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How the Yellow Ribbon Became a National Folk Symbol
This article was originally printed in the Folklife Center News in the summer of 1991 (Volume XIII, #3, pp. 9-11). At that time the Persian Gulf War had inspired Americans to decorate their lapels and their front porches with yellow ribbons for the soldiers sent into combat, once again generating a storm of questions to librarians and folklorists about the origin of the custom. An article written ten years earlier, just after the Iran hostage crisis, Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Traditions, is also available on this site.
During the last decade, no single form of expression documented in the Archive of Folk Culture has stimulated more letters, more phone calls, more in-person inquiries than the yellow ribbon. The questions began in 1981 when the Library of Congress received a blizzard of inquiries, particularly from the news media, about the history of yellow ribbons then being displayed everywhere in America in support of Americans being held hostage in Iran. The basic question that reporters had in mind was how the symbol came into being. Many callers had ideas of their own on the subject some had interviewed the authors of relevant popular songs others had spoken to wives of hostages in Iran in 1980-81. Still others had talked to historians of the Civil War.
Eventually a body of information accumulated, and I wrote an article for Folklife Center News entitled "Yellow Ribbons: Ties with Tradition" (volume IV, no. 2, April 1981). The article outlined the symbolic use of the ribbons in story, song, and real life and the Folklife Center staff made good use of the article this year , ten years after its publication, when a second blizzard of questions came in about the ribbons displayed for soldiers serving in the Persian Gulf.
Is the custom of displaying yellow ribbons for an absent loved-one a genuine American tradition? That question was, and remains, "number one" on the American Folklife Center's hit parade of yellow ribbon reference inquiries. Often this same question has been asked in a more focused form: People will say, "Is this a Civil War tradition?" --as if an association with that central experience in American history would certify its authenticity.
In the last year or so, we of the reference staff at the Center have become aware of a certain shift: a movement from asking about a Civil War connection to asserting one. Some assertions on this subject have verged on the pugnacious nearly all have made reference to the song "Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon." That song was recorded for the Archive of Folk Culture in 1938 by Sidney Robertson Cowell in California, but it is much older. For example, there is a Philadelphia printing from 1838 that copies still older British versions. Indeed in the last act of Othello, Desdamona sings one of the song's lyric ancestors.
One version or another of "Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" has been popular now for four hundred years so it would not surprise me to learn that someone sang it sometime during the Civil War. All I can say for sure, however, is that it was sung in a movie that was set in the western United States at a time just after the Civil War--a 1949 release starring John Wayne and Joanne Dru. In fact, Round Her Neck She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (the movie) took its title from the song. This film remains the only demonstrable connection between yellow ribbons and the Civil War that has come to my attention, and that a rather weak one.
If the custom of wearing or decorating with or displaying yellow ribbons doesn't trace to the Civil War, where does it come from? It begins, as far as I can tell, not as a custom at all, and not as a song. It begins as a folk tale--a legend, actually. Here it is in the earliest version I've found:
It is the story of two men in a railroad train. One was so reserved that his companion had difficulty in persuading him to talk about himself. He was, he said at length, a convict returning from five years' imprisonment in a distant prison, but his people were too poor to visit him and were too uneducated to be very articulate on paper. Hence he had written to them to make a sign for him when he was released and came home. If they wanted him, they should put a white ribbon in the big apple tree which stood close to the railroad track at the bottom of the garden, and he would get off the train, but if they did not want him, they were to do nothing and he would stay on the train and seek a new life elsewhere. He said that they were nearing his home town and that he couldn't bear to look. His new friend said that he would look and took his place by the window to watch for the apple tree which the other had described to him.
In a minute he put a hand on his companion's arm. "There it is," he cried. "It's all right! The whole tree is white with ribbons."
That passage comes from, of all places, a 1959 book on prison reform. The title is Star Wormwood, and it was written by the eminent Pennsylvania jurist Curtis Bok. Bok says it was told to him by Kenyon J. Scudder, first superintendent of Chino penitentiary. I take this information as evidence that the story was in oral tradition as early as the mid-1950s. I note also the implication of a certain occupational interest in the tale.
During the 1960s, the returning prisoner story appeared in religious publications and circulated in oral tradition among young people active in church groups. In this environment, both the versions that appeared in print and those collected from oral tradition highlighted similarities to the New Testament "Parable of the Prodigal Son."
In October of 1971, Pete Hamill wrote a piece for the New York Post called "Going Home." In it, college students on a bus trip to the beaches of Fort Lauderdale make friends with an ex-convict who is watching for a yellow handkerchief on a roadside oak. Hamill claimed to have heard this story in oral tradition.
In June of 1972, nine months later, The Readers Digest reprinted "Going Home." Also in June 1972, ABC-TV aired a dramatized version of it in which James Earl Jones played the role of the returning ex-con. One month-and-a-half after that, Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown registered for copyright a song they called "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree." The authors said they heard the story while serving in the military. Pete Hamill was not convinced and filed suit for infringement.
One factor that may have influenced Hamill's decision to do so was that, in May 1973, "Tie A Yellow Ribbon" sold 3 million records in three weeks. When the dust settled, BMI calculated that radio stations had played it 3 million times--that's seventeen continuous years of airplay. Hamill dropped his suit after folklorists working for Levine and Brown turned up archival versions of the story that had been collected before "Going Home" had been written.
In January 1975, Gail Magruder, wife of Jeb Stuart Magruder of Watergate fame, festooned her front porch with yellow ribbons to welcome her husband home from jail. The event was televised on the evening news (one of the viewers was Penne Laingen). And thus a modern folk legend concerning a newly released prisoner was transformed into a popular song, and the popular song, in turn, transformed into a ritual enactment. Notice that Jeb Stuart Magruder's return to his home exactly parallels the situation in both the folk narrative and the popular song. The new development, at this point, was that Gail Magruder put the story into action.
The next big step was to make the ribbon into an emblem--not for the return of a forgiven prodigal--but for the return of an imprisoned hero. And that step was Penne Laingen's: On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held Ambassador Bruce Laingen and the rest of the embassy staff hostage.
Six weeks later, on December 10, the Washington Post printed two short articles by Barbara Parker: "Coping With `IRage'" and "Penne Laingen's Wait." The first article began "Americans are seething" and went on to quote psychologists concerning the widespread and intense emotional distress caused by the hostage crisis. The article presented a helpful list of things to do to "vent irage": "ring church bells at noontime . . . organize a neighborhood coffee to discuss the crisis and establish one ground rule only: no physical violence . . . play tennis and `whack the hell' out of the ball . . . offer family prayers or moments of silence . . . turn on car headlights during the day . . . send gifts to the needy `in the name of the hostages,'" and, of course, the old stand-by, "conduct candlelight vigils."
Then in the Post article come the words "Laingen, who has 'tied a yellow ribbon round the old oak tree'. . . suggests that as something else others might do." The article concludes with Penne Laingen saying, "So I'm standing and waiting and praying . . . and one of these days Bruce is going to untie that yellow ribbon. It's going to be out there until he does." According to my current understanding, this is the first announcement that the yellow ribbon symbol had become a banner through which families could express their determination to be reunited.
The next major step was to move the ribbon out of the Laingen's front yard and into most of the front yards in the United States. That move came about in a particularly American way. With a wonderful exhibition of the spirit that Alexis de Tocqueville thought was a cardinal virtue of our society, the hostage families met and formed an association: the Family Liaison Action Group (FLAG). FLAG quickly found allies among existing humanitarian organizations, most notably an organization called No Greater Love.
The goal of FLAG and its allies was to find a way to bring moral force to bear on behalf of the hostages. They seem to have formed their strategy around Emerson's maxim that "A good symbol is the best argument, and is a missionary to persuade thousands." The symbol they choose for their argument was, of course, the yellow ribbon. Aided by support from four AFL-CIO unions, No Greater Love made and distributed ten thousand "yellow ribbon pins." These went to union members, members of hostage families, college students, and in a stroke of marketing genius, to TV weather forecasters. Meanwhile FLAG sent the pins to Junior Chambers of Commerce, scouting organizations, and governors' wives.
Ultimately, the thing that makes the yellow ribbon a genuinely traditional symbol is neither its age nor its putative association with the American Civil War, but rather its capacity to take on new meanings, to fit new needs and, in a word, to evolve.
