Captivity Pageant

December 1979: Christmas comes for the Great Satan

It would be hard to say which came first, the unrelenting press attention or the public obsession. The story of fifty-some Americans being held hostage inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran provoked indignation but also piqued America's imagination. Scott Miller, a deejay at WOBL, in Oberlin, Ohio, had himself locked in a recording studio with only a sleeping bag. He spent part of every day tied to a chair, telling listeners he wanted to share the experience of the hostages. At the outset no one imagined that the Iran hostage crisis, which began on November 4, 1979, would go on for fully 444 days.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, all the churches around city hall sounded their bells fifty times daily at noon to remember the American captives. In Columbus, Ohio, protesters marched to express their anger, chanting, "Nagasaki, Hiroshima, why not Iran!" In Manhattan 10,000 cabdrivers drove with their lights on to express solidarity with their captive countrymen.

Fall turned into winter. As Christmas approached, Tehran grew wet and cold. And the hostages waited.

By the third week of the takeover it was clear to the Students Following the Imam's Line—the group responsible for the hostage-taking—that the planned one-or-two-day occupation of the American embassy had become a prolonged siege. The students divided themselves into committees to handle the logistics of feeding, housing, and guarding their fifty-three captives—the number remaining after the imam, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the release of most of the women and African-Americans. Some of the fifty-three were kept in the basement of the chancery, the main office building, and in other spots around the compound, but the largest number were confined in the large, damp, windowless open basement of the embassy warehouse, a place the hostages dubbed the Mushroom Inn, because it seemed ideal for growing fungi. The space was divided into thirty or more cubicles defined by empty bookshelves. Each enclosure had a mattress, and some had a chair or a table. By December the stale air was cold and clammy, the toilets reeked, and life had settled into a dull routine.

The bookshelves were remnants of the library at the old American High School in Tehran, where in happier days the offspring of embassy workers had attended classes. The books from that library, thousands of them, were piled up in the same basement. Vice Consul Richard Queen was asked to sift through the books and start a lending library. Queen was a gangly, bookish young man who, despite his fragile appearance, had been an accomplished distance runner in high school. He brought to the task an appetite for detail, sorting the books by subject matter.

Overseeing this effort was Hamid, a slight man with a fair, angular face, reddish-brown hair, and a sparse beard, who because of his propensity to cheerfully mislead his captives was known as "Hamid the Liar." His hair and skin color were atypical for an Iranian, and he seemed to compensate for this with an overabundance of zeal. When Hamid played checkers he would jump over his own pieces on the board as if they weren't there—a clear violation of universal rules. When his opponent complained, he would explain, "In Iran we always play this way. These are my men, and if I want to jump over them it is up to me!" Hamid earned his nickname primarily by lying about the mail, routinely telling the hostages that none had come when everyone knew (from the other guards) that mail from the United States arrived daily in sacks. When he did hand out mail, he played favorites, rewarding some hostages and punishing others. In his role as library supervisor Hamid permitted books to be borrowed only after he had checked personally to make sure they weren't "CIA"—even though his English was rudimentary at best. Returned books had to be given first to him, so that he could check to make sure no secret messages had been written or inserted in them.

In his fractured English he wrote out rules:

ATTENTION: LIBRARY PROCEDURES

1) You may never to take more than 20-twenty-20 of books from the month.

2) You may never to write in the twenty books your messages.

3) To stack you found them return your books—20.

4) A student good in English will check for messages you should not write, if he finds this library will be destroyed.

Fat books were especially prized. Don Sharer, a Navy pilot, read War and Peace and Moby-Dick. The embassy press officer, Barry Rosen, began a steady diet of prison literature: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago; MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville; Billy Hayes's Midnight Express; the autobiography of the French prison-escape artist Henri Charrière, Papillon; and James Clavell's King Rat. Greg Persinger, a Marine, tackled a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, working his way through alphabetically.

The hostages were beginning to look ragged. Clean State Department and military faces sprouted stubble and then full beards; well-trimmed hair grew shaggy and then long. As the air chilled, they took whatever clothing the Iranians brought around and wore it in layers. Most looked as if they had fished their wardrobe out of a Salvation Army bin.

