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Was the 'October Surprise' Really a Surprise?

Posted September 27, 2000

— Twenty years ago at this time we were in the middle of another national presidential election year. The candidates were the Democrat incumbent, Jimmy Carter, and the Republican contender, Ronald Reagan. Of course we all know the outcome. Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States.

What many of us do not recall as well was the controversy stirred by the events surrounding the American hostages held in Teheran, Iran. A year earlier, in the fall of 1979, dozens of hostages were taken at the American Embassy in Teheran following the fall of the Shah. A few were released within days, others remained imprisoned for over a year.

President Jimmy Carter tried several diplomatic means to secure their release. His administration also attempted a daring military raid on the compound holding the hostages. Desert One failed terribly and cost the lives of several U.S. military members, along with the loss of aircraft when a helicopter and a C-130 transport collided on the ground.

The nation also suffered a severe loss of prestige with the failed and aborted raid. This was not our finest hour. The hostages remained in captivity.

By what many saw as more than a simple coincidence, the hostages were released on Inaugural Day in January 1981. Reagan's critics developed a storyline which became known as The October Surprise. Had "candidate" Reagan made a deal with the Iranian government to hold onto the hostages until after the election, and to have them released within an hour after he had been sworn in as President of the United States? Clearly, it looked very suspicious.

I have another take on what actually happened. During the fall of 1980 and early 1981, I was the Commander of the 322nd Airlift Division with my headquarters at Ramstein AB, Germany. In that capacity I had responsibility for all U.S. airlift in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

In October of 1980, the time when Reagan was alleged to have struck a deal with the totalitarian government in Iran, there were two rather significant earthquakes in Algeria. There were at least 6,000 people killed and another 200,000 rendered homeless by the quakes.

America was not closely aligned with Algeria either militarily or diplomatically during those days. But America has always responded to natural disasters, anywhere on the globe, to provide humanitarian relief to those who become victims to earthquakes, floods, typhoons, fires, etc. It did so in October of 1980 by providing help to Algeria.

Our military transports provided the airlift of nearly 350 tons of critically needed supplies and medicines to Algeria. There were tents, cots, blankets, generators, food and medicine among the items provided by our government.

The Algerians did not forget this humanitarian gesture on the part of the American people. Soon diplomatic negotiations were underway with those in power in Teheran. The Algerians became key to the release of America's hostages.

The sequence of events that led to the eventual release on Inaugural Day, 1981 is interesting. An Algerian Airline flew to Teheran, and with the approval of the Iranian government, covertly boarded the 52 hostages who had been captive for 444 days, and flew to Athens, Greece.

They arrived at Athens under the cover of darkness and parked on a remote military ramp to refuel their aircraft. Naturally, this was done with the approval of the Greek government. Following the ground refueling they resumed their flight and landed in Algiers, Algeria.

In Algiers, I had positioned two C-9 (DC-9) aeromedical evacuation aircraft with medical personnel on board. They transferred the 52 hostages to the two C-9's and flew them to Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany. There they were met by President Jimmy Carter and others.

President Reagan knew full well how hard President Carter had worked to secure the release of these hostages. So he graciously asked President Carter to represent our government at this significant event. From Frankfurt, the hostages were moved by bus to an Air Force hospital in Weisbaden, Germany, for evaluation before their return to America a few days later.

I believe it was a generous humanitarian act on the part of our government, which assisted the Algerians in a time of critical need following two back-to-back earthquakes, that precipitated another generous humanitarian act -- that of the Algerian government acting as an intermediary in negotiations with Iran.

As Americans we should all be proud of our military forces who play such a vital role day in and day out, helping others around the world in their time of need. I know how proud I was to direct the American airlift effort which returned our hostages to their freedom. This is the third in a series of monthly columns written by retired U.S. Air ForceLt. Gen. Robert D. Springer. Springer is the president of NovaLogic Systems Inc., of Calabasas, Calif., which provides integrated PC software solutions to the defense community and others in the areas of simulation, mission editing, distributive mission training and planning, terrain database modeling and visualization. Gen. Springer is also a public speaker, lecturer and media consultant, including for WRAL-TV5.

In addition to his motivational speeches, he talks on ethics, leadership, national defense and foreign policy issues. He is the military consultant for the CBS affiliate, WRAL-TV5, in Raleigh, N.C. He has also appeared on the PBS McNeil-Lehrer News Hour, C-SPAN, Fox News, National Public Radio, ABC Radio and others.


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