And it is evolving still. During the Persian Gulf Crisis, for example, there emerged a new impulse to combine yellow ribbons with hand-painted signs, American flags, conventional Christmas ornaments, seasonal banners, and other such elements to create elaborate, decorative displays--displays that one scholar has termed "folk assemblages."
Because the yellow ribbon is very much a living tradition, there is no way to tell who among us may help to steer its course, or in what direction. Last winter, I was in a distant city and needed to buy a spray of flowers. I found a flower shop and explained to the proprietress that I needed an arrangement that would be appropriate for a cemetery ornament. "And would you like some yellow ribbon to tie around it," she asked matter-of-factly.
Well, it's a long way from a folktale about an ex-convict's homecoming to an incipient funeral custom. I had to stop and think about that for a minute. But never one to thwart the evolution of a new American custom, I said, "Yes, ma'am. I will take some yellow ribbon. Thank you."
For further reading:
Pershing, Linda and Margaret R. Yocom. 1996. "The Yellow Ribboning of the USA: Contested Meanings in the Construction of a Political Symbol." Western Folklore 55(1):41-85.
Jack Santino, "Yellow Ribbons and Seasonal Flags: The Folk Assemblege of War," Journal of American Folklore, 105, #1 (1992), pp. 19-33.
Tad Tuleja, "Closing the Circle: Yellow Ribbons and the Redemption of the Past," Usable Pasts: Traditions and Group Expressions in North America edited by Tad Tuleja, Logan, Utah, Utah State University Press, 1997, pp. 311-328.
Iran Hostage Crisis
Iranian Hostage Crisis, a diplomatic conflict caused by the holding in captivity of United States embassy personnel by Iranian militants from November 4, 1979, to January 20, 1981. The crisis was precipitated when Mohammed Riza Pahlavi, the deposed shah, was allowed into the United States for medical treatment. Iranian militants, supported by the revolutionary government under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, seized the embassy in Tehran, took the personnel hostage, and announced that the hostages would not be released until the shah was returned to Iran to stand trial. President Jimmy Carter refused the demand and retaliated with economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure. All efforts to negotiate the release of the hostages were rebuffed.
On April 24, 1980, the United States attempted a commando raid to rescue the hostages, but the mission failed when three helicopters broke down. During the mission eight United States servicemen died in a helicopter crash. On July 27, the shah died, but Iran refused to release the hostages.
Late in 1980, negotiations between the United States and Iran made progress with Algeria acting as intermediary. Finally, on the inauguration day of Ronald Reagan as President, the 52 hostages were released after 444 days of captivity.
58. A Time of Malaise
The passing of an icon: Elvis Presley died in 1977.
Something was terribly wrong in America in the 1970s.
The United States was supposed to be a superpower, yet American forces proved powerless to stop a tiny guerrilla force in Vietnam. Support for Israel in the Middle East led to a rash of terrorism against American citizens traveling abroad, as well a punitive oil embargo that stifled the economy and forced American motorists to wait hours for their next tank of gasoline.
A hostile new government in Iran held fifty-two American citizens hostage before the eyes of the incredulous world. The détente with the Soviet Union of the Nixon years dissolved into bitter animosity when a second arms control agreement failed in the Senate and a Soviet army of invasion marched into Afghanistan. The United States military juggernaut seemed to have reached its limits.
In March 1979, when word of a small radiation leak in the nuclear facility at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, the Governor ordered the evacuation of all pregnant women and pre-school children within a 5-mile radius of the site. A hydrogen bubble growing inside the reactor caused many people to speculate a nuclear meltdown was at hand.
At home, the news was no better. The worst political scandal in United States history forced a president to resign before facing certain impeachment. Months of investigation turned into years of untangling a web of government deceit. Details of illegal, unethical, and immoral acts by members of the White House staff covered the nation's newspapers. Upon resignation, the president was granted a full and complete pardon. Many Americans wondered what happened to justice and accountability.
The booming economy sputtered to a halt. Inflation approached 20% and unemployment neared 10% &mdash a combination previously thought to be impossible. Crime rates rose as tales of the decaying inner cities fell on deaf ears. A nuclear disaster of unspeakable proportions was barely averted at the Three Mile Island fission plant in Pennsylvania.
During the hostage crisis in Iran in late 1979, U.S. television broadcast videos of angry mobs in Iran burning the American flag and shouting, "Death to America." This galvanized some Americans into protesting for the release of the hostages and burning Iranian flags in turn.
Many Americans coped with the current ailments by turning inward. Outlandish fashion and outrageous fads such as streaking, mood rings, and pet rocks became common. Younger Americans finished their workweeks and sought escape in discotheques. Controversy surrounding "decaying morality" surfaced with regard to increased drug use, sexual promiscuity, and a rising divorce rate. As a result, a powerful religious movement turned political in the hopes of changing directions toward a more innocent time.
The United States celebrated its bicentennial anniversary in 1976 without the expected accompanying optimism. Instead, while many reflected on the past laurels of American success, an overarching question was on the minds of the American people: what had gone wrong?
A yellow ribbon: A symbol of national support
Bruce Laingen, a State Department foreign service officer, was the Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. Given his role as the person in charge of the embassy at the time, he came to be seen as the informal leader of the hostages, even after their release. His wife, Penne Laingen, also took on a leadership role and was heavily involved in supporting and organizing the families of the hostages.
In an interview with Penne Laingen during the crisis, a reporter was shocked by her calm demeanor, expecting her to be outwardly angry toward Iran and Iranians. However, Penne thought that demonstrations of violence and anger would not help the hostages’ predicament. As she recalled in an oral history, when asked what Americans should do to instead, Penne told the reporter:
“Tell them to do something constructive, because we need a great deal of patience. Just tell them to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree.”
The yellow ribbon refers to a popular song, “ Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree ,” written in 1972 and released in 1973 by the group Tony Orlando and Dawn. It became a hit. Many artists subsequently covered the song, from Frank Sinatra to Dolly Parton . While the song itself has nothing to do with being taken hostage, it was a familiar tune that reminded the public of the hope and anticipation of welcoming a loved one home.
After Penne Laingen’s suggestion in the interview, the yellow ribbon started to spread. It began with the other hostages’ families, and by the end of the crisis had become a cultural phenomenon. Penne Laingen was even asked to tie a yellow ribbon around the National Christmas Tree outside of the White House.
In 1981, barraged with questions from the public about the origins of the yellow ribbon, the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center researched the full history and cultural context of the yellow ribbon.
What was the Iran hostage crisis really like?
I’ve researched the hostage situation a lot, and I see different information about nearly everything. I don’t regard the US at that time as some benevolent, heroic country. I know what they did. What I want to know is what was Iran society like at this time? I read that the Iranian chaperones of the two female hostages were shocked they couldn’t convince the women that they (the women) were degraded by American society. What does this mean? What was women’s position like in Iran at this time and currently?
I watched Argo with my mom, who commented that the time during the hostage crisis was so scary. Taking hostages is a bad thing, but I’ve heard they were treated well, released if needed, and so on. I’ve also heard they were beaten and tied up. At the time, it must’ve been terrifying. But, after reading up on it, I don’t fully know what her comment means. Solely based on what I’ve read, I don’t see Iran as this big, bad country. Again, I’ve read different stuff, and I tend to lean towards the side of believing America to be not what it claims to be because it isn’t—most of the time.
Iran did want democracy. That was their mission, unless I’m mistake. Was the hostage crisis the only thing that was so, so horrifying to the American public or was there more to it?
I know, as with any historical event, nobody is a fully good guy or bad guy. There are layers to the story. But what should a person know about the hostage crisis as a takeaway?
Oh it was a very BIG deal. Seizing diplomats and holding them hostage breached international treaties and practices going back centuries. Embassies and diplomats are and must be sacrosanct. It is almost irrelevant whether you agree with the USA or Khomeini's Iran.
Mark Colvin was one of Australia's best journalists of the 80s and 90s, and was the correspondent in Iran at the time. He describes events in this podcast:
"released if needed"? Didn't they all NEED to be released? They were all hostages I guess, right?
Of course. I’m speaking of the one hostage with MS they released because he needed surgery
As another person wrote, a really key part of the ɻig deal' nature of it might seem to be a technicality but it's HUGELY important, and that's the sacrosanct nature of embassies and consulates. These are, according to international law, actually parts of the territory of the country who owns them. So the breaching of the embassy was a foreign invasion.
