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This Day in History, 1979


Student followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini send shock waves across America when they storm the U.S. embassy in Tehran. The radical Islamic fundamentalists took 90 hostages. The students were enraged that the deposed Shah had been allowed to enter the United States for medical treatment and they threatened to murder hostages if any rescue was attempted. Days later, Iran's provincial leader resigned, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's fundamentalist revolutionaries, took full control of the country--and the fate of the hostages.

Two weeks after the storming of the embassy, the Ayatollah began to release all non-U.S. captives, and all female and minority Americans, citing these groups as among the people oppressed by the United States government. The remaining 52 captives were left at the mercy of the Ayatollah for the next 14 months.

President Jimmy Carter was unable to diplomatically resolve the crisis, and on April 24, 1980, he ordered a disastrous rescue mission in which eight U.S. military personnel were killed and no hostages rescued. Three months later, the former shah died of cancer in Egypt, but the crisis continued. In November 1980, Carter lost the presidential election to Republican Ronald Reagan. Soon after, with the assistance of Algerian intermediaries, successful negotiations finally began between the United States and Iran.

On January 20, 1981--the day of Reagan's inauguration--the United States freed almost $3 billion in frozen Iranian assets and promised $5 billion more in financial aid. Minutes after Reagan was sworn in, the hostages flew out of Iran on an Algerian airliner, ending their 444-day ordeal. The next day, Jimmy Carter flew to West Germany to greet them on their way home.

I don't recall where I was when I heard about the hostages -- I was only 9 -- but I do remember vividly hearing about their being freed on Tuesday, January 20, 1981. I was in elementary school, in a music class, and the announcement came over the loudpseaker. The teacher at the piano immediately launched into the Star-Spangled Banner, and we all stood up spontaneously and sang. It was an incredible sense of relief to know that the hostages were coming home.


This isn't the very first news story I remember, but it's up there. I remember being very naive and being impressedby Reagan's getting the hostages freed; it was only later we found out about the arms-for-hostages thing.
I can't think of any major news story I remember before then, outside of the general existence of space and football, so the Iranian hostage crisis and the 1980 presidential election are the first major news stories I remember. I was four, going on five.

I absolutely failed to distinguish the two. I firmly believed that Iranian revolutionaries were holding over fifty hostages in the White House, that the campaign and election were the result of utter chaos in Washington, and that Reagan would be unable to take office until they were dislodged. Their release on Inauguration Day only confirmed this. I was worried about Carter's safety throughout, especially since he was a Georgian and therefore a good guy.

I learned better what was going on as I got older, but I grew up with the tacit belief that our country (and the Soviet Union) was much weaker than it was outside of having nuclear weapons, that we were beset by enemies, that we were open to attack at any time, and our general domestic and foreign situation was fragile. After September 11, my inner child kept being puzzled that so many distinguished adults were acting so surprised over this.

Also, Carter's still a good guy.

December 2016

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