On November 4, 1979, Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, seizing the staff. They demanded the extradition of the deposed Shah of Iran from New York City, where he was receiving cancer treatment. Iran's revolutionary government, headed by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a conservative Muslim leader, supported the students, calling the embassy "a den of spies."
Female and African-American hostages were released within the first month, and one other hostage was released months later, due to illness. The remaining 52 were held hostage for 444 days. They were finally released on January 20, 1981, the day Jimmy Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan, was inaugurated.
During their long ordeal, the hostages became a national obsession. Revisit four days from the crisis: view news footage and read individual reactions to see how Americans voiced their anger, despair, and faith.
November 4, 1979 - Day 1
Iranian students demanding the extradition of the deposed Shah take 52 Americans hostage inside the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
The lines have just been jammed. Calls are stacked up. As soon as you hang up there's another call. Most are mad, some say that they want military action to free the hostages, others approve of the diplomatic route being taken. And some are calling that have never contacted their senators before. Birmingham Post-Herald, an unnamed staffer of Alabama Senator Howell Heflin, quoted in "Alabamians Voice Feelings on Iran"
This is a copy of a message sent to President Carter on the American Hostages in Iran: The safety and well being of American citizens comes first, whether at home or abroad. Americans know that our self respect and safety are even more important than fighting inflation or how much oil we import. Sometimes we must turn the other cheek, but never when it causes American lives to be put in jeopardy. We strongly urge you, Mr. President, to take firm positive action to protect Americans -- just as in the old days. Denver Post, Mr. & Mrs. Paul S. Litman, Letter to the Editor
Carter's predecessor, whom he says he emulates -- Harry Truman -- would have landed the Marines and offered to cripple Iran's economic base. These Iranians have committed an act of war against the United States and all Carter wants to do at the moment is talk. It is time to speak with the power and the might of a first rate country instead of the wishy-washy language of diplomatic compromise. Denver Post, Daniel A. Darlington, Letter to the Editor
We'd probably gain more by letting [the Shah] go than to fight it out. I've always wondered why we should shelter him anyway. It's not very much of the United States' business (what happens to the Shah). Tampa Tribune, Alex Salazar, quoted in "Surveyed Tampans Would Not Yield to Iranian Demands"
Not one drop of Iranian oil is worth any appeasement on the part of our government. San Francisco Examiner, Virginia Howard, Letter to the Editor
We are urging Americans not to demonstrate, to realize that their protests are endangering the life of my father and the other hostages. San Francisco Examiner, Alyssa Keough, daughter of a hostage, quoted in "Hostage Kin: 'Keep cool'"
The recent crisis in Iran has produced mixed reactions in the United States. These have ranged in tone from conciliatory to violent. There is, however, a curious characteristic which is common to many of these otherwise diverse factions: a newly discovered sense of patriotism. Minneapolis Tribune, James A. Booker, Letter to the Editor
April 25, 1980 - Day 174
The U.S. military aborts a hostage rescue attempt due to mechanical problems and a severe sandstorm. While withdrawing, a helicopter collides with a transport plane. Eight servicemen are killed in the resulting crash. Carter addresses the nation and takes responsibility for the mission's failure.
