Welcome to the Jungle: America After Vietnam
                                       AP US History 2007

Michaela Hund

Author's Bio

Gary Sick was born in 1935 and holds a doctorate in political science from Columbia University. He served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan, capping a twenty-four year career in the U.S. Navy as an analyst of political and military affairs. He is currently an adjunct professor of Middle East politics, and is also the author of All Fall Down: America's Tragic Encounter with Iran . He lives in New York City.

Trick or Treason?

     On November 4, 1979, a mob of Iranian students swarmed the American Embassy and took 52 people hostage. Over the next 444 days "citizens ¡­ sat transfixed in front of their television sets, breathlessly following each new twist and turn of events." 1 Although the motives of the takeover are unknown, historians and politicians alike proposed many theories to explain the delayed release of the hostages and the inability of the Carter administration to procure the hostages release. October Surprise by Gary Sick delves into the theory that the Reagan campaign made secret deals with the Iranians to delay the hostage's release until after the election in exchange for much needed army supplies. The accusations Sick makes are serious; high ranking government officials disclosing classified information without permission, opposing party members making illegal arms trades with foreign countries, and American hostages kept for a prolonged period for political gain.
     The election of 1980 soon centered on the hostage crisis and whether or not President Carter could secure the release of the hostages before the election. The Republican campaign began advertising that the Carter Administration could pull an "October surprise," a release or development in the hostage crisis, and therefore guarantee Carter a second term. 2 Reagan campaign manager William Casey would not let his candidate be defeated by surprises; Reagan supporters soon began infiltrating the Carter administration to find out of any progresses in the hostage negotiations. The state of affairs in Iran did not help the situation with the hostages. With the fall of the Shah in February 1979, Iran became a religious democracy run by Ayatollah Khomeini and his corrupt regime. Although Israel and Iran had always been allies according to the Doctrine of Periphery, after the fall of the shah relations became strained. Israel is surrounded by a ring of hostile Arab states; but outside of that ring are other countries also pitted against the Arabs, simply put, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." 3 Multimillion dollar-contracts had been signed before the fall of the Shah to give Iran one of the most advanced weapons systems in the Middle East. However, when the U.S. withdrew from Iran in February, the military inventory was yet to be installed and Iran found that its military was in short supply of expendable items such as tires, which "ironically [were] harder to come by on the international black market ¡­.than a sophisticated radar or weapons system." 4 Iran also needed the billions of dollars frozen in U.S. banks at the start of the hostage crisis. With diplomatic ties strained, Israel desperately wanted to regain Iran as an ally, and with vast stores of spare parts, was only being prevented by the Carter Administration. So, by the beginning of 1980, Iran needed money frozen in U.S. banks and spare parts, Republicans wanted to rid themselves of an "October surprise," and Israel wanted to restore good relations with Iran.
     Cyrus and Jamshid Hashemi were Iranian brothers living in the United States who had connections in both U.S . intelligence and Iranian government circles. Cyrus Hashemi was quick to identify the Republican Party as a potential power and began contacting Reagan campaign manager Casey to put him in touch with Iranian officials to see if they could help each other. Casey met with Israeli and Iranian dignitaries in Madrid on July 27, 1980 to discuss possible relations between a new administration and Iran. After a few hours of formal introductions, Casey proposed delaying the hostage release "as a gift to a new administration" in exchange for spare parts through Israel. 5 Although no agreements were finalized, the wheels were set in motion. By the end of the summer of 1980, Iran still had no functioning government. Political violence between clerical and secular factions escalated, and the hostage issue "[became] more of an irritant than an imperative." 6 However, as border skirmishes erupted into full scale war with Iraq, Iran focused its attentions on finding a solution for the hostage problem to end its diplomatic isolation and break the arms embargo. Also, rumors of the United States opening relations with Iraq reinforced the Iranian government's reluctance to work with the Carter administration and made alternate strategies seem more attractive. Although the controversy with Iraq surrounded the Carter administration, Iran was still willing to open negotiations. Carter administration officials met with delegates from Iran, but they never understood the urgency of key issues such as arms and money. The administration was also unmoving in these areas until the hostages were released. At the same time, French and Israeli companies were competing for the lucrative arms contract against the embargo by the U.S. The Carter administration appeared "to have been far to trusting and particularly blind to the ¡­occasional hints and clues" that suggested that Iran had another offer on the table and even its own western allies were disobeying the embargo. 7
