In a scintillating new documentary, Barbara Kopple tells the story of Operation Eagle Claw, which helped doom Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
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here’s no greater privilege than rescuing somebody,” recalls Major William G Boykin, a Delta Force operations officer who helped lead the audacious, but doomed, April 1980 mission to rescue the 52 American hostages seized in Iran just under six months earlier.
Operation Eagle Claw, launched on April 24, 1980, would prove the quintessential fiasco of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and cement the impression that Carter was weak and inept, paving the way for the Reagan era. Yet few remember this historical hinge point today, so we should be grateful that an Oscar-winning documentarian, Barbara Kopple, has taken on the vertiginous, horrible story of the rescue mission in a powerful theatrical release, Desert One. Kopple is severely constrained in what she can show, as no film exists of the mission, and there are only a few still photographs. But if Desert One is visually just a series of talking heads — with the actual mission depicted, lamentably, in graphic-novel-style illustrations — the story is scintillatingly told by those who lived it, including Carter himself, at 95 now the longest-lived president in U.S. history. Carter remains blessed with a verbal acuity and sharp memory that are especially worthy of attention in 2020. Kopple, who won Oscars for both Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream, also shares with us audiotapes, never before heard by the public, of Carter placidly learning of each horrifying development by phone from the chairman of his joint chiefs of staff, General David Jones.
Taking off from a carrier in the Gulf of Oman, eight helicopters and two C-130s planned to rendezvous at a staging area, 100 miles from Tehran, dubbed Desert One. From that point the Delta Force troops were to move into the mountains on the outskirts of the city, slip in unnoticed, and rescue the hostages, who had been held captive since November of 1979 at the U.S. Embassy. The ransom demanded by their captors was the return of the ousted Shah to Iran for punishment, but Carter had granted the dictator asylum in the U.S. and would not hand him over. Kopple includes a clip of Carter making an unimaginably foolish speech, in December of 1979, in which he vowed not to take military action against the Iranians, tossing away his chief bargaining chip. Ronald Reagan was criticizing Carter as a pushover, and who could disagree? “I thought it was about as foolish a policy statement as you could make,” recalls Ted Koppel, who hosted a new late-night news program about the crisis, Nightline, that would endure for many years thereafter. The program was so widely watched that its camera crews were granted access to the embassy site, producing footage that provided some of the leading intel to the men who planned Eagle Claw.
Interviews with hostages, some of their captors, and surviving troops from the rescue attempt lay out the dizzying story of a mission that seemed cursed from the get-go. No full-scale dress rehearsal ever took place and one of the officers present confesses he didn’t think the mission would come off. Of the eight helicopters, two were reserves, and one went down immediately with blade trouble. Landing in a dry lake bed the men had believed to be an obscure location, the Special Operations troops were stunned to be confronted within minutes by both a tour bus and an oil tanker, which they unwisely shot at, causing a huge explosion. “It’s like, damn, it was Grand Central Station,” recalls one veteran. The driver of the oil tanker escaped in a colleague’s truck, two more helicopters went down as a dust cloud kicked up, and then, as if guided by the hand of the Ayatollah himself, a fourth chopper crashed into the C-130 cargo plane parked next to it while the men were preparing to quit the mission. Eight brave men died horribly when the C-130 burst into flame. We are there for the moment when Carter learned of all this in a conversation with Jones, and the composure of both is otherworldly. General Jones tells Carter, “The news is not as good as I indicated to you a few minutes ago.” The only comment Carter allows himself once the full extent of the catastrophe is clear is a simple, “That’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” Yes, sir.
Carter, once a Navy submarine officer, had told the men at the outset that if the mission were successful the credit would be theirs and if it failed the responsibility would be his alone. He didn’t know how right he was; the stupefying run of bad luck seemed confirmation that a dark cloud hung over Carter’s head, and America thirsted for new leadership. Meanwhile, the Iranians merrily brought the charred corpses of the dead soldiers to parade them before the hostages at the embassy, black bubbles of blood around their mouths that looked like chocolate. “We have brought chocolate for you,” they told their captives. They turned the crash site into a tourist attraction, then built a mosque next to it, with a banner reading, “The sands were God’s agent.”
The mission ended with the surviving troops returning, stunned and humiliated, to an airbase in Oman. Members of the British military quickly grokked what had happened and sent over two cases of Bass Ale. The beers were accompanied by this note: “To you all, from us all, for having the guts to try.”