My thanks to Mr. Carter and to those who volunteered. The ones who did not return at least gave their lives for something worthwhile. I wouldn't have voted for Carter before but I will now. Tampa Tribune, Robert L. Wooten, Letter to the Editor
So that's what our almighty government has had up its sleeve since Day One to help our 50 brave American hostages in Iran -- a military slapstick comedy routine, played out in the deserts of Iran! Denver Post, Sheldon J. Potter, Letter to the Editor
People have been severely criticizing Carter for doing nothing. But now when he does something and it doesn't work he is going to be severely criticized again. Minneapolis Tribune, Arvid Laingen, brother of a hostage, quoted in "Minnesota Relatives of Hostages Differ Sharply on Rescue Mission"
I think Carter is too slack. The first week it happened he should have put the pressure on them; showed 'em that we were going to light into them if we didn't get those hostages back. Birmingham Post-Herald, John Thomas, quoted in "Rescue Try Receives Praise, Criticism Here"
It turned out unfortunately sad and tragic, but I am proud that it was at least attempted. All those politicians and news reporters who are trying to make President Carter out to be a fool because of its tragic failure would have been the first to jump on the bandwagon and called him a hero if it had turned out to be a success. Denver Post, Lee Schweighart, Letter to the Editor
I'm sad that it didn't work. I think it was very important to try. I think we should have tried again today because no on would have expected it. I think everyone in the United States should stand behind James Carter, and I'm not a Carter fan. Birmingham Post-Herald, Daisey Staley, quoted in "Rescue Try Receives Praise, Criticism Here"
I wasn't particularly surprised that they did it, but I wish they hadn't waited so long. If it wasn't an election year they might not have ever gotten around to it. But it's too late. You can't deal with those people. You're not dealing with rational people over there in Iran. It's like talking to a drunk, it doesn't do any good. San Francisco Examiner, Irving Bierman, quoted in "Incident Leaves Bay Public Sad, Frustrated"
November 4, 1980 - Day 367
America takes to the polls and Ronald Reagan defeats Jimmy Carter in a landslide. The election date falls on the one-year anniversary of the hostage crisis.
Stand by, Americans, for the campaign surprise -- the hostages will probably be set free just a few days or perhaps even hours before the election. And there you'll see on your favorite news program "Old Grinnin' Jimmy" telling all you good folks out there what difficult times he went through just to get the hostages released. (In time to get a lot of political mileage out of the event, just before the Nov. 4 Presidential elections.) How in the name of heaven can people of this great country be taken in by brazen tactics such as these? Denver Post, Lee Wall, Letter to the Editor
Curiously enough, the conditions which Tehran suggests President Carter has agreed to are virtually the same as those he spurned months ago. The big difference seems to be that we are closer to the election now than we were back then. Denver Post, Bill Hokosawa, Op-Ed
It strikes me hard to see all these flags waving in the land of the free. I hope they will be home soon to be free too. Minneapolis Tribune, Richard Hermening, father of a hostage, at a ceremony where 366 flags were raised to mark each day of the hostages' ordeal
[The hostages] haven't been forgotten. As long as the hostages are being held, the ribbons will stay. We'll untie them after they're released. San Francisco Examiner, Fechie Alarcon, speaking of a commemoration in Daly City, California where 100 yellow ribbons were tied around trees, quoted in "Treasure Island Marks 52 Hostages' Year"
January 20, 1981 - Day 444
During their final hours in office, Carter and his senior staff work feverishly, and unsuccessfully, to finalize a deal with the Iranians. The hostages are released moments after Ronald Reagan officially takes over as president.
By the time this gets into print, Carter will be back in Plains, Georgia. His hegira can be explained not as the failure of a mission, but as the mission of a failure. It can be characterized as the failure of the people who elected him. He was a defect elected by defective people. Denver Post, Roy Batchler, Letter to the Editor
I didn't think they would make it out without military action. Tampa Tribune, Mark Garner, quoted in "Hostages Free: A Nagging Pain Relieved"
I had tears in my eyes at hearing that our people had finally come to the end of what must have been a terrible hardship, and one that will live with them forever. Also, tears of joy upon hearing President Reagan's speech. I can't remember having been so moved in years; even as he almost broke down while talking, I did, just listening. What a privilege to be an American. Minneapolis Tribune, Wm. F. Zieske, Letter to the Editor
It was a very long time in coming, but Americans were hit by two waves of hope in one day: a new president and the homecoming of the hostages. The prescribed medicine for a weary country couldn't have been better. Minneapolis Tribune, Larry Anhalt, Letter to the Editor
They're coming home, and they're coming home with honor and pride. Associated Press, Dorothea Morefield, wife of a hostage, quoted in "444-Day Ordeal Ends in Tears of Family Joy"
I stayed up until I saw the hostages into the hospital. That's how I feel about them. I wanted to know they were well and safe. San Francisco Chronicle, Eva Carr, quoted in "America Rejoices for the Hostages: 'It's over - I hope'"
My American Experience
Who was your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Kennedy? Reagan? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?