“My last year in office was the most stressful and unpleasant of my life,” writes Jimmy Carter in his new memoir A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety. America’s 39th president hasn’t forgotten the root cause of the problem. “From November 4, 1979 American hostages were held captive by Iranian militants, supported by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his government.” For those who missed the Carter Era (1976-1980) there’s a bit more to it.
“This crisis was of overriding importance to me,” writes Carter, who does not explain that Iran held 52 American hostages for 444 days. He mentions not a single American hostage by name. The Iranian invasion of the U.S. embassy and the taking of the hostages was the clearest act of war against the United States since Pearl Harbor. So what was the response from America’s commander-in-chief?
“I sent a warning to the Ayatollah during the first month that I would close all access to Iran by the outside world if a hostage was harmed,” writes Carter, without explaining how he could do that. The USSR, then still in business, was one of many nations that did not follow instructions from the President of the United States. And even if he could close all access, Carter does not explain how that would resolve the crisis.
The Ayatollah, Carter explains, “took my warning seriously and was careful with the well-being of the Americans,” releasing one quickly “when his arm seemed to become paralyzed.” So even in a hostage situation, the Ayatollah Khomeini was someone Jimmy Carter could do business with. Carter says he told the Ayatollah he would “attack militarily if one was killed” but nothing came of that.
“Our goal was to free the hostages through diplomacy but we needed to be prepared for other alternatives.” After the hostages had been in captivity for two months, Carter planned a rescue mission with special forces and seven long-range helicopters. “The rescue team would then fly into Tehran at night, overwhelm the captors with as little violence as possible using night-vision equipment.” The hostages and rescuers “would helicopter to a nearby airport, where a large passenger plane would land and bring them to safety.” Everyone on Carter’s national security team agreed to the plan.
“Everything went as planned,” Carter writes, except that one helicopter returned to the carrier, another went down in a sandstorm, and another “ran into the C-130, damaging them both and killing eight crewmen.” Carter called it off and the hostages remained in captivity, a further humiliation to all Americans. The failed rescue, the former president writes, “had terrible political consequences for me,” with challenges from Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, whom the sanctimonious Carter trashes throughout the book.
“Since I had refrained from exerting military force to punish the Iranians,” Carter writes, “the failure to secure the freedom of the hostages made me vulnerable to their allegations that I was an ineffective leader.” Actually, Kennedy and Reagan were both right. Carter was an ineffective leader, and American voters, many Democrats among them, thought so too.
Ronald Reagan crushed Carter in the 1980 elections and on January 20, 1981, the first day of Reagan’s presidency, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian regime released the 52 American hostages. Carter remains baffled, writing, “I have never known what caused the Ayatollah to delay granting their freedom until I was out of office.” For most readers, it won’t be a mystery. The Ayatollah Khomeini sized up Jimmy Carter as weak and unwilling to use military force. On the other hand, the Ayatollah remained uncertain what Ronald Reagan would do, so the Ayatollah turned the Americans loose on Reagan’s first day.
Readers of A Full Life might jump ahead to 2015. The Iranian regime is essentially unchanged, an imperialist Islamic theocracy still chanting “death to America,” “death to Israel,” still sponsoring terrorism, and still holding three, possibly four, Americans hostage. Like Carter in 1979, Barack Obama, heading into the home stretch of his presidency. And like Carter, he regards the Iranian regime as one he can deal with.
Obama has just negotiated a nuclear deal that will give the Ayatollahs everything they want, especially the lifting of sanctions. Even if the Iranian regime does not develop a nuclear weapon, that will enable them to buy one from Russia or some other nation. So what started as farce under Carter in 1979 could easily repeat as tragedy, big time, before Obama leaves office.
Meanwhile, Carter credits Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika for ending the Cold War. Reagan had nothing to do with it. The former president’s observations on Cuba are also of interest.
“Many Cuban families are deprived of good income, certain foods, cell phones, access to the internet, and basic freedoms,” Carter explains, “but they have access to good education and health care and live in a tropical environment where the soil is productive and many houses are surrounded by fruit trees.”
Let freedom ring and for further reading see Steven Hayward’s, The Real Jimmy Carter.