Monday, November 30, 2009


On November 4, 1979, Americans learned that the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran had been overtaken and militants had captured 66 American diplomats. Some Americans escaped, and some were released a few days later, but 52 were held as hostages for 444 days. The news of that takeover of our embassy sent chills through every American serving in a U.S. embassy. I was at the beginning of my second year in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Almost immediately rumors began that other countries might take hostages. Security measures were tightened, none of which made me feel any better, especially since I lived alone in a huge, three-story, 4 bedroom, 4 bathroom house.

U.S. ambassadors throughout the world were ordered to make “demarches,” i.e., diplomatic initiatives to the prime ministers of their country for assistance in getting our people released. Tanzania was non-committal, not to mention non-cooperative. It was a Socialist country and was friendlier to the forces opposed to the United States than to the United States. The Tanzanian government would not budge from its position to not assist the U.S. We Americans serving there were quite unhappy with that decision. It was interesting that none of our contacts or “friends” mentioned the hostage situation when talking to us. Tanzanians continued to come to our library and to cultural events. They continued to visit our offices in quest of fellowships to U.S. universities or for 30 day visits to the U.S. during which time they met with professionals in their fields. Those programs were especially for people identified by the U.S. government as likely to be key leaders in the future. The capture of Americans in Iran wasn't even the leading news of any of Tanzania’s media. It was almost as if it had not happened.

On January 16, 1979, the Shah of Iran had fled the country when his proposals for economic and social reforms, but not much in the way of political reforms, failed. The country was thrown into much violence by the nationalists, and the Shah and his family had to flee. The Ayatollah Khomeini who had been arrested and exiled, and who was an opponent of the U.S., returned to the country and added his anti-American rhetoric to the calls for revolution. The rest is history.

We had gotten some news about of the treatment of our people in Iran and the news was frightening. We knew the hostages had been split up and taken to different locations. One woman had remained at our library in Iran with an open telephone line telling officials in Washington what was going on. After a few days the Iranians picked her up. Shortly thereafter, 13 women and blacks were released. The woman who had been on the telephone refused to leave without her colleagues, and she and another woman remained as hostages for the entire time. Some of us thought the U.S. would consult Israel because they always managed to get their people out of tight situations. We remembered Entebbe in Uganda. And then came the devastating news that President Carter had tried to free the hostages. The plan failed, and eight U.S. servicemen were killed. We were horrified and angry that the U.S. would attempt such an escape. I know that President Carter’s intentions were good, but most of us felt that any attempted rescue would put our people in greater danger if not get them killed.

Then came the astonishing news that six Americans hiding in the Canadian Embassy in Iran for three months were free and back in the U.S. The Canadian Ambassador, Kenneth Taylor, had courageously hidden the six at great risk to himself and his Canadian staff. Our people were able to leave Iran disguised as Canadians. American diplomats everywhere rejoiced. I screamed with glee when I heard the news. More sobering were thoughts of what Iran’s reaction would be to.

I called the Canadian Embassy and asked for a photo of Ambassador Taylor. I had our staff blow up the picture and put it on an easel in the front window of our office, facing the main street. On each side of the photo I placed U.S. and Canadian flags, and beneath the picture of the ambassador in two foot high letters was a sign that read: “THANK YOU, AMBASSADOR TAYLOR!” The Canadians were thrilled and came to take photos to send home. Several Tanzanians asked what were we thanking the Canadians for. I had to take a deep breath, bite my tongue, clear my throat, and then I said we were thanking the Canadians for having the courage to hide our American colleagues who were in grave danger, when other countries were too cowardly to speak out; that they did this humane act despite the possible danger to their entire embassy and staff, and lastly for spiriting our people out of the country to safety. It turned out that the families of the six knew that they were in hiding, as did Canadian and American officials and several news reporters. Not one word was breathed because of the incredible danger those in hiding and their hosts would have been in. Two years later when I was working at our embassy in Liberia I watched a movie about the escape from Iran and even though I knew the ending, I still stood and cheered when they were safely out of Iran.

When our hostages were released I was in Washington recuperating from an unplanned gall bladder surgery and enroute to Liberia. (This was back in the days when they slashed you wide open and you had to recuperate for six weeks). Shortly after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, it was announced that the hostages had been freed. President Carter looked stricken. What a slap in his face by the Iranians. I felt very sorry for him. He was a good person and he meant well.

Our people were coming home! All of the U.S. rejoiced. Yellow ribbon became difficult to find because every tree and doorway sprouted yellow ribbons. Algeria lent its services to fly the hostages out of Iran. My heart bled as I watched my colleagues blindfolded, going through a gauntlet of jeering and spitting Iranians. Our people didn’t know where they were going. For all they knew, they were going to another Moslem country, instead of home. We watched the hostages board the Algerian plane and watched them cheer when the pilot announced that they were out of Iranian air space. Later I learned that the Algerians had not accepted food prepared by the Iranians for the Algerian flight crew and the Americans. They were taking no chances that the food might have been tampered with.

In Algeria our people disembarked wearing warm jackets. They looked a bit more cheerful, but still not completely aware that they were free. A few of them waved as they left the plane. Inside the terminal they were hugged by the American ambassador Ulric Haynes, Jr. and his wife, and the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Finally, they realized they were completely free of Iran and its terrorists. Within moments they boarded another plane to be flown to Germany for medical care and debriefing. When they arrived in Germany at an American base, they were greeted by many, many fellow Americans waving yellow ribbons and cheering. The military men were in uniform and they gave crisp salutes to the officers welcoming them. The other former hostages were dressed smartly, and their wide smiles telegraphed their joy to the world.

And then they came home to the United States, and what a homecoming it was! As each officer appeared in the doorway of the plane and began his or her descent, the noise of the crowd overwhelmed them. They stood straight and proud. They were Americans and they were home again! These were our heroines and heroes and I wanted to honor them. I wanted desperately to be in that crowd, but it was too soon after my surgery for me to be out. Buses met them upon their arrival and as their caravan moved slowly into Washington, DC, crowds along the way cheered and waved, and the former captives leaned out of the bus windows acknowledging the welcome. All of Washington was awash in yellow. Yellow ribbons fluttered from every tree and doorway. The caravan came down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House, and then on to the Department of State. The entire country was in a festive mood. Free at last! Free at last! Our hostages were free at last! We cried, we laughed, we prayed and we saluted our brave, indomitable men and women who never let the bastards get them down, but who remained what they always were – proud, dignified Americans who had been held for 444 days.

It wasn’t until 1987 that the American public learned that the “honorable” President Reagan had gotten the hostages released in exchange for giving weapons to Iran. He and his campaign strategist, William Casey, later named head of the CIA, determined that if the hostages were released before the presidential election, President Carter would probably win. Therefore, despicably, Reagan’s people held secret meetings with the Iranians and instructed them to hold the hostages until after Reagan was sworn in.


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