Smears and Myths—The October Surprise Revisited

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.

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