Kate Koob: Courage and Composure
I felt from the very beginning that I would go free. I didn’t know whether it was going to be five days, five months, or fifteen years, but I was pretty sure I was going to walk away from the place.”
–Kate Koob reflecting upon her time as a hostage in Iran
#HerDiplomacy at NMAD
This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of U.S. women gaining the right to vote after decades of struggle, protest, and lobbying of state and federal governments. The right to vote was a vital step forward for women’s fuller participation in government and civil society. This participation also paved the way for increasing numbers of American women to serve their country in diplomatic capacities, representing their country at home and abroad.
With the #HerDiplomacy campaign, the National Museum of American Diplomacy (NMAD) is celebrating women in diplomacy — women who have blazed trails, negotiated peace, served alongside their partners, strengthened diplomatic relations, survived dangers, and opened doors for sharing of cultures and ideas. They have made vital contributions to our nation, but their stories remain largely unknown. Discover some of these dedicated women during Women’s History Month and throughout the year.
Kathryn (Kate) Koob grew up on a 200 acre farm in Jubilee, Iowa, in a large and devoutly Christian family. In 1962, she graduated from Wartburg College, a Lutheran school in Waverly, Iowa. After graduation, she became a teacher and also served as a district parish worker for her denomination, assisting nine midwestern parishes in establishing new churches. Her interest in other cultures and travel motivated her to take the Foreign Service exam in 1967.
In 1969, Koob moved to Washington, D.C. to begin her Foreign Service career with the U.S. Information Agency. Her assignments took her to the Ivory Coast, Zambia, Kenya, and Romania. In 1978, she returned to the United States for Persian language training and in July 1979 she arrived in Iran — a country in the throes of a massive political and social revolution. Koob brought her faith with her into the Foreign Service and that shaped her approach to the experiences she encountered in Iran.
Koob was assigned as the director of the Iran-American Society (IAS) in Tehran, a cultural institution under the auspices of the U.S. embassy that served as a hub of people-to-people exchanges and English language learning. Her charge was to revitalize the IAS, as it had been idle during the political unrest happening at the time.
On November 4, 1979, the day that militant Iranian students overran the U.S. embassy compound, Koob was at her job at the IAS, located in a separate facility a few blocks away.
Do you know the embassy is under attack?”
— IAS board member to Koob over the phone.
That morning, Kate Koob interrupted a staff meeting to take a phone call from an Iranian IAS board member, who told her of the attack. Koob assumed, as did many other Americans, that the embassy assault would end quickly, as a previous attack did earlier that year.
Koob never heard from the embassy directly, so she called at about 1:15 pm. Someone speaking English with an Iranian accent answered saying the embassy was occupied and then hung up. Koob then called the Charge d’Affaires’ office and his secretary answered. Ann Swift, the chief of the Political Section, also got on the line. They informed her that Chargé d’affaires Bruce Laingen and two other embassy personnel were at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Then the phone went dead. Koob successfully tried a secure line to the embassy and was told to call the Department of State in Washington, D.C. She called and was transferred to the Department’s Operations Center where a task force was already set up to monitor and respond to the events unfolding in Tehran.
Koob maintained an open phone line with Washington. Her deputy maintained a separate phone line with the embassy. The two of them relayed status reports to Washington via these links.
It was not long before the students penetrated the embassy’s secure communications room. They threatened to start killing Americans if the embassy staff did not hang up the phone and surrender. Once the connection to the embassy was cut, Koob delivered the news to Washington that the embassy was now completely under the control of the Iranian students. Koob’s phone line into the Department of State became the last direct link of communication between Washington and Tehran during the fast-moving events of the takeover.
Koob and her deputy remained on the line with Washington and relayed information based on radio and television reports they were watching at the IAS. This continued into the evening. A small group of American embassy employees who had eluded capture came to the IAS to help man the phone line to Washington and give Koob a break. In the early morning of November 5, they left discreetly for their apartments to avoid drawing attention to the IAS. These colleagues would soon be sheltered by Canadian diplomats and a few months later became known to the world as part of the “Canadian Six” upon their escape from Iran.
Around 1:30 pm on November 5, the Iranian student militants arrived at the IAS. Koob and her staff members made an escape to the nearby German cultural center. A few hours later, they returned to the IAS and resumed communicating with Washington. However, more students returned and blocked all the exits to the building. Koob and her staff had to leave the phone lines and try to hide again. It was at that moment, thirty hours after the crisis began, that continuous contact between Washington and Iran ended. After a vain attempt at hiding in the ladies room, Koob gave herself up — but not without a game of wits first.
Kate, I hear you’ve got trouble.”
— Vic Tomeseth to Kate Koob, over the phone
As her captors were leading her into the main room of the IAS, Koob was thinking of ways to stall in order to give other members of her staff who were hiding time to escape. She asked to get her coat, purse, and cosmetic kit. She challenged the students’ identities, openly doubting they were part of the group that had taken over the embassy. She started giving lengthy instructions for closing the IAS to an Iranian employee (who knew the closing procedures already). She “accidentally” knocked her open purse off the counter onto the floor near another Iranian staff member standing next to her. The keys to the IAS safe fell from her purse. As they both reached down to get the purse, she secretly shoved the safe keys into his hands. As she was running out of delay tactics, she received a phone call from senior political officer Vic Tomeseth, who was being held at the Iranian Foreign Ministry with Bruce Laingen and Mike Howland. He had heard the IAS was taken and he reluctantly, and with sadness, told her she needed to leave with the men who had come for her. She was shoved into a waiting car that sped over to the embassy compound.
