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Tie a Yellow Ribbon — The Iran Hostage Crisis as Seen from the Home Front

Penelope (Penne) Laingen is the wife of Bruce Laingen, who had served in Germany, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan before being named ambassador to Malta in 1977.  He was sent back to Iran to serve as Charge d’Affaires, and had been there for only a few months when the U.S. Embassy was overrun by student protesters.  In this interview, Penne Laingen describes the agony of the hostage crisis from the spouse’s perspective, the now ubiquitous yellow ribbon campaign she started, and the chronic frustration of dealing with the U.S. government. She was interviewed by Jewell Fenzi starting in March 1986. Read Bruce Laingen’s account here.

“I got no support from the Department”

Q: Can I ask you how you lived those 444 days?

LAINGEN: I was just thinking yesterday about that time in Pakistan that I told you about — the tremendous stress and the coming close to a nervous breakdown in Pakistan — almost made those 444 days a piece of cake. Frankly, no it wasn’t, but how did I spend it? Well, I mainly spent it — you couldn’t think about anything else. Let’s face it. In my whole history of being connected to the Foreign Service, whenever I’d started a project – [it would frequently be interrupted].  For instance, I am a writer and I had three chapters written in a novel and my teacher said, “You have a real winner here and should get an agent now.”  Then Bruce was taken hostage, so I put that away and I’ve not gotten back to it. I will someday, I hope. I had also upholstered a chair and I had everything but the back done when we went toMalta, so I had to put that away, too. I mean, it’s just been a history of deferring or putting aside something. So when he was taken hostage, I just had to put everything else out of my mind and concentrate on that. I also called all my training in the Foreign Service to bear, even though I felt I had been “dismissed” by the Foreign Service….

Q: Cast adrift.

LAINGEN: Cast adrift. This is another thing I don’t think my husband understands to this day. “But, honey, haven’t you enjoyed the Foreign Service?” Well, yes, there are high points, but I think it was the total identity that I had been led to believe I was a part of — and a vital part of it — and it gnawed on me all through Malta. I did it [carried out the role], but it still gnawed, terribly — the lack of recognition that I was out there doing a job for the U.S.government. That’s the way I really felt about it.

So, here we come to the hostage crisis, a terribly public, international crisis, where you are on television. I think most people recognize and say, okay, this is the wife of the chief of mission and how she behaves reflects not only on her husband but perhaps on the whole Foreign Service or on Americans on the world scene. If I had gone on television and cried nightly, if I’d flown off to Iran and called the President stupid or the Government’s policy stupid, I think I would have heard in two minutes just how private a person I was! I would have been reprimanded by the very Department of State which had proclaimed me to be a private person with no responsibility to my husband’s career. I mean, I’m being sarcastic and I realized I wasn’t a private person. You can’t be a private person. You are a part of the Foreign Service and particularly when you are on the public stage like that. It’s a public life. How can you be a private person in a public life? See, this is what Sandra Gottlieb found out. You cannot be a private person in a public arena. There’s no way. So, the hypocrisy of this official policy has just gnawed no end at me. And I got no support from the Department in that role. I got sort of superficial support. Well, not even that, not even that.

“Just tell them to tie a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree.”

Q: Did you call weekly, daily, hourly to find out?

LAINGEN: No, no.

Q: Did you wait for them?

LAINGEN: Well, I started — I went down to the Department, I will say that. They opened up this task force center and you could go up there. But after a while, you felt in the way. They were not giving you any jobs to do.

But along about March of 1980, five months after the takeover, I went to lunch over at Annapolis with some former POWs’ wives and they had been very supportive. One of them was Alice Stratton, and she is now head of the Navy Family Office or whatever. She said you need to get organized — the families need to get organized. I said, yes, I really feel that’s something that I have been feeling. I’m not getting any support from the Department, but the families have all these questions — legal, financial, repatriational, (medical, administrative), whatever — they aren’t getting the answers. The one thing that was coming up was, “Should we pay our income taxes?” We just weren’t getting the answers.

Anyway, I called the families together in March of 1980 and we founded FLAG right then and there, formed the family group, the Family Liaison Action Group. In the meantime, I had been working on the yellow ribbon campaign. That started because a Washington Post lady [Barbara Parker] called me and said, “You seem so calm.” And she said we noticed that the psychiatrists are saying that their mental patients are so angry at Iran that they’ve coined this phrase “Irage” that they’re seeing it in their patients. And she said they are wondering how you manage….

At that time there were some college students throwing dog food at Iranian demonstrators in our streets. They were showing signs of this Irage. I said that just wouldn’t help our situation. “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.” I don’t know why it came to me, except that I had put a yellow ribbon up myself on a large oak in my yard. And she said, “Have you done this?” And I said, “Yes.” She lived in Reston,Virginia, and she said “I think it’s a wonderful thing,” so she started hanging ribbons in Reston.

