Jimmy Carter photo

The President's News Conference

April 29, 1980


THE PRESIDENT. Before answering questions this evening, I would like to say a few words about the rescue mission in Iran.

I share the disappointment of the American people that this rescue mission was not successful, and I also share the grief of our Nation because we had Americans who were casualties in this effort to seek freedom for their fellow citizens who have been held hostage for so long.

But I also share a deep pride in the commitment and courage and the integrity and the competence and the determination of those who went on this mission. They were prepared to do their duty, and they did their duty. I can think of no higher compliment for a Commander in Chief to pay to brave men.

It was my responsibility as President to launch this mission. It was my responsibility to terminate the mission when it ended. This was a decision that was shared completely by the field commander in charge of the rescue team and by the officer in charge of the overall force that was involved in the rescue effort.

There is a deeper failure than that of incomplete success, and that is the failure to attempt a worthy effort, a failure to try. This is a sentiment shared by the men who went on the mission.

Sunday I met with a large group of men who were the core of this effort, and yesterday I visited, in San Antonio area, the five men who were most seriously wounded. They all shared a common message to me and to the American people.

The first message was one of regret, deep regret, that they failed to carry out the mission as planned. The second one was an expression of thanks to me for giving them the honor to attempt to deliver to freedom the American hostages. And the third was a request, expressed almost unanimously by them, to be permitted to try again.

Our Nation does face serious challenges, serious problems, and the meeting of those challenges and the solution of those problems require sacrifice. Sometimes we who are safe consider the sacrifices to be onerous, but I forgot those sacrifices when I looked into the face of these men who are not only willing but eager to give their lives as a sacrifice for others, whom they did not know personally, but in a determination to grant freedom to them.

Our goal in Iran is not to conquer; neither was theirs. Their goal was not to destroy nor to injure anyone. As they left Iran, following an unpredictable accident during the withdrawal stage, with eight of their fellow warriors dead, they carefully released, without harm, 44 Iranians who had passed by the site and who were detained to protect the integrity of the mission.

This is in sharp comparison to the ghoulish action of the terrorists and some of the Government officials in Iran, in our Embassy this weekend, who displayed in a horrible exhibition of inhumanity the bodies of our courageous Americans. This has aroused the disgust and contempt of the rest of the world and indicates quite clearly the kinds of people with whom we have been dealing in a peaceful effort to secure a resolution of this crisis. They did not bring shame and dishonor on those fallen Americans; they brought shame and dishonor on themselves.

We will continue to try for a peaceful solution. As we see the consequences of the actions that we've already taken, economic and diplomatic actions continue to punish Iran, a nation that is suffering from economic deprivation and from political fragmentation because they persist in this inhuman act.

We will not forget our hostages, and we will continue to take whatever steps are necessary and feasible to secure their safe release and their return to their homes and to freedom.

I'd be glad to answer questions.

Mr. Cormier [Frank Cormier, Associated Press].



Q. Mr. President, would you consider an early summit meeting with your principal allies, who seem to seek some reassurance about the basic thrust of your foreign policy? And I'm talking about a meeting prior to the Vienna [Venice] summit in June.

THE PRESIDENT. No, I see no need for this. There is no doubt among our allies about our basic foreign policy, nor have they indicated any such doubt to me. I'm sure of that.

When we do meet in Venice in June, the primary purpose of this annual meeting is to discuss economic matters-energy, inflation, unemployment, the development of our common resources and a better life for our people. But we have an adequate time for political discussions and for discussions about diplomatic matters, and I see no urgency nor need to meet prior to that time.


Q. Mr. President, after so many months of restraint, why did you undertake a mission that involved, endangered so many lives, a mission that you said was not feasible all along? And with all due respect, has national pride taken precedence over the safety of the hostages, that is the need to end this problem?

THE PRESIDENT. No. I think the time that we chose was a proper time.

