Politics & Policy

The Question of Hostages

From the May 2, 1980, issue of NR

New York, April 4 — The salient asset of television showman Phil Donahue is prob­ably his personal amiability, but his use­fulness is as a remarkably reliable index of what it is that people are concerned about. It would be useful to politicians and journalists alike to be able to read a daily Donahue Index giving the weight he attached to the problems of the day. Last week Phil Donahue was lecturing me about the hostages in Iran before an ab­sorbed audience of several thousand wom­en (and several million listeners); and, as I went on to three successive encoun­ters the next day with business and aca­demic audiences, verily it transpires that the hostages continue as a major preoc­cupation of the public. Which is why the time is overdue for the President of the United States to say that from this mo­ment on, the survival of the hostages will cease to be the coordinating aim of Amer­ican foreign policy.

Mr. Carter, to be sure, is not anxious to take on Phil Donahue. But Mr. Carter is the President of the United States, not the chairman of a Committee to Free the Hostages. The freedom of the hostages should be an incidental effect of our for­eign policy, not its engine. The difference between the two positions is both central and comprehensive.

Very early on—indeed two days after the hostages were taken—Henry Kissinger in a private conversation warned against putting their release as the first aim of our foreign policy. It is easier to make this point by bringing in the relevant context. Although the United States has not both­ered with the clerical bookkeeping, we are—or should think of ourselves as being— at war with the state of Iran. Iran has vio­lated American territory, done so with­out contrition, and holds fifty American citizens in bondage. They are, then, prop­erly viewed as prisoners-of-war.

Now, wars are waged in a variety of ways, ranging from the dropping of atom bombs to vigilant supervision of a post- hostility period (the state of war between Germany and the United States lasted seven years after the death of Hitler). Wars of whatever kind are not successfully waged by assigning top priority to the re­turn of the POWs. In point of fact, as a psychological matter a country tends to be weakened by such an assignment of priorities. When in the summer of 1972 Senator McGovern, running for Presi­dent, announced that he would crawl on his knees if necessary to bring home our POWs from North Vietnam, he almost certainly prolonged their detention. Any­thing the enemy understands to be that supremely valuable, it is less likely to give up. (The hostages are one thousand times more valuable to the Iranian des­peradoes for the attention that has been paid them.) The dutiful Mr. Walter Cron­kite closes his broadcast every night by citing the number of days the hostages have been imprisoned. The television cam­eras seldom miss a day in the infinitely prolonged negotiations having as their objective the hostages’ release. The result of this kind of thing over a period of five months is that we are not one step closer to manumission than we were on the fifth of last November.

Phil Donahue made several proposals to an audience at least half of which was with him. The President of the United States should swallow his pride, turn to Iran, and say, “I’m sorry.” (Such a ges­ture, its moral objectionability for the moment aside, would put an instant world premium on the seizure of other American citizens in any country that holds a brief against America, and that list is long.) Or—Phil Donahue came up with an alter­native that also commended itself to his audience—the Shah should undertake to return to Iran to face the punishment. (This magnanimous willingness to bring martyrdom to someone else recalls the wisecrack of 1939 to the effect that the British were prepared to fight to the last Frenchman.)

We need to “forget” the hostages. A simple declaration to the effect that the state of Iran will suffer greatly if any harm comes to the hostages, and will suffer here and now for its unlawfulness, is required. Our policy should aim at reparations (leg­islation could be devised to confiscate, rather than merely impound, Iranian as­sets). Iranian students should, in progres­sive numbers, be interned. An inventory of Iranian needs, economic and other, should be carefully studied, with a view to frustrating their satisfactions to the ex­tent possible. The pressure should be relentless. But above all things, these pressures should not be influenced by any threats made on the hostages themselves, any more than wars are fought for the purpose of releasing POWs. It is provi­dential that the right philosophical approach to the hostages—which is to sub­ordinate their safety to higher policy—is the likeliest to effect their safety. 

— William F. Buckley Jr. was the founder and former editor-in-chief of National Review.  This article originally appeared in the May 2, 1980 issue of National Review.

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