Skip to main content

by Dominic Tierney

The fate of Americans imprisoned abroad has always been a highly emotional and politically explosive issue. This essay, based on a presentation at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and originally posted on the FPRI web site (, argues that American idealism, desire for retribution, and concern for national honor in POW and hostage situations can lead to actions and policies that are harmful to U.S. interests, and it suggests ways to minimize this risk. – Ed.

In April 2009, the story of Richard Phillips’ capture by Somali pirates, and his dramatic rescue by Navy Seals, became one of the major news stories. The incarceration of Americans by foreign actors, as hostages and prisoners of war, has incredible emotional and political power, and often garners profound media scrutiny.

This intense focus on the fate of captive Americans is a syndrome with very dangerous effects, producing exaggerated attention on the fate of a handful of men and women, encouraging adversaries to detain more Americans, and promoting risky rescue operations, which brought down one president, Jimmy Carter, and helped turn another, Ronald Reagan, into a lame duck. It is a dynamic with the potential to wreck Obama’s administration.

Throughout U.S. history, the fate of Americans imprisoned abroad has been a highly emotional and politically explosive issue. During the 1700s, thousands of Americans joined citizen group to raise money to ransom captives held by the Barbary pirates of North Africa, and lobby for more government action. Accounts of detention and escape, known as “captivity narratives,” often became bestsellers. The treatment of Union POWs in the Confederate prison at Andersonville during the Civil War is a controversial question to this day. During World War II, the Japanese brutality toward U.S. prisoners was central to the demonization of Japan.

After 1945, the issue of captive Americans became increasingly politically charged. The families of American prisoners of war and missing in action (POW/MIA) in Vietnam began an unprecedented public campaign to aid the captured men, selling five million POW/MIA bracelets inscribed with the name of a missing or captured soldier. Even after the fighting ended, allegations continued into the 1990s that Americans were still being held in Vietnam. Apart from the Stars and Stripes, the only flag that has flown from the White House is the black and white POW/MIA flag.

Shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Khmer Rouge forces in Cambodia captured a U.S. merchant vessel, the Mayaguez, and its crew. The Mayaguez Crisis garnered intense national attention, and when the crew was released in the wake of a U.S. Marine assault, the crisis was seen as one of the major triumphs of Gerald Ford’s presidency.

Following the Iranian Revolution in 1979, radicals seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 66 Americans hostage, of whom 52 entered long-term captivity. The U.S. media covered the Iranian hostage crisis in astounding detail. Ted Koppel’s Nightline started off as a show devoted to the crisis, with every episode beginning “Day 1 of the Hostage Crisis…” all the way to “Day 444…” when the last hostage was released on January 20, 1981. During the 1980s, national attention was once again focused intensely on the fate of American hostages, this time in Lebanon. Around 100 foreigners were kidnapped in the decade after 1982, including 25 Americans.

When Michael Durant was captured in the Black Hawk Down battle in Somalia in October 1993, his image plastered the cover of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and he was the lead story on all the major networks. More recently, in 2003, the account of Private Jessica Lynch’s capture and subsequent rescue in Iraq became a national sensation, and her autobiography was a bestseller.

Not every country feels this way about captured nationals. In World War II, the Soviet regime depicted Russians captured by the Germans as traitors, not heroes. During the Vietnam War, while Washington obsessed about ensuring that no man was left behind, the North Vietnamese paid little attention to the fate of their captured men and seemed to resent having to repatriate their forces at the end of the fighting.

Profound Idealism
Why do Americans care so deeply when their fellow nationals are taken prisoner? It comes down to three dynamics. First, the United States is a profoundly idealistic society, and Americans tend to idealize captive nationals as the epitome of a true American. POWs and hostages have lost what people cherish most, their freedom, often in service to their country. Jimmy Carter saw the Iranian hostage crisis as being bound up with what it was to be an American: “If I should do anything to lessen the importance paid by us to the hostages’ lives and safety and freedom, it would obviously be a reflection on our own Nation’s principles.”

Second, the resonance of imprisoned Americans is exacerbated by feelings of vengeance directed against the captors. The desire for revenge based on moral outrage is an extremely powerful motivator for action. Compared to other advanced democracies, Americans are unusually supportive of retribution against offenders, indicated by the unusually high rates of incarceration and use of the death penalty, which may result from the prevalence of Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and the Southern “culture of honor.”

This retributive mindset means that Americans perceive captors who mistreat POWs and hostages as evildoers, deserving massive retaliation. In 1945, there was an unmistakable sense of payback as American bombers struck Japanese cities. President Truman said he had used the atomic bomb “against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war.”