In what the students regarded as a "major concession," they allowed three liberal American clergymen to visit and celebrate Christmas with the captives. All three were chosen, according to a spokesman for Iran's Revolutionary Council, because of "their militant history against imperialism." Most famous was the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, the celebrated senior minister of New York City's Riverside Church. Coffin was a large man with sloping shoulders and long, curly dark hair that was retreating fast toward the crown of his head but still fell thickly over his ears. He did not seem ministerial, with his up-from-the-streets New York accent, earthy humor, and background as an officer in the Army and then in the CIA. But he had seen the light, left the Agency, and entered the ministry, achieving prominence as the chaplain of Yale University and a civil-rights worker long before he became nationally known for his often eloquent opposition to the Vietnam War. Accompanying Coffin were the Reverend William Howard, a tall, urbane, dignified African-American Baptist minister who headed the National Council of Churches and was a noted civil-rights and anti-apartheid activist, and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic leader from Detroit who was famous for his advocacy of liberal issues inside and outside the Church. Coffin had defended the hostage-takers in public statements in the United States, saying, "We scream about the hostages, but few Americans heard the screams of tortured Iranians."

The hostages were brought to the three clergymen in small groups for a series of services throughout Christmas Day. In session after session, wearing a flowing maroon robe, Coffin warned against the vice of "self-pity" and encouraged the captives to sing along with him as he played carols on the piano. The ceremonies were held in various rooms that had been decked with an Islamic approximation of Christmas trimmings. The students had decorated with help from one of the hostages, Army Sergeant Joe Subic, who was so accommodating to his captors that they nicknamed him "Brother Subic." Alongside the holiday decorations were the usual anti-American posters and revolutionary slogans. Cameras recorded the event for Iranian TV.

Many of the hostages were appalled by the event, by being made part of what they saw as a propaganda stunt, but Rick Kupke, a State Department communications technician, set aside his resentment when he spotted the treats laid out on a table—brownies, nuts, apples, and oranges. There was even a roasted turkey on a platter. Paul Lewis, a young Marine, was impressed enough by the goodies to go through the motions during his ceremony, though he ignored Coffin's exhortation to hold hands with his captors and sing. Many of the Marines refused to join in, and a good number of the other hostages showed little emotion or enthusiasm. Coffin hugged each one at the end of the ceremonies, and when he came to Lewis the young man whispered to him, "It's all bullshit." In a brief conversation with Bill Keough, the former head of the American High School in Tehran, who had come to Tehran to retrieve school records and found himself trapped by the takeover, Coffin remarked jokingly that he had often longed for an extended period of quiet in which to read and think and contemplate. Keough smiled grimly. It was the remark of a free man who was not being threatened daily with trial and execution. Al Golacinski, the embassy security chief, leaned over to William Howard at the ceremony he attended and whispered, "Don't believe what you are seeing; we're being treated like animals."

"So I gathered," Howard said.

The Baptist pastor managed to convey to each group that all of America—not just their families and friends—was intensely concerned with their fate. At each of the sessions the hostages were allowed to write brief notes to their families, which for many was their first communication since the takeover.

Forbidden to talk about politics or the hostages' situation, Colonel Chuck Scott, the embassy's military liaison, a ramrod career Army officer with a square jaw and a defiant demeanor, asked Howard intently, "What's the price of gas in America today?" Scott had thought long and hard about what question to ask if he got the chance, and had decided that the current price of oil would help him gauge how events in Iran were playing around the world. Howard looked at the gallery of armed guards and asked them, "I don't suppose I should answer that question, do you?" Scott was annoyed. Why couldn't he just have blurted out an answer? Why was he bending over so far to be helpful to these bastards?

Seeing Scott's anger, Howard tried to change the subject. He said he had noticed in looking over the lists of hostages that Scott was from Georgia, and he began a story about the difficulties he had faced as a young African-American traveling in that state. This further angered Scott, who felt that he was being blamed for the racism the preacher mentioned having encountered.

