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Diplomat held hostage in Iran's revolution, a Minnesota native, dies

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When student revolutionaries in Iran stormed the U.S. embassy and took 52 Americans hostage nearly 40 years ago, the highest-ranking diplomat held captive over those 444 days was Minnesota native L. Bruce Laingen. He died Monday at age 96.

Chip Laingen said his father accepted the post of chargé d'affaires when others had turned it down.

“He went in knowing what the risks were but willing to take them because he was convinced as the consummate diplomat that he was that dialogue can overcome all, and things would be better,” he said.

In February of 1979, revolutionaries overthrew the Shah of Iran, who was friendly to the United States. They installed Ayatollah Khomeini, best known in the west for calling America the “Great Satan.”

After a lesser-known guerrilla attack on the U.S. embassy early that year, Ambassador William Sullivan stepped down. With no one in charge, President Jimmy Carter chose Laingen, who’d served previously in Iran in the 1950s.

On Nov. 4, 1979, Laingen was with an aide and a security officer at Iran’s Foreign Ministry when he received word from Marines back at the embassy that students had stormed the gates.

The three men were held captive in the Foreign Ministry’s dining room for more than a year, away from the other 49 hostages. But when the trouble started, Chip Laingen said the quick-thinking security officer stashed away a telephone.

“And so for the first six months, they had that phone underneath the couch, and they’d wait until 3 a.m. and they’d call the State Department, they’d call my mom, they’d call me and the brothers, and we had contact with them for six months. And nobody knew until somebody, like any bureaucracy, somebody’s reviewing the phone bills.”

In November 1980, a year into his captivity and a week after Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory over Carter, Bruce Laingen got access to a phone again and spoke with KAYO radio in Seattle. He said he was doing well, but was anxious to leave. Bruce Laingen said he was hopeful about negotiations for his release and grateful for the overwhelming support of his fellow Americans.

“At this particularly crucial time in the discussions that are going on, that kind of support is even more important than ever. It’s a time for patience, a time for calm, a time for cool resolve, and a time of confidence that it’ll soon be over,” Bruce Laingen told the radio audience.

Throughout the ordeal, many Americans showed that support by displaying yellow ribbons. Chip Laingen said his mother Penne, tied the first one around an oak tree in their front yard.

“The idea was to start adopting that symbol as a peaceful way to say we stand together against Iran to get our men and women back,” Chip Laingen said.

Bruce Laingen untied that ribbon in 1981, after Iran released the hostages within minutes of Reagan taking the oath of office. It’s part of the American Folklife Center’s collection at the Library of Congress.

Chip Laingen said contacts his father made with the many factions of the revolution in the months before the siege helped pave the path toward the hostages’ release.

Born on a farm in Butterfield, Minn., in 1922, Bruce Laingen served in the South Pacific as a Navy lieutenant during World War II before earning degrees from St. Olaf College and the University of Minnesota.

In an interview with MPR News on the 30th anniversary of the embassy takeover, Bruce Laingen recalled his first minutes of freedom.

“Unless someone has lost freedom, you have no idea what it means suddenly to regain freedom. It was a magnificent night when Warren Christopher met us at the bottom of that ramp in Algiers. It has been magnificent ever since.”

Chip Laingen said his father always thought that Americans and Persians have more things in common than not, and he always remained hopeful that dialogue between the two nations could eventually lead to the re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Iran.