Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"America Held Hostage"; Jimmy Carter and the Crisis in Tehran

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe the hostage crisis in Iran that bedeviled Jimmy Carter's presidency for its last 444 days.

American foreign relations took a sinister turn on December 24, 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up a friendly communist regime, starting a decade-long war that would hasten the fall of the Soviet government. It would also mark the first appearance on the world stage of Osama bin Ladin, who later became the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. He was an anti-Soviet fighter in the mountainous nation of Afghanistan. American-Soviet tensions rose sharply and in retaliation for the invasion, President Jimmy Carter decided to cancel America’s participation in the summer Olympics scheduled to take place in Moscow the next summer.

Clouds appeared elsewhere in the Middle East. Distracted by his Egyptian-Israeli diplomacy, Carter was slow to react to the Iranian revolution. The new “Islamic Republic of Iran” demanded that the overthrown Shah be returned to government custody to stand trial for his human rights abuses, and put pressure on other governments to not give him sanctuary. Students began holding angry demonstrations in Iranian cities, shouting, “Death to America!” and burning the American flag.

The Shah shuttled with his family from Egypt to Morocco to the Bahamas and then to Mexico. In Mexico, doctors diagnosed him as suffering from cancer. Carter allowed the Shah to enter the United States to receive medical treatment. In response, on November 4, 1979, more than 3,000 student radicals, at the behest of the Iranian government, took over the American embassy in Tehran and began holding those inside hostage. The Iranians also seized control of most of the embassy files.

The Carter administration had ignored warnings that the U.S. embassy was in danger and failed to follow the lead of several European embassies that had shut down their diplomatic missions in Tehran. The student occupiers derided the embassy as a nest of spies. In fact, the Iranian government feared that the United States would overthrow it the way it had overthrown Mosaddegh. Khomeini said there would be no release of the 66 hostages until the Shah was sent back to Iran to stand trial.

Two weeks after the initial embassy takeover, the Iranians did release five women and eight African American men because, Khomeini said, “Islam has a special respect towards women and since blacks, who have spent ages under American pressure and tyranny may have come to Iran under pressure.” Another hostage was let go in July 1980 when he began to suffer symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Carter for a long time retreated to the White House, eager to let Americans know that he was focused on winning the release of the hostages and had no time for ordinary politics. In fact, he created the impression of being besieged, an image reinforced by a new TV news show on ABC that debuted in 1979, "America Held Hostage." Hosted by Ted Koppel, the show focused on each day’s developments concerning the hostage drama. Each episode was labeled by the number of days since the crisis began – for instance, “Day 100.” As the number of days grew higher, already low approval ratings for Carter dropped even further.

The United States froze Iranian assets held in America. The Iranian government demanded access to that money, and other reparations for the nation’s suffering during the Shah’s rule and the handover of the Shah himself. The Shah left the United States on December 15, 1979 and stayed in Panama, where Omar Torrijos was repaying a debt to Carter for the Canal treaties.

The Shah died in Egypt July 27, 1980. With negotiations hopelessly deadlocked, patience running thin, and Carter aware of the political damage being done to him, the president authorized a military mission to rescue the hostages on April 24-25. Malfunctioning helicopters forced Carter to abort the mission. Eight Marines died in the rescue attempt and five suffered injuries. “The photographs of the wreckage – an Air Force plane crashed into some of the helicopters in the Iranian desert – became the symbol of America’s and Carter’s impotence,” Washington journalist Bob Woodward wrote.



Michael Phillips has authored the following:


White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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