Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan shake hands as they greet one another before their presidential debate on the stage of the Music Hall in Cleveland, Ohio, October, 28, 1980. (Bettmann / Getty Images)
Originally published in Jacobin on March 26, 2023
It’s not a conspiracy theory: Ronald Reagan secretly negotiated to keep the Iran hostages captive for an extended period to try to keep President Jimmy Carter from winning reelection.
It seems like some small marker of cosmic justice that just as former US president Jimmy Carter lies in a hospice awaiting death, the long-alleged but never-proven political crime that sabotaged his reelection just got another, major piece of corroboration.
This is the original “October surprise”: the charge that Ronald Reagan, Carter’s Republican opponent in the 1980 presidential election, made a secret deal with the new, fundamentalist Iranian government to delay releasing the American hostages held in the wake of the revolution that brought it to power. The 444-day-long hostage crisis had become a major black mark on Carter’s presidency, and resolving it before the election would have given him a major, unexpected bump going into voting. Hence the phrase, “October surprise.”
Through it has long been charged that a Reagan campaign with victory in sight went behind the US government’s back to secretly reach out to the Iranians and prevent this bump from happening, this weekend, the New York Times published an explosive piece of evidence that backs it up. Ben Barnes, a former Texas politician, told the paper how he and his mentor — former Democratic Texas governor John Connally, who had run for the GOP nomination in 1980 and had a plum Reagan administration post in his eyes — traveled around the Middle East delivering a message to be relayed to Iranian leadership, that Reagan would give them a better deal when he won the presidency. Connally then briefed Reagan’s campaign chair, William Casey, about the effort upon returning home, according to Barnes.
While acknowledging that confirming the account is “problematic,” the Times did, to its credit, corroborate parts of the story. Four prominent Texans confirmed to the paper that Barnes had told them the story years earlier, and various personal records back up Barnes’s claims about his and Connally’s travel dates and locations, their contact with the Reagan campaign, and their meeting with Casey upon getting back.
But this is far from the only recent piece of reporting backing up the “October surprise” story. A little more than three years ago, the Times published another report that touched on the matter, this one charging that Chase Manhattan Corporation chair David Rockefeller (brother of GOP politician Nelson) and a team assembled at the bank “helped the Reagan campaign gather and spread rumors about possible payoffs to win the release.” Unlike the most recent Times piece, this report was based on documents that had been sealed until Rockefeller’s death, one of which was a letter from his chief of staff (incidentally, named Reagan’s ambassador to Morocco in 1981) to his family admitting he had “given [his] all” to sabotaging the Carter administration’s efforts “to pull off the long-suspected ‘October surprise.’”
Former world leaders have also corroborated the story. As the Intercept’s Jon Schwarz pointed out on the occasion of the death of former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani-Sadr (the country’s first following the revolution), the leader had written in his 1991 memoir that “Americans close to Reagan” had proposed to the nephew of Iran’s postrevolutionary supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini “a secret agreement between leaders,” and that in late October 1980, “everyone was openly discussing the agreement with the Americans on the Reagan team.” Twenty-two years later, Bani-Sadr again repeated this charge, adding that the deal between Khomeini and Reagan had prevented his and Carter’s efforts to resolve the crisis, with two of his advisors “executed by Khomeini’s regime because they had become aware of this secret.”
Others who have affirmed the existence of such a deal include former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (who told the late Robert Parry that “of course” there was such an agreement) and former Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and one of his senior aides, who both affirmed that Republicans offered a deal to the Palestine Liberation Organization if they helped keep the hostages in Iran. Years later, Parry also discovered — in a converted women’s bathroom in the parking garage of a federal building — a report sent by Moscow to the House task force investigating the story, which similarly backed up the claims, and was left out of the task force’s final report.
In other words, there was good reason to believe the story long before this past weekend, but the latest reporting by the New York Times offers even more reason. Yet the “October surprise” was dismissed widely and confidently, often by being slapped with the instantly delegitimizing label of “conspiracy theory,” a term thrown around with breathless irresponsibility in the ironically named “post-truth” era. The evidence for the story was a “myth,” blared a 1991 Newsweek headline, the contents of which declared it a “conspiracy theory run wild,” while the New Republic confidently deemed it “a total fabrication.” (One of the coauthors of that story, Steven Emerson, later wound up on Fox spreading racist nonsense about Muslims controlling British cities).
“It never happened,” asserted the hard-right Daniel Pipes in George Mason University’s History News Network, claiming it was merely the “guilty pleasure of die-hard conspiracy theorists.” (Like Emerson, Pipes is also an anti-Muslim racist who warned about “massive immigration of brown-skinned peoples cooking strange foods and maintaining different standards of hygiene,” and once expressed concern that the “enfranchisement of American Muslims” would threaten Jews). As recently as 2012, a Daily Beast headline declared that the “October surprise” is “still getting debunked.”
In other words, according to all the “serious” people, the “October surprise” story was misinformation, a conspiracy theory, fake news, and so on . . . until more evidence came to light and it turned out it wasn’t. None of this should inspire confidence that the traditional gatekeepers of political discourse — politicians, the mainstream press, intellectuals in establishment circles, and the fact-checkers and government bureaucrats that treat their words as gospel — can be trusted to responsibly regulate “misinformation” and wield censorship powers, as many such figures long for these days.
It’s also a reminder that contrary to the fairytale the public is being fed by many of these same sources, US politics and the GOP were far from bastions of decency and righteousness until the dastardly Donald Trump came along and messed everything up. It was Reagan, the Republican president most often cast these days as Trump’s polar opposite, who carried out something close to treason to win an election, before carrying out a host of other crimes and outrages as president. Everything in our scandal-filled times is, sadly, part and parcel of decades of US political tradition.
Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.