Are We in for a Shocking October Surprise Like Those of Elections Past?
This article has been adapted from America's Stolen Narrative, Robert Parry's newest book.
The phrase “October Surprise” is now part of the American political lexicon, referring to some last-minute event that might change the course of a U.S. presidential election. But the two prototypical “October Surprise” cases, in 1968 and 1980, have never earned a place in mainstream American history.
The October Surprise allegations of 1968 and 1980 also were something of a misnomer since they centered on Republican efforts to block an October Surprise by sabotaging game-changing diplomatic successes by incumbent Democratic presidents. In 1968, it was Lyndon Johnson achieving a breakthrough in the Vietnam War peace talks. In 1980, it was Jimmy Carter securing the release of 52 American hostages held in Iran.
Recent disclosures from the National Archives as well as statements from participants have shed new light on these dark chapters of U.S. history – and revealed previously unknown links between the 1968 case and the Watergate scandal of 1972 and between the 1980 Iran-hostage case and the Iran-Contra Affair of 1985-86. The new evidence suggests a more continuous narrative connecting these scandals and thus represents a powerful challenge to the established history.In both cases, the Democratic presidents failed to accomplish their goals and the Republican candidates, Richard Nixon in 1968 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, went on to victories. Yet, these important October Surprise mysteries have remained largely unsolved: Did Republican sabotage actually play a role in the Democratic failures?
Possibly the most notorious “October Surprise” case – and the first of this modern era – occurred in fall 1968 when Republican Richard Nixon was locked in a tight presidential race with Democratic nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and President Johnson was making progress in Vietnam peace negotiations.
At that point, a half million American soldiers were in the war zone and more than 30,000 had already died, along with Vietnamese dead estimated at about one million. In late October 1968, Johnson saw a chance for a breakthrough that would involve a bombing halt of North Vietnam and a possible framework for peace.
However, Johnson encountered surprising resistance from U.S. allies in South Vietnam. President Nguyen van Thieu was suddenly laying down obstacles to a possible settlement in the Paris peace talks.
On Oct. 29, 1968, Johnson got his first clear indication as to why. According to declassified records at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, Eugene Rostow, Johnson’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, got a tip from Wall Street financier Alexander Sachs who said that one of Nixon’s closest financial backers was describing Nixon’s plan to “block” a peace settlement.
Nixon’s backer was sharing this information at a working lunch with his banking colleagues in the context of helping them place their bets on stocks and bonds. In other words, the investment bankers were colluding over how to make money with their inside knowledge of Nixon’s scheme to extend the Vietnam War.
Eugene Rostow passed on the information to his brother, Walt W. Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser. Eugene Rostow also wrote a memo about the tip. “The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term,” he wrote. “The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem … to block. … They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait.”
In a later memo providing a chronology of the affair, Walt Rostow said he got the news about the Wall Street lunch from his brother shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.”