November 4, 1979 – Radical Iranian students take over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and hold 52 Americans hostage. The embassy had been seized in February of that year, shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris, but that was resolved quickly; few suspected that this diplomatic crisis would end up lasting 444 days and cost the lives of eight soldiers who died during the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw rescue attempt on April 24, 1980. Bruce Laingen was charge d’affaires of the embassy and was one of three people who spent most of that time held hostage at the Foreign Ministry. In this interview, conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy starting in January 1993, he discusses the run-up to the takeover, his stay at the Ministry, the “Canadian caper,” which became the inspiration for the movie Argo, and the negotiations which led to their eventual release.
His wife Penne’s experiences from Washington can be read here. To see Part II, go here. To see a video interview, go to our sister site, usdiplomacy.org. Read also John Limbert’s experience as a hostage in the U.S. embassy.
Prelude to the Takeover
Our big concern was a very large demonstration planned for support of the revolution on November 1, three days before the embassy was overrun. That demonstration was originally scheduled to take place around the walls of the embassy and in the immediate environs of where we were. At the last minute, indeed the night before on October 31, the word was sent around that the Ayatollah had directed that the revolutionary demonstration take place in another area further from the embassy. The next morning, the bulk of the demonstrators did go to that other destination, but somewhere between one and two thousand demonstrators nonetheless came to the embassy compound that morning and spent the day marching back and forth around the walls. We anticipated some of that, to the point where we had added security and the Marines were in sort of battle formation that morning.
I recall, myself, going out to the gates of the embassy to look around that morning and at one point having the chief of police come rushing up in his jeep to take a look at the situation and assure me through the gates that things were under control, that I need not be concerned about any particular danger. They were noisy during the day. A lot of graffiti was put on the walls, on the outside. There were some tense moments late in the day, when some of the more determined demonstrations were determined to keep it up and put some banners on the outside of our main gates, denouncing us and putting up pictures of the Ayatollah. It caused us a rather difficult stretch late that evening, requiring our security officers, particularly Alan Golacinski, to spend some very tense moments out there. We were finally able to resolve it.
Q: What type of thing are you talking about?
LAINGEN: More than I knew at the time. We were demanding that the posters be taken down, that the Ayatollah’s picture be taken off the gates, and that sort of thing. At one point, apparently one of the security officers or one of the Marines may have ripped one of the posters down from the inside and taken it. That caused some of the demonstrators to demand that it be returned undamaged. Eventually we did turn it back, but not before there had been a good deal of very close physical exchanges between those on the outside and those on the inside of the gate. This was on the night of November 1, culminating a rather difficult day, during which we had advised the bulk of the Americans who lived on the compound and those who lived in apartment houses immediately to the back of the compound behind the rear gates to spend the day up in the British compound in the hills of Tehran. And they did, so we were a skeleton presence that day, except for the beefed up Marine Security Guard patrol on actual duty. But we weathered the day and the next day was, as I recall, a relatively quiet day in the city….
The night before the embassy was taken over was the third of November. Periodically I would have welcoming parties for new arrivals and we had scheduled one that evening in the residence, where we also showed films in the large salon for the American community. At the last minute, I was unable to host that affair because I got word from the Foreign Office that there was a command performance for the entire diplomatic corps to go to the Foreign Ministry club compound where a new documentary film on the revolution was going to be shown. So I asked my secretary, Liz Fontaigne, to substitute for me, as hostess, at least until I came back from that command performance.
I went to that command performance and saw the film, which was an interesting documentary on the revolution, not least because some importance footage of the film was filmed immediately outside the embassy compound back in February, showing tanks on the streets and the embassy under a state of siege at that time as well. It was rather ironic that the night before the embassy was to be overrun the second time I was at that command performance watching a film showing how we were affected by the revolution eight months before….
I recall that we agreed to keep the Marines on a state of alert but that business would go on as usual in the embassy. I would keep a long scheduled appointment that morning at the Foreign Ministry at 10:30, or whatever, I have forgotten precisely, to carry on discussions I was having with the Foreign Ministry about arranging for the future diplomatic immunity status of my reduced military liaison office — reduced and changed….
I was scheduled also to be accompanied by the senior political officer in the political section, who was Ann Swift. A more senior officer, the head of the section, was Victor Tomseth, but he was also designated as acting DCM. Ann Swift was to accompany me. As it turned out she had been out of the city or at a distant place in the suburbs, and I don’t recall exactly where, and wasn’t able to get back to the embassy in time to join us, although we saw her come walking into the compound as our limousine drove off. So it was I, Victor Tomseth, and Mike Howland in our group that morning that went to the Foreign Ministry.
