The 2020s began with such a hair-raising blitz of Iran-related news that you probably missed the bombshell revelation about US-Iranian relations that came with 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 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” that is alleged to have handed Reagan the election, long dismissed as a conspiracy theory. The whole saga is lengthy and convoluted, but the core allegation is this: that 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, dooming Carter’s chances of victory.
The allegation, doggedly pursued by the late investigative journalist Robert Parry, spawned books and even a 1992 congressional investigation, which determined there was “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 had 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 that the whole idea was bunk, an outlet no less venerable than the New York Times has turned that conclusion on its head. Just three days out from a new decade, the Times published what in any other era would have been a bombshell story based on documents donated to Yale from the offices of David Rockefeller, the former chairman of Chase Manhattan Corporation.
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 nugget appears about halfway through:
[T]he 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 that Carter administration officials have 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” was Joseph Reed Jr, Rockefeller’s chief of staff, who mandated that the documents should stay sealed until Rockefeller’s death, which came in 2017. It’s not hard to see why.
Critics will quibble that 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 that election. His campaign also famously got hold of Carter’s debate strategy papers in advance of their one and only debate in 1980, and less famously was 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, in relation to the Iran hostage crisis.
For those counting, that’s now at least four of the last six Republican presidents who have won elections 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 boost from Russia’s hacking of Democratic Party emails (even if that wasn’t coordinated) — not to mention the use of voter suppression that unites them all. And that’s not 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 helping 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.
As understated as it was, it’s remarkable this story has received as little attention as it has — a hallmark of the Trump era, where even the New York Times publishing secret government files on UFOs barely makes a blip.