Over the course of the next several hours at the embassy, Koob was thoroughly searched by a female student, separated from colleagues, interrogated repeatedly, and then held alone in a room in one of the staff houses on the embassy compound.
By the end of five or six days, I knew we were in for the long haul.”
— Kate Koob reflecting upon the earliest days of captivity
Koob made a conscious effort to remember her training — don’t antagonize a captor, she was taught. A few nights into the captivity, she was blindfolded, taken to the Ambassador’s residence on the compound, and put into a room with other female hostages. All of the women were tied to straight-backed chairs for several hours under guard. They were not allowed to speak or look at each other.
As the days wore on, she struggled with the unknowns of captivity, the inability to converse with her fellow hostages, and feelings of guilt of being caught and having some of her staff getting caught as well.
Thank you, Lord for keeping me safe. Help me face today.”
— Kate Koob’s daily prayer
Two weeks after the embassy fell, the students released a group of women and African-American employees. Koob and the other female officer, Ann Swift, remained as the only two female hostages. The women were separated from each other for four months, held alone in separate rooms of the embassy. Their only direct human contact was with their male and female Iranian student guards.
Koob was determined to stay mentally and physically strong. She set up a regular contemplative routine to get her through each day that included purposeful prayer and meditation. She was given a hymnal from the library in the ambassador’s residence and then later a Bible, enabling her to include daily readings and singing in her routine. Koob also created a calisthenics routine she could perform in small confines.
Even with all of her physical needs met, she lived in fear daily. There was constant noise from the street outside the compound from protestors chanting hateful slogans about Americans. There were frequent interrogations, oftentimes in the middle of the night, interrupting any regular sleep schedule. Once Koob and Ann Swift were reunited as roommates, they supported each other emotionally and created a joint daily routine to face each uncertain day.
The biggest fear was not knowing what the future held and not knowing what was happening to my colleagues.”
— Kate Koob
At Easter, an archbishop visited Kate and Ann, who had also visited with the male hostages. They were allowed to have an Easter worship service followed by a televised interview. Upon the archbishop’s departure, he told the Iranian students that in his opinion the women were the best adjusted of the hostages. At first, Kate and Ann attributed their resiliency to bearing the burden of workplace discrimination against women in the Foreign Service earlier in their careers. After their release, however, they found out that several of the men had been treated quite harshly during confinement which likely accounted for the archbishop’s assessment at the time.
Kate and Ann were asked to help cook meals for their captors and the male hostages. It was a thankless task, but it gave them additional purpose to their long repetitive days. They never had direct contact with the male hostages during this time.
In November 1980, Koob received back issues of Time and Newsweek magazines for some reading material. The magazines reported on the safe return of the Canadian Six earlier that year. This news emboldened both Kate and Ann with hope for their own release.
We were simply diplomats who were trying in the best way we knew how to reestablish a sound relationship between the new Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States.”
— Kate Koob
During the course of the year, Kate Koob, Ann Swift, and the other hostages had been moved from room to room over a dozen times, within multiple buildings, on and off the embassy compound. Finally, on Christmas Day 1980, some Algerian diplomats paid them a visit. The Algerians were only able to share with the women that negotiations were underway for their release — no timeframe was given.
In early January 1981, hopeful signs that freedom was near emerged. A team of Algerian doctors came to examine the hostages. Koob received a copy of the Tehran Times that had headlines about the ongoing negotiations with the Algerians. She resolved not to get her hopes up too much. However, hope soon arrived on January 20, 1981, as Koob and her colleagues were rushed to a waiting Algerian aircraft and they all finally left Iran, bound for home.
The plane carrying the hostages back to the United States made a refueling stop in Ireland. During the layover, Koob bought this wool beret and wore it during the many welcome home events. She donated her beret to NMAD’s collection in 2019. The former hostages were celebrated with parades, a visit to the White House, and meetings with national and local officials. All of them received numerous cards and gifts celebrating their return home after 444 days in captivity.
In addition to the beret, Koob donated this cross to NMAD’s collection. It is a copy of what became known as the “Hostage Cross.” A member of Koob’s former congregation in Alexandria, Virginia, designed the cross for the season of Lent and sent copies to both Kate and Ann during their captivity. News outlets published photographs of Koob as a hostage wearing the cross and many people inquired with the congregation for a copy of their own “Hostage Cross.”
Following her captivity, Koob resumed her Foreign Service career, serving in New York City at the Foreign Press Center and in Austria, Germany, and Australia. She retired in 1996 and later served as an adjunct professor at Wartburg College.Looking back at her Foreign Service career and those 444 days in captivity in Tehran, Koob expresses no regrets. She regularly talks publicly about her experience as a hostage, especially with school-aged children. “When they study history, they need to know it happened to real people.” Kate Koob’s story continues to be an excellent example of American diplomatic courage and composure.