The 40th Anniversary of the Release of 52 American Hostages Held in Iran

On January 20,1981, a full 40 years ago, 52 Americans who had been held hostage for 444 days in Iran were released.  This event took place as US President Ronald Reagan gave his 20 minute inaugural address.  I was in the first grade at the time, and I remember the collective rejoicing of friends and neighbors as we hung signs and tied yellow ribbons around the trees in our front yards and sang the 1973 hit, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the ‘Ole Oak Tree.”

The US hostages were primarily diplomats, embassy employees and members of the military, who had been taken hostage during a siege of the US Embassy in Tehran, Iran on November 4, 1979 by university students.  The siege and subsequent hostage situation were ignited by anger at the American government for having allowed the recently overthrown, Shah Pahlavi, to enter the US for cancer treatment.  The Iranians wanted the Shah to stand trial for crimes in his home country.

The hostage crisis dominated world news and foreign policy at the time and many believe that the devolving situation which included a failed rescue attempt called Operation Eagle Claw, was a key factor in then US President Jimmy Carter losing his re-election campaign in a landslide to Ronald Reagan. The Secretary of State at the time, Cyrus Vance, resigned as a result of the botched rescue attempt.

According to an article published in the Washington Post on January 20, 1981, written by Richard Harwood and T.R. Reid, “The political impact of all this on Carter’s fortunes was mixed. Initially, the public rallied to his support and the crisis undoubtedly contributed to his renomination. But his failure to secure the hostages’ release just before the election was, in the opinion of his own political advisers, a major factor in his loss of the presidency.”

The article goes on to cite a Tehran radio commentary at the time that asserted the hostages were not released prior to the inauguration as expected in order to “deprive Carter of the opportunity to greet them as his last official act before Reagan’s inauguration.”

In fact, Carter did meet with the hostages in Germany, but as a former president acting as an emissary for Reagan.  The release negotiations, which were mediated by Algiers, were believed to finally reach an end in part because Iraq had invaded Iran in September 1980, beginning the Iraq-Iran war, which took the attention of the Iranian government. The agreement to free the hostages in part required the US to return billions of dollars in Iranian assets that were frozen after the hostages were taken.

Harwood and Reid, reporting for the Washington Post, eloquently said, “Thus ended a nightmare that had preoccupied the international community and had threatened world peace since Nov. 4, 1979.”

Series: Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989, Collection: White House Photographic Collection, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For his part, in mentioning foreign adversaries in his famous 1981 inaugural address, Reagan said, “Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.”  

A poignant video clip of this quote with Reagan and Carter in the frame can be seen at the Reagan Foundation website,  click here to view it.

To learn more about the Iran Hostage Crisis, visit these resources:

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