We devoted those months of our hostages' incarceration to repeated and varied diplomatic efforts directly and through intermediaries, through the United Nations, through our friends and others. We were promised repeatedly by Iranian officials, by the President, the Prime Ministers, Foreign Minister, by a unanimous vote of the Revolutionary Council, even by the terrorists themselves, that the hostages would indeed be released by the terrorists and turned over to control of the Government, at which time further steps could be taken to secure their complete release and their return home.

Beginning back in November when the hostages were first taken; we began preparations for a rescue mission which would have had to be undertaken had the hostages been injured in any way. At the time we began final plans for this particular rescue mission, we had concluded repeated exercises and training of both men and equipment and technique and procedure and had honed it down to a fine operation, which everyone believed had a good chance for success.

Had we waited later, it would have been much [more] difficult to conclude the mission successfully, because of the increasingly short nights and because of the prevailing winds being likely to change, making strong headwinds against our planes and helicopters, and because the temperature of the air made it much more difficult to lift large loads required in this long and very complicated process.

So, we exhausted every peaceful procedure; we waited until the proper moment; we could not logically have waited much longer. And I think the decision was made properly.


Q. Mr. President, this is a Monday morning quarterback question.

THE PRESIDENT. It's not the first one, but go ahead.

Q. This is from the side that says you went too far: What were the odds on the success of the mission? And then the second question, that you didn't go far enough: Why didn't you press ahead with only five helicopters, overrule the guy on the ground?

THE PRESIDENT. I think the mission had to be planned with an optimum number of both men and with the equipment they required in order to ensure secrecy, incisiveness, staying on a very rigid schedule, accommodating unforeseen circumstances. And at the time the mission was terminated, we did it with great regret. There had been a prior understanding among all of us involved in the detailed planning that if we got below six functioning helicopters, the mission to actually go in for the rescue attempt would have been very doubtful of success and ill-conceived. The recommendation came back from the refueling operation in the desert area that since they were down to only five helicopters, that the mission should not be undertaken—the actual rescue attempt. The commanding officer of the entire operation agreed, made this recommendation to me, and I agreed myself.

The people who were on the ground in charge of the rescue team were extremely eager, courageous, dedicated, and determined to succeed. When they recommended that it not be done, that was a major factor in my decision. But I made the final decision.


Q. Mr. President, you said a great nation like the United States can be forgiving of its enemies without losing face or bringing insult on itself.


Q. In view of the painful bloodshed and loss of life suffered by so many Iranian people under the Pahlavi rule, by the 53 hostages and their families, and now by the families of the American soldiers killed in the rescue attempt, isn't there some honorable way that the mutual sorrow of the Iranian people and now the American people can resolve this crisis without further confrontation? Can you now, will you now, make a gesture to the people of Iran so that the bloodshed and suffering can be put behind after 27 years?

THE PRESIDENT. It's important for American people and for all the world to realize the tremendous restraint that we have demonstrated. We have tried every possible and feasible effort to resolve this crisis by humanitarian and peaceful means. We are still continuing those efforts.

The fact is, though, that a horrible crime, as measured by international law, by diplomatic custom, and against humanity itself, is being perpetrated at this very minute. The 53 hostages being held are not guilty of any crime. The crime is being committed by terrorists who are kidnaping innocent victims, sponsored by and approved by Government officials themselves. In two votes in the Security Council of the United Nations, unanimous votes, Iran was condemned for this action. And in the International Court of Justice, that decision was confirmed.

We have nothing against the Iranian people, and we still want to see this issue resolved successfully and peacefully. But there is no guilt that I feel on behalf of our Nation for what occurs in Iran.

We were very careful on this particular operation to cause no harm or injury or death to any Iranians. It is a very troubling thing for me that Americans, because of an accident, did lose their lives and were injured. They were not met by any Iranian forces. No Iranian officials discovered the presence of the American rescue team until several hours after the last one had left Iranian soil.