We passed on the streets several groups of demonstrators, all of which — as we understood before and was apparent to us — were heading for the university compound where there were to be large demonstrations commemorating an assault on the university by the Shah’s regime at an earlier time. We did not sense that they were heading towards our compound and so proceeded as planned to the Foreign Ministry.
We had a good conversation over traditional cups of tea with Iranian professional diplomats, none of whom that morning raised the issue of the Shah. Our conversation was entirely limited to the question of diplomatic immunity for the military liaison office. At the end we departed without resolving the issues, but we had not expected to. It was a reasonably productive conversation. We went down to the parking lot in the Foreign Ministry compound and there we found Mike Howland in active conversation with his counterpart in the embassy. Mike informed me that a dustup was taking place over at the compound, that there were demonstrators trying to come through the gates.
We got in the limousine and started off, followed by another Iranian security-laden car and got only a block or two when we heard the situation was getting worse at the compound and given advice by Alan Golacinski that it would be best if we not try to come there, and we agreed that we would return to the Foreign Ministry to seek what was then needed, help from the provisional government.
We turned around and got back to the Foreign Ministry and raced up the stairs. I say raced because I recall running up those stairs, the sense of urgency was that great by that time to see the acting foreign minister because the foreign minister, Mr. Yazdi, had not yet returned that morning from Algiers, where he had been with the prime minister as part of the Iranian delegation to celebrations attending the 15th or 20th anniversary of the Algerian revolution….
Brzezinski was heading the American delegation and it was during these ceremonies in Algiers on November 1 that Brzezinski and Bazargan had had a conversation, the highest level conversation that had taken place yet at that time between a leader of the revolution and an American policy maker.
So we saw Mr. Kharrazi, the acting foreign minister, who incidentally today is the sitting Iranian Perm rep in New York at the UN. We pleaded with him, demanded of him, that he take steps immediately and provide assistance. He clearly wanted to do that, to protect the compound. He was pretty ill-informed as to what was going on. He knew less than we did at that point when we began the conversation. There ensued a number of conversations by telephone between him and elements of the government. I was getting on the telephone as well, accompanied now, however, by Mike Howland and his radio connection. So we had a continuing report of what was going on in the compound to the extent that our beleaguered colleagues over there could report on it, could see it all. All of them at that time were holed up in the chancery itself.
Demanding that Iran Remove Demonstrators from the Embassy
An hour or so went by, I think, before Yazdi, the foreign minister, turned up. He had come directly from the airport to the Foreign Ministry and the conversations then continued in his office. Meanwhile the chief of protocol, who was clearly a friend and had done his best to facilitate improved security at the compound over the preceding months and had been a very good interlocutor, moved about wringing his hands, as concerned as we were. His secretary and other secretaries were milling about. Everybody was in a state of uncertainty, to some extent bewilderment, as to just what was happening because it wasn’t visual to us. It was all by telephone and radio.
Eventually, Vic Tomseth and I ended up in the foreign minister’s office where I repeated my demands for some action to be taken to protect the embassy and to evict those who by now were coming over the walls in large numbers. I, having by that time established a telephone connection with Washington, with the cooperation of the foreign ministry, was sitting for much of the remainder of the day at the side of the foreign minister’s desk, determined not to give up that telephone connection.
It went on that way for several hours — he trying to carry on to some degree normal business, while I was in conversation with a number of people in Washington from David Newsom on down.
Q: He was Under Secretary for Political Affairs at that time.
It became painfully clear in the course of the day that things weren’t happening the way we had hoped they would happen. The foreign minister, Mr. Yazdi, was the man who had been the person, as the revolution had occurred in February when the Embassy was overrun then, who had acted physically on the spot to restore the embassy to our control then. Now he was the Foreign Minister who should have been able to act to repeat what he had done then. And I think he meant to do it, wanted to do it, actually tried to do it in the course of that day. But it became increasingly apparent as we sat there that he was no longer the locus of the kind of power that he had had then.
Meanwhile, of course, the embassy had been overrun. In conversation with the Embassy, both with Ann Swift and Alan Golacinski by telephone and by radio, because we also had a telephone connection with them in addition to the telephone connection with Washington, I had given what instructions and what orders I could from that vantage point. Unfortunately, it evolved into a rather mixed up command and control situation. I was in the foreign ministry, available only by telephone and to some extent by radio. The acting DCM was with me, there was no chief, if you will, apparent in the embassy. The chain of command involved the next senior political officer, who was Ann Swift, the incoming head of the military liaison office, Col. Scott, USA, and the senior defense attaché, Col. Shaefer, USAF. So I was in conversation with several of them at several points that day over those hours, and I confess the locus of authority there was never clear to me.
