By Brian Michael Till
What’s the single decision you made as president that you most regret?
I would say the hostage rescue effort in Iran in April of 1980. It was a perfectly planned, highly secret, somewhat complex procedure that everybody agreed to do. And in order to extract all of the hostages plus all the rescue team from Iran, we had to have six functioning helicopters. So I ordered eight helicopters and two of them had to fly from an aircraft carrier about 600 miles across areas of Iran and Oman and land in a desert, which we had already explored.
One of the helicopters, with no reasonable explanation since then, turned back to the aircraft carrier, which left us seven. Another one was forced down in the desert by an unexpected sandstorm, which left us six, which was fine. And so our whole rescue operation assembled there in the desert. And then one of the helicopters developed a hydraulic leak and couldn’t fly. So I had to abort the rescue operation. We couldn’t have afforded to extract five-sixths of our people and leave one-sixth of our people in Iran to be executed, so we had to terminate the exercise.
So it was not sending a large enough squad of helicopters?
If I’d sent one more helicopter, there’s no doubt in my mind we would have had a successful operation. The Iranians never knew we were there until after we all left. But we would have had the hostages rescued, I would probably have been reelected, and so forth. So that was a bit of a turning point.
Gary Sick, your national security advisor for the Middle East, and a number of others have written convincingly that Reagan’s campaign staff were conspiring against you to keep the hostages held for fear you’d win reelection if they were released. Do you believe that? Does that resonate with you?
I never have taken a position on that because I don’t know the facts. I’ve seen both sides. I’ve seen the explanations that were made by George H. W. Bush and the Reagan people, and I’ve read Gary Sick’s book and talked to him. I don’t really know.
The thing that I do know is that after they [the Iranians] decided to hold the hostages until after the election, I did everything I could to get them extracted, and the last three days I was president, I never went to bed at all. I stayed up the whole time in the Oval Office to negotiate this extremely complex arrangement to get the hostages removed and to deal with $12 billion in Iranian cash and gold. And I completed everything by six o’clock on the morning that I was supposed to go out of office. All the hostages were transferred to airplanes and they were waiting in the airplanes. I knew this—so they were ready to take off—and I went to the reviewing stand when Reagan became president. Five minutes after he was president, the planes took off. They could have left three or four hours earlier.
But what, if any, influence was used on the Ayatollah to wait until I was out of office, I don’t know.
Excerpted from Conversations with Power: What Great Presidents and Prime Ministers Can Teach Us about Leadership by Brian Michael Till.
Copyright © Brian Michael Till, 2011.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher.
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BRIAN MICHAEL TILL is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation and a correspondent for The Atlantic. His columns have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, The Las Vegas Sun,the Los Angeles Daily News, Newsday, The Oregonian, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the St. Petersburg Times. He has been a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation and has worked with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and the Treatment Action Campaign in Cape Town, South Africa.