If the hostages in Iran were released today, exactly five months after their capture, they would find a world turned topsy-turvey.
On Nov. 4, seven weeks before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States was still talking about ratifying the strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II). Now the United States won't even send athletes to the Moscow Olympics.
On Nov. 4, three days before Edward M. Kennedy announced his candidacy for president, he was leading Jimmy Carter 2 to 1 in the polls. Now, after a string of primary defeats, the Massachusetts senator trails the president 5 to 2.
On Nov. 4, the prime interest rate was 15.25 percent. Now, it has hit 20 percent. Then, the consumer price index measured inflation at 1 percent annual rate. Now it has jumped to 18 percent.
"This is a unique time," said Steven Piecznik, a psychiatrist formerly with the State Department. "So much has happened. The hostages will need a period of decompression to acclimatize them to this time warp."
Piecznik said it would be normal for the hostages to feel alienation and even anger when they are released. "The hostage situation has been in a the vortex of political events from Afghanistan to the presidential race. They have been part of an ongoing news story but they've been deprived of playing an active role."
Except for a Christmas visit from American clergymen, the 50 American hostages have been kept bound in semi-darkness and isolated from each other in the embassy compound and three others have been kept at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.
When -- and if -- they emerge, they may be in for a shock. To cushion the blow, U.S. officials are preparing to give them elaborate briefings, with clips from news magazines and television, to bring them up to date on world news before they leave their stopover in West Germany.
On that cold November day that Iranian militants stormed the embassy, the headlines from around the world had been rather ho-hum. Rhodesian guerrillas were still in London in seemingly endless negotiations. The College of Cardinals was meeting at the Vatican. The American ambassador to West Germany called for a firm alliance.
And as for politics during that first week in November, Jerry Brown and Howard Baker had yet to announce, George Bush was still an asterisk, and the news about a third-party candidacy was not John Anderson's, but a bid by former New Hampshire governor Meldrim Thomson for a "Constitution Party."
In the five months since that day, in almost every evening's television news, and in banner headlines in the morning paper, Americans have been greeted with the humiliating spectacle of the Iran crisis.
The hostages, who apparently have little idea of the furious negotiations over their own welfare, and over the fate of the now-ailing shah of Iran, will come into a world where the assumption of diplomacy have been profoundly altered.