By Donella Meadows
–April 25, 1991–
I have watched for ten years as rumors about the October surprise have started up and disappeared and started up again. Over the same time there have also been a lot of rumors about Nancy Reagan.
Both kinds of rumors have recently surfaced again. What I can’t understand is why the talk and the press are all about Nancy, and hardly at all about the October surprise.
For those of you who have accidently or purposely not heard these rumors, here, in a nutshell, is the tale of the October surprise. Be warned: it’s disgusting, and it’s only a rumor. But true or untrue, its refusal to die is much more important than what Nancy might have been doing with whom during White House lunches.
Back in 1980 when Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter were running neck-in-neck for the Presidency, there were, you probably remember, 53 American hostages who had been held captive in Iran for nearly a year. There was also an Iraqi dictator named Saddam Hussein, who was massing his army on the Iranian border, preparing for an invasion.
The government of Iran was beginning to lose interest in its game of taunting America on the nightly news. The Ayatollah was suddenly open to negotiations about releasing hostages. What he wanted in exchange was weapons for the war he was about to fight with Iraq, and the release of Iran’s funds in the U.S., which had been impounded since the beginning of the hostage crisis.
That’s all fact, so far. Now here comes the rumor.
The Carter administration was not the only group entering into hostage-release discussions with Iran. The other was the Reagan campaign team, headed by William Casey, who would later be Reagan’s director of the CIA. The worst nightmare of that team was that Carter would succeed in releasing the hostages for a triumphant return right before the election, thereby sweeping him into a second term.
The Reagan team called that possibility the “October surprise.” Their dealings with Iran, says the rumor, were designed to prevent it from happening. The presidential candidate was bidding against the government of the United States, promising even more money and more weapons if the hostages were NOT released until after the election.
End of rumor, back to fact. The hostages were released exactly 30 minutes after Reagan began his inauguration speech on January 21, 1981. The captors were checking their watches in Tehran to be sure the timing was exact. In the following months large quantities of spare parts and armaments flowed from the U.S. to Iran via Israel.
I was not the only American who thought back then that the timing of these events was suspicious. I am not the only one who has been watching the rumors rise and fall for ten years, wondering whether to believe them, and longing for a full-scale investigation to lay them to rest. But the government, understandably, and the mainline press, less understandably, have avoided the subject with great determination.
One person who heard the October surprise story early on and refused to believe it was Gary Sick. His job on the National Security Council from 1976 to 1981 was to monitor Iran. “I had worked in and around the Middle East long enough to be skeptical of the conspiracy theories that abound in the region,” he says. But he heard the whispers about secret meetings in 1980 in Europe between Casey and Iranian representatives and arms dealers. Slowly he began to assemble the evidence. He has just presented it in the April 15 New York Times. A Frontline program shown on PBS April 16 also told the story, such as it is.
The evidence so far contains no air-tight proof offered by credible witnesses. Sick can quote 15 sources, for example, who report an October meeting in Paris between members of the Reagan staff and high-level Iranian and Israeli representatives, when the deal was allegedly finalized. Five of the sources say that George Bush was present. These rumor-mongers, however, tend to be shady international gun-runner types. Some of their names pop up again, ominously, five years later in the Iran-Contra story. Whether that makes them more or less believable is for you to judge.
I am using this space to repeat these rumors, about which I have no inside knowledge, only because no one else seems to be willing to. The media are apparently happy to repeat any gossip about Nancy Reagan, while remaining stunningly quiet about this much more serious allegation about her husband. I am wondering why.
Is it because Nancy’s peccadillos, true or false, can so easily be dismissed as reflecting on her, not us? Is it because no one fears her power, while many fear the power of those now in office who would prefer to keep the October surprise story quiet, whether it’s true or false? Is it because, as some of my friends have been saying this week, that election was ten years ago, and it no longer matters, and we all know that politicians are crooked anyway?
As a person who cares passionately about the democratic ideals of this wonderful country, I wish we would drop the gossip about Nancy and investigate with all seriousness the allegations about Ronald and his team. Either the October surprise story is a rotten rumor that needs to be thoroughly debunked, or it is a sign that the democratic process itself has gone rotten. Whichever it is, we the citizens, the only and ultimate guardians of democracy, need to know.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991