The world has changed so much, so fast, that it is now difficult to call to mind the way we were before that sudden, tumultuous event in Tehran on a fateful Sunday morning, Nov. 4, 1979.
When the U.S. Embassy was stormed by a mob of militant Iranian students, and American diplomatic personnel were seized as hostages, the government and people of the United States were plunged into a period of anguish different in duration and intensity than any they had experienced before.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yazdi initially told an anxious American diplomat that "we hope to have all of them [the invaders] out by morning." Instead Yazdi was ousted as the hostage-taking brought about a radicalization of the Iranian revolution, in many respects a second revolution.
Even after hours lengthened to days, and days to weeks, nobody expected it to last this long. Three weeks after the hostages were seized, in an article depicting it as a rare "hinge event" that could change history, I wrote that its continuation for three more weeks seemed an almost intolerable prospect for the people and government of the United States.And so it proved to be.
It is the only event anyone can remember that consistently was described as a "crisis" for 14 months. It clearly is impossible for a crisis to last that long but the label suggests the intensity of pain and emotion. This was in large part because the event was both so symbolic and so personal, due to the power of modern mass communications.
As the hostages were taken that November day, political attention in the United States was centered on the high-flying prospects of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The hostage drama, more than anything else, boosted Carter's stock with the public, to Kennedy's disadvantage. Later in the tortuous development, characterized by the periodic rise and collapse of public and official hopes, Carter, in turn, would suffer badly in the support and esteem of the citizenry.
With the arrival of U.S. televsion crews in Tehran, a floodtide of vivid and shocking images -- via satellite and in living color -- invaded the homes of Americans. They saw their diplomats blindfolded and paraded by the ragtag student band of a chaotic nation, their flag abused and burned, their policies and past condemned by the inperious secular and religious leaders of fist-shaking mobs -- and all so unfairly, it seemed.
Many an American felt a bit like an adult suddenly pinioned by a surly kid half his size who was able to twist the grownup's arm painfully behind his back in a sneak attack. The rage was tempered only by the knowledge that to strike back would be to forfeit the lives of the Americans who were being abused.
Even in periods when the American press was banished from Tehran and other events, and situations claimed the limelight, the plight of the hostages and the humiliation of their homeland remained close to the surface of the American mind and psyche. According to public opinion surveys, a preponderance of Americans consistently cited the hostages in Iran as the most important problem of U.S. foreign policy in a troubled world.
All this was bound to bring a strong reaction, especially in a nation that had worried for several years that it was losing its grip as well as its way in the world. In retrospect, it is clear that the hostage crisis was not so much a turning point as a reinforcing point, the dramatic and tangible confirmation of the growing American sensation of powerlessness and vulnerability.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan less than two months after the hostage-taking set off an alarm bell of a more familiar sort. On the heels of the hostage shock, the display of unrestrained Soviet military might was the basic for a Carter administration pivot against already weakend U.S. policies of superpower accommodation.
After this, in quick succession, came Carter's "Persian Gulf Doctrine," the beefing up of U.S. military forces in and around the strategic region, the collapse of negotiations with Iranian President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr on the return of the hostages, the fiasco of the unsuccessful rescue raid, the resignation on policy ground of Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance and the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf between Iran and Iraq.
As the war clouds gathered in the Persian Gulf, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini last Sept. 12 gave the first clear indication of flexibility about the release of the hostages. But the maneuvering proved to be erratic and slow.
On Nov. 4, 1980, by curious concidence the anniversary of the hostage-taking, the American electorate cast its judgment in powerful fashion. The ouster of an incumbent president, by all accounts, was deeply affected by the voters' anger and drustration at a national humiliation that would not go away.
Finally it remained for Jimmy Carter in his last weeks in office to persevere, despite all disappointments, in the effort to negotiate the hostages' release. His effort may have been aided by Iranian fears of his successor, Ronald Reagan. As the clock ticked toward the presidential transition, a deal was struck. As Carter left the capital as a private citizen, the hostages headed home.