Thirty years on, the lesson should still be clear. There is no such thing as “hard power” or “soft power”, or “smart power” . There is simply power. Power, judiciously and skilfully employed, with a will behind it that lends it credence to allies and gives pause to enemies and potential enemies.

Three decades ago this day, the 444-day national humiliation that was the Iran Hostage Crisis ended, minutes after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan. For fifteen months, beginning in November of 1979, the United States endured the holding of 52 of its citizens as hostages to the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian Revolution. As 500 “students” stormed the gates of the American Embassy in Teheran, the Marine Security Guard personnel were forbidden from defending themselves or their compound. One of those “students”, we know now, was none other than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, current “President of the Islamic Republic”.

The ongoing situation can be said to have given birth to the 24-hour news cycle with ABC’s Nightline, and was a major milestone in the march toward modern television news coverage. But the situation was more than that. It was a world-wide display of American impotence, of our decline as a force in world affairs, which many of our adversaries declared (and some allies worried privately) at the time, was a signal of the end of America on the world stage. The failed April 1980 rescue attempt seemed to confirm an America and a US Military unable to protect its citizens and its interests overseas. Furious and fruitless negotiations by the Carter Administration with the Iranian “authorities” produced little but frustration, anger, and more humiliation at the hands of the people who held our citizens and called America the “Great Satan”.

The signing of the Algiers Accords on 19 January 1981 was pointed to as the nominal event that led to the release of the hostages, even though the accords themselves were never ratified (enacted by President Carter using an Executive Order), as the provisions contained in them would have proven intolerably humiliating under Congressional scrutiny. The Algiers Accords had virtually nothing to to do with the release of the 52 hostages. Mere minutes after the inauguration of a President who understood power and the value of the will to use it, the hostages were released.

One of the great political cartoons of the 20th Century was published nationwide this day, 30 years ago, drawn by the late Jeff MacNelly.

The 52 hostages, those still with us, will never forget the ordeal of captivity in Iran. Nor should we. Lest we forget the lesson. There is power, with all its subtleties and facets. And there is the will to use it. Soft, hard, smart, all of it a part of the whole, and used in infinite proportion and combination. It encompasses deterrence, and the refusal to negotiate with terrorists. And the value of a position of strength. We had a 444-day object lesson that ended thirty years ago today. It is one that we would always do well to heed. Lest this be interpreted as some kind of partisan piece, I would submit that the above lesson is one that FDR knew, as did Truman and Kennedy, and Clinton. The next President from either side of the aisle who forgets or ignores it, does so at his, and at our, peril.

Posted by UltimaRatioReg in Air Force, Army, Foreign Policy, History, Homeland Security, Marine Corps, Maritime Security, Navy, Soft Power

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  • Derrick

    Great article. Brings back some memories for me. Good point about FDR…from a historical viewpoint, he was probably the one that secured America’s place on the world stage and probably introduced the concept of peace through strength to Americans. FDR was definitely a smart man.

    BTW, why weren’t the marines allowed to defend themselves during the Iranian hostage crisis? The students charged an embassy; isn’t that an act of war?

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    “There is power, with all its subtleties and facets. And there is the will to use it. Soft, hard, smart, all of it a part of the whole, and used in infinite proportion and combination. It encompasses deterrence, and the refusal to negotiate with terrorists. And the value of a position of strength. We had a 444-day object lesson that ended thirty years ago today.”


  • Jay

    Mark Bowden’s book, “Guests of the Ayatollah” does a pretty good job explaining the limits of our power, and Pres Carter’s hard-pressed and ultimately successful negotiations for the hostage release. Great details on the Desert One mission. He debunks the myth that the hostages were released due Iranian fear of Pres-elect Reagan. Excellent read.

  • RickWilmes

    Derrick, this book may be of interest. It explains why the Marines were unable to resist.

    Guests of the Ayatollah.

    Different event but the same mindset was employed in Lebanon when the Marines stood guard with no ammunition in their guns.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Pres Carter’s hard-pressed and ultimately successful negotiations for the hostage release.”

    Wow. Would hate to see failure.

  • Jay

    URR, you have seen it. Sad as it was, 1983 USMC Beirut barracks bombing.