Security Issues and Too Much Classified Material
A key issue as things developed was destruction of documents and equipment…. We had earlier been under instructions to reduce our classified material. We had supposedly responded to that instruction. I say supposedly because it is clear in retrospect that not enough destruction had taken place, not enough return of documents had taken place to Washington. Indeed, there is some evidence that some documents had been returned from some offices in Washington to the embassy in Tehran. We clearly had much more classified paper than we should have had and I knew we had. We also had generally inadequate destruction equipment, older varieties. Not enough of the total mashing version, or whatever the terms are. More often it was stripping equipment.
We also that morning began the destruction too late. It did not seem, in the conversations that I was having, that it was that threatening. The first impression that all of us got, both on the compound and certainly with us in the foreign ministry, was a kind of repeat of the February intrusion and that the intention of the students coming into the embassy was this time to again hold it for a while as a kind of demonstration of their contempt for the United States, and more importantly their concern about the direction in which the provisional government had been taking the revolution and their hope that they could destabilize the provisional government under Bazargan.
This was in any event their real intent. Their real intent was not to get the Shah back, despite the slogans that were so useful to them in that sense to get passions in the streets aroused. Their intent was to use that device to destabilize and undermine the provisional government of the revolution and to facilitate a greater role for the more radical elements.
At any rate, it did not seem that the situation was all that bad at the outset. In retrospect we should have begun destruction earlier. I, obviously as chief of mission, had that responsibility and today bear that responsibility for the way in which not enough of our classified documentation was destroyed. We had too much, we started too late, and we had equipment that was not the best….
Of course, a lot of the paper that did not seem to have that urgency of destruction, including unclassified biographical material, would also in time prove to be a very damaging element of the situation, because lots of that stuff has Central Intelligence Agency logo stamped on it even if it is unclassified. That was enough to fire the fury of the more radical elements of the revolution, even though it was material of an unclassified, descriptive nature. That was sufficient to cause a great deal of pain and hurt to a lot of Iranians.
And that is the real pain that I have felt since. Not that our security was threatened, our strategic interests, or political interests in Iran and the region. They were not seriously affected by what was leaked. It was clear in any event at that point that our relationship with the Iranians was not going to be reestablished very soon. But the human hurt for a lot of people in Iran because of the way we were not able to destroy incriminating documentation, that is the legacy that hurts me very much today.
As we have all learned since, if you are going to be overrun by a revolutionary group at an embassy, make sure you are overrun by groups a little less passionate in their zeal and determination than those in Tehran, because their passion, their determination, their zeal as revolutionaries was apparent in many ways in the months that followed, and not least in the way they laboriously over hours and hours, days and days, and still today probably, pieced back together a lot of the damaging paper, strip by strip.
Q: These papers were cut in very thin strips, the idea being it is easier to burn.
LAINGEN: On the other hand, most of us would assume that even if we were unable to destroy it further, no one would ever piece that together. But they did. Today, I don’t know what the count is, more than 50 sets of such documentation is available in books that are on sale in book stores in Tehran. It was a bad day in many ways, but there were many lessons learned from that day and what occurred before and since. But one certainly was that cliché: “Think lean as an embassy, as a mission.” In a computer age one would assume that one could. On the other hand, I think all of us today concede that computers and Xeroxes make it possible to have even more paper….
The first assault on the embassy in February, in the middle of the revolution, had been a very dangerous state of affairs, where the Marines at that point were stationed in several places on the far perimeters of the compound, in effect defending a 27-acre compound with a Marine Security Detachment at that time, I suppose, of 15 or 20. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say precisely how many were there, but it never got over that number that I know of and wasn’t over that number when we got overrun in November. At that time I think we had 16, several of whom were out of the country on leave.
But in February the Marines had engaged in some rather difficult one-on-one situations. The standing instructions for Marine Security Guards in all embassies is that they do not fire on their own initiative unless or until they are in danger of immediate bodily risk themselves; otherwise they fire only on instructions of the senior officer present, who normally would be the ambassador or chargé. That was the situation in Tehran and that was the situation in February when the embassy was first overrun, but because some of the Marines were at distant points around the compound, that need to make a decision on their own fell on them. Some of them had to face some very difficult situations.
