GEORGETOWN, S.C. -- Taking a dozen grandchildren on vacation means that we buy cereal by the ton and milk in multiple gallons. I was in the cereal aisle, squinting at the list of ingredients on a brightly colored box of "high-fiber multigrain something," when a fellow shopper put the question to me: "So, Col. North, what's the 'October surprise' for this election?"
I almost said, "High-fructose corn syrup" -- the ingredient I had been instructed to avoid -- but settled instead for this: "Syria. Bashar Assad is likely to go down before we go to the polls, and that will change everything in the Middle East."
My response seemed to satisfy my interlocutor, but on reflection, it didn't suit me. That's because the first "October surprise" in a presidential campaign I recall affected me personally. It was 1968. Richard Nixon vs. Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Nixon had campaigned on a promise to end the war in Vietnam, and I was a newly minted U.S. Marine infantry second lieutenant with orders sending me to the widely unpopular fight shortly after the election.
On Oct. 31, just five days before Americans were to go to the polls, President Lyndon Johnson announced a halt to the "Rolling Thunder" air campaign against military targets in North Vietnam and a "breakthrough" in the "Paris peace talks" with the regime in Hanoi. Johnson's last-minute ploy to help his vice president's political fortunes had little effect on the election; Nixon won in a landslide.
Worse, Johnson's bombing halt had an adverse impact on U.S. and allied troops in Vietnam. By the time I took command of a rifle platoon along the so-called demilitarized zone later that month, North Vietnamese army troops were flooding across the border, and casualties escalated accordingly.
Since 1968, there have been numerous "October surprises." On Oct. 26, 1972, 12 days before the Nixon-McGovern presidential election, national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon's chief negotiator with the North Vietnamese, announced that peace was "at hand" during a White House news conference. Nixon almost swept the ballot, carrying 49 of 50 states, losing only in Massachusetts.
Conspiracy theorists claim that Ronald Reagan prevented Jimmy Carter from reaping the benefits of an October surprise in 1980 by somehow persuading Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to delay freeing the 56 American hostages being held in Iran until after the U.S. elections. For those who believe such nonsense, the hostage release -- just minutes after President Reagan's inauguration -- "confirms" their suspicions.
Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.