Bruce Laingen, top-ranking US diplomat held in Iran hostage crisis, dies at 96

Mr. Laingen stepped from one of four planes carrying the freed Iranian hostages to their official welcome in Washington.
Mr. Laingen stepped from one of four planes carrying the freed Iranian hostages to their official welcome in Washington.Associated Press/File 1981/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — On the morning the US Embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranian students, its top diplomat was visiting the Iranian Foreign Ministry, discussing security and diplomatic immunity over a cup of tea when word reached him that his embassy was under siege.

Bruce Laingen went on to reach State Department officials by telephone from the Foreign Ministry office in downtown Tehran, ordering them to destroy confidential documents before it was too late. His staff was soon overrun, bound, and blindfolded. He would spend most of the next 444 days in captivity at the Foreign Ministry, isolated from the more than 50 other Americans who were primarily held at the embassy.


The crisis over their fate, which lasted from Nov. 4, 1979, to Jan. 20, 1981, helped to upend Jimmy Carter’s presidency, precipitated the deaths of eight servicemen in a failed rescue mission, and transfixed millions of Americans, who were left to watch in horror as diplomats were ridiculed and paraded through the streets of Tehran.

Mr. Laingen, who was 96 when he died July 15 at a retirement community in Bethesda, Md., spent months slipping secret messages to his superiors in Washington via a visiting Swiss envoy, relaying insights on the situation in Iran while trying to spur his release and that of his staff.

At home in Bethesda, his wife, Penne, tied a yellow ribbon around the oak tree in their front yard, a symbol of vigilance and remembrance that was duplicated by tens of thousands of families across the country.

Mr. Laingen later fought for compensation for the Foreign Service officers and other hostages who worked under him — and was haunted, friends said, by an ordeal that left many of his colleagues physically and mentally battered.

In a nearly four-decade career, Mr. Laingen held posts in West Germany, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and served for two years as ambassador to Malta before being assigned to Iran in June 1979. Just four months earlier, supporters of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shi’ite cleric, had overthrown the shah and briefly occupied the US Embassy, triggering the departure of William Sullivan, the last US ambassador to Iran.


Mr. Laingen was initially told he would serve as chargé d’affaires (the highest diplomatic position in the absence of an ambassador) for no more than six weeks while the Carter White House decided what kind of diplomatic presence it would maintain in Iran.

Instead, the country became his home for the next year and a half.

Although he was not a fluent Persian speaker, Mr. Laingen had experience in the country, with stints in Tehran and Mashhad in the 1950s. Soon after his arrival, he cautioned the Carter administration against allowing Iran’s deposed former ruler, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into the United States for cancer treatment. The timing was too risky, he argued; many Iranians were still uncertain whether the United States had accepted its Islamic revolution.

His warnings proved prescient. Two weeks after Carter authorized the shah to enter the country, Iranian students overran the embassy, a 27-acre compound on the outskirts of Tehran. Sixty-three Americans were taken hostage there. A group of 13 women and African-Americans were released after two weeks, and six others evaded capture altogether, escaping from Iran in January 1980 with help from Canadian diplomats and a CIA team — an avoidance that was popularized in the Hollywood movie ‘‘Argo.’’


Mr. Laingen, along with a deputy and security officer, spent most of the hostage crisis inside a diplomatic reception room at the Foreign Ministry office, where they were more or less untouched. They were often visited by the Swiss ambassador, Erik Lang, who surreptitiously took scrap-paper messages from Mr. Laingen and wired them to Washington.

Many of the other hostages, kept under guard in Tehran and later dispersed across the country, were beaten and brutalized, forced to confront mock firing squads, play games of Russian roulette, and run blindfolded into trees.

In January, Mr. Laingen and his two American colleagues were ordered into vans and taken to a prison in Tehran, where they spent the final months of their stay in solitary confinement while a team of negotiators worked to release the hostages.

Lowell Bruce Laingen was born on a farm in southern Minnesota, near the towns of Odin and Butterfield, on Aug. 6, 1922. His studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., were interrupted by World War II.

Mr. Laingen served as a Navy supply officer in the Philippines and, after graduating from St. Olaf in 1947, he received a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Minnesota. He joined the Foreign Service in 1950 and remained at the State Department until retiring in 1987.

After returning from Iran, Mr. Laingen visited the White House and met with President Ronald Reagan, whose inauguration coincided with the release of the hostages. He later served as vice president of the National Defense University in Washington; was executive director of the National Commission on the Public Service, which studied government reform.


She confirmed his death, saying he had Parkinson’s disease and dementia.

In addition to his wife of 62 years, the former Penelope Babcock of Bethesda, he leaves three sons, all retired Navy officers: Chip Laingen of Woodbury, Minn., James Laingen of Haymarket, Va., and Bill Laingen of St. Louis; a sister; 10 grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.