The Desert One Debacle

In April 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Army’s Delta Force to bring back fifty-three American citizens held hostage in Iran. Everything went wrong. The fireball in the Iranian desert took the Carter presidency with it.
Washington, D.C., April 11, 1980, Noon

The meeting began with Jimmy Carter’s announcement: “Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am seriously considering an attempt to rescue the hostages.”

Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff, knew immediately that the president had made a decision. Planning and practice for a rescue mission had been going on in secret for five months, but it had always been regarded as the last resort, and ever since the November 4 embassy takeover, the White House had made every effort to avoid it. As the president launched into a list of detailed questions about how it was to be done, his aides knew he had mentally crossed a line.

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Desert Rescue—Multimedia
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Carter had met the takeover in Iran with tremendous restraint, equating the national interest with the well-being of the fifty-three hostages, and his measured response had elicited a great deal of admiration, both at home and abroad. His approval ratings had doubled in the first month of the crisis. But in the following months, restraint had begun to smell like weakness and indecision. Three times in the past five months, carefully negotiated secret settlements had been ditched by the inscrutable Iranian mullahs, and the administration had been made to look more foolish each time. Approval ratings had nose-dived, and even stalwart friends of the administration were demanding action. Jimmy Carter’s formidable patience was badly strained.

And the mission that had originally seemed so preposterous had gradually come to seem feasible. It was a two-day affair with a great many moving parts and very little room for error—one of the most daring thrusts in U.S. military history. It called for a nighttime rendezvous of helicopters and planes at a landing strip in the desert south of Tehran, where the choppers would refuel before carrying the raiding party to hiding places just outside the city. The whole force would then wait through the following day and assault the embassy compound on the second night, spiriting the hostages to a nearby soccer stadium from which the helicopters could take them to a seized airstrip outside the city, to the transport planes that would carry them to safety and freedom. With spring coming on, the hours of darkness, needed to get the first part of this done, were shrinking fast.

Unrolling a big map, General David Jones, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, walked the president and his inner circle of advisers through the elaborate plan, pointing out the location of the initial landing and refueling site, called Desert One; the various hide-site locations; the embassy, in central Tehran; the soccer stadium; and the airfield. It was risky; but short of leaving the hostages to their fate or engaging in some punitive action against Iran that would further endanger them, the president had few options. Jordan could see the course of Carter’s reluctant reasoning.

To maintain appearances, the president sent Jordan back to Paris for a scheduled second meeting with Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, the Iranian foreign minister, with whom Jordan had secretly worked out the most recent failed agreement. Carter had at last severed all formal diplomatic ties with Iran; in this second face-to-face session with Jordan, Ghotbzadeh called the break in relations a tragic mistake that would drive his country into the arms of the Soviets. He also confirmed that peaceful efforts to resolve the crisis were at an impasse, and predicted that it would be many months before the hostages might be released. He was apologetic, but said that for him to take a “soft” position on the issue at that point was tantamount to political, if not actual, suicide. “I just hope your president doesn’t do anything rash,” he added. Ghotbzadeh didn’t know it, but his glum assessment clinched the decision to launch the rescue mission.

Colonel Charlie Beckwith, the creator of Delta Force, the Army’s new, top-secret counterterrorism unit, was summoned to the White House. He and Carter, both proud Georgians, swapped stories about their neighboring home counties. Beckwith, a brave and commanding soldier, was a big, gruff man whose energy filled a room—and he had flaws as outsized as his virtues. He was a difficult man, proud, tough, and at times arrogant and capricious; these traits were aggravated when he drank, which was often. But at the White House he was on his best behavior, impressing the president with his aura of blunt certainty as he presented the proposed mission in ever greater detail.

The colonel was an accomplished salesman. He had spent a career selling the idea of his elite unit, and now that it existed, he was eager to show what miracles it could perform. His enthusiasm was infectious. He and his men had been rehearsing the mission for so long that they could have done it in their sleep, and they were going to make history—not just cut this particular Gordian knot but write their names in the annals of military glory. In a sense, Beckwith’s long crusade to create Delta Force had been a rebellion against the mechanization and bureaucratization of modern warfare. He held to an old and visceral conviction: that war was the business of brave men. He loved soldiers and soldiering, and his vision was of a company of men like himself: impatient with rank, rules, and politics, focused entirely on mission. He had created such a force, choosing the best of the best and training them to perfection. They were not just good, they were magnificent. And now he would lead them into battle.

They were nearly ready. Two small teams had already been in and out of Iran to scout the landing site at Desert One, and to find the hide sites and the vehicles that would carry the raiding party to the embassy. Eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters and their crews were waiting below decks on the aircraft carrier Nimitz, which cruised in the Arabian Sea. Staging areas at Wadi Kena, an abandoned Soviet airstrip in Egypt, and on Masirah, an island off the coast of Oman, were being readied to receive Beckwith’s men and planes. Dick Meadows, the leader of the team that had prepared the hide sites, was packing his bags for a return trip to Tehran, where he would wait to meet with the rest of the force on the first night of the mission. Moving everything into position would take about two weeks.

Technically, Carter had not yet given the go-ahead, but when Beckwith left the White House, he was certain he had sold the mission. He flew to Delta’s stockade at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and immediately assembled his top men. “You can’t tell the people; you can’t tell anybody,” he said. “Don’t talk about this to anyone. But the president has approved the mission, and we’re going to go on April 24.”

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Mark Bowden, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of Black Hawk Down. He has written a book about the hostage crisis and its aftermath, Guests of the Ayatollah, to be published by Grove/Atlantic in May. 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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