On November 4, 1979, Iranian revolutionaries seized the American embassy in Tehran and took hostage 66 American diplomats and citizens. In the midst of the massive national celebration sparked by the eventual release of the hostages, commentators started to ask sobering questions: Why did the crisis become such an obsession with the American people? How did this public obsession affect policymakers? And was there really a cause for celebration?
The subject of my thesis is the American public s reaction to the Iranian hostage crisis, analyzed as a particularly potent expression of nationalism. At the core of my paper lies the idea that policymakers are in a reciprocal relationship to the culture they are a part of. Policies grow out of the contemporary culture, but they also affect it. The thesis proposed here is based on this view of diplomatic and cultural history as two intimately connected disciplines.
I focus on three important phases of the crisis, the beginning, the failed rescue mission, and the release of the hostages, and I analyze the Iranian hostage crisis as a highly personalized captivity narrative. This personalization was a result of both the administration s dedication and the massive media coverage. It allowed the American public to strongly identify with their country s standing in the world, and it could be argued that the personalization of the crisis largely prompted the passionate responses, the need to do something, and the national unity that ensued. These responses in turn formed a framework of sorts for policymakers to work within, a framework that worked as a double-edged sword as it was both encouraging and limiting the administration s actions.
In a short-term, national perspective, and based on the final outcome of the crisis, the emotional investment seems to have paid off for American foreign policymakers and the American public alike. The Iranian captivity narrative, a national obsession for 444 days, ended well, thus promising restoration of the United States standing in the world, regeneration of the national psyche, and national unity. However, seen in a long-term perspective the American handling of the crisis was less successful, and an analysis of the captivity narrative in Iran uncovers several troubling aspects of U.S. foreign policy and the American national character. From the point of view of American foreign policy the outcome of the crisis was not really a victory. The American policymakers attitude to the Iranian crisis was riddled with ignorance and arrogance, and following the hostage crisis, the United States proceeded to sever diplomatic relations with Iran and support Iraq s invasion of the country. Reconciliation seemed difficult, if not impossible. At the time of writing, hostility is flaring up again between the two countries, and it seems obvious that the hostage crisis created deep wounds that should have been treated a long time ago.
To Americans in general, the hostage crisis was never really about Iran. It was about the American nation s journey towards redemption and restoration. The American people knew next to nothing about Iran before the embassy seizure, and for all the attention it received at the time the hostage crisis did not really alter this ignorance. The public reactions to the hostage crisis expose a particularly troubling aspect of the American national character: exceptionalism, or the belief that the United States is a unique country. If a country is perceived as unique, it might also be perceived as better, which again implies that people of other countries are worth less. In an international perspective this attitude is problematic, especially if it pervades a country as influential as the United States.