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Smears and Myths—The October Surprise Revisited
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Smears and Myths—The October Surprise Revisited

The New York Times revives the claim that Reagan won in 1980 by conspiring to prolong the Iran hostage crisis.

Ronald Reagan takes the oath of office on January 20. 1981 during inauguration ceremonies in Washington, DC. (Photograph from the Bettman Collection/Getty Images.)

Historical myths work in peculiar ways. A new revelation promises to shed new light on a familiar episode in tantalizing fashion. Nuance and context fall away. A certain ideal colonizes our imagination. Revisionism becomes orthodoxy. 

The left excels at this kind of intellectual gerrymandering, and one of its prized myths is that Ronald Reagan may have won the 1980 election because his campaign team conspired with Iranian revolutionaries to prolong the captivity of American officials held hostage. The New York Times took a stab at reviving this canard last month, touting the revelation of a “four-decade secret” about a trip with a “clandestine agenda.” The Reagan fantasy is just the most recent to use Iran as backdrop. 

Take, for instance, the 1953 coup in Iran that toppled nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq. By the end of his two-year tenure, Mosaddeq’s ruinous policies led Iranian generals, clerics, merchants, and left-wing militants to fight it out. Most traditional forces supported Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, while leftist radicals of all stripes embraced Mosaddeq. The Central Intelligence Agency’s main man, Kermit Roosevelt Jr, wandered around Tehran, playing tennis, sunning himself by the pool, drinking heavily, and trying to meddle in this Iranian affair. Mosaddeq was overthrown by Iranians and the shah restored to power with little input from bewildered Americans. Roosevelt may actually be the least accomplished, most overrated operative in CIA history (it’s stiff competition). 

But later on, in the 1960s, liberal professors and journalists disillusioned with the war in Vietnam were in the mood to find fault with past U.S. presidents. Mosaddeq’s downfall was quickly recast: No longer was he an errant politician overwhelmed by his own misjudgments but a nationalist martyred by the CIA. This revisionism served a political purpose, and the fallout persists. Today, Democratic Party luminaries, Hollywood celebrities, public intellectuals, and a lot of academics who should know better smugly insist that the CIA overthrew a democratically elected nationalist and reimposed a cruel despot, making the 1979 revolution inevitable if not justifiable. Iranian leftists, especially after the revolution turned against the Islamic left, picked up this Western critique of a malevolent America and ran with it: Their kind, not the Islamists behind Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, would have won long before had it not been for the CIA’s intrusion. These leftists, who have all been cast out by Khomeini and his successor, Ali Khamenei, really want to find someone else—not themselves—to blame for a new, more wicked police state.

The 1953 myth insults Iranians by denying them agency and responsibility for their own history. To their credit, Iran’s Islamists see history a bit more proactively. They insist that all previous revolts against the monarchy failed because they did not enjoy divine approbation. Their revolution was God’s injunction against evil. The CIA coup-myth is today offered up by the more Westernized cadre in the foreign ministry and universities, especially when foreigners are listening. 

And so it is with Reagan and the 1980 election: The real villains are Americans; Iranians are in supporting roles. In this case, unlike in 1953, the American left is trying to distort an important moment in American history. The New York Times reports that Ben Barnes, a Texas politician, and his mentor, former Treasury Secretary John Connally, toured the Middle East in the summer of 1980 and advised Arab leaders to pass on a message to the Islamist leaders of Iran: “Don’t release the hostages before the election. Reagan will win and give you a better deal.” Connally is said to have briefed Reagan’s campaign chief, William Casey, the soon-to-be director of the CIA, then the left’s bête noire of skullduggery. Other liberal media outlets followed, doing their part to cast doubt on the “official” history and the integrity of the 40th president. 

This fabulation—originally popularized by Gary Sick, Carter’s Iran chief on the National Security Council—was exhaustively investigated and rejected by various congressional committees. But the left remains fundamentally uncomfortable with Reagan’s victory, and because Iran is historically a compelling backdrop for American bad behavior, the myth remains. This election fantasy, however, perpetuates a view of the Islamic Republic that has weakened U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East since 1979.  

These alleged Republican machinations are highlighted while Islamic revolutionary beliefs are downplayed. The truth about 1979: The seizure of the American embassy that November resulted from a domestic power struggle in Iran. Khomeini and his militant allies needed a crisis to displace the more moderate provisional government. The Iranian people believed in the revolution; the ayatollah needed to galvanize them behind his dictatorship. Soon after the embassy takeover, the liberal politicians who were an indispensable part of the revolutionary coalition were gone, a new constitution enshrining theocracy arrived via referendum, and hostility toward America and prevailing global norms had become the raison d’être of the Islamic Republic.