In the American cultural moment of the late 70s and early 80s, this was felt to be the most shameful evidence of America's loss of power and authority in the world, after the Vietnam War, the oil embargo, the recession, etc. etc. And the fact that Carter refused to authorize a military operation to free them, despite the evidence all pointing to a bloodbath if they tried, was exploited by the GOP and Reagan in his election bid. So the ɻig deal' was as much about American cultural anxiety in that moment.
From the Iranian perspective, Carter's administration had agreed to provide safe haven to the cruel and corrupt Shah, thwarting the new government of Iran's sovereignty in its attempt to bring the Shah to justice for his crimes against Iranians. And the fact that he was installed and propped up by the US was reinforced by the US agreement to take him in and not extradite him back to Iran. The Ayatollah and the Iranian government did not want the students to storm the Embassy and take hostages, but once it happened they had to support their actions in the face of external condemnation.
List of foreign nationals detained in Iran
Since the Iran hostage crisis, the Islamic Republic of Iran has engaged in a pattern of detaining foreign nationals for extended periods.  Dual nationals are particularly vulnerable to arbitrary detention because Iran does not recognize dual nationality, and if one of the nationalities is Iranian, does not recognise other claims of nationality or allow foreign diplomats to intervene on that person's behalf, in accord with the Master Nationality Rule.  According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, the Iranian government has used imprisoned foreign nationals "as bargaining chips in its dealings with other nations." 
In November 2017, Reuters reported that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had arrested "at least 30 dual nationals during the past two years, mostly on spying charges."  According to Human Rights Watch, "Iranian authorities have violated detainees' due process rights and carried out a pattern of politically motivated arrests." 
In September 2019, on the sidelines of the Seventy-fourth session of the United Nations General Assembly, families of dual and foreign nationals imprisoned in Iran as well former dual and foreign nationals imprisoned in Iran launched the "Alliance of Families Against State Hostage Taking."   
This list of current and former detainees in Iran excludes people abducted in other countries and brought into the country.
444 Days in the Dark: An Oral History of the Iran Hostage Crisis
They were geeks with guns—hundreds of Muslim medical and engineering students who stormed the U.S. embassy in the heart of Tehran on November 4, 1979. In brazen violation of international law, they triumphantly seized as hostages sixty-six Americans. The Americans were CIA, they claimed, and the embassy a "nest of spies."
Nine time zones away, President Jimmy Carter assumed that the Iranian government would swiftly quash the occupation, as it had done with a similar incident the previous February. But those expectations were demolished when, days later, the provisional government fell. It would be months before the president knew who was actually in charge in Iran, and 444 days before the hostages returned home.
During those fourteen and a half months, America discovered to its surprise that millions of Iranians loathed our government. As the students told the world, a CIA-led coup in 1953 had overthrown Mohammed Mossadeq, the prime minister of Iran, and replaced him with the Shah, a puppet dictator in thrall to the West. In the weeks before the takeover, President Carter had allowed the dying Shah, who had fled Iran, into the U.S. This, the students believed, was proof that America was planning yet another coup.
Rallying behind the charismatic cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and caught up in his romantic vision of an Iran cleansed of Western influence, the students demanded that the U.S. return the Shah so that he could stand trial. Only later did they realize Khomeini was using them to consolidate his own power.
Thirty years later, it's clear that the takeover of the embassy in Tehran changed the world in ways we're still coming to understand. The power struggle that Khomeini won put Iran's immense oil revenues into the hands of radical mullahs who used them to help fund modern Islamic jihad. And when Khomeini died in 1989, he left behind a political culture so repressive that today many of the hostage-takers themselves are leading the effort to reform it.
GQ spoke with more than fifty men and women—hostages, hostage-takers, commandos from the ill-fated U.S. rescue mission, and Iranian and American politicians and policymakers—to re-create this fateful historical moment and explore its ongoing impact.
Mohsen Mirdamadi Hostage-taker now a reformist and defendant in ongoing show trials
When the revolution happened in Iran, young people were concerned about the intentions of the United States regarding the new regime. We believed the United States was against the revolution and that it was preparing another coup. When the Shah went to America, it was a confirmation of this belief.
Saeed Hajjarian Hostage-taker now jailed for dissent
The U.S. made a mistake taking in the Shah. People in Iran were very sensitive to this issue. If they had not admitted him, nothing would have happened.
Mirdamadi: There is a difference between a revolutionary atmosphere and a normal atmosphere. In a revolutionary atmosphere, you aren't afraid of anything.
Ebrahim Asgharzadeh Chief architect of the takeover now a reformist, jailed for dissent
"Imperialism" was the biggest word for me: It signaled what the U.S. was all about. We didn't see complexities we saw the U.S. as one bloc. But we were engineers, students we weren't fundamentalists. In fact, we saw fundamentalism as a danger.
Mirdamadi: We believed we had a right to do this—that if we didn't attack the embassy, they could attack us. We thought we needed two or three days to see all the documents. If there was a plan [for a coup], we would find something.
Asgharzadeh: It was supposed to be a small, short-term affair. We were just a bunch of students who wanted to show our dismay at the United States. After that, it got out of control.
Elaheh Mojarradi Hostage guard wife of Mohsen Mirdamadi
Were we exploited? Definitely. Certain groups used the crisis for their own ends.
Asgharzadeh: It turned into a power battle. The temporary government was crushed, and the more revolutionary and radical forces gained self-confidence and self-assurance.
Mirdamadi: The reason it lasted so long was that when we captured the embassy, we got the support of Ayatollah Khomeini. He was a charismatic leader, and his influence over the people was exceptional in history. I don't know any other example like it.
Asgharzadeh: It came to a point where no one could say any longer when the hostages could be freed, even after the Shah was gone. It became an international affair, with repercussions we hadn't foreseen. We were taken out of the decision-making process. We were basically just hostages of the hostages.
William Gallegos Marine guard, U.S. embassy
Early that morning, I'm doing my security checks on the second floor. I look out the window, and I see thousands and thousands of people outside of the gates. They weren't screaming, they were just moving around and talking, but you could hear a strange buzz in the air, even inside the embassy.
Michael Metrinko Political officer, U.S. embassy
Normally, my schedule was I would go out every night until one or two in the morning. (There were some great parties—revolutions are always good for parties.) So I would never ordinarily have been in the office that early in the morning. But I was at the embassy, waiting for Iranian friends to show up for a meeting. It was fairly early when I started to hear noise outside my office window.
Rocky Sickmann Marine guard, U.S. embassy
All of a sudden, my walkie-talkie said, "Recall! Recall!" which means report back to the embassy immediately. I was right in front of the gate, and I will never forget as long as I live that the two Iranian guards, who were supposed to be protecting us, walked into their hut like nothing was happening.
Gallegos: I said, "Shut the door, they're breaching the walls!" The embassy had magnetic steel doors, bombproof. Once you close them, they're not gonna open for anything. Here comes Rocky, and the door's almost closed, and he sticks his arm out and I just pull him in.
Sickmann: We had the embassy secured, locked down. Now it was the responsibility of the host government to come and protect us.
Charles Jones Communications officer, U.S. embassy
We all retreated to the vault where classified material was stored. There's a protocol to destroy the top-secret stuff first, and then you work down. We had shredders and an incinerator to actually burn the stuff.
Bruce Laingen Chargé dires and acting ambassador, U.S. embassy
That morning I had an appointment at the Iranian Foreign Ministry, on the other side of town. My deputy and a security officer, Mike Howland, were with me. We tried to return to the embassy, but it was so overrun that we had to go back to the Foreign Ministry.
Paul Lewis Marine guard, U.S. embassy
Over the radio, we could hear Billy Gallegos in the basement. By then they had cut the lock off the fire escape. The embassy basement was full of Iranians.
Gallegos: I remember the females had assault rifles under their chadors. You could see the guns swinging underneath. I racked a round and they stopped and moved back.
Metrinko: I called the friend of mine who was supposed to meet with me that morning. He was a powerful figure—head of a large group of revolutionaries. His bodyguard answered. I told him I wanted to speak with my friend, and his response was, "He won't talk to you, Michael." That's exactly the way he said it. "He won't talk to you." I asked him, "Do you know what's happened?" And he said, "Yes, we know." Then he said, "I personally am very sorry." And he hung up. I realized then that Iɽ been set up by my friends to make sure that I was in the embassy when it got hit.