For some of the hostages, however, the ceremonies were rich with feeling and gave them a fleeting sense of connection with home. Kathryn Koob fought to hold back tears during her ceremony. A friendly, once corpulent woman who had been in charge of the Iran-America Society, a cultural-exchange program, she had lost a striking amount of weight already and would in the coming months become reed-thin. Koob was profoundly sad to be cut off from her world, isolated from her family and any community of Christians; from familiar Christmas music, the swirl of shopping, cards, parties, and gift-giving. And yet somehow the holiday became, if anything, more meaningful to her as a prisoner. As she stood before Bishop Gumbleton, reunited for the first time in a month with the only other remaining female hostage—the embassy first secretary, Ann Swift—she felt herself trembling so violently that it took all her strength not to break down. She was afraid if she didn't control herself in front of the bishop, word would get back to her family that she wasn't doing well. So she balled her hands into fists so tight that the nails cut into her skin.

Something else happened that Christmas Day. Early in the morning Marine Guard Kevin Hermening was given a clean turtleneck sweater, and he; Joe Subic; Steve Lauterbach, an embassy administrator from Ohio; and Jerry Plotkin, a California businessman, were taken to an office at the motor pool, where TV cameras were waiting.

The men were asked to make a statement on camera during the Christmas party to be held later that day. Over in the Mushroom Inn, unbeknownst to Hermening, most of his fellow Marines had refused the same request. Hermening, who at nineteen was the youngest of the hostages, agreed to say some things, but said he didn't want anything to do with anything "controversial." He loved America and was proud to be a Marine. He would sacrifice his life, if need be, to defend his country. But as he talked more with his captors, they got him to agree that he was not prepared to sacrifice his life to defend the deposed shah. He felt okay about saying that. He was ready to accept that the shah and SAVAK, the shah's secret police, had done terrible things to the Iranian people. He did not think those things gave the students the right to take over the embassy and hold him and his colleagues against their will, and he even wrote that down in one of the statements. He tried to get the students to promise not to edit his comments, but when they said no he agreed to go ahead anyway.

Hermening was excited about being on TV. Maybe his family back in Wisconsin would see him. This ordeal was making him famous, he was sure, and with that fame would come opportunity. At the motor pool he met Nilufar Ebtekar, the young Iranian woman whose fluent, American-accented English had elevated her to the role of international spokesperson for the students (and who today is one of Iran's vice-presidents and the minister of the environment), and fell into easy conversation with her. Hermening told her he was surprised that a woman held a position of such importance. He said if she was so successful already, maybe someday she would be a big leader in Iran.

"If I ever get back to the United States, and get into politics, maybe I'll become a leader there," he said. He joked that years later the two of them would be shaping world events. Ebtekar laughed gaily at the idea.

While Coffin, Howard, and Gumbleton looked on with apparent approval, the four captives performed precisely as their captors wished. Each read a statement critical of the United States. Hermening and Lauterbach read their statements in a flat monotone. Lauterbach, his hair long and his beard untrimmed, seemed particularly pained to be participating. Plotkin, who had been trapped at the embassy by chance on the day of the takeover, seemed more comfortable. Subic, who often held the microphone, appeared to be speaking in full earnest, even cheerfully.

Chubby and blond, Subic had been working as a clerk at the embassy and began making himself useful to the Iranians on the day of the takeover, leading them around the compound and identifying his bound, blindfolded colleagues by name and job description. Since then he had been allowed special privileges: a telephone, warm clothing, a steady supply of snack foods from the embassy commissary. In return he had helped with things like the Christmas decorations. Hermening had been made Subic's roommate, and Subic had helped convert the young Marine into a more pliable prisoner.

Some of the statement Hermening read had been prepared for him, and some of it—about getting letters from home and receiving medical care when it was needed—was what he had written. The students had added lines about how the American government had sold fertilizer to Iran that killed all its crops. Hermening read on. The statement summarized the American-led coup that unseated Muhammad Mossadeq in 1953, before Hermening was born; told how the United States had placed the shah on the throne; and said that Hermening and the other hostages were suffering because America refused to own up to its crimes and return the shah to face judgment in Iran.