There is today still some uncertainty as to the number of Iranians that were killed in that incident that day, but one or two we know were killed. At least one, I believe, as a consequence of Marine firing. One Marine was held by those revolutionaries in February and taken off somewhere for a time. His escapades have been written up publicly. I wasn’t there, but it was a very dicey situation for about 24 hours before we got him back.
All of that is background for the situation which I faced when I came up against that problem on November 4, 1979.
At no time did I order the Marines to fire. At no time did they fire. I did instruct them to use tear gas as needed, fairly early on, although I think we probably should have used it even earlier. But we didn’t use it when the actual intrusion into the compound began. At that time their battle stations were all within the chancery, itself. One problem, by the way, that morning was that some of the Marines were in the Marine House immediately behind the embassy compound, across the street from the outer walls. They had to get back into the compound when the alarm bells began to ring. One or two of them were captured in the Marine House, itself, complicating the situation when the decision was made as to whether we should surrender. We did eventually use tear gas — again I am speaking from my vantage point in the Foreign Ministry on the other side of town. I wasn’t there, so the specifics of how things went from minute to minute, from hour to hour, have to be provided by someone else. But my understanding is, based on telephone and radio conversations, that one or two of the Marines actually did not make it back into the chancery and into that kind of protection.
In any event, the chancery was eventually surrounded by hundreds of these demonstrators, armed with a variety of things — some with banners, some with protest slogans, some with actual guns, some with equipment to pry open a rear window of the basement slightly below ground floor of the chancery. That is where they forced entry into the building and as they came in were deterred to some degree by tear gas, but not sufficient to stop them. The Marines retreated back up to the first floor and eventually up to the second floor behind the steel door there.
As time went on, the question developed as to what we should do, having been forced into that kind of fortress on the second floor of the chancery. Eventually at one point, Alan Golacinski went out into the compound, down the stairs, to attempt to negotiate with those who were leading the demonstrations. He was captured and held himself. I was informed of that. I don’t recall that I was aware of another thing that developed at that time, although I am aware of it now directly from John Limbert, one of the political officers in the embassy, the most fluent Farsi speaker we had and who at one point made the decision to open that second floor door. [To read John Limbert's account of the crisis, go here. Or you can read his entire oral history.] To what degree the decision to do so was coordinated among those of my staff in charge or who had taken charge in the hallway, is not entirely clear to me. In any event, he went out as well, and was captured. I was informed at one point that smoke was coming through under the second floor door suggesting that they were trying to burn the place down even though it was a metal door.
That and other reports from the embassy indicated that there was no possible way to defend the chancery, that we had made sufficient progress in destroying what I understood to be the bulk of the classified gear, and I ordered them to surrender when they thought they had no alternative to doing so. And they eventually did. The rest of the story is better told by those who were there on the second floor.
The demonstrators then stormed through the open door, bound all the staff loosely, hands in particular, and blindfolded them, forcing them to sit down on the floor. At the outset the classified code room was held a little bit longer, but eventually that too was surrendered, when they had completed the destruction of the equipment there. After I had given the order to surrender and the second floor was occupied, obviously my contact ended. Radio and telephone links were cut off.
The three of us, Victor Tomseth, Mike Howland, and I were left to ourselves and the horrible sense that something, not totally unexpected, but a serious event had transpired. I say not totally unexpected because we still had the feeling that this was probably going to be something like what happened in February.
Q: This is the way things are done. We have had problems before and they all worked out within a day or two.
LAINGEN: Well, they did then, but they didn’t this time. I continued into the evening, until late that evening, approaching midnight eventually, sitting at the desk of the foreign minister, still in telephone conversation with Washington, he in telephone conversation with a number of people around the city. He at one point said to me, as he told me that he had to go off to a cabinet meeting, “What are you going to do?” I said to him, “You tell me what I am going to do, because you have the responsibility to provide me security and my colleagues security. I can’t go out on the streets. I am not going to go back to the compound now and be taken.”
There was some discussion earlier on whether it would be a good idea for me to try to return. That idea was rejected rather quickly because of the way things were developing. It was better that I and my two colleagues stay where we were to see if we couldn’t work things out from the government end. I told him that it was his responsibility to tell me what I should do. I said that I could not go out and try to make some other embassy in town responsible for me and my colleagues. And there was some risk of my being picked up in any event.