One night, it was snowing and my doorbell rang. I went to the door and there was a woman there, who turned out to be an AID wife. And there was her station wagon with the children and the dog hanging out of it, and she said, “I have just come to tell you that I have appointed myself Chairman of the Yellow Ribbon Committee — my sister and I.” [It was Gail Carlson and Karen Helfert.] And so, those two started hanging ribbons all over Washington, DC, up Massachusetts Avenue and around the White House. Then eventually I was asked to the White House to hang a yellow ribbon on a Georgia Maple, so I went with Mrs. Carter and did that. Then, I was asked up to Capitol Hill to put a yellow ribbon around the Sam Rayburn Oak tree [the night of the State of the Union Address]. And then, I went to Wye Oak,Maryland, where the largest oak tree in the United States is located, with Governor Harry Hughes. It was so large that instead of a ribbon, we had a bolt of yellow and he went around one side of the tree and I went around the other (laughs), and we swathed this giant tree with yellow.

Well, it did just snowball. And then, No Greater Love [a humanitarian organization under the direction of Carmela La Spada] went to the unions and they produced this pin. We began giving those out all over the United States. Then we worked with Girl Scouts [and Boy Scouts], veterans, and various Junior Chambers of Commerce, and it became a national [symbol]. I think Dotty Morefield was putting up billboards in California. (laughs) And bumper stickers. And it just spread.

There was one thing that interested me about the American people. They do love their gimmicks, and we had to be very careful of those people who began exploiting our situation to make money off of our trauma. There was one woman I remember particularly in North Carolina, I think, who began putting out bulletins to people and selling them or selling bumper stickers and T-shirts and things like that, but I think I have always been amazed at the way that the hostage situation took hold of the American people’s imagination. I just think the time was ripe after Vietnam and Watergate. We were feeling very down about ourselves. If you recall, Jimmy Carter was going up to Camp David into the mountains, calling all these people in and saying, “What’s the matter with the United States?” At the time the takeover took place, he was in fact at Camp David doing that very thing. There was a tremendous amount of being down about ourselves as Americans. I think with the Iran crisis, people began to say, “No more, this is it.”

Q: We bottomed out with the Iran crisis.

LAINGEN: Who are they to treat us this way? We were over there to try to establish a new relationship with the revolutionary government ofIran. In fact, I have a letter from my husband to that effect. But it was too late. Our relationship with the Shah was so deep. After all, thirty years of supporting him and they [the mullahs] weren’t trusting of us at all. And when we did bring the Shah into this country, they thought we were going to get him well and send him back. So we could understand that.

At any rate, I think that’s one reason why the yellow ribbon really took off, because people were feeling the need to be united about something at last and feel good about themselves. We were really a good people and we didn’t mean bad by the Iranians. And it was such a ludicrous situation, holding diplomats hostage like that, even though there had been a precedent in 1949 in Mukden, China. [To read more about the Mukden  incident, see “A Hostage in Communist China.”]

Q: I didn’t know that…

LAINGEN: There were Americans held for thirteen months. I’ve met one of the women, Mary Hubbard, a Foreign Service officer actually, and she later married one of the fellows that she was held captive with. And you never heard of that situation. That’s why I feel the Iran thing just happened at a time of history when we were ripe for that. At any rate, the yellow ribbon. And then I felt through my experience as an ambassador’s wife and then having served under ambassadors’ wives who took their jobs, in quotes, seriously, that my training meant that I had a certain responsibility for the families of the hostages, just as Bruce was feeling for his colleagues in Iran. I felt a responsibility there. I had not necessarily one to the U.S. Government with its official policy of not caring what I did, but probably…

A rescue mission was aborted and eight commandos have been killed

Q: In human terms…

LAINGEN: Yes, but mostly to my husband, that I had to behave. But also, I just felt a responsibility and that’s why this family organization came about. I felt it just had to be done. We had to have input into decisions that were being made, for us and for the hostages. It wasn’t that we were going against the government, and the military services were very concerned about that when we organized FLAG, but we had to have that option if we wanted to….

[Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the third-ranking position in the Department] David Newsom said, “Nothing is going to happen, nothing is going to happen, I assure you. We are keeping the hostages first in our minds and we will do nothing to endanger their lives.” So everyone left the meeting feeling very good and calm. At one or two o’clock in the morning, the phone rang and it was Henry Precht. He said, “First of all, Bruce is all right, I’ll tell you that. Secondly, there was a rescue mission and it was aborted and eight commandos have been killed.” The interesting thing is, because I had had some background of this [concerning a possible raid] from this other person, I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t surprised. I was really feeling, well, my goodness, what to think about David Newsom? Either he didn’t know about the raid or it was the biggest ruse anyone had ever pulled on the families. So, I fell right back to sleep after I hung up.

