a tawdry smear on its front page, and one that, in Matlock’s words, turns “history on its head.” Americans deserve better.

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