Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Lessons Learned from a Former Hostage


In Captive in the Congo, Mike Hoyt describes his ordeal as one of 300 hostages taken by armed rebels. They were eventually rescued in a joint U.S.-Belgian operation code-named Dragon Rouge. In this article, he discusses U.S. government policy on hostages and argues for a re-evaluation, contending that the longer people talk with hostage-takers, the greater the chances are that the hostages can be saved.  He was interviewed by Ray Sadler in 1995; these excerpts were taken from the Democratic Republic of the Congo Country Reader.

“Our policy evolved into a very hard-line against even dealing with  kidnappers”

Q: What  are your conclusions, Michael?

HOYT: I think the main lesson there is that you shouldn’t leave your people in danger when you  know that, one, of course, you might lose them. There should be concern for your people. When  there’s a situation where rebels can take over, particularly when you know they’re anti-American, you shouldn’t leave your people there. It seems pretty obvious a lesson but one that hadn’t been  learned at that time. I may say that it was also not learned at the time our Tehran was left out of  consideration when the Shah was admitted to the US for medical treatment. And our embassy had  been attacked a little while before!…

Then there is the question of what to do when you do have hostages. I’ve been following this as  hostage policy. How do you deal with your people taken hostage?  This was, of course, the first incident in modern diplomacy. Subsequently, in the years after, in the  early 70s when terrorist incidents started in Latin America our Ambassador in Brazil, Elbrick, was taken hostage. We did everything possible to force the government to meet the rebel demands, which they did. Later, our policy evolved into a very hard-line against even dealing with  kidnappers.  We finally commissioned the Rand organization to do a study on hostages. I welcomed this.  However, they started the review with the Brazil incident and did not include our situation. In the end, the report showed up our vacillations and was suppressed. In about 1983 or ’84 the State Department published a list of terrorist incidents in which our  personnel were attacked or held hostage. Again, our episode does not appear. When I questioned  the person who wrote it, he refused to do anything about it and did not return my phone calls.  So, I don’t know, there’s something about it. I thought that maybe because the vice-consul was CIA  they wanted to ignore it.  Because I worked with hostage policy, subsequently, I had an obvious interest in this. I worked  particularly under Kissinger where we developed a very hard line about not negotiating with kidnappers, not even talking to them.

“The longer you talk, the longer something can happen to save the hostages”

There’s an excellent book out on the diplomats that were assassinated in Khartoum. President Nixon, in spite of being told not to address the issue, said that  we would not do anything to help our hostages. Within hours of statement our people were shot. So we tried to argue that there is something beside of refusing to do anything for our personnel  held hostage. The argument of not doing anything to encourage future hostage-taking. I doubt there is any such thought in the mind of hostage-takers. They are intent on making a point and will do it regardless of past policies.

In domestic hostage situations the first principle is to talk. The longer you talk, the longer the  hostages are alive, the longer something can happen to save them. In our situation, of course, is  whether the para drop should have taken place, which was the immediate cause of the massacre, or  whether they should have left it to the ground column [of soldiers]. I think in hindsight we probably would have been better off in letting the ground column take the city. There could have been Simbas who warned of the coming of the column, but that was a chance to take. In any case, for the column to  stop — all those hard-boiled men being afraid to advance, that was regrettable. Of course the  para drop did save us, so I shouldn’t knock it. In the end, we ran in the right direction.  It’s a difficult situation saving hostages in the middle of a city. Landing at the airport, taking an hour to get downtown, does not seem to me like a very wise strategy, tactic. …

Anyway, as a matter of general hostage policy, as a government, you are responsible for  these people by placing them overseas. You are responsible for putting them in danger, and you  should be doing everything you can to save them. At the same time, you don’t want to play dead  from the beginning and give in to all demands. It seems to me there’s something in the middle, being a bit aloof, but in fact doing everything you can to save them. Maybe, even in some  instances, ransom could be paid. I know that somebody was going around East  Africa with $50,000 in his back pocket, willing to give it to save us. I wouldn’t have objected. Of course, you don’t publicize such things. But, we have even gotten to the point where we discourage anybody paying ransom!

Q: The subsequent fate of the Stanleyville men?

HOYT: David wound up to be the Executive Director — sort of Chef de Cabinet, or whatever they  call them — to several CIA directors. Then, he went on to be station chief somewhere. He recently  retired.

Q: What about your own group, the communicators?

HOYT: Parkes was, I would say, disgruntled, mad at everything, all the way through. When he  was to have left, he took the wrong turn and didn’t get to the airport. He resigned immediately on  our return. Jim Stauffer went on for a full career. Ernie Houle went on in State and died a few years  later. When his obituary came out in the State Department newsletter, I noted they said nothing about Stanleyville. So I wrote a letter and I said that this guy has gotten the highest honor that the State Department awards and held up well and survived as a hostage. They printed my letter.

The lesson had not been learned

Q: Good. You think the department’s kind of ashamed about what it had done in terms of  remembering and learning from your experience?

HOYT: I think they never faced it. They certainly never faced the fact of why we were there, and,  as far as I can see they’re just trying to forget about the whole thing. I know that at one point the  historical-legal section did a paper on this, reviewing the rights and laws of this kind of  intervention to save our citizens. The word came down not to publish it….  But it goes to the Tehran hostage situation. We had had a previous attack on our embassy, very  similar to the one that we had when the hostages were taken. All the right elements signaling  danger were there. At the time of the first incident, we put a lot of pressure on to get our people  released. But when the decision was made to permit the Shah’s entry, there was apparently no  preparation made to protect the embassy.  So in a sense…

Q: The lesson had not been learned.

HOYT: Well, yes. The Department should have been conscious of the fact that when you take  certain actions that put your people in danger, you should be sensitive, to the possible effects on  our people. It doesn’t mean that you can always do something about it but, at least, you should be  aware that your action can have certain affects on your people overseas. I think the State  Department should again make a thorough review of our hostage policy.  There was no hostage situation for several years after ours. It was ’69 that our ambassador in Brazil was taken. At that point we pressured the government to do everything possible to meet the  demands of the rebels and we got our ambassador released. Then we slowly changed our policy until, finally, under Kissinger where we absolutely refused to negotiate, much less pay ransom. That was when our ambassador and DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] were killed.  After they were assassinated, the Sudanese government seized the assassins but released them a  few days later. We broke relations over that. However, a few years later we re-established relations without getting anything in return, like at least an apology.

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