October surprise, which first came into use shortly after the 1972 presidential election, referred to news events that happened right before the election and have the potential to influence its outcome. As the Election Day typically occurs on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November (between November 2 and 8), surprise events in late October would have the potential to significantly change prospective voters’ minds. In the Vietnam Era, there were 2 events which considered as October surprise, one occurred in the 1968 presidential election and the other in 1972. Both occurred when Richard Nixon, a Republican candidate, ran for president.
October 1968: Nixon & Humphrey
Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate, who best known for the brutality of police against the antiwar protesters, was supposed to have little chance in the race for President. As a supporter for Johnson administration policy, Humphrey was at a disadvantage when American public was suddenly turning against the war after the Tet Offensive. Nonetheless, he began to turn his position on Vietnam. On September 30, in a notable speech in Salt Lake City, he called for a bombing halt of North Vietnam and promised to bring troops home if he was elected. The speech created an astounding result. In early October, Humphrey gradually pulled back into the race.
Five days before the election, the incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson announced an immediate halt to all bombing in North Vietnam and began the serious peace talks. This announcement lighted up the hope for peace in Vietnam and turned public’s opinion in Humphrey’s favour. The Republicans immediately made their move. Anna Chennault, a high-level Republican operative, utilized her contacts with Saigon to convince Thieu & other South Vietnamese leaders that Nixon was preparing a better deal on their behalf. Just three days before the election, the South Vietnamese withdraw from the negotiations, the momentum that Hubert Humphrey had created collapsed. Finally, Nixon won the election and had a hand 301-to-191 majority of electoral vote.
October 1972: “Peace is at hand”
Three years had passed since President Nixon took office in 1969 but the peace talks in Paris did not make much progress. The result worried Nixon about his electoral chances in 1972 as he had been elected more or less with the faith that he would end the war in Vietnam. A breakthrough came on October 8 when North Vietnamese leaders changed their position and agreed to all US’ conditions. On October 12, two sides reached to a draft agreement. With the agreement in hand, Henry Kissinger came back to Washington to meet with President Nixon. They planned for an announcement of the agreement on October 26 in favour to Nixon on his re-election campaign.
But the optimism was short-lived. On October 22, South Vietnamese President Thieu formally informed Kissinger that he would never accept an agreement which left North Vietnamese troops in South Vietnam. To buy time to persuade Saigon, Kissinger requested a delay from North Vietnam. Hanoi reacted badly to the action. On October 25, North Vietnamese government accused the US government of duplicity on Radio Hanoi. Despite constant disputes between Hanoi and Saigon, in a press conference on October 26, Kissinger announced that the negotiations achieved significant results and proclaimed that “peace is at hand”.
The announcement, which occurred just twelve days before the election, gave Nixon’s already big lead another bump. In fact, President Nixon defeated the Democratic challenger George McGovern in a historic landslide with more than 60% popular vote on November 7. The war in Vietnam however would continue for another two and a half years.