By Jeff Baron
When hundreds of young Iranian activists took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, the U.S. diplomats there thought they would face an uncomfortable but brief incident in a period of tense relations between the two countries.
After 444 days, the crisis ended — a painful period for the hostages, their families and the United States, but one that the former hostages say ultimately proved far worse for Iran, where conservative Islamic hard-liners used the crisis to eliminate moderate voices in positions of power.
The U.S. State Department used the 30th anniversary of the 52 hostages’ release to honor them as heroes and to hear the thoughts of five prominent former hostages. The event in a standing-room-only auditorium at the State Department in Washington also paid tribute to others involved, including the hostages’ families, Canadian officials who sheltered six American diplomats and engineered their escape from Iran, members of the U.S. military who died in a failed rescue attempt and negotiators who finally secured their release.
The former hostages who came together for a panel discussion led by Andrea Mitchell, the chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, said they knew they faced a serious situation in November 1979, a few days after the U.S. allowed the deposed Shah of Iran to enter the United States for medical treatment.
L. Bruce Laingen, the senior U.S. diplomat in Tehran in 1979, recalled that he was at a meeting that morning at the Iranian Foreign Ministry with officials of the provisional government that had taken control after the downfall of the shah. At the end of the meeting, the embassy’s chief of security, Alan Golacinski, reached him with word “that things were happening on the other side of town,” Laingen said. He tried to enlist the aid of Foreign Ministry officials, but they were helpless — and in short order, they were out of power.
John W. Limbert Jr., the embassy’s political officer at the time, said the takeover didn’t seem so serious at first — and, from what its planners said in later years, it wasn’t meant to be. He compared it to “a 1970s-style sit-in. Some of us remember those days: We marched into the university president’s office, we drank his Scotch, we rifled his files, smoked his cigars, we issued some brave communiqué and we marched out. … That’s what it appeared we were dealing with.”
Even as the takeover continued for days — with the support of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and other Iranian hard-liners — Limbert said most of the hostages thought it would end soon. “All we could say was, ‘This thing can’t go on. Somebody, some adult, is going to get in the middle of it, will fix it and will set things right,’” Limbert said.
David Cooke, a young vice consul in 1979, had his doubts. He said he reminded his co-workers about the capture of a U.S. ship by North Korea 12 years earlier. That incident, like the embassy takeover, occurred near the beginning of a U.S. presidential election year, and the 82 captured sailors weren’t returned until after the election. “The election-year cycle just freezes the ability of people to do things,” he said.
Cooke’s prediction proved accurate: Although a few captives were released quickly, 52 remained as hostages for 14 months, until the day Ronald Reagan took the oath of office to succeed Jimmy Carter as U.S. president in January 1981.
The time passed in different ways for different hostages. Laingen and two colleagues spent all but the final few weeks being held at the Foreign Ministry. Among those captured at the embassy, some were beaten or faced other forms of torture, such as mock executions, the former hostages said.
“Being in prison for 444 days, whether you are, quote, ‘treated well’ or ‘treated badly,’ is horrendous, and no matter how you look at it, we were imprisoned and treated badly even if we were not tortured,” said Barry Rosen, the embassy’s press officer. “Some were not tortured, some were tortured. Just being there for 444 days in darkness and isolation, that’s enough for anyone.”
Rosen said being cut off from news of the outside world was difficult. He and Lieutenant Colonel David M. Roeder spent two months in a cell outside Isfahan, and their captors provided them a bit of reading material from the Washington Post: the advertisements of boats for sale. Roeder, a boater, used the ads as inspiration, and each afternoon he would put himself and Rosen on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay — in their imaginations.
What they couldn’t imagine, the men said, was the importance the hostage crisis had assumed in the United States and the concern Americans had for their fate. Cooke said their captors “would tell us occasionally that this is a big thing in the United States, and on the news every night the newscasters start out with ‘This is day 132 of the hostage crisis in Iran,’ and we frankly didn’t believe them.”
Limbert said the truth began to sink in only when the hostages’ plane to freedom landed on a cold, snowy early morning in Frankfurt, Germany. “We pull up to the terminal, and there are hundreds of people outside waiting for something and shouting and holding signs, and I turned to somebody and said, ‘My God, what’s going on? Somebody important is landing here?’”
The hostages were not looking for their “15 minutes of fame,” Limbert said, and it soon ended: “Having been to the White House, having been here and there, within a week or so you’re standing out in the cold in Washington waiting for a bus,” he said.
Limbert said the lasting effects of the hostage crisis have been most severe in Iran. “What happened to us was difficult. It was frightening. It was very uncomfortable,” he said. “But … the real victims of this thing were the Iranians, who have suffered for 30 years and continue to suffer under a very difficult and very harsh regime, which took power thanks to those events.”
Cooke said that, for the United States, the hostage crisis had a powerful effect in healing the divisions of the Vietnam War era. The hostage-taking was “such an outrageous act against the United States” that it pulled Americans together, he said. “This was a chance for Americans to say, ‘No, no, we really are something different. We really are not what our enemies declare that we are.’ And I think that’s the real significance of the hostage-taking and our release, is that it really brought about a change in American attitudes, so it’s something that I’m really very proud of.”
As a result, Cooke said, Americans are more united even when they disagree on such issues as the U.S. role in Iraq or Afghanistan. “People can certainly disagree about the policy. But there’s absolutely total, unanimous agreement that we’re going to support our troops there and we’re going to support the men and women of the Foreign Service and the other civilian agencies that are working in both countries.”