  • Matt Yankee

    I think the cartoon is simple enough…

    Even if you didn’t believe Carter was weak back then hasn’t he blathered enough pro-Hamas statements to make you a bit embarrassed he was ever a President.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Beirut was a failure to be sure. One of tactical policy that had limited strategic effects.

    Teheran was a failure of national will, of resolve, which has had worldwide effects for a generation. Impotence is far more damaging than miscalculation.

  • Lowly USN Retired

    Carter and his administration will no longer be known as the worst in the history of America. Carter, a prime example of poor leadership and incompetent politicians are being overshadowed by the current. Yet another administration as incompetent as Carter and Clinton is continuing to give away the country, jobs and technology to the CHICOM’s in the same likeness as his mentor Bill Clinton.

    The collaboration of G.E., Boeing, Microsoft and Goldman Sachs are designed for the good of the PRC not America. Moreover, is it not illegitimate and a conflict of interest to hire GE’s chief executive as the head of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness? Immelt’s decision to close plants in Virginia, Massachusetts and Ohio is just the beginning of outsourcing these jobs to China. Today incandescent bulbs, tomorrow avionics, guidance systems, propulsion delivery systems and military technology. When will the insanity and incompetent decisions of our leaderless leaders end?

  • Jay

    I don’t know if Pres Carter had many realistic options — other than to do what he did. Any of the overwhelming force options (invasion? conventional air or missile strike? limited nuke strike? more robust rescue mission?) don’t seem plausible.

    The Beriut bombing — I think had equal negative consequences to our reputation, when compared to the hostage situation. Certainly, the hostage situation was in the public eye longer, but Beriut showed our forces leaving, I am not convinced that our air strikes/naval shelling did much to change that.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Your belief that the Beirut blast had the same negative consequences as Carter’s handling of the 15-month hostage crisis put you in a very small minority.

    Also, it was Carter whose butchery of the Military and the intelligence functions that gave him that lack of realistic options. Which was the measurable effect of lack of will and resolve.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    An instructive comparison is not with the single event in Beirut, but with President Clinton’s handling of the situation in Liberia in the Spring of 1996, when the embassy in Monrovia was in danger of being overrun. The UN compounds in fact were overrun, and most of the UN personnel took shelter in the US Embassy.

    Clinton ordered SF units to augment the MSG personnel in the compound, and the next time the mobs of rioters turned to the US Embassy, they got a very large reminder that we would fight to hold that place. From that moment on, the AMEMB in Monrovia was given a wide berth.

  • Matt Yankee


    Immelt’s promotion is being played like it’s a bone to the business community but the arrogant SOB had the bravado to admit 80% of GE’s profits come from foreign countries. GE owns NBC which beams far left propaganda all day long while calling out another cable news company for taking sides…and gets the President to pressure the industry to shut out the other side’s voice. This overt corruption could not happen on the other side. Once again proof of double-standard and open contempt for the center-right majority of Americans.

  • When I was in Iran sb told me not to go to the bazaar because it is often the place to take hostages.

  • Vivek Golikeri

    The Tehran Hostage Crisis had yet another interesting side effect. It gave new argument ammunition both to maligned Viet Nam veterans and to Japanese-American former inmates of the infamous internment camps. America’s racial and social class double standards were exposed in that on one hand the nation reacted to this embassy episode as if Jesus Christ had been crucified all over or something.

    Yet Vietnam vets had been portrayed as child killers and blamed for the politicians’ mistakes. And the usual lie that Japanese-American internment had been an unfortunate “mistake” rather than a malicious act of racial persecution always ignored the fact that Eskimoes and Aleut Indians from Alaska had also been interned. What did Eskimoes and Aleuts possibly have in common with the enemy save that Native Americans have vaguely Asian looks due to their prehistoric forebears?

    I too condemn the criminality of the Ayatollah. But I equally condemn racial and social double standards that value some Americans more than others. Moreover, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when this ugly thing occured, the Klan still murdered blacks and swastikas continued to smear synagogues.

    Evidently, some of the worst Khomeinis were of the blue-eyed and English-speaking variety.