      Campaigns for both Carter and Reagan went to into high gear as October began. Both Reagan and Bush made casual mention of an "October Surprise" or a sudden move to release the hostages. The Reagan camp began a wave of "disinformation"¡ªRepublican stations began releasing information reporting that the hostages were going to be released the next day. It reported that planes of military equipment were being flown to Iran in exchange for hostages despite Carter's staunch "no arms for hostages" policy.8 Reports increased that the last week of October would be the "now or never" play for the Carter administration. 9 Back in the Middle East, Iran had won its conflict with Iraq and Israel was increasingly advertising its willingness to trade arms with Iran. Carter, however, made an explicit demand "that Israel sell Iran no military equipment of any kind until after the hostages had been released." 10Israeli officials balked at this "order" and saw the opportunity of regaining contacts with Iran. Casey again approached Iranian officials and all three parties agreed to meet in Paris to hammer out the details of previous agreements. On October 17 to 19 Casey, Israeli, and Iranian officials met together in a series of meetings in various Paris hotels. The only one who seemed in the dark about the agreements reached was the United States government. Iran was to hold hostages until after the election, Israel would ship arms to Iran secretly defying the Carter embargo, and the Republican Party would continue to ship arms after Regan was put in office. Meanwhile, the Carter administration was shocked to learn on October 21, shortly after Paris talks with Casey, that Iran apparently concluded that its interest would best be served by delaying the release of the hostages until after the election. The shock of the announcement reverberated through the White House as Carter desperately tried to hold on to his presidency. The night before the election, Israel fulfilled its part of the bargain and sent its first shipment of arms to Iran in defiance of Carter's embargo.
     On November 2, the last day for Carter to produce a turnaround in hostage negotiations, the Iranian Parliament released a declaration that confirmed that the hostages would not be released before the election. That night he addressed the American public, and although his message was meant to be hopeful, "Carter's gloomy report reminded viewers of all the years other dashed hopes." 11 Reagan was elected in an overwhelming landslide the following day. Meanwhile, the Hashemi brothers had been lining up possible suppliers for the arms contracts and clearing banking channels for the transactions to take place. However, once Reagan won, Iran lost all of its bargaining power and lost more when the hostages were returned to the United States. The Reagan Administration made a big show of "no negations" with terrorists all the while covertly sending arms to Iran as previously contracted. Iran was in a perilous position and only hoped that Reagan would fulfill the bargain that was made in Paris. Realizing the power he held over the Iranian government, Reagan demanded the release of American prisoners that were taken as accused spies. Not only did Iran release the American prisoners, it also released all accused spies, including one German, three Britains, and one Dutchman.
     In his book, Sick asserts that the Republican Party and more specifically, the Reagan campaign, dealt under the table to delay the release of the hostages and therefore win Reagan the election. The introduction boldly claims that "this book was never supposed to have been written" and other statements of its controversy.12 He theorizes that the strange events and coincidences that surrounded the Iran Hostage Crisis were all apart of an elaborate puzzle constructed by the Republican Party that was never meant to be put together. And although it seems likely that the hostage release was delayed by the Republican Party, doubt surrounds the evidence, which is mostly gathered from unreliable sources. Although Sick admits that his sources are untrustworthy, he still gives them credit as facts. Sick is incredibly biased because he personally handled the Iran Hostage Crisis while working as head of Middle East affairs under the Carter Administration. However Sick repeatedly claims in the introduction that he did not even want to touch the proposed theory when approached by numerous sources. Apparently he decided to take the bait although the evidence on which he presents his theory is shaky. Sick states that his book is an attempt to return to an event he thought he knew "and to peel back the layers of visible evidence to see if there was something ¡­beneath." 13 Sick wishes to review the event and find if the supposed "truth" to the event that he had participated in was really changed by an outside force without the president's knowledge. The actions and accusations that Sick presents border on treason, and Sick states that a formal investigation with due process of law is necessary to find the truth hidden behind the lies.