Gallegos: Then they started coming forward again. I'm getting ready to shoot, I have my rifle at my shoulder, and suddenly I hear, "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" It was Al Golacinski.
Al Golacinski Chief security officer, U.S. embassy
Our rules of engagement said that we were not allowed to use deadly force. I was able to pull the leader out of the crowd he spoke English. He said, "We want to speak to the ambassador." I said, "Let me see what I can do." That's the way you did things there. You had to dialogue with them, find out what they wanted, let them save face.
Mike Howland Security officer, U.S. embassy
Because the ambassador and I couldn't get back to the compound, we had people in charge of the embassy who really were not trained to be making decisions like this. Al called me on the radio and said he wanted to go out and try to talk to these guys. I was absolutely opposed to it. So far, all of our people were still safe. I told Al that Iɽ pass his request on to the ambassador, but before I could he decided to go out. I was really upset when I found out.
Golacinski: Going out there violates just about any tactical effort that anybody would ever do. But I don't think it changed anything. I went out there, and I turned over my weapon. I was getting it settled down. Then things started coming apart. They took me out in front of the embassy, tied me up, and they started yelling for the people inside to come out. They produced a weapon, cocked it, and put it to my head.
Howland: Over the radio, I could hear Al screaming for his life and saying, "They're gonna kill me if you don't open the door!" I was telling them, "For God's sake, don't open the door!"
Laingen: I remain convinced to this day that it was not their intention at any time to shoot.
Golacinski: All of a sudden, I feel an intense heat at my face. What they had done was light newspapers on fire to dissipate tear gas, but at the time I thought they were torching me. I remember yelling, "Shoot me, don't burn me!"
John Limbert Political officer, U.S. embassy
I finally went out there nobody had a better idea at this point. I speak Farsi, I had taught in Iran. I put on the rather arrogant air of a professor: "What is this you're doing? You're disgracing yourself." They put a gun to my head, too.
Gallegos: The next thing I know, our people were saying, "The ambassador has ordered the Marines to stand down."
Laingen: From what I knew at the time, speaking by radio and telephone from across town, it looked hopeless for us to begin some Custer's Last Stand operation. I thought that would be very dangerous.
Limbert: They opened the door. The embassy fell.
Gallegos: They tied us up, blindfolded us, dragged us outside. I remember shaking, and I was like, Why am I shaking? And then I realized it wasn't me it was the two guys holding me.
Limbert: It was a cool, rainy day. I felt good about two things: One was to get out into the fresh air, because there was smoke and tear gas inside the embassy. The other was still being alive.
Gallegos: The crowd around me were hissing, "CIA." It sounded like they were going, "Ssss."
Kathryn Koob Director of the Iran-American Society, U.S. embassy
They took my jewelry. It didn't have much value, but I saw them twisting it—they were sure it was some kind of secret spy paraphernalia. They thought we were all James Bond.
Golacinski: They would start out with, "You are a spy we are going to try you and ecute you." Then they would try to get you to confess.
Joseph Hall Military attaché, U.S. embassy
They accused the United States of causing some crop failures in Iran. I told them, tongue in cheek, that yes indeed, I was the agent for wheat mold. They worked on that one for about a day and a half.
Sickmann: Eleven of my comrades were interrogated by Ahmadinejad. He's denied it, but he wasn't at home rearranging his sock drawer that morning. He was a radical Islamic leader he was in the midst of the whole thing.
Limbert: The students claimed that their plan, if they had one, was to hold the embassy for maybe a day at most, make a statement, and then march out.
Laingen: The standing opinion is that Khomeini at the outset would have been prepared to release us. But overnight his son was hoisted over the walls of my embassy, and he communicated back to his father that this is a very interesting, dangerous situation, that the students represented a political force that the Ayatollah could not ignore.
Metrinko: By grabbing all of the embassy files, they were [later] able to start a real purge of the government and go after a lot of people that they expected were antirevolution.
Barry Rosen Press attaché, U.S. embassy
Eventually, they put us into rooms with twenty-four-hour guards. We weren't permitted to speak to each other. We were tied up, hand and foot. You felt like a piece of meat.
Golacinski: The worst part was the humiliation. You don't go to the bathroom unless you're given permission to go to the bathroom. You don't eat unless someone decides to feed you.
Hall: I kept thinking, The cavalry's coming to the rescue this is all going to end I'll be home for Thanksgiving.
Rosen: Theyɽ beat the freakin' hell out of you, and then theyɽ ask, "When this is all over, can I get a visa?" In Iranian culture, they can compartmentalize anything.
Golacinski: Christmas was coming. You're thinking, Our government is not gonna just leave us here for Christmas.
Reverend M. William Howard Former president, National Council of Churches USA
On the Saturday before Christmas, I received a telegram saying that the Revolutionary Council was requesting my presence in Iran to conduct Christmas services. We would be the first Americans to be able to report on the hostages' well-being. We arrived there on Christmas Eve, we were blindfolded, and at midnight we were in the compound.
Golacinski: You had mid feelings, because the priest who was sitting there was going to be able to walk out, and you were going to stay. I whispered to him that it was not what it appeared to be, that we were being treated like animals. He just said, "I know."
Kevin Hermening Marine guard, U.S. embassy
You've probably seen the picture of us enjoying a Coca-Cola and some cookies: The Iranians were using us, absolutely. But all I thought was, This is a chance to have my family see me. I've heard other families say how terrible it was that they never saw their loved one while he or she was in captivity.
Thomas Gumbleton Former auxiliary bishop, Archdiocese of Detroit
In the States, the hostages were on the news every day, but they had no sense of that. They felt like theyɽ been abandoned.
Moorhead Kennedy Economics and commercial officer, U.S. embassy
We were not allowed to talk until well into January. We whispered, but there was no normal conversation. One day they came in and said sort of proudly, "You can talk now." Everybody got along less well after that.
Metrinko: I read everything I could get. The most important was [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. He was writing about the same experience and what he had done to cope—about how, for instance, prisoners, no matter how intelligent they are, can only think about what will be for lunch or dinner. You lose your mental sharpness. I thought I was surrendering in some way because I was thinking about food all the time, but I found out that was quite natural.
Limbert: It helped to have a routine. You had a certain amount of ercise, sleep, reading. If you could get through the next fifteen minutes, you could get through the next hour.
Metrinko: It just kept dragging on. It wasn't something they announced at nine in the morning, "Oh, we've decided to hold you for fourteen months." It just sort of drifted into it.
Robert Armao Aide to the Shah, 1979-80
In January 1979, I went over to see the Shah. The situation was untenable. He was weak from cancer, tired, confused, and he was preparing to leave.
David Aaron Deputy national-security adviser
The Shah had been extremely important to us. He was viewed as a regional leviathan, and Iran was the local hegemonic power we relied on to keep order and civility in the Gulf. Then he's challenged by Khomeini. As the revolution took on greater momentum, we couldn't seem to get the Shah to do anything. He wouldn't even say no.
Reza Pahlavi The Shah's son
The question was where we might end up, and it was not very clear as to which country would be willing to host my father.
Armao: The Shah was advised that it would be in everyone's best interest if he did not come to the States. He ended up in Mexico, where his health deteriorated. He was dying, and suitable medical care was not available there.
Aaron: Henry Kissinger, Nelson Rockefeller, and [national-security adviser] Zbigniew Brzezinski played the violin in meetings with the president: "The Shah stood up for us for thirty years. You can't just toss him on the ash heap of history. He's a dying man. He's got to come in."
Hendrik Hertzberg President Carter's chief speechwriter
It was, "This guy was a shit, but he was our shit for all these years."
Henry Precht Director of Iranian affairs, State Department
Carter was in an impossible situation: Do we go for a new relationship with Iran, or do we recognize the human obligation we have to the Shah? I said, "If we want to deal with Iran, we have to keep the Shah out of the country." I wrote a memo saying, "If the Shah is admitted, the following things might happen. " The first was that the embassy personnel might be taken hostage. It had been clear for months that we did not have adequate protection at the embassy.