"It hurts us to have to say that, but that is what we believe to be the situation," he read. "We will always be Americans and still pray that they make the right decision as soon as possible."

Clean-shaven and neatly groomed, his hair trimmed and parted down the middle, Hermening looked hale and fit; he towered over the guards in the room, and despite his wooden performance he did not seem like a man being forced to do something against his will. Although he felt awkward about reading the statement even as the words came out, he thought, Who is going to believe this? Clearly the statement was being made under duress, so he didn't worry about it.

Jerry Plotkin read with apparent feeling: "Why is the exshah given protection and sanctuary in the United States of America? He is an accused criminal and admitted his abuses of power on Iranian TV before he was dethroned. Why isn't he extradited like any other alleged criminal would be?"

Only glancing at his prepared statement, Subic offered the most dramatic personal testimony. He wore a colorful sweater and had grown a thin beard. In his short time of traveling in Iran before the embassy was taken, he said, he had begun to see the evils wrought by the American-supported shah. "We started to see more and more poor people, people without homes, food, education. I asked myself, what had the shah done? My thinking started to turn around. My eyes and mind were starting to awake to the truth."

Subic then stepped around to the front of the table where the four sat, holding the microphone in one hand and in the other displaying a "special" Christmas card that "the hostages" had made for Khomeini. It was actually his own work. He read from the card: "A Christmas wish especially for you, Imam Khomeini. Merry Christmas. May Christmas bring you lasting joy and lovely memories. Merry Christmas, the American Hostages, 25 December 1979. Tehran, Iran." If he was aware of how he might appear to his fellow Americans, he showed no sign of it. He seemed proud of himself, sincere, and entirely at ease.

Two weeks after the Christmas celebrations a nearly hour-long film was released, and portions were played on all three American TV networks. The film had aired in Tehran over the holidays, and had been offered at that time to American TV. But despite the huge interest in the hostages, the networks balked at the conditions: a fee of $21,250 and a promise to air the film in full, along with windy speeches from Iranian captors. After a few days the students dropped their demands and handed over the film. Their propaganda show was meaningless if no one saw it.

Trapped on the third floor of Iran's Foreign Ministry, Bruce Laingen, the embassy's charge d'affaires, its highest-ranking diplomat; his political secretary, Vic Tomseth; and Mike Howland, an assistant security officer, had access to Iranian television. The three had left the embassy for a meeting at the Foreign Ministry on the day of the takeover, and had been stranded there ever since. They were not hostages, but they were not free, either. When Laingen saw the propaganda film of his cooperative staff members, he was shocked. He wrote angrily in his diary that evening, "I think tonight I have learned to hate."

... Far and away the bulk of the film was of these hostages reading a prepared statement, praising the revolutionary zeal of their captors, reciting the misdeeds of the embassy in supporting the Shah, citing documents discovered in the embassy to suggest "espionage," and calling on the US government to return the Shah to Iran. All this was done in what appeared to be a rehearsal reading, seriatim, by the hostages of their statement, the desk in front of them displaying "evidence" of one kind or another. Only one (Steve Lauterbach) of the four seemed in any way hesitant in what he was reading. The hostage who seemed to preside, Joe Subic, clearly was, or seemed to be, relishing his role. A young marine, Kevin Hermening, too, seemed relaxed and at ease. The fourth, the businessman Jerry Plotkin, read a separate statement, and he, too, seemed in control of himself.
All of this culminated in young Subic displaying a Christmas card from which he read a special greeting to Imam Khomeini on behalf of the hostages. All of this is incredible. I have heard of brainwashing and mind control. I have read of such and recognize that in all hostage situations this is commonplace. But here is an example involving people I know and whom I respect ... Eight weeks of confinement and harassment by sound from the crowds in the streets brought the hostages to the point of apparent servitude to their captors' purposes. And all this in a setting of Christmas with the two priests sitting docilely, watching and listening to the entire charade.