The next thing I knew it was about five o’clock in the morning and the media people were banging on the door, just banging on the door, and it woke me up with a start — and my son. But we hid out and didn’t turn on any lights and waited until they had left. About 7:30, I went to church, because I was feeling not only sad about the eight that had been killed, but I felt sorry for Jimmy Carter. I thought what a terrible decision he had had to make, that he was that desperate and then it failed….

Anyway, I came home [from church] and I felt at peace, because Bruce was all right. I called the White House — I had a contact there — and I said, “I just want President Carter to know how badly I feel for him, that I support him, and it’s a shame it failed, but if you can possibly hit ’em again, hit ’em harder,” that sort of thing. At any rate, the next day, which was Sunday or Monday, I believe, I had friends come down from New York. They said, “Oh, we saw your telegram in the New York Times, the telegram you sent to the president.” And I said: “The what?” “Yes,” they said, “It said that you supported the rescue mission, hit ’em again, don’t despair.” That was the time when I was really angry with President Carter, because I had wanted just a private message to him, that I knew how badly he must feel. I had prayed over it, and then he — needing desperately some support for it, let my message go to the New York Times without asking me at all. This put me in a difficult position with the other hostage families. It wasn’t that I went against President Carter, but I just really wasn’t as happy with him after that. And then…

Q: Do you think it was his decision or somebody else’s?

LAINGEN: It could have been somebody else’s.

Q: But still, he let it go through. He was a man who paid attention to detail. He knew that it was going through.

LAINGEN: Yes, right. And then, [columnist] Mary McGrory called me. At that time, they were saying that the rescue mission was a political maneuver. Did I think that Carter had done it in order to win the election? He was beginning to campaign and beginning to see that his Rose Garden policy of staying close to the White House and doing nothing but hostages was hurting him. I said I refused to make any comments that way. The only thing I will say is that, anybody who turns this tremendous American surge of patriotism or whatever it is we are feeling into a political gimmick, makes a big mistake, I think. I don’t see how anybody could win an election if he does that. They’ve got to stay above politics where this Iran thing is concerned.

Anyway, it’s sad, because it did turn out to be his undoing. Most people, as they pointed out today with Reagan in Grenada and Reagan in Libya, that the American people do support their presidents in quick little wars, but they certainly didn’t with Carter in Iran. It turned against him very much. It killed him. At any rate, the more I thought about the rescue mission, too, I realized — after it failed — that America was not as capable as I thought we were. A raid into that populous area was impossible and, no doubt, many would have been killed, even some of the hostages. When Secretary Vance resigned in protest, I became very skeptical about the raid. I mean, what in the world were these helicopters failing for in the desert? And I felt particularly bad, because, as I say, I had one son at the Naval Academy and another one at the University of Minnesota in NROTC and a third one coming along who is now at Annapolis, all of them wanting to fly. Our middle son now is a helicopter pilot, and…he recently took off from an aircraft carrier and the plane burst into flames and he had to quickly get back on the aircraft carrier. He almost dunked in the ocean! There’s so much talk about missiles, spending money on missile weapons, when the things we really need in warfare are falling apart. These helicopters are so old that it was very disillusioning to me. The more I thought about it, too, I thought how are they going to rescue my husband at the Foreign Ministry?

The more I thought about the rescue mission, I thanked the good Lord that it really didn’t succeed. Publicly, even when Bruce got home, we never said anything against it, because we marveled at the fact there were other Americans willing to put their lives on the line to save their fellow Americans. So that has always been something we don’t want to shatter, that those men went on a mission that was stupid. We certainly didn’t want to say that to their families. But I do look back on it and think it was an act of desperation. We had been through everything we possibly could and then, in April, this mission failed. After that, the whole summer through 1980, there was nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing going on.

“They held a gun to Bruce’s head and then put him in solitary”

Q: No initiations…negotiations?

LAINGEN: Nothing, they had turned over every stone possible, and also the families were beginning to feel that perhaps we ought to be quiet and just wait until the Iranians saw that nothing was happening and they’d get tired of it, tired of all the publicity. Perhaps too much publicity had lengthened the hostage crisis. So then, we tried to calm everybody down, and that didn’t work. By then, the American people had really been stirred up too much. (laughs) That summer, too, Richard Queen returned because he had developed multiple sclerosis. The family members took that to mean that their loved ones were probably in pretty good health. Also, that the Iranians had no intention of killing any of them. It then became a matter of waiting for the Iranians to figure out a way to release the hostages without losing face. They had made their points about their grievances. The Shah died that July, so they knew he wouldn’t return. And they’d just about squeezed every value out of the hostage issue to unite their people behind the new revolutionary government.