Establishing an “Embassy in Exile” at the Iranian Foreign Ministry
So he said, “Well, look, you better stay here. We will work this out by morning.” He took me down personally to one of the diplomatic reception rooms, I and my two colleagues at that point having not eaten anything to speak of during the day, except for tea and some cookies and some Algerian dates that Yazdi had brought back as a gift from the Independence Day celebrations there. He arranged for us to get something to eat from the kitchen of the Foreign Ministry. This was roughly just before midnight — he going off to a cabinet meeting.
So we made ourselves as comfortable as we could in this rather splendid room, full of pseudo-French furniture. We took turns trying to sleep during the night on those uncomfortable sofas. It was a very painful time. And yet, a time when we were still determined to convince ourselves that we would work this out. We really believed it — or told ourselves we believed it.
Q: And, of course, this was what all common sense and experience had taught one, that these things didn’t keep going.
LAINGEN: The next morning came around. We had been on the phone all night with Washington. We were on the phone also with elements of the Foreign Ministry that were friendly with us. We had telephone contacts occasionally with Kate Koob, who along with Bill Royer, were still two not taken hostages. They were running the American Cultural Center in another part of town and were not to be taken hostages until later, the second day. We had visits from the chief of protocol; friendly kitchen force people; we were on phones to other ambassadors in the city, all of which was being facilitated by the Foreign Minister’s office. The foreign minister, himself, came down to see us once on the second day. We talked to the deputy foreign minister once or twice.
As all of this was happening, Washington, with whom we were in contact, were constantly asking us for our opinion of how things stood and our own judgment of the scene and giving us their own judgment of the scene from back there. President Carter eventually weighed into action, himself, in deciding to send several messages to Khomeini. He decided to send Ramsey Clark, the former Attorney General, and William Miller, a retired Foreign Service officer who had served in Iran earlier and who had a lot of contacts, particularly with the nationalist secular elements of the revolutionary leadership. The idea was to send them to Tehran for conversations directly with the Ayatollah to work the thing out.
Then we got involved as a kind of sitting foreign embassy within the Foreign Ministry in trying to work out the landing rights for the aircraft to come in. We were facilitated in this fashion by the Foreign Ministry to continue to operate “normally” as Chargé with my deputy and security officer. Incidentally we also had in the same room with us the driver of my car, an Armenian-Iranian employee of the Embassy who had been driving for American ambassadors in Tehran for years and years. He was held hostage, too, if you will, for the first week or so, when he eventually was allowed to slip out of the Foreign Ministry.
The Clark-Miller mission, of course, never arrived, despite full cooperation of the Foreign Ministry, carefully laid out landing arrangements, etc., because eventually the Ayatollah said no. And if the Ayatollah said no to something, that was the end of it. He was determined not to have any conversation with the Carter regime. So the Clark-Miller mission got as far as Ankara or Istanbul.…
Meanwhile, the three of us in the Foreign Ministry maintained contact around the clock with Washington for two or three days. Eventually that ended, although for some time thereafter we had daily contact, and for several months thereafter until February, we had use of the telex facilities of the Foreign Ministry to communicate with Washington. This was done obviously in carefully guarded correspondence which wasn’t very sensitive, because it was sent by means of Iranian facilities. But it gave us a way of talking to Washington. It gave the three of us a sense of participation. It was great for our morale. We could answer questions and get it on the record with the cooperation of the Foreign Ministry about our judgment of the mood in Tehran, the scene in Tehran.
Q: Obviously you were isolated. Where were you, in one room?
LAINGEN: At the outset we were a kind of Embassy in exile, in isolation in the Foreign Ministry in the diplomatic reception room.
Q: Were you able to talk to people coming in or out to find out what was happening?
LAINGEN: We were able to get information of a relatively limited nature. We couldn’t go out into the streets and get a Gallup poll of the mood on the street. But we could watch from the windows at what the sentiment was like out there. The chief of protocol came to see us, almost daily at the outset. I had long conversations with him, which on his part were obviously guarded. He was clearly sympathetic. He was old school Persian — a typical chief of protocol who wanted to cooperate in every way in a protocol sense, and I have no doubt he, being a professional diplomat himself, was deeply troubled by what had happened. But what he had to say had to be carefully guarded. But we could read through lines in conversations with him.
We talked to the kitchen force, who also were friendly. Shortly after we were taken, Army guards began to appear who would remain our guards throughout the process until we were taken off to prison, late in the affair. We could converse with them. But, most importantly, we had visits from foreign ambassadors once in a while. A few were allowed in to see us. The British came in to see us once or twice. We could talk on the phone with them the first few days. The Canadian ambassador got in to see us. The German, the Turkish.
