Last week, the New York Times published a front page story on a supposed attempt “to sabotage the re-election campaign of the president of the United States” by persuading Iran to hold the American hostages until after the 1980 election. According to Ben Barnes, the now 85-year old protégé of former Texas Governor John Connally, he and his mentor embarked on a tour of Middle East capitals in July 1980, asking regional leaders to pass this message on to Tehran: “Don’t release the hostages before the election. Mr. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.”

Barnes accused the Reagan campaign of promising that “a future Reagan administration would ship arms to Tehran through Israel in exchange for the hostages being held until after the election.”

The story is the latest chapter in a long effort – an effort that began just weeks after his election – to blemish the reputation of Ronald Reagan by claiming that his 1980 election victory was obtained by persuading Iran’s theocratic rulers to hold the hostages until after the election, thus depriving the incumbent Jimmy Carter of any credit for securing their release. According to this so-called “October Surprise” theory, Reagan’s campaign team traded the hostages’ freedom for his election victory.

The October Surprise would be outrageous if true. But it is not.

The theory bears a tawdry provenance. It can be traced back to an article published on December 2, 1980 in the Executive Intelligence Review, a newsmagazine founded by Lyndon LaRouche, the same mentally unstable political activist and perennial presidential candidate who claimed he was targeted for assassination by Queen Elizabeth.  Later, the allegation gained a veneer of respectability, as it was promoted by more responsible voices, most notably Gary Sick, who had served in the White House during the Iran Revolution.

Sick articulated his theory in a long op-ed published in the New York Times in April 1991. He later expanded it into a book, and sold the movie rights to Columbia Pictures for $500,000. Oliver Stone, fresh off the release of JFK, was enlisted to direct.

As attention mounted, several other magazines – including Newsweek (“Making of a Myth”), the Village Voice (“October Surmise”), and the New Republic (“The Conspiracy that Wasn’t”) —  delved into Sick’s allegations and found them full of holes. With the conspiracy theory collapsing, Stone opted out of the movie project.

Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter demanded – and got — a congressional investigation. Two, in fact. Both found no conspiracy.  The Senate Report  found that “the credible evidence now known falls far short of supporting the allegation.” The House Report  concluded: “There was no October Surprise Agreement ever reached.”

But conspiratorial fires rarely die out completely. Their embers linger, awaiting any spark that may engender re-ignition. Reagan’s detractors hope that that last week’s New York Times account of the Connally-Barnes Middle East tour will provide that spark. For them, the October Surprise theory carries an almost irresistible appeal. If Ronald Reagan’s election came at the expense of the hostages’ liberty, then it would hardly matter what happened after that. His achievements in office – taming inflation, sparking an economic boom, winning the Cold War — would be forever tainted by the morally rotten foundation on which they were built.

Typical of the reaction of Reagan critics to the Times story was this commentary in DCReport: “Reagan forced the hostages to endure months of additional captivity, all to satiate his lust for power.”

But vehemence is no substitute for common sense. The October Surprise theory is no more credible now than it was when it was first proffered in Lyndon LaRouche’s newsmagazine.

Let’s start with the obvious. The notion that Reagan was elected thanks to the timing of the hostages’ release runs counter to historical fact. There were three contenders for the presidency in 1980. In addition to Carter and Reagan, John Anderson, a moderate Republican congressman from Illinois, also ran. Usually, when a party fractures and puts up two candidates, that party divides the vote and the opposing party prevails. But facing two Republican opponents, the best Carter could do was to carry 6 states and to garner only 41% of the vote.

Reagan’s landslide victory was part of a huge groundswell for change. In the U.S. Senate elections that year, the Republicans flipped 12 seats, the largest swing since 1958. They gained 35 seats in the House. The hostages were an important issue in all of the 1980 campaigns, but voters were more concerned with high inflation, interest rates, and unemployment. Jimmy Carter, like many other defeated Democratic incumbents, was destined to lose regardless of the timing of the hostages’ release.

Granted, all challengers hope – secretly, of course — for bad news, and dread good news, particularly good news for which the incumbent may claim credit. That’s an unfortunate but inherent part of the game. So it is not unrealistic to assume that the Reagan campaign team secretly hoped that the hostages would remain in captivity until after election day.  

Moreover, the Reagan team had reason to suspect that Carter would use the hostage crisis to manufacture an October Surprise of his own. During Carter’s tough primary battle with Senator Edward Kennedy, he did just that. At 6:20 am local time on the day of the Wisconsin primary, Carter held a news conference to announce that progress was being made on a negotiated release of the hostages. The announcement was, at best, exaggerated, but it helped him win the state, and revive his failing campaign.

So it is fair to say that both campaigns saw political danger and political benefit in the hostages’ fate. But it is far cry from harboring such perceptions to working to actually implement them.  The notion that the Reagan campaign made a deal with the Iranians is illogical in many respects.

First, there is the matter of timing. According to the October Surprise theory, Iran was to hold the hostages long enough for Reagan to get elected. But Reagan was elected on November 4, 1980, and the hostages remained in captivity until January 20, 1981. To be precise, they remained in captivity until 20 minutes after Reagan was sworn in and the Carter administration formally ended.

The chronology strongly suggests that the true purpose behind the timing of the release was to humiliate Jimmy Carter, not to elect Ronald Reagan.

Carter, in the eyes of Ayatollah Khomeini, was the satanic figure who had propped up the hated Shah, and arranged for his exile, first in the United States, then in Panama, and finally in Egypt. Carter had also launched the ill-fated hostage rescue attempt. These were reasons enough to deprive Carter of any credit for the release of the hostages.