I think what really completed the hostage crisis was the Iran-Iraq War, where Iran had used the hostages to put their government together with the mullahs, the clerics. So then, they had served that purpose and now they were distracted by the war. Also, I remember that the Iranian banker, Nobari, who was in Paris, finally saw that the freezing of the assets was killing Iran and he went to tell Ghotbzadeh and some of them — and Bani Sadr, who knew economics — that the hostage crisis was now beginning to turn against them. One of them came to the United Nations and saw how isolated Iran had become on the world scene when they received no support concerning the invasion of the Iraqis. And then, I think the prospect of Ronald Reagan coming in also had something to do with ending it.

Q: It seemed to me it gave them an opportunity. With Carter out and Reagan coming in, it was an opportunity that they seized. Now, whether we planted the thought with them or someone there thought it up themselves…

LAINGEN: Well, I do think that’s true, but I also think that they panicked, because the last few days before the inauguration, when all the business with the Algerians was going on and with Warren Christopher flying back and forth, the feeling was that the day of the inauguration was the deadline, and if they didn’t come through and agree on it and they didn’t get what they wanted from the Americans, who knows what Reagan would do, bomb Kharg Island or something?  That was his reputation then. So that was definitely the deadline for them. They had to get that done.

But it’s interesting that weeks before that they did come and get Bruce and the others out of the Foreign Ministry, held a gun to their heads — a lot of people don’t know this —  and those three were in solitary confinement in prison for three weeks. And no beds there. They slept on cement floors, their teeth chattering. It was just awful. I was informed that Bruce had gone from the Foreign Ministry. They didn’t know where. And I remember Sheldon Krys saying he hoped that I would not worry too much. I said, “No, as a matter of fact, I felt it was the beginning of the end. Bruce might be in prison and it might be awful, but there was something moving. It’s movement, and I think it’s a step out.” And that’s exactly what happened.

“We put up a dart board of Khomeini and threw darts at it”

Q: Was Sheldon Krys in on those negotiations?

LAINGEN: Oh, yes, I’m sure he was. Perhaps not the monetary negotiations, but certainly involved with the hostages’ release.

Q: He came as Ambassador to Trinidad just as we were leaving. I had one afternoon briefing session with him and saw him a few times afterwards. Very competent.

LAINGEN: Very competent. One thing that made it difficult was the lack of esprit de corps among the families. I mean, we had never served together, so that was one of the drawbacks. And there were all different services involved. There’s a study done of fourteen hostage wives. Those of us who had served the longest in the Foreign Service expected the most, yet felt we had received the least support. Those foreign-born spouses in the group expected nothing and were deeply grateful for whatever they received in the way of support. They had no great expectations of the Department, which was perhaps a cultural difference. And the military wives felt they received the greatest support, which they did, and in return kept their allegiance to those services intact.

I believe Sheldon Krys and other Department managers did the best they could under the circumstances, but they had much to learn from the Iran crisis in the management of families during a crisis. It was always a source of great disappointment to me, for instance, that not once during the crisis did any of my husband’s colleagues offer to take our youngest son to a basketball game or call to inquire about the house or other personal matters. It was up to us to unite ourselves and support one another in that personal way.

I suppose at posts overseas, when crisis strikes, Foreign Service personnel exhibit more esprit de corps and community cohesion than was evident to us here in Washington. Several of us wrote a report for the State Department with suggestions on methods of handling families in crisis, and I am happy to say that crisis managers are beginning to include family members in the terrorism equation. At least now they are seen as “indirect victims” and that their reactions are not mental problems but human reactions to stress.

You knew you were angry, but there wasn’t much you could do. You tried to focus your anger. Many of them [the families] focused it on the State Department. That was another thing I told them [the crisis managers] : “You mustn’t take it personally, because anger is very natural. They’re going to have to find someplace to put their anger and it probably will be focused on you.”

But what we did, in our family, was put up a dart board of Khomeini and threw darts at it in our house. That kind of thing helped get it out. I saw in my diary, looking back in it, you could see the anger. We didn’t call them Shiites, for instance. (laughs).

I had become much more independent and mentally retired from the Foreign Service. A long separation like that usually means that nothing will ever be the same again, and it takes a great deal of commitment to the marriage and love on the part of everyone in the family to adjust. I had never liked Iran, as I told you, and I’m afraid that the hostage crisis did nothing to better my estimation of the country. Bruce has been much more forgiving than I.

The thing that surprised me most was how the anger remained for such a long time afterward. I thought it would disappear once the hostages were home. I finally came to the conclusion that the anger stemmed from the whole upsetting trauma in our lives, not from anyone or anything specifically. What they did in Iran was wrong, and there’s no two ways about it, and if they haven’t learned that lesson, it’s too bad for all of us.