And we had access to radio and to Iranian TV. Victor Tomseth speaks fluent enough Persian so that he could watch television and inform me. I didn’t know Persian that well. From all of those hearing points we could say something to Washington as to what the situation was like; what we judged the mood to be; ideas that we might have for media coverage, public relations handling. We couldn’t get into sensitive material except to the point we could communicate sensitive views and suggestions to these visiting ambassadors who would then leave and themselves report back to Washington. A lot of that went on and it developed over the months into a rather sustained channel, although not always regular. The Swiss ambassador came in to see us periodically and, when we broke relations with Iran in April of that year, his embassy became our protecting power in Tehran. He got in to see us sometimes weekly, not always that often, but reasonably often so that we could send messages through him that we wrote out ourselves, and passed to him reasonably surreptitiously, although we were not watched that closely when we were talking to him. We would pass him a piece of paper and he would put it on his wires. So there is a file of classified cables from Laingen in the archives of the Department. Scores of them and some quite sensitive. Some, I would like to believe, reasonably helpful to Washington as that crisis wore on over the next 444 days.
Freezing Iran’s Assets but Keeping Diplomatic Channels Open
Q: Did the action on the part of the United States to freeze assets have any effect?
LAINGEN: I regarded Carter’s action in freezing those assets as the smartest thing he ever did in this crisis.
Q: I do too.
LAINGEN: As it turned out, it became a powerful tool in our hands, as freezing of assets can be in certain situations.
Q: Particularly the way the Iranian situation is set up.
LAINGEN: That is right, when they are as large as that. We saw it as the right thing to do. I don’t recall sensing at that time that it was going to be as consequential as it was. In terms of PR, yes it was also a useful thing that made it clear to the Iranians that Jimmy Carter could be tough, at least in that area, and that was something that I thought was a good thing to do. I am often asked whether I disagree with policies that Jimmy Carter followed in the hostage situation in Tehran and my stock answer, usually over-simplified admittedly, is that I don’t think he had many other options than those he chose, including the seizing of the assets, which any president would have done. He, however, put reliance not on the use of force but on a sustained process of applying pressure through diplomacy, eventually through economic sanctions, through diplomatic isolation, and using and probing for channels of communication in every way he conceivably could. He did, in fact, warn, in classified communications with Tehran, and we became aware of that, that if the hostages were put on trial then no holds were barred. That he was prepared to use force if necessary…if any kind of physical action was taken against us.
Q: That was a constant threat, was it?
LAINGEN: It was implied, and also expressed on several occasions in a classified, secret sense. It wasn’t blatantly touted from Washington every morning. One can make a good case today that had Jimmy Carter resorted to actual force from day one, regarded what had happened in Tehran as an act of war, as Ronald Reagan described it, the situation might have developed differently, probably would have developed differently, if he had used force. I did not, sitting there, think the use of force was a good idea. I got swept up, if you will, in the sense that we can work this out over time through negotiations and discussions and diplomacy and pressure, diplomatic and economic pressure. I really believed that that was the preferred course of action. In part because I thought the use of force, the threat, say, we are going to bomb Kharg island everyday if you don’t release the hostages immediately, was a slippery slope that would have been very difficult to handle, because I thought the passion in Tehran at the time was such that they would respond with force equally against the hostages. If you do that we will kill three hostages tomorrow. We will put them on trial and condemn them as spies next week. Maybe those threats would have been proven false, I don’t know. We can’t replay it. At the time I believed that the passion was such that Khomeini’s vindictiveness, determination and rigidity was such as to make it impossible to see him back down.…
Ronald Reagan, when he was confronted with the first such crisis in his presidency, the TWA hijacking in Beirut, didn’t use force. A number of Americans were held hostages for a time. He ended up negotiating, or at least trying to work it out without the application of force. The only two times that force has really been effective in dealing with terrorism in my view is the bombing of Tripoli by Reagan, and you can argue how effective that was. It seemed to have some effect on Qadhafi. The other singularly successful one, where everything was in place and worked right, was the Achille Lauro cruise ship incident, where we were able to use force to pick up the terrorists involved.
But normally things aren’t neatly in place, things don’t work right, and there is inevitably all manner of risks, and God knows we certainly came to appreciate that in a subsequent hostage crisis that went on for years and that was Beirut. We never ever felt we could wade into Beirut with military force and get at those bastards. I use that word advisedly. They were assuredly bastards and needed to be clobbered. But we couldn’t find a way to do it. We couldn’t be assured of where they were and, of course, we could not be assured at all about what would happen to the hostages if we tried it.