Jody Powell White House press secretary
The president was quite reluctant to admit the Shah. It was a delicate time. Their government was not yet overwhelmingly hostile to the United States, and there was hope that a reasonable relationship could evolve.
Zbigniew Brzezinski National-security adviser
I personally told the Iranian government that we wouldn't encourage the Shah to undertake any political activities and that therefore they could rest assured that granting him asylum in the United States would not be exploited in any political sense whatsoever. Either they were convinced that this was not true, or they thought it was a good issue around which to stir up public emotions.
Gary Sick Adviser, National Security Council
The president was the last one to give in. He said, "I just wonder what advice you're going to give me when they take our people hostage."
Mansour Farhang Iran's first postrevolutionary ambassador to the U.N.
When I first heard that the United States was going to let the Shah in, it absolutely blew my mind.
Armao: We came to New York on October 22, and the Shah went into the hospital. So many old friends came to see him. Kissinger, Rockefeller. I took Frank Sinatra up one day.
Farhang: On November 1, 1979, there was an event in Algiers to celebrate the anniversary of Algerian independence. Brzezinski was there, as was [Iranian] prime minister Mehdi Bazargan, who wanted to normalize relations with the United States, and Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi. They exchanged niceties, but they didn't discuss specific issues. This meeting led to all kinds of innuendo and false charges.
Sick: Shortly after they were out of a job.
Marvin Zonis Author, 'Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah'
The meeting was proof for Khomeini that these guys were traitors to the Islamic revolution.
**Sick: **On November 4, I was awakened in the middle of the night. Someone called and told me the embassy had been broken into and that people were assembling at the State Department. I drove in and joined the group. They were in a room with speakerphones linked to telephones at the embassy the people there were reporting on a minute-by-minute basis. As the process went on, one after another went silent as the students found them, broke in, and took them hostage.
Powell: The president called me early in the morning and woke me up. He was seriously concerned but somewhat hopeful, because the previous situation, in February, had turned out all right in the end. And the Iranian government was quick to give us assurances. But there was no way to know exactly who the people were that had gone into the embassy.
Bill Beeman _Author, 'The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs" ' _
It was a small and unauthorized group that took over the embassy they intended to be there for only a few days. They called themselves Students Following the Line of the Imam, which put Ayatollah Khomeini in a curious position: Was he going to denounce them?
Farhang: Khomeini hadn't expected the seizure—nobody had. It turned out to be a gold mine for him.
Aaron: Somebody would step forward and say, "I have the power," and theyɽ start negotiations. Then the Khomeinists would immediately say, "You're pro-American, you're selling out the revolution," and that person would lose their job and sometimes their life. Khomeini began to see how he could use this to clean out the café liberals who were running the government.
Assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs
What was our awareness of the Ayatollah and the clergy? None. And not a single person, not a single CIA document, had raised the possibility of a revolution.
**Hodding Carter ** State Department spokesman
Our information out of Iran was crappy to nonexistent. We had nobody who spoke Farsi, and what passed for our intelligence was what was given to us by SAVAK [the Shah's secret police], since the Shah, paranoid as he was, had gotten an agreement from us that we would not infiltrate Iran with our own intelligence people. The Shah himself had been our chief source of information about internal dissent!
Farhang: Iranians were so taken with Khomeini. We had a highly romantic view he was the personification of moral opposition to the Shah. I thought of him as the Mahatma Gandhi of Iran. I didn't know he was going to be the Reverend Jones.
Precht: Carter sent Ramsey Clark to Tehran to give a letter to Khomeini, which would be the instrument that would get the hostages freed.
Ramsey Clark Special emissary attorney general under President Johnson
I said that there has got to be absolute secrecy, otherwise it won't work. We get out of the car at Andrews Air Force Base and there are fifty people with cameras.
**Precht: **We hadn't yet been given authority from the Iranians to come, and within a few hours the story of the mission was on the nightly news. When we got to Istanbul on November 7, Khomeini decreed that no Iranian officials were to talk to American officials. It would have been better not to have sent the mission at all. It looked as though we were set up to bully them, and that set Khomeini off.
Clark: This must be one of the saddest affairs of my life. I think it changed history. I think Carter would have been reelected. I knew Khomeini, Bazargan, and Yazdi well, and I knew I could talk heart-to-heart with them.
Hodding Carter: The fundamental error was keeping this story on the front burner day in and day out. We talked about it every goddamn day.
Sick: Every night it was the top story—whole news programs, like Nightline, were invented just to cover it.
**Ted Koppel ** Anchor, 'Nightline'
Years later I ran into Jimmy Carter, and he said, "There were only two people who really benefited from all of that—you and Ayatollah Khomeini." Certainly, it boosted my career way beyond anything Iɽ ever dreamed of. I'm forever sorry that it came at the pain of so many people, but that's what we news people do, cover stories like that. There was a gigantic appetite for it it was not unusual for us to have 10 million people watching the program.
David Farber _Author, 'Taken Hostage' _
The hostage-taking occurred at a time when many Americans felt that their nation was under siege in so many ways, in particular economically. Here were fellow Americans who were completely adrift. The hostages became a kind of symbol.
Koppel: President Carter famously said the hostages were the first thing he thought about in the morning and the last thing he thought about at night. It was a downright foolish thing to say, because it made the people holding the hostages realize that they had an awful lot of influence over the United States.
Hertzberg: I thought Carter was essentially making himself a hostage. Every single night it was, "America is being humiliated because Carter is a wimp." The Rose Garden strategy was a mistake. [Because of the crisis, Carter initially decided to remain in the White House instead of campaigning this became known as the Rose Garden strategy.] It was crazy to sit in the White House while there was a presidential campaign going on.
Abolhassan Banisadr_ First postrevolutionary president of Iran _
Early on I put together a proposal with three conditions for freeing the hostages. That proposal was approved by Mr. Khomeini himself and by the U.S. I would go to the U.N. and make Iran's case, the General Council would approve, and the hostages would be freed. When I was about to leave for New York, Mr. Khomeini issued an order over the radio that nobody will go to the U.N. on behalf of Iran. I went to Khomeini, and in a heated manner I asked him why he had changed his mind. He had a very ridiculous reason: He said, "What if the U.N. passes a resolution against Iran because of the problems with the islands in the Persian Gulf?" [At the time, Iran was claiming ownership of three islands.] I told him, "Sir, you are dealing with a lot of ifs. If this, if that. They have already agreed to the conditions of the meeting." I realized later that he didn't really want to resolve the situation. He also didn't want me to solve the crisis, because my popularity in Iran would have risen, which would have been a direct threat to him.
David Gergen Adviser, Reagan campaign
In Washington there was tension right from the start between the camps of Cy Vance, the secretary of state, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national-security adviser. Zbig Brzezinski was more of a Cold Warrior. Heɽ come out of Eastern Europe he understood the dark side of the Soviet empire and wanted to be very tough with the Iranians. Cy came from the school that said, "We can negotiate with them, we can work this out."
Brzezinski: The basic difference was, I had absolutely no confidence that a post-Shah regime would be stable and pro-U.S., while Vance thought it highly probable that some sort of democratic coalition could emerge that would be friendly, even if not quite as friendly as the Shah's regime.
Gergen: The tension boiled over at times. Famously, Jimmy Carter had asked each team to draft an Annapolis-commencement address. He got two different drafts: One hard-line from Brzezinski, one soft-line from Vance. And he said, "Marry the drafts." He went and gave this speech that essentially was two different speeches. It made Carter appear ambivalent about the use of force that's what gave Reagan the advantage in the campaign. But it also sent this message to the hostage-takers that there was a waffling quality inside the White House.
Sick: By the end of March, it was clear that we had exhausted all avenues—diplomatic pressure, economic pressure, world negotiations. There was really no good option left.
Warren Christopher Deputy secretary of state
Brzezinski was very enthusiastic about a rescue mission. Vance doubted it would work he was firmly against it, and he felt it would sour our relationships in the Middle East.
Aaron: We had a review of the plan for the rescue mission. When it was over, the president looked at the members of the cabinet and said, "This is my decision. If something goes wrong, I'm taking responsibility." Of course, they were all very eager to place it on him.
**Gergen: **When they ordered the rescue mission, Vance gave the president a letter saying, "You have my resignation as soon as this operation is over, however it turns out."