If the students thought such images were going to affect public opinion in the United States, they were right. Americans were horrified. There was a further outpouring of sympathy for the hostages. Bishop Gumbleton explained in press conferences at home that the four men had clearly been forced to make the statements. He told reporters that while the men were reading, one of them (Hermening) had whispered to him, "This is just a put-up job. Don't pay any attention to what you hear."

Gumbleton said he had asked, "Aren't you afraid of what might happen if I report that when I return?"

"Just tell the truth, sir," Hermening told him. "That's all we care about."

Laingen didn't need the bishop of Detroit to tell him that his colleagues were under great duress. He knew that those of his colleagues who had attended the Christmas celebrations were the most fortunate of the hostages. Others had it considerably worse, and had not been seen or heard from since the takeover—men like the CIA station chief Thomas Ahern and the Agency officers Bill Daugherty and Malcolm Kalp; the embassy's political officer, Michael Metrinko; and others. Laingen knew they had been undergoing intensive interrogation, and he could only wonder whether they were dead or alive.

He felt guilty that his own confinement was so much easier. On Christmas Eve he, Tomseth, and Howland had received a gift from the Spanish ambassador—a wicker basket stuffed with various kinds of Iranian candy. The British ambassador visited and brought sturdier fare: a variety of meats and snacks and a bottle of "cough syrup," which contained a lovely red wine for dinner that evening—all the more delicious after such long deprivation. The three American clergymen had also paid a visit, and the six had talked together for hours. Tomseth was impressed with Howard and Gumbleton, whom he felt to be sincere and there purely for humanitarian reasons. He was suspicious of Coffin, who had the air of a grandstander about him. It seemed to Tomseth that the famous leftist preacher was playing to his home audience. In one glib aside Coffin had remarked, "This situation is much too serious to be left in the hands of professionals!"

Coffin seemed not to appreciate that he had just insulted three foreign-service professionals.

"You are being absolutely silly," Laingen told him.

After they left, Laingen hoped that the clergymen, whatever their political motives in coming, had been appropriately shocked by the zealotry of the students and the strange new political contours of Iran. Islamic fundamentalism posed a threat that transcended the traditional liberal-conservative divisions of Western politics. Liberals like these three visitors had a natural tendency to see any revolutionary as ideological kin, he thought, but they needed to be careful in this case about whom they were cozying up to. The world was a more complicated place than they imagined. Dissenters in Iran were being led to the gallows and to firing squads in droves. In a speech just days before, the imam had defended the great official bloodletting going on in his country as "the blessing of God on a human society," and for good measure had praised amputating the hands of thieves and publicly whipping "prostitutes" (a term with a somewhat broader definition in Islamic society than in the West). Khomeini had ridiculed the Western concept of human rights, saying that the advocates of such liberal notions were ignorant of true humanity, because in their eyes "a man is no more than just an animal." A new form of totalitarianism was taking shape—a religious variation on an ugly twentieth-century theme.

Michael Metrinko spent the holiday as he had spent all his days since the first week of the takeover, locked in a windowless basement storage room by himself. He had been invited to the Christmas party, but he wanted no part of a propaganda show. When his guards brought him a gift from the ceremony, a plate of turkey and stuffing, cookies, and decorated marshmallows, the food was tempting; Metrinko was hungry, but he was galled by how self-congratulatory his captors seemed, how generous and noble and proudly Islamic. He accepted the plate, and when they left him alone to eat, he sat staring at the food.

Then he knocked on the door and said he needed to use the toilet. When the door opened, Metrinko emerged holding the gift plate before him. He marched down the hall into the bathroom and dumped the contents into the toilet bowl. He made sure the guards saw him do it.

They were furious with him. He had insulted their hospitality and kind intentions. He was crazy! When they shoved him back into his room and slammed the door shut, Metrinko felt a momentary pang at having lost the meal. What a glorious treat he had denied himself! But his remorse was nothing next to the pleasure he took in delivering the insult. It had hit home and wounded them, and that was something that gave a more lasting pleasure than the food ever could have.

Presented by

Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This article is drawn from his book Guests of the Ayatollah, to be published in April by Grove/Atlantic. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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