America Held Hostage: Day 10,959. Remember Ted Koppel and his nightly tally? He really built his career on that chaos in the Middle East. Considering the mess we’re in over there, I see no reason to stop counting.
Today is the 10,959th day — the 30th anniversary — since a group of Iranian students took American diplomats hostage. Feels like ancient history to some, but not to me. I can still remember that Christmas: no lights on the tree in front of the White House and Americans asked to burn a candle in their windows in honor of the 50 or so U.S. citizens being held in Iran. I say 50 or so because the number fluctuated in the first few weeks. The kidnappers initially let all but one woman go and all but one of the black people go. They also let another guy go when he got sick. The hostage takers didn’t want anyone to die. They were only mad at the white American males who they believed refused to mind their own business.
The captors, if you believe them, didn’t intend to keep the hostages very long. They just wanted to make a point. Their point was that the United States needed to stop playing international checkers with Middle Eastern game pieces. But the hostage takers found that their countrymen were so stoked by their bold defiance of the United States that they had become overnight heroes and decided to hang onto the Americans a little longer.
None of this happened in a vacuum. These college kids weren’t pledging some fraternity. The U.S. and Iran had shared some unpleasant history. Allow me to paraphrase how the Iranian hostage incident happened. In 1953, Iran democratically elected a leader. The U.S. government and the CIA didn’t like him. They liked another guy, the Shah. So the U.S. kinged the Shah’s checker, took the other guy’s piece and put the Shah in charge.
Well, the Iranians weren’t too pleased about all this but they put up with it until 1979 when once again the people of Iran decided to pick their own leader. Once again it wasn’t the Shah. It was this dude called the Ayatollah. They deposed the Shah and the new Iranian government started talking about putting the Shah on trial and maybe executing him for various crimes.
So the Shah hid out with his family in France. But the Shah, in addition to being out of work, discovered that he had deadly lymphatic cancer. He wanted to travel to the Mayo Clinic in the United States for treatments.
President Jimmy Carter initially said no, believing that the new government in Iran had not been fond of U.S. interventions thus far and it would just make trouble. In fact, President Carter was so concerned about the new negativity in Iran that after the Shah’s ouster, he called home roughly a thousand American diplomats, which left only about 65 Americans in that country.
Now my favorite American villains enter the scene: two men I would most like to see in prison, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. These two Nixon-era goons convinced President Carter to let their buddy the Shah into the United States. It’s an odd world, isn’t it, when those two advocated 30 years ago for a foreign despot to have access to health care that 45 million Americans still can’t have it?
Anyway, the Shah came for treatments on Oct. 22. On Nov. 4, the hostages were taken.
Luckily for the United States, President Carter was unwilling to go to war over 50 or so unharmed people. He did other things: embargoes and freezing assets and sending soldiers with helicopters that strangely didn’t work when we needed them. Jimmy Carter lost his re-election bid, and many folks believe it’s because he didn’t go to war over the hostages.
But the saddest and stupidest things of all were the “destabilizing” moves Rumsfeld and Cheney made over the next few years. America’s Heckle and Jeckle sold Saddam Hussein weapons of mass destruction to use on the Iranian people. You don’t need me to tell you the rest of that story.
Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.