Brzezinski: I was very much aware that we could fail. But we also knew that there were other rescue attempts that had succeeded, and they had all involved chances and risks. There was a consensus in the National Security Council in favor of the mission.
Farber: It's one of the great unknowns: What if that military mission had succeeded? Does Carter beat Reagan?
Mark Colvin ABC Radio correspondent, Tehran
We got a call one day to come down to a side gate of the embassy. We entered the compound, and in the middle of this big courtyard about forty chairs faced a pile of tarpaulins. We were told to sit. Eventually, a short, fat ayatollah, Ayatollah Khalkhali, arrived. He was known as "the cat strangler" because once, during a TV interview, a reporter asked, "What would you do if the Shah came back tomorrow?" And Khalkhali had a cat on his lap, which he picked up and strangled in front of the camera. That's the way he rolled. He proceeded to harangue us in Farsi for half an hour, screaming a lot of the time. About halfway through, the Revolutionary Guards started taking off the tarpaulins. Beneath were some wooden crates, and they started opening them, and Khalkhali started pulling out all these blackened pieces. We were all trying to work out what these things were. Then he picked up one of these objects and started scraping at it with a pocketknife, and gradually you made out a wristwatch and you suddenly realized he was holding the blackened arm of an American. These were the remains of the men who had come to rescue the hostages.
Bucky Burruss _Operations officer, Delta Force _
We used to watch Nightline religiously. One hostage was a Marine security guard, and there was footage of his kid sister crying on Christmas Eve. I thought, You sons of bitches, we're coming after you.
Eric Haney Sergeant, Delta Force
The plan was for the air force to fly us on C-130 aircraft into Desert One, a site about 250 miles from Tehran, where we would meet helicopters coming from the USS Nimitz in the Indian Ocean. The 130s carried big rubber bladders holding thousands of gallons of fuel. We would refuel the helicopters, then move forward that same night to Desert Two, a hide site about forty miles outside the city. The planes would then return to Masirah, off the coast of Oman.
Burruss: Two of our people on the ground had arranged for a warehouse and trucks, and we had some expat Iranians who were going to serve as drivers and interpreters. They would take us to this warehouse before daybreak.
Haney: That night we would scale the embassy walls—weɽ assault the buildings, kill the hostage-holders, and recover the hostages.
Burruss: We would then blow a hole in the embassy wall and take the hostages to a soccer stadium across the street. Choppers were then going to land in the stadium.
Haney: The hostages would be loaded and immediately carried out, and we would follow.
**Burruss: **We would land at the Masirah airfield, then weɽ all go back home and be heroes, and Carter would be reelected.
Logan Fitch Squadron commander, Delta Force
I felt confident we were going to succeed. I knew that we would lose some people and probably some hostages, but isn't it worth it to show people around the world that you can't do that to us?
**Burruss: **Weɽ laid out the whole embassy compound. Guys knew that they had to go eight steps this way and turn left and go four steps and then turn right and go up a set of stairs. That's how well rehearsed they were. One guy said it was like a ballet, which I thought was a wimpy way to put it, but it was.
John Carney Air force combat controller, Delta Force
The problem was the helicopter part, the Marine pilots. They hadn't been trained in this type of mission. We needed guys with experience landing in the dirt, like in Vietnam. When you try to land one of those big helicopters in the dirt, it just browns out. You can't see anything.
B. J. McGuire _Marine helicopter pilot _
Our feeling was that the training had been so long and so arduous that the mission itself would be easy.
Haney: We launched from Masirah on April 24. When we crossed into Iranian airspace, we were probably about 200 feet above the ground.
Jim Kyle Colonel, U.S. Air Force
You fly nape of the earth. That's to get through the radar net at the coast.
Fitch: My squadron was on the first aircraft [to land at Desert One]. I came off the plane, I had my arm up trying to shield my eyes from all the blowing dust, and then—what in hell is this?
**Haney: **There's a tanker truck, a passenger bus, and a pickup truck.
**Fitch: **Weɽ landed at midnight in the middle of nowhere. Murphy's Law dictated that a bus and two trucks should be there.
Haney: We run out to stop the vehicles. The tanker truck doesn't stop, so one of the Rangers takes out his anti-tank rocket. He tried to shoot the engine, but the rocket hit the dirt right under the bumper, bounced up into the belly of that 10,000-gallon tanker of gasoline, and—BOOM! It was biblical. It was like the pillars of fire that the children of Israel followed across Sinai. The guy in the tanker dove out of the cab, ran to the pickup, and got away.
Carney: We moved the bus out of the way and told the passengers that theyɽ be all right just as long as they stayed there.
Haney: Eventually, the other planes start coming in. We're all waiting for the helicopters. The clock is ticking. We have to get this done during darkness. Another hour goes by. Finally, we see one of the helicopters. He staggers in—the crew is rattled, overwhelmed. Then the other helicopters start staggering in.
Fitch: Weɽ conducted seven rehearsals in environments similar to this—Arizona, Nevada. What the pilots had never encountered, however, was a haboob.
McGuire: These storms kick sand into the air, and afterward, because there's no wind whatsoever, very fine particulates remain suspended. The pilots couldn't see squat. It's like trying to look through a glass of Tang.
Kyle: The first helicopter aborted due to a blade problem about an hour into the mission. Another pilot was separated from the group in the dust storm. He lost his confidence and went back to the carrier. He claimed he was afraid he was going to crash and all sorts of blubbering things.
Carney: Theyɽ launched eight helicopters from the Nimitz. The one major contingency of the mission was that we had to have six. That was the absolute minimum. Six helicopters made it to Desert One.
Kyle: We refueled them. All were ready to go with Delta northbound.
**Carney: **Now you're high-fiving: "We did it—let's go!" And then it just turned to manure. One of the helicopters shut down his backup hydraulic system was out. That left us with five helicopters—an automatic abort.
Kyle: The mission could not go with five helicopters, because the extra twenty-some people on the chopper that had aborted were too much weight. I was just trying to keep the mission going. I said, "Is there any way you can reduce by twenty shooters?" [Colonel Charlie] Beckwith said, "Fuck you, I ain't gonna do that. I don't know what I'm up against."
McGuire: They got on the phone to Washington, and President Carter decided to abort.
**Haney: **I heard an outburst from Beckwith: "Fuck it. Just load everybody up. We'll come back tomorrow night."
Carney: Weɽ kept the engines running the whole time, and one of the airplanes was running low on fuel. Its pilot needed to get out of there so heɽ have enough fuel to get back to Masirah. The decision was made to move the helicopters out from behind the aircraft [to clear the runway]. One helicopter picked up to reposition and browned out. This is a ninety-mile-per-hour wash coming down into the sand and then blowing it up he can't see anything.
J. J. Beyers Air force radio operator
All of a sudden, the whole windscreen of the airplane lit up.
Fitch: I thought, Oh shit, we're under attack. The whole left side and back of the plane was in flames.
Beyers: I made it from the cockpit to the door the whole airplane was on fire. Two shadows on the ground grabbed me and threw me on the ground. That was the last thing I remember. Evidently, I was on fire.
Fitch: I ran maybe fifty yards. When I looked back, I could see the helicopter was on top of the cockpit of the 130. That's when I knew what had happened.
Haney: The blades cut through the fuselage and the flight deck, and that pulled the helicopter up on top of the plane—that's when the helicopter exploded.
Carney: It killed three Marines in the back of the helicopter and five airmen who were trapped in the cockpit of the plane.
**Kyle: **The airplane blew its guts out and shrapnel spewed all over the place.
Burruss: We left eight guys on this pyre in the middle of the desert. That's something you live with forever.
Haney: There's an old army maxim: "No plan survives contact with the enemy." We didn't even have to contact the enemy on that one. No plan survives contact with yourself sometimes. When we got home, we started preparations for a second go-round, but it was obvious that no one from the White House had their heart in it.
Kyle: What it all boils down to is, one guy with a good helicopter—a helicopter we needed to complete the mission—turned around and flew all the way back to the Nimitz. The Marines nicknamed that pilot Turn Back.
**Haney: **The hostage-takers were worried about the possibility of another attempt, so they scattered the Americans around Iran. It was our one opportunity, and it was gone.
Joseph Hall _Military attaché, U.S. embassy _
They panicked and spread us all over the country in forty-eight hours. I think I was moved seventeen times during the next two months.