Third, U.S. power and geopolitical standing promote the salience of the POW-hostage issue. America’s material strength makes the continued detention of its nationals by foreign adversaries less acceptable. The United States has the capacity to employ decisive force, including rescue missions and retaliation. This produces both a temptation on the part of presidents to use this power and an expectation by the public and media of action and resolution.

Furthermore, as individual men and women, the captives represent a moderately important foreign policy issue, but as a symbol of the nation’s credibility and resolve on the international stage, their fate can be perceived as enormously consequential. The United States probably worries about its reputation more than any other country because of its nuclear deterrent, global commitments, and unsurpassed number of allies. Once the connection is drawn between the prisoners’ plight and the United States being held hostage and humiliated, the handling of the crisis is often viewed as having critical reputational implications. James Baker wrote that “Jimmy Carter’s inability to secure the release of the American diplomats held hostage by Iran for 444 days had become a metaphor for a paralyzed presidency.”

These idealistic, retributive, and reputational strands all combined in 2009 when Somali pirates captured Richard Phillips. The captain was widely seen as an idealized American, lauded by President Obama as a hero for surrendering himself to the pirates to enable his crewmates to go free. Meanwhile, the pirates were vilified as the epitome of evil: their death at the hands of Navy Seal snipers was considered a just punishment. The crisis also invoked critical reputational implications. The Washington Post reported that while the failure to free the hostages in Iran “was a permanent blemish on Carter’s reputation,” the dramatic liberation of Phillips “may help to quell criticism leveled at Obama that he came to office as a Democratic antiwar candidate who could prove unwilling or unable to harness military might when necessary.”

Morality vs. Interests
In many respects, the American concern for captive nationals is profoundly moral. Americans care about their fellow citizens when they are at their most vulnerable. But our intense fascination with POWs and hostages can nevertheless prove dangerous for American interests and values.

Presidents can obsess over the fate of captives to the exclusion of other important issues. Jimmy Carter was personally consumed by the Iranian hostage crisis. In his memoirs, Carter wrote about his “overwhelming” feelings, seeing the hostages as “part of my own family.” The loss of a sense of perspective was illustrated when Carter compared the fate of the 50 men in Iran with the American Civil War, which cost the lives of 600,000 Americans and almost destroyed the United States: “At the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln said, ‘I have but one task, and that is to save the Union.’ Now I must devote my concerted efforts to resolving the Iranian crisis.” Carter himself became a hostage to the crisis. The incredible amount of time and energy spent by the president and his top officials on the captives was time they were not spending on substantively more pressing issues, including economic problems and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, also became preoccupied by the fate of American hostages – in this case seven Americans captured in Lebanon in 1984–1985. Reagan commented, “I spent many, many hours late at night wondering how we could rescue the hostages, trying to sleep while images of those lonely Americans rolled past in my mind… As president, as far as I was concerned, I had the duty to get those Americans home.”

Reagan’s chief of staff recalled, “All of a sudden he’s envisioning himself as a captive alone in a dank, damp prison, and where’s the president of the United States? … Ronald Reagan eats his heart out over this. It worries him. It’s with him.” Oliver North, a staffer at the National Security Council, felt that Reagan “was obsessed by the hostages,” who were “driving the President nuts.”

Risky Rescue Operations
The fixation on the fate of American captives increases the attraction of risky rescue operations. Americans are willing to pay a high price to free prisoners and to punish those responsible for their detention. In 2002, 77 percent of Americans approved of using force to “liberate hostages,” and this was one of the most popular scenarios for the employment of military power.

Americans do not always appreciate the long odds against the success of a mission to liberate prisoners. It may be impossible for the United States – or any other country – to locate and free a captive held in a cellar somewhere in Mogadishu or Tehran. Most Americans taken hostage abroad are not forcibly freed – they are ransomed, either by employers or families. Jessica Lynch was the first U.S. prisoner of war to be successfully rescued from the enemy since World War II.

There are certainly political benefits for a president who is viewed as freeing captives. The resolution of the Mayaguez Crisis in 1975 was widely seen as the greatest success of the Ford administration because the sailors were released at the same time that the president sent a force of Marines into Cambodia to locate the men. But it is not clear that the military operation had any effect on the decision to free the men, who were independently released from a location miles away from where the Marines had erroneously landed.

In truth, the Mayaguez rescue mission was a complete debacle, with more U.S. troops dying than there were hostages in captivity. Three American soldiers were left behind in Cambodia, captured and executed. But all of this was unknown or forgotten as Ford basked in the glory of “getting the boys home,” and his approval ratings jumped 11 points.

