Ronald Reagan’s “October Surprise” Plot Is Real

A batch of quietly released documents confirms what many long suspected: Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign worked behind the scenes to delay the release of US hostages in Iran, for the benefit of Reagan’s election campaign. It raises the question: When was the last time a Republican won a presidential election without the help of dirty tricks?

by Branko Marcetic  edited by O Society 02 02, 2020

The 2020s began with such a hair-raising blitz of Iran-related news, you probably missed the ginormous revelation about US-Iranian relations revealed at the end of the 2010s. Rather than a potential US-Iran war today, this particular story transports us back to a more innocent time, when politics was about principles and Republican presidents were still decent men: the beginning of the Reagan era.


At question is the 1980 presidential election between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, specifically the “October Surprise” alleged to have handed Reagan the election, long dismissed as a conspiracy theory. While the whole saga is lengthy and convoluted, the core allegation is just this: in the middle of the Iran hostage crisis, the Reagan campaign made a secret deal with the new rulers of Iran to delay the release of the hostages until after the election, thus dooming any chance of a Carter victory.

The allegation, doggedly pursued by the late investigative journalist Robert Parry, spawned books and even a 1992 congressional investigation, which determined “no credible evidence supporting any attempt or proposal to attempt by the Reagan Presidential campaign . . . to delay the release of the American hostages in Iran.” Parry and others looking into the case were attacked in the media, with much of the issue revolving around whether or not Reagan’s campaign manager and (later) free press–hating CIA director William Casey traveled to Madrid on a particular date to meet with Iranian government representatives.


Well, nearly seventeen years after the House October Surprise Task Force concluded the whole idea was bunk, an outlet no less venerable than the New York Times turns said conclusion on its head. Just three days out from a new decade, the Times publishes what in any other news era would be a captivating account based on documents donated to Yale from the offices of David Rockefeller, the former chairman of Chase Manhattan Corporation.

It is ostensibly a story about how Rockefeller and Chase worked behind the scenes to win their client, the repressive Shah of Iran, safe haven in the United States. This golden nugget appears about halfway through:

The team around Mr. Rockefeller, a lifelong Republican with a dim view of Mr. Carter’s dovish foreign policy, collaborated closely with the Reagan campaign in its efforts to pre-empt and discourage what it derisively labeled an “October surprise” — a pre-election release of the American hostages, the papers show.

The Chase team helped the Reagan campaign gather and spread rumors about possible payoffs to win the release, a propaganda effort Carter administration officials said impeded talks to free the captives.

“I had given my all” to thwarting any effort by the Carter officials “to pull off the long-suspected ‘October surprise,’” Mr. Reed wrote in a letter to his family after the election, apparently referring to the Chase effort to track and discourage a hostage release deal. He was later named Mr. Reagan’s ambassador to Morocco.

“Mr. Reed” is Joseph Reed Jr, Rockefeller’s chief of staff, who mandated the documents should stay sealed until Rockefeller’s death, which came in 2017. It’s not hard to see why they were sealed now.


Critics will quibble these documents don’t prove the actual specifics of the long-alleged “October Surprise.” This is true. According to the Times, they don’t show Reagan striking a deal with the Iranians to delay the release of the American hostages until after the election, but simply working behind the scenes to thwart negotiations to free them. Perhaps someone out there exists who thinks this is better.

Of course, these weren’t the only shenanigans Reagan got up to during the ’80 election. His campaign also famously got hold of Carter’s debate strategy papers in advance of their one and only debate. Less famously, the Reagan campaign is alleged to have used retired CIA officials and a mole within the Carter administration to gather information about its foreign policy — mostly, as the Times reported in 1983 – you guessed it, related to the Iran hostage crisis.

For those counting, at least four of the last six Republican presidents who won elections, won them with the assistance of some sort of pre-election skulduggery, including Richard Nixon’s torpedoing of peace in Vietnam, the George W. Bush campaign shenanigans in Florida and the later use of the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” and Donald Trump’s supposed boost from Russia’s alleged hacking of Democratic Party emails (even if it wasn’t coordinated). Not to mention the use of voter suppression unites them all. Not even counting George H. W. Bush getting help from John Major’s government in the UK in his bid to beat Bill Clinton in 1992.


The story is also a perfect example of the way the worlds of capital, politics, and foreign affairs blur together: the head of one of the country’s largest banks helps his right-wing political allies unseat their opponent and saving the skin of one lucrative foreign dictator, all while drawing on the expertise of a team of political elites, from Henry Kissinger and a former CIA director to a member of one of the country’s most prominent political families. Big business and the political establishment have long worked together; they just used to do it more quietly, more discreetly.

As understated as it was, it’s remarkable this story receives as little attention as it does — a hallmark of the Trump era, when even the New York Times publishing secret government files on UFOs barely registers a blip.

October Surprise: The Election Story of the Decade




2 thoughts on “Ronald Reagan’s “October Surprise” Plot Is Real

  1. In other words, as much as some might want to believe any of this, the bottom line comes down to guesses geared to suit a particular political ideology. Well, it’s human nature to just “fill in the blanks” when the information one has is incomplete It’s also human nature to think that one’s conclusions are correct, regardless. The tip-off here was, “Donald Trump’s boost from Russia’s hacking of Democratic Party emails,” something that didn’t happen in the first place. After a very long investigation, it had been determined that there was no hacking involved. The conclusion by computer forensics experts was that someone with direct physical access to the DNC computers had downloaded a huge volume of files onto ordinary storage drives, which were ultimately passed along to media. This was presumably someone on the Clinton campaign team. A leak, not a hack, which had absolutely nothing to do with Russia or any other foreign country. In fact, in spite of much Dem voter opposition to the Clinton wing, Hillary Clinton got the most votes. Trump is president because he got the most electoral votes, something a foreign entity couldn’t manipulate.

    Liked by 1 person

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