Bruce Laingen's journal is a front-row history of 444 terrible days


September 27, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

BETHESDA — It is 300 days today. What does one say to that? Not much. What is there to say? Perhaps I should compare it with what I said on the 100th day or the 200th day, but what I said then is not available to me here, it having been sent home. I suspect I said what I could say now: It is virtually unbelievable. . . .

He was in the depths of despair when he wrote those words on Aug. 29, 1980, but, looking at Bruce Laingen now, one sees the soul of contentment. A handsome, well-dressed man, he is sitting casually on his screened porch, sipping pink lemonade on this warm late-summer day. The tie is loosened slightly, the sleeves of his dress shirt are rolled halfway up his forearms. The locusts whir ceaselessly behind him, and the chattering of the birds in this heavily wooded neighborhood are a stark contrast to the setting he found himself in at this time a dozen years ago, held under armed guard at the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, Iran.

But no, Mr. Laingen, is saying now with no discernible edge in his voice, he doesn't bear any scars from that experience.

"Not at all," he says, folding his hands in his lap; in both looks and clipped, ironic manner of speech, he is startlingly reminiscent of actor James Mason. "It has been 11 years since we were released, and 13 since the embassy was seized. I had never lived in any kind of nightmare situation. I've reacted this way in part because it was not a Vietnam POW-type torture. It was not a Beirut kind of agony for most of us. It was easier for most of us -- 444 days, or a year and a quarter. Compared to Beirut, it was a weekend.

"Also, none of us, it was fair to say, were treated as brutally as those in Beirut," Mr. Laingen, 70, continues. "Some of my colleagues held in compounds had long periods of solitary confinement, and some were pushed around, mostly at the beginning. For me, also, it was easier because we were held in the Foreign Ministry except for the last three weeks, when I was taken for solitary confinement."

This day, he is relaxed, conversational, as he tells stories about his captivity along with 52 other Americans who were serving at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It was a time of almost unfathomable frustration and anxiety in the United States -- nightly, Americans saw angry Iranian crowds demonstrating outside the embassy that had been seized by revolutionary "students" on Nov. 3, 1979. For a year and two months it dragged on: The late-night ABC-TV show "Nightline" came into being at that time just to chronicle the nightmare, every night flashing the grim reminder, "America Held Hostage."

It was a time when the yellow ribbon entered American culture: a symbol of watchfulness and caring for those far away from home, who may have been unjustly taken away, or are fighting a war in a strange land. Throughout America, there were millions of yellow ribbons placed on car antennas, on trees, on mailboxes. And the most famous one was the one placed by Mr. Laingen's wife, Penelope, around the huge white oak tree in the front of their Bethesda home.

He writes eloquently about those times in the just-published "Yellow Ribbon: The Secret Journal of Bruce Laingen." Comprised of journal entries smuggled our of the Foreign Ministry -- usually via friendly ambassadors who had come to call -- as well as letters to his family, "Yellow Ribbon" gives the picture of a man who struggles to understand an inexplicable situation, who knows in his heart an intolerable situation cannot continue . . . and yet it goes on.

He had never written a journal before. But Mr. Laingen saw that he was a witness to history: "I realized it would be a long-distance affair. I said to myself that I really ought to be recording this, putting down my impressions."

And there was another reason. Inside the Foreign Ministry, Bruce Laingen, as charge d'affaires the highest-ranking diplomat at the embassy, could do little but feel angry and helpless, outraged that his mission had been taken, that the staff members whom he felt responsible for had been put in captivity as well. Writing the journal could be at least partly therapeutic. He could vent his anger, try to make sense of it all.

Day 94, Feb. 5, 1980: My God, has this place no pride? Tonight, on the late TV, or should we say "local prime time," there being little else to watch on the boob tube here, the "students" were back on with more of their "revelations" from the plundered files of our embassy. . . . It is so degrading to Iran. Surely an

intelligent Iranian watching this kind of performance must be repelled.

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