Freed hostage Bruce Laingen makes ?V? signs as he steps from the first of four planes carrying the freed hostages from West Point, N.Y., to their official welcome in Washington on Tuesday, Jan. 27, 1981 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Laingen was the charge d?affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Iran.

Veterans in Diplomatic Service: L. Bruce Laingen, 1922-2019

Veterans in Diplomatic Service: L. Bruce Laingen, 1922-2019 1024 676

We salute our nation’s veterans! An estimated 7,100 military veterans serve our nation in diplomatic capacities at the Department of State. Throughout our nation’s history, the branches of the military and the Department of State have worked closely together to promote our national security and protect Americans at home and abroad. Building upon this partnership, many military veterans continue to serve our country by joining the diplomatic ranks.  

A notable veteran turned diplomat was L. Bruce Laingen who served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a member of the Navy Supply Corps. He was a supply and disbursing officer for a group of landing craft that were used in beach invasions during the Philippine campaigns. He saw combat in the invasion of Luzon at Lingayen Gulf in January 1945.

After the war, he graduated from St. Olaf College in Minnesota and went on to earn a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Minnesota. He joined the Foreign Service in 1950 and served until 1987 at posts in Germany, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and as U.S. Ambassador to Malta.

Ambassador Laingen endured one of the most harrowing diplomatic crises of the 20th century. 

In 1979, U.S. Embassy Tehran, Iran, became a visible target during the political revolution led by Islamic fundamentalists against the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. Animosity towards westerners, in particular Americans who had backed the Shah, had been building for over a year. 

On November 4, 1979, Laingen was serving as Charge d’Affaires (the acting ambassador) at U.S. Embassy Tehran when militants scaled the embassy compound walls, seized control of the embassy, and forcibly detained 66 American staff. At the time of the take over, Laingen and two other embassy staff were meeting with Iranian provisional government leaders at the Foreign Ministry and were detained there. 

Earlier that year on February 14th, militants temporarily took over the U.S. embassy, however the situation was resolved the same day. Many embassy employees did not expect the situation on November 4th to last very long. U.S. embassy Political Officer John Limbert recalled his expectation that the seizure would be a “1970’s style student sit-in” rather than a protracted hostage-taking situation. At the Foreign Ministry, Laingen demanded that the Iranians, as the host government, uphold the diplomatic convention of protecting the exterior of a foreign embassy from intrusion. Unfortunately, none of this happened. Ultimately, 52 Americans were held hostage by the Iranians for 444 days.

On January 20, 1981, after the signing of agreements brokered by Algerian diplomats, Ambassador Laingen and his colleagues were freed from Iran. They flew immediately to Algeria and then to Germany for medical treatment at the U.S. Air Force base in Weisbaden. Afterward, they returned to the United States amid great fanfare. All of the freed Americans were showered with gifts, cards, certificates, and memorabilia that reflected the solidarity across the country for their plight as hostages. 

Looking back at his time in captivity, Ambassador Laingen evoked his experience in the Navy. Being held at the Iranian Foreign Ministry – apart from most of the staff being held at the embassy – was especially hard because he was the “captain of the ship.” He felt it was his duty to be with his people and do what we could to help them. 

Ambassador Laingen donated several items that represent his 1981 return to freedom to the National Museum of American Diplomacy. His story reflects the best of the State Department and U.S. military relationship and the values of service and patriotism that veterans bring to their diplomatic service.