Second, belief in the October Surprise theory requires believing that that the Iranians were very inept negotiators. Supposedly, they were to help Reagan win and then receive weapons in recompense. But Reagan was elected in November and the hostages were released in January. After that, the Iranians lost any leverage they might otherwise have had. If the October Surprise theory was actually true, it would mean that the Iranians simply trusted in the good faith of the Reagan administration to honor its commitment to deliver arms.

That is not how the Iranians operated, as we learned from the 1985 Iran-Contra scandal. There, they insisted on receiving arms before the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. On August 20, 1985, Israel, at the behest of the United States, shipped 96 TOW antitank missiles to Iran. Hours later, the Islamic Jihad, Iran’s proxy terrorist group in Lebanon, released the Reverend Benjamin Weir.

Simply put, Iranian negotiators do not extend credit. They insist on payment up front. The October Surprise theory is based on assumptions totally inconsistent with the mullahs’ modus operandi.

Third, there is no need to speculate as to what the Iranians really wanted in exchange for releasing the hostages because we already know. Negotiations between Tehran and the lameduck Carter administration continued after the election and ultimately resulted in the signing on January 19, 1981 of the Algiers Accords, under which the United States agreed to transfer approximately $12 billion worth of frozen assets held in American banks to Iran. The Iranians wanted money, not weapons, and they got the money through negotiations with the outgoing Carter administration, not from the incoming Reagan team.

Nothing in last week’s New York Times story on Ben Barnes’ account changes the inherent incredibility of the October Surprise theory. In fact, his account further undermines the veracity of that theory.

Consider the people with whom Connally conferred in his Middle East tour. According to the Times, they included the leaders of Israel and Egypt. The story even includes this photograph of Barnes and Connally meeting with Anwar el-Sadat:

New York Times

Now if the purpose of the meetings was to enlist intermediaries to convey a request to Tehran keep holding the hostages, why include the leaders of Israel or Egypt? The mullahs were not inclined to take advice from either one.

Israel was the “Little Satan,” whose destruction was their stated goal.

Sadat ranked even lower, if possible, in their estimation. In July 1980, at the outset of the tour, the Shah was on his deathbed in Cairo, where Sadat had granted him asylum. The Iranians, who sought the Shah’s extradition, were furious with Sadat, and cut off diplomatic relations. (They would not be restored until 2012.)  

The idea that the Reagan team expected Israel or Egypt to serve as an intermediary to Iran is so plainly nonsensical that one has to question the Times’ good faith in reporting it without appending some kind of skeptical editorial comment.

The fact that the October Surprise theory is rubbish does not mean that the aging Ben Barnes is a liar. On the contrary, a trip to the Middle East really did occur and it is likely that he honestly believes that the trip was a mission to help Reagan get elected. But his belief was probably based on the machinations of his mentor John Connally, rather than on any actions of the Reagan campaign team.

John Connally was a Texas wheeler-dealer, part tycoon and part blowhard. At the time of the trip, John Connally was actively campaigning for the post of Secretary of State or Defense in a possible Reagan cabinet. Connally had no experience in foreign affairs, and one can imagine him thinking that his self-inspired diplomatic mission, covering lands and issues of which he was profoundly ignorant, would enhance his chances of obtaining a cabinet position.

As it turned out, Connally did receive an offer of a cabinet post, but it was Energy, not State or Defense. He turned it down, apparently considering it unworthy of his talents.

If Connally’s trip had been authorized by the Reagan campaign, he probably would have gotten any appointment he wanted. For entrusting him with such a sensitive and morally dubious task would have given him tremendous leverage. A disgruntled Connally might have leaked word of the nefarious purpose of such a mission, thus undermining the new administration in its opening days.

Connally’s failure to obtain either the State or Defense cabinet post is further evidence that the Reagan team never authorized the trip and wasn’t worried about him leaking word about it. If he spoke to local leaders about the hostages, he did so on his own, to advance his own agenda, not that of the Reagan campaign.

John B. Connally III, Connally’s eldest son, provides further evidence that the Reagan team never enlisted his father to foster an October Surprise. The junior Connally did not accompany his father on the Middle East trip, but did accompany him on his subsequent visit with Ronald Reagan afterward, to report on it. He told the Times that his father’s report centered on the Arab-Israeli conflict and other issues the next president would face. “No mention was made in any meeting I was in about any message being sent to the Iranians,” he said, adding: “I can’t challenge Ben’s memory about it, but it’s not consistent with my memory of the trip.”

When all is said and done, the New York Times front page story may have energized the critics of Ronald Reagan, but it did nothing to advance the October Surprise theory. That theory remains an inherently illogical fantasy. But then, its promotors have never been motivated by logic or by facts. Their motive has been to discredit the Reagan administration and its accomplishments. They will remain hostage forever to that motive, regardless of its lack of merit, for that is one captivity from which they neither desire nor are likely to attain release. 

1 Comment

Filed under Foreign Policy, Politics


  1. I will never understand the conspiracy mindset of otherwise seemingly intelligent people. The husband of one of my wife’s friends lives in the world of conspiracies. He holds a Master’s-level engineering degree and seems to be intelligent, but to hear him talk, history is nothing more than one continual conspiracy as is all levels of contemporary government. I sometimes attempt to excuse his mindset as paranoia, but if he is paranoid, then so is a significant portion of our population. Don’t we all get tired listening to these buffoons?

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