Five years later, Carter was influenced by the “success” of Ford when he launched his own rescue mission in Iran. Carter remarked in an interview in March 1980, “I have a very real political awareness that at least on a transient basis, the more drastic action taken by the President, the more popular he is. When President Ford expended 40 American lives on the Mayaguez to save that many people who had already been released, it was looked upon as a heroic action, and his status as a bold and wise leader rose greatly. That is always a temptation.”

By April 1980, Carter determined that negotiations with the Iranians would take too long and chose instead the desperate gamble of a military operation. Carter’s approval ratings had sunk to 39 percent, and the White House recognized that the public wanted the president to “do something” retaliatory. Operation Eagle Claw, launched in April 1980, collapsed at the first hurdle, when a U.S. helicopter crashed into a refueling plane and eight Americans died.

The failed operation contributed to an image of administration incapacity that proved fatal to the president’s reelection prospects. It is perfectly plausible that if the rescue mission had been perceived as a success, Carter would have won reelection. Whatever the merits of Carter and Reagan, this is not an appropriate method for determining the leader of the free world.

‘Arms for Hostages’
Reagan also became committed to securing the release of the seven American hostages taken in Lebanon, almost regardless of the cost. The president told the sister of one of the hostages: “I don’t care what anyone else says… I’m going to bring those men home.”

The White House was drawn into a Faustian pact with Iran, in which weapons were traded in return for assistance in gaining the release of the hostages. Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger both opposed arms sales to Iran because the policy was of dubious legality, strengthened Iran, damaged America’s international reputation, undermined the policy of not bargaining with terrorists, and was domestically risky. Reagan recognized all of these costs, but thought that freeing the men was worth it.

Between August 1985 and November 1986, the United States traded over 2,000 TOW missiles, 18 HAWK missiles, various spare parts, and intelligence in return for the release of three American hostages. But during the same period, three more Americans were taken hostage in Lebanon, producing an absurd revolving door of capture and release, in which the only beneficiary was America’s sworn enemy – Iran.

Despite the disastrous international and domestic consequences of the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan never regretted the arms-for-hostages policy because, in his eyes, it managed to free three of the men. Reagan said that his only crime was caring too much about the captives.

The attention that Americans give to the hostage-POW issue may have another perverse effect. Consistent with the laws of supply and demand, the more that Americans focus on the fate of hostages or POWs, the more that the adversary will see the captives as an asset that should not be given up lightly. The North Vietnamese disinterest in the welfare of its own captive soldiers may have been callous, but its effect was to reduce U.S. leverage over Hanoi.

How to Diminish Risks
The notion that an American president cannot permit hostages or POWs to remain in captivity without suffering a significant political penalty is exceptionally dangerous – gravely injuring two presidencies in succession. Given the possibility that Somali pirates, foreign insurgents, or a hostile government will detain more Americans in the future, what can the Obama administration do to diminish the risks?

First, and most importantly, the president should publicly downplay as much as possible the status of detained Americans. The issue is like dynamite: potentially explosive but requiring a spark to detonate politically – which is usually provided by media coverage. Officials should pay minimal public attention to the issue, while employing quiet diplomacy behind the scenes to free the men and women concerned.

For example, in February 1980, several Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Diego Asencio, were taken hostage at the Dominican Embassy in Columbia. The administration avoided making any public statements on the issue, and it was not widely covered. Asencio was freed two months later.

Second, presidents should avoid becoming emotionally attached to the fate of the captives. In particular, they should not meet the families of the hostages. Once Carter and Reagan prayed with, and spoke to, the detainees’ families, they felt a personal responsibility to free the captives, which skewed their assessment of U.S. national interests.

Third, when Americans are taken prisoner, presidents should avoid pressing the idealistic, retributive, or reputational buttons in the American psyche. Highlighting these themes can whip up support at the start of a crisis, but narrow a president’s options as events play out. Officials should take great care in describing the hostages as heroes and idealized Americans, the captors as evildoers who must be physically punished, and the crisis as a test of the nation’s resolve and virility. Instead, presidents should diminish expectations about the utility of American power, and the potential for rescue.

Fourth, we must all learn to tolerate the long-term captivity of Americans abroad, just as we tolerate many other evils in international politics, which cannot be quickly removed without enormous cost to our interests and values. Otherwise, when a Somali pirate detains an American sailor and holds him captive in Mogadishu, Obama may find that his administration is also being held hostage.End.

Dominic Tierney is assistant professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and a research fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard University, 2008–2009. He holds a Ph.D. from Oxford and has published two books: Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Relations and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America.


Comments are closed.