Reprinted from Consortium News
Two clandestine operations during hard-fought presidential elections of the past half century shaped the modern American political era, but they remain little known to the general public and mostly ignored by historians. One unfolded in the weeks before Election 1968 and the other over a full year before Election 1980.
Besides putting into power iconic Republican leaders, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, those two elections altered the nation's course and went a long way toward defining the current personalities of America's national parties, the anything-goes Republicans versus the ever-accommodating Democrats.
The two cases also demonstrated how Official Washington, including the national press corps, could be convinced to avert its eyes from strong evidence of these two historical crimes, Republican sabotage of both President Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam peace talks in 1968 and President Jimmy Carter's hostage negotiations with Iran in 1980.
It was easier for all involved to pretend that nothing happened, with the dirty secrets kept from the public for "the good for the country."
Yet those two elections had monumental consequences. In 1968, by thwarting Johnson's nearly completed peace deal, Nixon condemned the country to four bloody and divisive years, with more than 20,000 additional U.S. soldiers dying in Vietnam -- along with millions of Indochinese -- and a generational divide opening between parents and their children.
The hatreds unleashed by those four years of unnecessary war also led to bitter battles over the Pentagon Papers, the Watergate scandal and Nixon's ouster in 1974, all further darkening the American political landscape.
In reaction to Nixon's Watergate debacle, the Right began building an infrastructure of hard-line think tanks, anti-press attack groups and ideological media outlets to protect any future Republican president caught in wrongdoing. From the Left's internal divisions over Vietnam emerged a group of intense intellectuals who shifted right and became known as the neoconservatives.
Nevertheless, in the late 1970s, Democratic President Jimmy Carter took halting steps in a different direction. He called for elevating human rights as an American foreign policy priority and focused on the need to conserve energy and address environmental dangers.
Carter's stern lectures about the importance of the United States rejecting materialism and developing renewable energy sources didn't sit well with many Americans already struggling with economic stagflation. But Carter's environmental warnings may have been as prescient as Dwight Eisenhower's farewell message about the dangerous "military-industrial complex."
But the course of American history took a sharp turn on Nov. 4, 1979, exactly three decades ago, when radical Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took scores of Americans hostage. Eventually, the Iranians would hold 52 of those Americans through the U.S. presidential election and would release them only after Ronald Reagan was sworn in on Jan. 20, 1981.
The coincidence of Reagan's swearing-in and the hostage release provided powerful impetus to Reagan and his agenda. He was immediately seen as an international figure as potent and fearsome to American adversaries as Carter appeared impotent and inept.
Reagan -- also bolstered by a Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate -- slashed taxes for the well-to-do, assaulted labor unions, deregulated industries, repudiated environmental goals and downplayed energy conservation, even removing Carter's solar panels from the roof of the White House.
Instead of government-led efforts to address the nation's challenges, Reagan declared in his inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."
On foreign and military affairs, however, Reagan wanted a major new role for the federal government, expanding the U.S. military, launching new weapons programs and approving covert wars against leftist movements in the Third World.