October Surprise
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Basic Information

In 1972, just a few days before the United States presidential election, the President's National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, held a press conference announcing "We believe that peace is at hand" in the long-running and unpopular Vietnam War. President Richard M. Nixon readily defeated his opponent, George McGovern, and some commentators credited Kissinger's announcement with tipping the scales in Nixon's favor.

Since then, the term October Surprise has been used in U.S. politics to refer to a last-minute news stunt by one political party intended to affect an election.

Although the term can be used generally, it is most often used in connection with a purported conspiracy behind the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

At the time, the issue at the forefront of the public mind was the ongoing Iran Hostage Crisis, in which 53 U.S. citizens were held captive in Iran for 444 days. Shortly before the 1980 election, a newspaper columnist speculated that President Jimmy Carter might try a military action to rescue the hostages just before Election Day as an October Surprise. (An earlier attempt to rescue the hostages had ended in an abysmal failure). No such attempt occurred, and Carter's failure to resolve the Hostage Crisis was one of the factors that led to his defeat by Reagan.

Then on January 20, 1981, within minutes of Ronald Reagan being sworn in as President, the Iranians released the hostages. Coincidence?

The October Surprise Conspiracy Theory holds that some of Reagan's aides met with high-ranking Iranian officials and arranged for the Iranians to delay the release of the hostages until after the 1980 election. In return, Reagan was supposedly going to unfreeze Iranian government assets in the United States and permit arms sales to Iran. According to the story, Reagan aide William Casey and others from the Reagan campaign held meetings in Paris with "high-level Iranian and Israeli representatives" from October 15-20. On October 21, the Iran abruptly changed its position in the secret negotiations the Carter Administration was holding with them to try to affect the release of the hostages. Soon afterward, Israel secretly shipped F-4 fighter parts to Iran in violation of the U.S. trade embargo.

Some investigators, including reporters for Newsweek and The New Republic, and a formal investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1993, looked into the matter, but disovered no evidence of any such conspiracy; what's more they found that the key players were not even in Paris at the time the meetings with Iran were supposed to have taken place. The conspiracy theory still remains popular and will probably endure in the popular imagination of the era.

Personally, this arcanist thinks that if Reagan's team had been competent enough to pull the October Surprise, they wouldn't have bungled the Iran-Contra Scandal so badly; but that's neither here nor there.

Then again… a May 5, 2010 story at Consortiumnews.com states that on January 11, 1993, just two days before the congressional task force released its findings, a Russian government report was delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow confirming that William Casey was indeed involved in negotiations with Iran. The report was filed away and buried. [3]. So, was there a conspiracy to cover up the conspiracy…?


Game and Story Use

  • A historical or time-travel campaign set in that era can involve the PCs with investigating the truth behind the conspiracy. Perhaps they are hired as go-betweens to meet with Iranian diplomats or smuggle arms into Iran.
  • An espionage or intrigue-base campaign may involve the PCs with a more general October Surprise, trying to engineer a big splashy news event just before an election in order to influence it.
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