Political rivalries inside Iran, however, cannot explain why the hostage crisis lasted 444 days. By the summer of 1980, the revolution was safe from its domestic foes; the theocracy had successfully created new institutions or transformed the shah’s, thus ensuring clerical supremacy. Khomeini prolonged the crisis not because of hints of cooperation from mischievous Americans whom he would have dismissed outright. He did so to humiliate the United States. For Khomeini, the “Great Satan” was a rapacious imperial power determined to exploit the resources of Iran and the Muslim world. It was the source of moral pollution and debilitating cultural temptations. 

The sheer emotional pleasure that the ayatollah and his disciples derived from the hostage crisis is hard to overstate. The hostage drama played out in American living rooms on nightly television. Ted Koppel’s Nightline offered Iranian revolutionaries a daily platform to denounce the United States. The more America was humiliated, the more implacable the mullahs became. The hostages, and the Desert One fiasco—the botched and ultimately abandoned attempt to rescue the hostages by helicopter—reified Khomeini’s favorite slogan: “America can’t do a damn thing.” 

But there are even more problems with credulously accepting this story. First, despite his close ties with Connally, Barnes was and remains a partisan Democrat. All the witnesses, save one (Connally’s son) are dead and therefore conveniently cannot confirm or refute his story. Moreover, his story has changed over time. Though the New York Times reported that he had shared his story with others, including University of Texas historian H. W. Brands, what Brands reports about those conversations in his 2015 biography of Reagan differs substantially from his current contention. 

Barnes “passed word to the government officials he met with in Israel and several Arab countries that release of the hostages before the November election ‘would not be helpful’ to the Reagan campaign,” according to Brands. This was a totally anodyne observation of political reality at the time, and there is nothing in this account that suggests Connally asked his interlocutors to pass a message suggesting that Iran hold off releasing the hostages to benefit Reagan politically. Barnes now says he never raised that part of the story before because he feared his fellow Democrats would have excoriated him for being a party to Connally’s alleged perfidy, but this will hardly wash. The immediate hosannas from the left on Twitter offer pretty good testimony that he would have been hailed as a truth-telling whistleblower whenever he chose to deliver himself on this topic. Connally’s son, who attended the meeting his father held with Reagan on his return, reports that this subject never came up in their discussion.

Finally, the idea that the Arab leaders whom Barnes and Connally met were reliable channels of communication to revolutionary Iran is absurd. Khomeini derisively condemned them as vassal states who served to accommodate the transgressions of the “Great Satan.” The Islamic Republic then was at its most Trotskyite: It planned to overthrow the “pro-Western” Arab rulers whom Connally was presumably enlisting as interlocutors.

Far from Reagan prolonging the captivity of the Americans, his campaign of restoring America’s strength may have expedited their release. As a candidate, he often spoke about repairing the post-Vietnam hollowed-out Army and building up U.S. military capabilities. There was a measure of unpredictability about how Reagan would approach the hostage crisis. 

Western left-wing caricatures of Reagan, to which left-wing Islamic revolutionaries were keenly attuned, depicted him as arms-control-loathing and bellicose, willing perhaps to even risk nuclear Armageddon with the Soviets. Having failed to impress the Iranians with its own military credibility (that collapsed after Desert One in April 1980), the Carter White House even played the “Reagan card” to strengthen its negotiating hand. Carter’s negotiating team implored the Iranians to come to terms before Reagan took over. Once the Iranians appreciated that the Carter presidency might be ending, they indeed seemed more willing to end the crisis. 

No conspiracy theory should absolve the mullahs of their hostage-taking and revolutionary crimes. Khomeini knew exactly what he was doing. There are many reasons why Americans might, looking back, feel a tad guilty about how they indulged the shah’s fantasies about being an Achaemenid king reborn; the American diplomat George Ball was unquestionably right after witnessing the shah’s celebration of 2,500 years of Iranian monarchy in 1971 that we had a deeply delusional and profligate ally. 

Such guilt should not, however, oblige us to rewrite history. Iran’s Islamic revolutionaries have repeatedly shown us their mores and aspirations. Our apologetic mindset should not lead us to believe that “misunderstandings” prevent normalcy in our relations. Flooding them with hard currency via an extortionate nuclear deal isn’t going to make them more responsible players in a global (that is, Western) order that they want to overturn. 

We should take a hard-learned lesson from Carter’s negotiating team: A bit more awe—unpredictable menace—never hurts in dealing with Islamists who live to emasculate us.

Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Finland, and under secretary of defense for policy.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, is a resident scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.