So now, if we look back into presidential-election history, we can see other October Surprises of various kinds.
In the meantime, here at home, the incumbent U.S. president, Dwight Eisenhower, then running for a second term, stopped short of active intervention in Hungary, but helped facilitate the escape of some
200,000 Hungarians from communist tyranny.
The second surprise was the Suez Crisis, beginning on October 29, in which Britain, France, and Israel went to war against Egypt. The fighting was something of a misfire, and soon ended, and yet for at least a time, it seemed possible that it could escalate into a U.S.-Soviet confrontation. Once again, Eisenhower played a constructive role in bringing the hostilities to a close.
Ike was innocent of any sort of manipulation in either incident, and yet nevertheless, he benefited politically; his sturdy image of peaceful resolve in the midst of foreign turmoil helped him to win a reelection that November by a 15-point margin, carrying 41 of 48 states.
Then, in 1972, there came another October Surprise. On October 26, just 12 days before the national election, President Richard Nixon’s top diplomat, Henry Kissinger,
declared, “Peace is at hand.” Kissinger was referring to a breakthrough in the arduous negotiations he had been conducting with the North Vietnamese for the past three years–later including the Russians and the Chinese–seeking an end to the Vietnam War.
In this October 26, 1972, file photo, then presidential adviser Henry Kissinger tells a White House news conference that “peace is at hand” in Vietnam. (AP Photo)
Critics accused Kissinger of manipulating the timing of the good news for the benefit of Nixon’s reelection, and yet in point of fact, the war had already been drawing to a close, thanks to Nixon’s leadership. Having inherited a war from his presidential predecessor, Lyndon Johnson, in which more than 500,000 American troops were fighting in Southeast Asia, Nixon had, by October 1972, reduced the number of troops to around 20,000.
In fact, the final peace agreement was signed in January 1973; for his efforts, Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
A generation later, on October 12, 2000, the destroyer USS
Cole, anchored in Yemen’s Aden harbor, was attacked by suicide bombers in a small boat. Seventeen sailors were killed, and 39 injured; the perpetrators were a part of Osama bin Laden’s then-obscure al-Qaeda organization. It’s hard to pinpoint just how much impact this attack had on the presidential election the following month, and yet some observers believed that it contributed to the perception that President Bill Clinton hadn’t been taking terrorism seriously enough. As we know, Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, lost the 2000 election, by a narrow margin, to George W. Bush.
A small boat guards the USS
Cole in Aden, Yemen, October 20, 2000. Investigators have found bomb-making equipment in an apartment near the Yemeni port and believe two former occupants may have carried out the suicide bombing that killed 17 sailors aboard the USS Cole. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)
It can be argued that Bush, too, failed to take al-Qaeda seriously enough–and that’s why we were taken by surprise on September 11, 2001.
Then, in October 2016, came another pair of October Surprises. On the 7th came the news of Donald Trump’s
Access Hollywood tape, which temporarily threw his presidential campaign into a tailspin. And on the 28th came the news that FBI Director James Comey was investigating Hillary Clinton’s e-mails, throwing her campaign into a tailspin.
So as we can see, events can take fateful turns on the eve of a presidential election. Of course, such drastic turns can, and do, happen at any time, and yet now, in October 2020, as so many eyes are glued to political events, we realize how much effect they can have.
And we should keep in mind that the month of October has only just begun.