Commentary Magazine


The Hostage Crisis and American Decline

I just saw “Argo” last night. Not only is it a great film (who would have thunk that Ben Affleck had it in him?) but it’s also a great primer on a period of American history that, for those under 40 today, is as ancient as the Civil War.

The movie tells the story of how CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez managed to smuggle six American diplomats out of Tehran in 1980 by pretending they were part of a production crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film called “Argo.”  As this Slate article notes, the film takes a few liberties with the history—but only a few. It conveys what would seem to be, on the whole, an accurate picture of the period—from the bureaucratic politics of Washington to the violent and chaotic nature of the Iranian revolution. Above all it captures, as no other film I have seen does, the sad spectacle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

I was only nine years old when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized on November 4, 1979, but I can still remember the dispiriting drama of how Iranian extremists were able to hold 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. That experience was all the more traumatic for the nation because newscasts (some of them played in “Argo”) routinely noted that this was “day 33” (or whatever) of “America held hostage.” Meanwhile yellow ribbons proliferated around the nation to keep alive the memory of the hostages. America’s humiliation was worsened when a belated rescue mission ended in a fiery crash in the Iranian desert, at a rendezvous point codenamed Desert One.

“Argo” is a thriller but it accurately evokes this crisis—one that, I now realize, helped shape my worldview. Growing up at a time when America was widely thought to be on the decline, I, like many other young people, was attracted to Ronald Reagan and his message of hope and renewal—the idea that America’s best days were still ahead of us. Reagan rescued us from the post-Vietnam malaise and restored our economic and military strength, as even his onetime critics now admit.

The lesson I take away from this history is that there is nothing inevitable about American decline and that if we permit ourselves to become weak, the results will be catastrophic. That is a point worth thinking about today as, once again, a consensus seems to be building among the chattering classes that America is in decline. The only thing that has changed is the country that is supposed to usurp our position in the world. Now it’s China. Back then it was the USSR, followed by Japan. “Argo” is a sobering reminder of the cost of a declinist mindset—and a reminder too of how even a ponderous institution like the U.S. government can pull off amazing feats if talented individuals are unleashed to be daring and creative, something that, alas, only seems to happen in a crisis.