Taken Hostage : The Iran Hostage Crisis and America's First Encounter with Radical Islam
On November 4, 1979, Iranian militants stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran and took sixty-six Americans captive. Thus began the Iran Hostage Crisis, an affair that captivated the American public for 444 days and marked America's first confrontation with the forces of radical Islam. Using hundreds of recently declassified government documents, historian David Farber takes the first in-depth look at the hostage crisis, examining its lessons for America's contemporary War on Terrorism.
Unlike other histories of the subject, Farber's vivid and fast-paced narrative looks beyond the day-to-day circumstances of the crisis, using the events leading up to the ordeal as a means for understanding it. The book paints a portrait of the 1970s in the United States as an era of failed expectations in a nation plagued by uncertainty and anxiety. It reveals an American government ill prepared for the fall of the Shah of Iran and unable to reckon with the Ayatollah Khomeini and his militant Islamic followers.
Farber's account is filled with fresh insights regarding the central players in the crisis: Khomeini emerges as an astute strategist, single-mindedly dedicated to creating an Islamic state. The Americans' student-captors appear as less-than-organized youths, having prepared for only a symbolic sit-in with just a three-day supply of food. ABC news chief Roone Arledge, newly installed and eager for ratings, is cited as a critical catalyst in elevating the hostages to cause c?l?bre status.
Throughout the book there emerge eerie parallels to the current terrorism crisis. Then as now, Farber demonstrates, politicians failed to grasp the depth of anger that Islamic fundamentalists harbored toward the United States, and Americans dismissed threats from terrorist groups as the crusades of ineffectual madmen.
Taken Hostage is a timely and revealing history of America's first engagement with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, one that provides a chilling reminder that the past is only prologue.
For 444 days in 1979-1981, Americans watched, with a mix of frustration and helplessness, the unfolding of the Iran hostage crisis and the withering of the Carter presidency. While Farber, a professor at Temple University, presents a detailed picture of the coming of the Iranian revolution, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the United States' inability to see and deal effectively with either, at the heart of his tale is America. Farber satisfyingly contextualizes the moment, vividly redrawing stagflation, the energy crisis and national malaise. Neither the Shah nor his American supporters saw how powerful Islamic forces had become, viewing the threat as "Soviet Red and not Islamic Green"; Carter failed first to grasp the nature of the threat and later to act effectively. Khomeini comes off as a shrewd strategist, using the hostages to both consolidate his growing power and unite his nation. While the commentary on contemporary politics is rather speculative, Farber gives a needed history lesson on the depth of political anger in the Islamic world and on the United States' incapacity to communicate its message.
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Princeton University Press
July 23, 2006
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Excerpt from Taken Hostage by David Farber
THE RUSTIC philosopher Calvin Coolidge observed that if you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will turn off before they reach you. In the 1970s, though, the troubles all kept on coming. It was a game of chicken no one seemed to know how to escape and the head-on crash was not a pretty sight. The American people survived the wreckage (politically, the era's presidents were not so lucky) but not without scars and not without bitter memories.
The Iran hostage crisis, which lasted from November 4, 1979, until January 20, 1981, was but one of the many troubles Americans faced during a difficult time. The Iranian imbroglio, in fact, affected the American people less directly than any of the others. Unlike the energy crisis, inflation, economic stagnation, industrial dislocation, and presidential scandal and resignation, it happened faraway and caused little immediate pain to any but the hostages (sixty-six Americans were held in one form or another of captivity at the beginning of the ordeal; six other Americans escaped the immediate embassy takeover but were forced into hiding) and their families. Yet, as measured by public concern, emotional outpouring, and simple fascination, the Iran hostage crisis captivated the American people more than any other of the era's difficulties. By the millions Americans expressed their ongoing solidarity with the hostages. They wrote letters of sympathy to the hostages and their families. They wrapped yellow ribbons around trees in their front yards, pinned them on their clothes, tied them to their car radio antennas as symbols of concern for the hostages' plight. Though television talk shows, the evening news, drive-time radio, and almost every other forum of public conversation, Americans followed the latest twists and turns of the Americans' captivity in Iran. The nation, itself, was held hostage by the crisis.
