It's Karen's Turn column: Iran hostages ordeal lengthened to benefit Reagan

The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.

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One recent news story that hasn't gotten as much attention as it deserves is how Ben Barnes, 84, admitted to The New York Times that he was part of an effort to keep American hostages prisoner in Iran longer in order to benefit Ronald Reagan's 1980 run for the White House.

Think of it. While American hostages suffered in Iran, and supporters at home wrapped yellow ribbons around trees in their remembrance, and every night on the CBS Evening News Walter Cronkite tallied the days of their captivity, people connected to Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign were actively trying to prolong their ordeal.

Here's what Barnes told The New York Times. In 1980, he went with former Texas Gov. John Connally on a tour of Middle Eastern countries, and everywhere they went, Connally told the leaders of those countries to deliver a message to Iran: Hold the hostages until after the election because Reagan would win and give Iran a "better deal" than they would receive under then-President Jimmy Carter.

Well, what do you know. The hostages weren't released. Carter lost re-election and Reagan won in a landslide. The hostages were released on Jan. 20, 1981, right after his inauguration. (A few were released at other dates.)

Barnes said he's confessing this now because Jimmy Carter is in hospice care and he feels history needs to know what happened. After their Middle East tour, Connally reported to William Casey, who was Reagan's campaign manager and who became CIA director under Reagan. Remember the Iran-Contra scandal, when the Reagan Administration sold weapons to Iran and sent the money to Nicaraguan rebels? That William Casey.


Can you imagine the lust for power that drove an American politician to betray fellow Americans held hostage in Iran? Who did not seek their immediate release, but actually urged a foreign government to keep them longer. Fifty-two Americans ended up as prisoners in Iran for 444 days. Everyone, including school children, knew about the hostages and hoped for their release.

Well, almost everyone. Not the Reagan election crew. No. The last thing they wanted was for the hostages to be released before the election. Why, their release might ensure re-election for Jimmy Carter! It apparently didn't matter to them that while Connally was conniving against them, the hostages themselves were dealing with illness, boredom, and low morale. They were kept in separate groups, unable to mingle. They were starved for information, and letters to and from home often failed to arrive, or only arrived after months of delay. They sometimes heard gunfire outside the compound. They were told they might be tried for crimes.

"Today we begin the 10th month of our captivity—nine months from November 4, 1979 when we were kidnapped; and still there is absolutely nothing doing that makes me feel that we will get out of here soon," wrote Robert C. Ode, 65, of Sun City, Arizona, a retired Foreign Service officer on temporary duty in Tehran, in a journal entry dated Aug. 4, 1980. "Just can't understand what our Gov't is doing to obtain our release. It is very, very, discouraging!"

Ode's journal is kept at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia, and is available online .

Jimmy Carter lost re-election, of course. He lost in a landslide to Reagan, whose comments during the second presidential debate in 1980 now appear downright deceitful.

"In the situation right now, no-one wants to say anything that would inadvertently delay in any way the return of those hostages if there is a chance of them coming home soon or that might cause them harm," Reagan said in reply to a question from Barbara Walters. He then called for a "complete investigation" once the hostages returned home into why they had been kept for so long. The debate can be viewed at PBS NewsHour on YouTube .

That debate took place on Oct. 28, 1980—three months after Connally's Middle East trip. The New York Times found an itinerary at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum that showed Connally leaving Houston on July 18, 1980, for a trip to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, with Barnes listed as traveling with him.

Reagan had a talent for appearing to float above the fray while his underlings did the dirty work. No matter the scandal, people loved him and he easily won re-election in 1984.


However, at that same library, the New York Times found in Connally's file a note to Connally dated July 21, 1980: “Nancy Reagan called — they are at Ranch he wants to talk to you about being in on strategy meetings.”

Would people have loved him so much if they knew he was responsible for lengthening the captivity of American hostages?

I like to think they wouldn't. I always hope that the American people would do the right thing.

“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994. Driven by curiosity and a desire to learn about the United States, Karen Tolkkinen has covered local news from Idaho to New Hampshire to Alabama and landing at the Echo Press in Alexandria in 2017.
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