So, we want this issue to be settled, but we cannot deal with inhumane people who have no respect for international law, who violate the tenets of their own religion, and who persecute innocent people who are American citizens and deprive them of their freedom for 6 months. There is no equality about it at all.

We are eager to see this issue resolved, but Iran is the nation which is committing a crime. We have tried to settle this in accordance with international law and peacefully, and we will continue to do so.


Q. Mr. President, you have noted that Iranian leaders joined in the desecration of the bodies of American servicemen.

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, that's right.

Q. Do you think that this will affect our negotiations to try to free the hostages, and what effect do you think it will have?

THE PRESIDENT. The man who supervised the desecration of the bodies was a member of the Revolutionary Council. I think it is accurate to say that other members of the Iranian Government did publicly condemn this abhorrent act and have now promised to deliver the American bodies to intermediaries, to be delivered, ultimately, back to our country. We hope that this commitment will be kept, and I pray that it will.

But the fact that the terrorists participated in the desecration is an indication of the kind of people they are and a vivid indication of the difficulties that we have experienced in getting what seems to be required—a unanimous decision by terrorists, the top officials, the Revolutionary Council, and the Ayatollah Khomeini-before this crime can be terminated.

Judy [Judy Woodruff, NBC News].


Q. Mr. President, why have you permitted the taking of the hostages in Iran to continue to monopolize your time and your attention, when there are other international crises that are equally important to the security of this country and when your preoccupation with what has happened in Iran only seems to make the Iranian leaders more stubborn?

THE PRESIDENT. There is no way that I could possibly confine my activities or my attention to one single facet of American life or diplomacy to the exclusion of others. It has been a major preoccupation of mine and the American people that these hostages are held. But we've had to deal with simultaneous domestic and international problems concurrently.

We have, for instance, met, I think as forcefully as is practicable and advisable, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, mounting economic sanctions against the Soviet Union, marshaling support of other nations for the boycott of the Olympics, letting the Soviets know, with 104 members of the U.N. condemning their action in the invasion of Afghanistan.

I've spent a great deal of time the last couple of weeks, for instance, continuing our negotiations for peace between Israel and Egypt and the establishment of autonomous government in the West Bank and Gaza area. I've worked on inflation problems in our Nation and also on the problem of employment and the dealing with the diplomatic relationships of a routine nature with other countries.

So, we have an ongoing program in this Government that is being well cared for. It's unfortunate that the hostage situation has been the human kind of concern that has been dominant in our consciousness even when we were doing our duties in other matters.


Q. Mr. President, there seems to be a growing impression in this town that your National Security Adviser is gaining influence at the expense of your Secretary of State, even speculation that that may have been a factor in Mr. Vance's resignation. Would you care to comment on this?

THE PRESIDENT. That's an erroneous report. I think we have a very good and proper balance of advisers who comprise the National Security Council, who work with me on military and foreign affairs.

I think that Secretary Vance expressed, as an honorable man, very meticulous in his language, his reason for resignation. I regretted his decision. Under the circumstances, I think it was the proper one.

But never in the past and never in the future while I'm here will there be any unwarranted intervention in the carrying out of the foreign policy under the aegis of the State Department. But I reserve the right to receive advice and counsel from my advisers. That's the best way I can make the proper decision once I have all the facts and all the advice that I seek.

Mr. Schorr [Daniel Schorr, Cable News Network].


Q. Mr. President, you've been widely applauded, judging by the polls, for having made this effort with regard to freeing the hostages. And it seems to me that if there are any lingering misgivings among the American people, it is among those who wonder whether the whole plan could have worked without serious danger to some of the hostages and perhaps to our international interests. Secretary Vance has been too meticulous, in your words, to have expressed objections, but he's supposed to have had objection to the whole operation.

Within the limits of security, could you tell us enough about the further planned phases of this operation, so that Americans will understand that it could have worked?

