L. Bruce Laingen, the highest-ranking American official held in Iran during the 444-day-long hostage ordeal that began there in November 1979, died on Monday in Bethesda, Md. He was 96.
His son Chip told The Associated Press that the cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Laingen, a career diplomat, had been in Iran less than five months when militant students stormed the United States Embassy in Tehran, taking more than 60 hostages, mostly diplomats and staff members. Mr. Laingen was not there at the time, but he too was detained, at the Foreign Ministry elsewhere in the city.
A few hostages were soon released. But most, including Mr. Laingen, were held for more than a year before being released on Jan. 20, 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president of the United States. It was a period of high drama and high tension that included a failed rescue attempt that left eight American servicemen dead.
Mr. Laingen heard that the embassy was under siege just as he was leaving a meeting at the Foreign Ministry.
“It was clear at that point that I could not ever have gotten there physically,” he told The New York Times in 1981, after his release. But he exerted what authority he could by phone and radio, ordering that no guns be fired at the Iranians and that the staff begin destroying classified documents.
Mr. Laingen and two aides who had been with him at the ministry remained separated from the other hostages during the long ordeal, Mr. Laingen having the odd role of continuing to act as a diplomat while being a hostage. He was a point of contact to the outside world, sometimes meeting with diplomats from other countries and even occasionally being allowed a phone call with the West.
But if he had a somewhat easier time than the hostages at the embassy, he in no way soft-pedaled his experience. In 2001, when a conservative faction in Iran set up an anti-American exhibition on the grounds of the former embassy, Mr. Laingen, in a letter to the editor printed in The Times, suggested that the site needed a plaque. He proposed this wording:
“Here is the former American Embassy in Tehran, where occurred the most egregious violation in recorded history of all standards and precepts of diplomacy: the seizure of an embassy and its staff by student terrorists, an act endorsed by their government, the hostages used as pawns for 444 days to further the political purposes of the Islamic Republic.”
Lowell Bruce Laingen was born on Aug. 6, 1922, in Odin Township, Minn. His was a farm family, but he took a different career path.
“I am often asked why I joined the Foreign Service,” he said in an oral history recorded in 1992 for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, “and I give the answer that we couldn’t all be farmers. I had some brothers, and I began to look beyond that.”
After serving in the Navy during World War II and earning a degree at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he received a master’s degree in international relations in 1949.
He joined the Foreign Service in 1950. His first posting was to Germany, where his duties included processing visa requests for people displaced by the war who wanted to relocate to the United States.
He knew early on that he had found a career.
“I am part of that generation that when they made a decision to join the Foreign Service, that was it,” he said. “It was a lifetime commitment. It didn’t enter our minds that we would consider anything else, or leave it.”
He was told that his next assignment would be in Japan, and he went back to Minnesota for a break before heading there.
“Five days short of going to Kobe, Japan, I got a telephone call at that farm in Minnesota from the Department of State saying, ‘You are not going to Kobe; you are going to Tehran,’ ” he recalled. It was a fateful change of plans, because his time there, from 1953 to 1955, helped make him a candidate to be sent back almost a quarter-century later when Iran was in turmoil and the State Department was looking to stabilize the staff there.
Before his return to Tehran, though, Mr. Laingen had assignments in Pakistan and Afghanistan, among other places. Just before being dispatched to Iran for the second time, he was ambassador to Malta.
He was, again, on leave in Minnesota when the call came asking him to go to Iran, where the ambassador, William H. Sullivan, had stepped down in the wake of the revolution that overthrew the American-backed shah in early 1979.
“In that sense history was repeating itself for me when I got this call in 1979,” Mr. Laingen said in the oral history.
He arrived in Tehran in June on what he had been told would be a four- to six-week assignment as temporary chargé d’affaires with the rank of ambassador. On his drive from the airport, men with Uzis cleared the way as he passed the burned-out remnants of buildings destroyed during the revolution. At the embassy compound, where Americans had brought their belongings as they were being evacuated, the scene was striking.
“The compound was a mess,” he said. “It was 27 acres, and you can put a lot of stuff in there, but it still looked crowded with cars and stacks of household equipment and supplies of one kind or another.”
For several months he worked with the provisional government that had taken over after the shah’s ouster. Things, he said, seemed to be looking up. But then, on Nov. 4, while he was meeting at the Foreign Ministry on a diplomatic immunity issue, revolutionaries seized the embassy.
At the beginning, he recalled 30 years later, no one envisioned just how serious and intractable the situation was, as was evident from a conversation he had with Iran’s foreign minister, Ebrahim Yazdi, late that first night.
“He told me, ‘Look, we will resolve this by morning,’ ” Mr. Laingen recalled in an interview with Voice of America. “And I said to him: ‘O.K., what am I going to do? What are you going to do with me?’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you go down into the diplomatic reception rooms and find a place to sleep there?’ ”
His wife, Penelope (Babcock) Laingen, who remained home in suburban Washington when he went to Iran, was also optimistic early on.
“Allah is merciful — isn’t that what they call from the minarets over there?” she told The Times a week after the takeover.
After his release, Mr. Laingen was vice president of the National Defense University in Washington. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1987. He also wrote frequently on issues involving Iran and other subjects.
Mr. Laingen’s survivors include his wife and his sons, Chip, Bill and Jim.
Mr. Laingen extracted a message about diplomatic work in general from what he and the others went through in Iran, something that applies to anyone anywhere in the diplomatic service.
“We are there to find out how people are thinking and why they are thinking that way and behaving that way,” he said in the oral history. “And if we get too comfortable in believing something that sort of fits our purposes, well, we are in hellish trouble.”
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