Abolhassan Banisadr _First post-revolutionary president of Iran _
The consequences of the rescue mission were severe. The mullahs' suspicions were raised against the military, because they wondered how the U.S. could enter Iranian airspace undetected. So they started a purge that resulted in the extreme weakening of Iran's military power.
Rocky Sickmann _Marine guard, U.S. embassy _
One day the guards brought over a copy of The Sporting News, and I'm sitting there reading that a tennis tournament was postponed "due to the death of the Shah of Iran." I said, "Holy shit!" We bang on the door: "Hey, Ali"—everybody's name was Ali they wouldn't give us their real names—"What is this, the frickin' Shah is dead?"
**Banisadr: **His passing wasn't something the students were happy about. As long as the Shah was alive, they could use the excuse that he was planning to come back, that he was a direct threat to the government.
John Limbert _Political officer, U.S. embassy _
His death didn't affect the way we were treated. It was clear this whole incident was not about the United States—it was an internal political game. One of the students even said that to me. They had been turned into prison guards. I think many of them felt used by the politicians.
Sickmann: At times youɽ think, Boy, they're probably as much hostages as we are.
**Moorhead Kennedy ** Economics and commercial officer, U.S. embassy
But once, when they were moving us, one of the guards stood there with tears pouring down his cheeks. He was a local hire, and when we were moved he was laid off. This was obviously the most exciting moment of his life terrorism gives a lot of unemployed people something exciting to do.
Mansour Farhang _Iran's first postrevolutionary ambassador to the U.N. _
The hostage-taking probably cost Iran over $10 billion. Khomeini didn't care he enjoyed his immense popularity and the idea of being involved in a moral struggle. The sanctions, the freezing of Iran's assets, were devastating. Without the economic weakness and international isolation, Saddam Hussein would not have invaded Iran in September 1980. There was hardly any resistance.
Michael Metrinko Political officer, U.S. embassy
Our guards started to leave, to go to the war front. They asked if weɽ be willing to defend the prison if it were attacked. I said, "Give me a gun."
Bruce Laingen Chargé dires and acting ambassador, U.S. embassy
Iran was in trouble. They needed funds, they needed help, they weren't getting it anywhere. They were dramatically isolated at the U.N. and in international opinion.
Gergen: In the U.S., election day 1980 fell on the one-year anniversary of the hostage-taking. It was clearly a factor in Reagan's ten-point defeat of Carter. I am among those who believe the coming to office of Reagan was a significant factor in the Iranians' decision to free the hostages. I remember one common quip going around was: What's flat, red, and glows in the dark? Answer: Tehran, after Reagan becomes president.
**Sick: **There's no smoking gun, but there are many who believe that the Reagan people deliberately slowed down progress in the hostage issue. Nobody who was involved in it has come out publicly. Maybe we'll have a deathbed confession someday.
Banisadr: In the spring of 1980, the Reagan-and-Bush team contacted my team and also the Islamic Republican Party, the friends of Mr. Khomeini. Reagan's team tried to make a deal with us to free the hostages. I rejected the deal because they weren't official representatives of the U.S. at the time, but the Islamic Republican Party decided to work with them. [As a result] Khomeini delayed implementation of the release until Reagan was elected.
Farhang: Congress spent more than $1 million to investigate. I testified, and I remain convinced to this day that there was no contact or conspiracy.
Hall: We didn't know if it meant anything or not, but we were counting down to inauguration day. On January 19, they led me into a room and asked me questions about my treatment. I remember they presented it as though I was a "candidate for release." I wasn't going to sing their praises, but I wasn't going to say a whole lot.
Metrinko: It was a sort of Tokyo Rose-type interview.
**Limbert: **They asked, "How were you treated?" I just said, "You could have done a good thing with your revolution, but you really screwed it up." They didn't have a response.
Sickmann: On January 20, they told us we were going home. They came back five minutes later and we were still sitting there. Seriously. You have to understand that they have screwed with our minds for 444 days. I remember walking out that night. They had taken our shoes away, and we had plastic sandals. I was blindfolded, and it was snowing the snow was running through my toes as I was walking through it. I can hear to this day the crunching of the snow under my feet as we walked to this bus that supposedly was taking us to the airport.
Hall: They stood us up individually inside the bus, took the handcuffs and the blindfolds off, and we literally ran a gauntlet to the steps of that airplane, one final insult of slapping and shoving and punching.
Limbert: I thought to myself, This group has no class at all. This is a chickenshit outfit.
Sickmann: We walk to the back of the airplane. Nobody high-fives, nobody says a word. You're free, but you're still whispering to each other because you're in shock. The plane starts revving and shaking, and all of a sudden it comes to an idle. It's like, "God, they're messing with us." Iran had turned off the runway lights.
Koppel: The hostages were on the plane, but the Iranians did the cruelest thing they could think of, which was to wait until one second after noon on inauguration day. And that was just crushing. Carter and Brzezinski and their advisers were in the Oval Office all night, praying that they would get these guys released while they were still on duty. Because Carter really did, it must be said, try with all his heart to get those men and women out of there.
**Bill Daugherty ** _CIA officer, U.S. embassy _
You cannot underestimate the hatred that the hostage-takers felt for Jimmy Carter. They felt betrayed by him. He had come in on a platform of human rights, and he had said these standards will apply to friends as well as enemies. He mentioned Iran in the campaign! The Iranians really believed he was going to come in and stop the Shah's human-rights violations.
Barry Rosen Press attaché, U.S. embassy
We were very worried that some sort of Iranian jet fighter, if they had any left, would shoot us down.
Warren Christopher _Deputy secretary of state _
The Iranians sent two commercial planes, one as a decoy. But until I saw the landing lights of those planes off in the distance, near the Algiers airport, I had no real confidence that they were coming home. It was a very tricky moment.
**Sickmann: **We got off the airplane in Algiers and kissed the ground. The left cheek of my pants was completely ripped out from sitting on my can so much. I felt sorry for the ambassador and all the other people having to look at us and smell us.
Metrinko: When we got to the military hospital at Wiesbaden [in Germany], there were stacks of newspapers in the reception area. I was glancing at one, and I looked at one of the photographs and thought, My God, it looks just like my grandfather's portrait. Then I realized it was the portrait that hung in our dining room at home, and that the people standing under it were my mother and father. Why it would be in The New York Times I had no idea. I did not know that anyone was interested or cared. It was like Rip Van Winkle waking up.
Henry Precht Director of Iranian affairs, State Department
I was invited to go on the plane to Wiesbaden with Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale. I said, "Mr. President, many of the hostages are likely to hold you responsible for admitting the Shah and leaving them vulnerable in Tehran." He said, "I realize that, and I'm prepared to deal with it."
Kevin Hermening _Marine guard, U.S. embassy _
Six or eight Americans refused to meet with President Carter and Mondale.
**Al Golacinski ** _Chief security officer, U.S. embassy _
A gentleman stood up—I will not reveal who he was—and said to the president, "Why did you do the one thing that would fire up the Iranians like that?" His answer was, "We had been given assurances that our embassy and our personnel would be protected." I stood up and said, "Mr. President, with all due respect, I and others wrote that those assurances were not worth the paper they were written on." Later we had our pictures taken individually with the president, and he apologized to me. He said he had seen what had been written. I really believe the president was a very decent man.
Daugherty: Had we had any inkling that they would actually let the Shah into the United States, I don't think many of us would have gone to Tehran in the first place. I certainly wouldn't have. Before I went over, a senior officer told me, "The only real danger is if they let the Shah in, but nobody is that stupid." Golacinski: I sometimes wish I could go back and relive those first few days or that first month, because I don't remember much of it. I do remember, though, that in all of the stopovers on the way home, I had to be the last one on the airplane. I just wanted to make sure everybody was there. I don't know how to explain it to you. I think maybe I was just trying to make myself feel better about something.
Founding Director - Center for Effective Public Management
Senior Fellow - Governance Studies
When the shah fell, I was working at the Democratic National Committee, getting ready for the 1980 presidential election. The turmoil in Iran and the fall of the shah had, frankly, very little impact on American politics. In fact, what I remember from that period of time is the Jules Feiffer cartoon with a series of men in Middle Eastern dress lined up. And the gist of the cartoon was: Who knows the difference? Shiites, Sunnis, the differences between them, what their enmity meant to the region: Most Americans remained unaware of the religious and political nuances of the region.