     When the book was released in 1991, it was not the first to suggest the theory of a deal between the Republican Party and the Iranian government. In previous years Sick had always denied the theory but "jumped ship" during the Bush administration and began investigating the affair sincerely. Richard Ryan, a conservative member of The National Review, commends Sick for being "open about the dubious character and claims of his informants".14 However, Ryan finds that the amount of credibility that Sick places on his sources in spite of this degrades the book and hurts Sick's reputation as a historian. Ryan states that all of Sick's claims "are best explained by the weird dynamics of international politics in 1980". 15 He also deconstructs Sick's much noted infiltration of the Carter administration by Republicans as little more than hard-ball politics and political maneuvering. Ryan reduces Sick to a sore Liberal who joined the camp of others who would like to think that Reagan stole the election away from Carter. To him, Sick has "submitted too much to the romantic night world of arms dealers and covert ops" and forgotten his historical roots.16 Although Ryan trashes Sick for his sources he does comment that the book would have more credibility if it sources were more reliable. James LeMoyne also cites Sick for the credibility of his sources. LeMoyne states that although Sick's nonpartisan, cautious style strengthens his writing, it cannot implicate that "a dirty deal along the lines [Sick] describes was in fact struck." 17 A common theme among the reviews for October Surprise was the lack of credibility of his sources. Sick's indulgence in creating a picture out of jigsaw puzzles only degrades his argument in the end.
     As a reader of the book I found that Sick constantly trashing his sources then basing his claims upon them confused me. In the introduction Sick cites the nature of his sources as "men [who] had ulterior motives and some may have embellished the truth" 18 and subjects them to ridicule, then throughout the book mentions them as if they were factual. I had to constantly remind myself that these events could or could not have happened. For example, complete dialogue is provided in a meeting that supposedly happened between Casey and Iranian officials, and looking back, it is hard to imagine where Sick received the information. The web of Iranian and Israeli intrigues was also hard to understand and I often had to reread the information several times to find out what it meant, though to his credit Sick did keep the history of the Israeli-Iranian history fairly brief. Sick also got carried away at times with the hysteria of the situation. It was as if he could not decide whether he was writing a historical theory or historical fiction and decided to blend the two. However, this style kept me intrigued and dragged me along the bait trail. It also seemed as if the story line was worn thin and Sick was telling the same series of events over and over again with no respite. The book was well-researched though and I found myself interested in the theory even though I had to suppose that it was untrue. If Sick's purpose was to generate a series interest and questions into the Iran Hostage Crisis, he succeeded, but if he wished to prove a theory then he was way off the mark.
     Sick sees the Iran Hostage Crisis and election of Ronald Reagan as a scandal of international proportions that marked and escalation in politics. Although it was not uncommon in other parts of the world for out of power parties to orchestrate plots to overthrow the current party, in the United States it was almost always done with the knowledge of the President. However, William Casey pulled off an international scandal that jeopardized the lives of 52 Americans in the name of political gain. The capacity for opposing parties to wreak havoc on a current president was set at a new high that has since yet to be reached. Although it could be the Carter administrations fault for "ignoring to noise of events" surrounding the crisis most historians would agree that the activities performed by the Republican Party would have never been suspected. 19
     Although the theory has never been proven and the Iran-Contra Affair also failed to tarnish President Reagan it has given a degree of mystery to Reagan's Administration and the way by which he was elected. The implications that an opposing party would "covertly operate to overthrow a president" shocked the nation and most were unwilling to believe it. 20 Reagan's overall likeability and his ability to stay virtually untarnished by the Iran-Contra Affair has baffled historians also worked in keeping this theory a theory. After Watergate, few Americans were willing to delve into politics or care when a national issue was brought up. The public's inability to believe scandal helped the Republicans gain office and stay there untarnished.
     Though Reagan may have been elected regardless of the hostage issue, it still is a mark for intrigue for many historians. For a President who talked so highly of saying no to terrorism but secretly funneling arms, it is questionable on how he came into office. To say that it is impossible for such an event to happen would be ignoring some clear facts. The "October surprise" theory begs the question, where do politicians draw the line between trick and treason?


1. Sick, Gary. October Surprise . 10022 New York City: Random House, Inc., 1991, 17. 2. Sick, Gary 30. 3. Sick, Gary 56. 4. Sick, Gary 60. 5. Sick, Gary 84. 6. Sick, Gary 93. 7. Sick, Gary 158. 8. Sick, Gary 103. 9. Sick, Gary 100. 10. Sick, Gary 157. 11. Sick, Gary 176. 12. Sick, Gary 3. 13. Sick, Gary 13. 14. Ryan, Richard. "October Surprise". National Review 44 (Jan 20, 1992): 53 . 15. Ryan, Richard. 16. Ryan, Richard. 17. LeMoyne, James. "October Surprise". The New Leader 74 (Dec 30, 1991): 20. 18. Sick, Gary 10. 19. Sick, Gary 100. 20. Sick, Gary 12.

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