It was an event that traumatized the country. And, while some generations are too young to remember, the hostage crisis of 1979 made those who lived through it frustrated and angry. It probably had much to do with Jimmy Carter losing the presidency after just one term.
It gave Ronald Reagan the momentum he needed to win the White House. It happened just 32 years ago on Nov. 4. Iranian students, after the downfall of the Shah, invaded the U. S. Embassy in Tehran and took dozens of hostages. After 444 days, 52 hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981 -- as Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President.
Among the hostages there was one New Yorker, Brooklyn-born Barry Rosen, the press attaché. We spoke to him on this anniversary.
“I will never forget what happened,” he said, “time doesn’t heal all wounds but I don’t dwell on it. My life is happy. Barbara and I have two children and five grandchildren. We are living in the present, not the past.”
We talked about the day he and the other hostages arrived in Wiesbaden. I was there when he spoke of how glad he was to be free. Rosen, now in charge of public and external affairs at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, went to Iran as a Peace Corps Volunteer back in 1967.
He learned Farsi, the Persian language. But then came the upheaval following the overthrow of the Shah and his imprisonment. The hostages were treated poorly, Rosen said. Some were blindfolded and beaten. There were mock executions.
“I hold little hope.” he said, “that the United States and Iran will be able to reconcile their differences soon.”
Rosen is still in touch with events and people within Iran. He says that many Iranians, including those who captured the hostages, are “deeply disappointed” in the Iranian regime. He is especially worried about Iran’s effort to produce nuclear weapons.
“Iran,” Rosen says, “is a rogue state. It’s important because of its large supply of oil and its strategic position. But I’m afraid we are not doing well in finding a constructive diplomatic approach to Iran. “
On Jan. 25, 1981, the 52 hostages stepped off a plane and embraced their families at Stewart International Airport, near West Point. Then they boarded buses for the trip to the military academy.
Along the ways they saw thousands of men and women cheering, waving flags. Some wore corsages and yellow strips of cloth. There were signs reading: “God knows we love you” and “Nuke the Ayatollah”.
Teenagers near the military base chanted “USA, USA.” At Cornwall, they had 60 flags, 52 flying at full staff; eight flags were at half staff in memory of eight men killed the previous April in a rescue mission that ended in disaster in the Iranian desert.
A tender moment in history. We witnessed it 30 years ago.