Most of that changed when the hostages were taken. Suddenly, this heretofore unknown country burst into the public’s consciousness. There was the initial, predictable burst of patriotism. A 1973 hit by Tony Orlando and Dawn about a prisoner coming home, called “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree,” was appropriated to the hostage situation, and all over the land people began tying yellow ribbons on their trees.
At the center of this was President Carter, whose bid for reelection in 1980 was already being complicated by a primary challenge from Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass). Carter immediately suspended foreign travel and political campaigning to focus on the crisis. But there was no diplomatic solution to be had. And what came to be known as “the Rose Garden strategy” (referring to the White House Rose Garden) turned into a trap for the president. Stu Eizenstat, one of Carter’s top aides and the author of the book “President Carter: The White House Years,” writes that the Rose Garden strategy “had another unintended and deeply pervasive effect. It totally personalized the crisis in the American media by focusing the responsibility on the Oval Office and showing the terrorists they could put the American presidency itself into dysfunction.”
Carter initially tried negotiating with Iran’s government that had been thrown into new disarray by the hostage seizure. But given that it was Carter who had invited the shah into the United States, the students who were in control were not inclined to let him off the hook. Furthermore, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was calling the shots, and he opposed any early settlement. So month after month, as Carter was trapped in the White House, negotiations went nowhere. This is why, in the spring, he decided to mount a military rescue of the hostages.
Operation Eagle Claw was a disaster that ended with American deaths, ruined military planes, and the hostages no closer to freedom. The phone at my house rang early in the morning on April 25, 1980. It was Rick Hernandez, one of the president’s senior political aides, who had heard about the aborted mission and subsequent disaster. He opened the conversation with, “We just lost the election.” I was confused. It was the middle of the night, and, moreover, Carter had just beaten Kennedy in a string of southern primaries and had tied him in the Pennsylvania primary. Rick proceeded to describe, in fairly accurate terms, the debacle in the desert.
All of this happened at a very crucial time in the election cycle. The Carter-Kennedy fight was big news, and voters were just tuning in. To put these events in context, it is also important to remember that Americans had been enchanted with the story of the Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976. This is one of the first special operations missions that burst into the public consciousness. The dramatic and stunning Israeli rescue of hostages who had been taken by Palestinians in Uganda captured the public imagination. Four years later, the United States tried its own daring rescue and fell flat on its face. That was devastating to Carter. And I believe to this day that my friend Rick Hernandez was right. Carter lost the election that night.
The failed mission was the last straw. Going into 1980, Jimmy Carter was seen as a weak and feckless president. The economy was going extraordinarily badly. His approval ratings were in the toilet. And the challenge from Kennedy, a lion of the Democratic Party, was the toughest nomination challenge any incumbent Democrat had had in many years. Although Carter won the Democratic nomination, he lost all but six states plus the District of Columbia to Ronald Reagan in November. By then, the Iranian students had played out their hand. They had held the hostages for longer than anyone (including themselves) had expected. The hostages were released on January 20, 1981 — the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated.
On a brighter note, the disastrous rescue mission had tremendous consequences for reform in the U.S. military. It should be noted that at the time of the attempted hostage rescue mission in 1980, there was no unified Special Operations Command in the U.S. military to coordinate the various commands and agencies involved in special operations warfare. In fact, these elements of U.S. military power were, after the wind-down of the Vietnam War, generally underfunded and mistrusted within the military establishment.
The failure of Operation Eagle Claw changed that. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back when it came to military reform. Remember, this happened in 1980. Carter lost the election resoundingly to Ronald Reagan. And in 1985, the Senate began to look at a major military reform bill. Reformers faced intense opposition within the military, particularly from the Navy, and they also faced opposition from Reagan’s secretary of defense. But it was clear that the failure of Operation Eagle Claw, in addition to Vietnam and several other smaller failures, contributed to a point in history where people said, it is time to do something with the United States military when the greatest power in the world cannot manage to rescue its own people.
So remarkably, after 40 years of trying, in 1986 Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, and Reagan signed it. That reorganization and the revival of special operations eventually transformed the American military from Operation Eagle Claw to Operation Neptune Spear (the successful operation that found and killed Osama bin Laden in 2011).
- Iran Hostage Crisis
The Iran Hostage Crisis lasted from 1979 to 1981. On November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students raided the United States Embassy located in Tehran, Iran. They took 66 Americans, many of whom were diplomats and embassy employees, and held 53 of them hostage for 444 days. The 13 others had been released early due to their gender and race, such as women and African Americans (Berkin et al. 802).
While being held hostage, they underwent “demeaning and terrifying treatment” (History.com Editors). The hostages were not allowed to read or speak and were seldom allowed to change clothes. Their captors blindfolded and paraded them in front of TV cameras, photographers, and rambunctious crowds. The crowds taunted them, making them even more frightened than they already were. They were scared for their lives and the uncertainty of what could happen was what tormented them the most. Although they were never seriously injured, they never knew when they were going to be tortured, murdered, or set free (History.com Editors). The hostages were treated very poorly because of something they had no control over.
The Shah, king of the Iranian monarchy, was closely allied with the United States. Jimmy Carter and the Shah worked together frequently because the United States and Iran had had close international relations for several years. As a result of this relationship, the Shah started to reflect American interests. This caused the Iranian people to reject the Shah’s government and strongly
oppose international affairs with the United States. This rejection sparked many protests which ultimately led to the Iranian Revolution in 1978. A major contributor to the revolution was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, religious leader of Iran’s Shiite Muslims. The Iranians supported Khomeini’s religious and political beliefs and promoted his movement to overthrow the Shah. Because there was such a large following for the revolution, the Shah was exiled soon after and left for Egypt. Khomeini “assumed power during the revolution and established an Islamic fundamentalist state” (Berkin et al. 802). Because the revolution ended in the exile of the Shah, the Iranians and their former king ended on bad terms causing resentment between the two.
Although the United States and Iran were allies, the Iranians opposed American interests because of their influence on Iran’s government. While in exile, the Shah was managing cancer and was said to have been “desperately ill, at the point of death” (“Why Carter” 36). The U.S. State Department was informed that the only medical treatment available to help the suffering monarch was in the United States. President Carter thought it over with other government officials and came to the consensus to allow the Shah to receive medical treatment. United States authorities notified the Iranian government about the Shah’s arrival in New York to access treatment for his condition (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). His entry on American soil angered Iranians which caused them to storm the embassy and take Americans hostage. The underlying hostility of the two countries caused the irrational event that could have easily been avoided.
The Americans were still held hostage. President Carter made it a priority to put an end to the crisis. He came up with Operation Eagle Claw, a risky military mission to rescue the hostages. The plan was to send a rescue team into the embassy compound and liberate all of the
Americans. However, the mission failed because of a desert sandstorm which resulted in an accident that left eight servicemen dead (History.com Editors).Other attempts to rescue the hostages failed as well. They were finally released by Iran on January 21, 1981, the day of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address. It is said that the captors delayed the release of the Americans to punish Carter for supporting the Shah.
The Iran Hostage Crisis was the result of conflict between two countries, Iran and the United States. The hostages were given harsh treatment because of a senseless act, regarding political leaders rather than the Americans themselves. Resentment of the Shah developed into animosity towards America since their leaders influenced much of Iran’s government. Jimmy Carter’s humanitarian act left a negative impression on the Iranians, resulting in a negative consequence for America. Finally, the hostages were freed following the end of Carter’s presidential term. Due to Iran’s antagonism towards the Shah, they were blind to the situation and acted on impulse rather than reason.
Berkin, Carol, et al. “New Economic and Political Alignments, 1976-1992.” Making America, 6th ed., Boston, Cengage Learning, 2012.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Iran Hostage Crisis.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 5 Mar. 2020, www.britannica.com/event/Iran-hostage-crisis. Accessed 27 May 2020.
History.com Editors. “Iran Hostage Crisis.” HISTORY, A&E Television Networks, 1 June 2010,www.history.com/topics/middle-east/iran-hostage-crisis. Accessed 27 May 2020.
“Why Carter Admitted the Shah.” New York Times, 17 May 1981, sec. 6, p. 36.