From the beginning, a great many Americans felt the hostage crisis was about more than the plight of a few dozen of their fellow countrymen. The event was an obvious symbol, an easily understood example of the nation's inability to control its own fate, maintain its dignity, and pursue its independent course in the world. The United States could not protect its own people; it could not get them out of harm's way; it could not bring them home safely. Had America really become just a "pitiful giant," first defeated by the ragtag armies of Vietnam and then stymied by a bunch of fanatical student hostage-takers who--with complete impunity--burned the American flag, screamed, "Death to America!" and scorned the American government's every attempt to negotiate a rational solution? Was the Ayatollah Khomeini, a figure who seemed to most Americans a crazy fanatic living in a time warp, really going to be able to outwit and make a mockery of the U.S. government? Did the Carter administration's aborted attempt to rescue the hostages--a fiasco that cost eight soldiers their lives--prove that the Carter administration was inept and that the U.S. military was a hollowed-out force incapable of looking after the nation's security? As Americans watched the hostage crisis unfold, most became increasingly certain of one thing: the United States had lost its way--economically, culturally, politically, and even militarily.
This account of the Iran hostage crisis offers an analysis of the specific unfolding of that event within a broader account of an era of failed expectations. Rather than cast blame on the key actors, I explain how the political context of the late 1970s reduced the Carter administration's options in managing and resolving the Iran hostage crisis and show how Americans made sense of the hostage crisis within their understandings of America's predicament at the end of the 1970s. My account is a grim reminder of a tough time, an explanation of why so many people in the United States, back then, felt that they, too, were being held hostage by Iranian fanatics--as well as by the OPEC cartel, stagflation, and all the other troubles that kept coming down the road.
This account also provides a framework for understanding why Ronald Reagan's optimistic rhetoric during the 1980 presidential election campaign made sense to many Americans who were living through the so-called Age of Limits. During the 1970s and for some time after, social critics castigated Americans for being selfish, self-absorbed narcissists. In popular magazines and best-selling books, the 1970s were excoriated as the era of the "Me" generation. In part, the critics were comparing the 1970s to the 1960s, when, they argued, Americans had selflessly worked together for the common good in social change movements. (Few of these critics recognized the vitality of the 1970s era's grassroots movements, which ranged across the political spectrum and included the New Right as well as the women's movement and the gay liberation movement.) Americans' outpouring of concern for the hostages, at least in part, belies the accusation of endemic selfishness among the American people.
The outpouring of empathy for the hostages and their families revealed that millions of Americans at the end of the 1970s had maintained a powerful desire for bonds of national community. The patriotic forms that bond took--while demonstrating at times an ugly chauvinism, xenophobia, and racism--also exposed how prevalent love of country remained in American society. While many Americans had, in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle and the Watergate scandal, grown cynical about their political leaders, they had not necessarily grown similarly cynical about the United States itself. Overwhelmingly, politicians and social critics in the 1970s missed that difference.
One individual who did not was Ronald Reagan. Dismissed by most political pundits in the late 1970s as a has-been out of touch with the American political mainstream, Reagan campaigned brilliantly against the federal government but fervently for America as a shining ideal. Critics (and I include myself) argued that his vision of that ideal was often willfully blind to U.S. foreign policies that contradicted American principles. And while championing the ideals of the United States, Reagan seemed woefully unrealistic about--or dangerously ignorant of--the domestic inequities that plagued American society. But the rightness or wrongness of his policy predilections is not the point. Reagan preached a faith in the underlying idealism of the American way at a time when other leaders did not. His insight into the American people's continuing patriotism, even at a time when so much was going wrong, helped put Ronald Reagan in the White House.