On this day in 1980, the American military operation named Operation Eagle Claw to try to end the Iran Hostage Crisis was launched. 52 Americans had been taken hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979.
The operation was intended to save the captives by sending helicopters into Iran. However many of the helicopters were damaged and some crashed, killing 8 servicemen.
When the scale of the catastrophe became apparent, President Carter aborted the mission. Upon discovery of the attempt, the hostages were scattered across Iran to make a second rescue attempt impossible. The debacle was humiliating for the Carter administration and contributed to Carter’s defeat in the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan. The hostages were eventually released after extensive diplomatic negotiations on January 20th 1981, Carter’s last day in office.
The absolute failure of Operation Eagle Claw has tarred all memory of the Carter presidency. Most presidencies are often reduced to a single event that came to dominate their place in history over all their other achievements. For Johnson it was Vietnam, for Nixon it was Watergate, for Ford it was pardoning Nixon, for Reagan it was the Cold War, for Clinton it was Lewinsky, for Bush it was the War on Terror, and Carter is remembered for the hostage crisis. The fact that the hostages were freed on his last day in office, the day Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States, meant his accomplishment was overshadowed. It lent credence to the battle cry of the conservative right, who finally had a candidate who spoke for them, that Reagan was a saviour figure who would fix all of America’s problems. Whilst Eagle Claw was indeed a catastrophe, the Carter administration did redeem itself by successfully negotiating the release of the hostages. However, as this fell on the day of Reagan’s inauguration, Carter’s achievement has been lost to history.