THE PRESIDENT. It would be inadvisable for me to describe the operation beyond the point that actually did occur. We had intended to place the rescue team in an isolated region within a proper distance of Tehran. And then if everything was satisfactory, if they were undetected, if there was no apparent change in the circumstances within the compound itself, if the weather conditions warranted and equipment was in a satisfactory condition, only then were we to undertake the actual rescue operation.

There's a general consensus, with which I think no one disagrees, that the actual rescue operation would have been the easiest of the three phases; the most difficult, the intrusion into Iran and the placement of those forces; and the second most difficult, the actual extraction of our hostages and men from Iran after the rescue itself from the compound.

But the details of what would have been undertaken is something that I would prefer not to comment on since it did not occur.


Q. Mr. President, on the economy, the U.S. economy is basically in a recession, and to black Americans that means that we're in a depression. I'm wondering if you would consider naming an advisory team or a special commission to look into resolving some of the problems of blacks in this depressionary state.

THE PRESIDENT. We have such an advisory group, made up of both black Americans who serve in positions of authority and others who happen not to be members of minority groups, who work intimately on this problem in a continuing way.

The decisions to be made in an economy that is suffering from too high interest rates and too high inflation rates is a very complicated one. We have made our decisions based on as thorough an analysis as we could within the Government and with the advice and the counsel of many around the Nation who are not part of the Federal Government. This includes, for instance, the mayors of some of our major cities, who happen to be black, and other minority groups, like those who speak Spanish.

I think the most cruel kind of suffering that is perpetrated economically on a minority citizen and others is the combination of unemployment in a community and inflation, which afflicts every American who is employed or not.

I think the proposals that we have put forward, early last month, to arrest the inflation rate and to start driving down interest rates and the inflation rate is going to work. And we have carefully targeted programs that have not been disturbed, to maintain as high a level of employ. ment as possible during this transition phase from a rapidly growing economy with extremely high inflation and interest rates, to one that is growing not so fast, where employment does tend to creep up and requires Government programs focused upon that unemployment problem.

It's not going to be an easy transition phase, but we've already seen interest rates start dropping very rapidly lately. I think the inflation rate is going to go down this summer, if we are moderately fortunate, and we're going to do the best we can to prevent any adverse effect on those who suffer from unemployment at the same time.

Mr. Schram [Martin J. Schram, Washington Post].


Q. Mr. President, I'd like to follow up an earlier question. Were there aspects of the military plan that we are not familiar with that perhaps provided the basis for Secretary Vance's dissent—perhaps air strikes—and if not, could you tell us what your understanding is of just what his dissent was about?

THE PRESIDENT. I think it would be better to ask him about the specifics. I think I can say accurately that Secretary Vance preferred that we not take any kind of action inside Iran that might have had any connotation of a military nature. His preference was to wait longer instead of mounting the rescue operation. But I made the decision based on the overwhelming recommendation and concurrence with other advisers. I have no doubt at all in my mind that it was the right decision.

Had the operation been successful or even had it been concluded without complete success, it would have ended a continuing crisis that is destabilizing for the people of Iran, that's causing them immense political and economic suffering at this very moment, and it would have made unnecessary the upcoming economic pressures on Iran, which will be much more severe when our major allies impose those same kinds of economic sanctions on Iran the middle of next month. It would also have meant that we could have begun restoring Iran as an accepted nation in the world structure and remove the reasons for condemnation of them.

So, in my opinion the operation had a very good chance of success, and it would have brought to a conclusion this unfortunate holding of our hostages and ended what is a very destabilizing political situation in that region of the world.

Q. Mr. President, could I follow up on that?


Q. Just to be specific, there was no other aspect of the plan with which we are not familiar that provided the basis of his dissent; it was just a broad and general dissent?

THE PRESIDENT. I believe that's accurate, but you might want to follow that up with Secretary Vance later. But I believe that to be a completely accurate statement.


Q. Mr. President, following up on your statement just now, when you were planning the rescue attempt, did you believe that all the hostages could have been removed from Iran safe]y, or did you feel that some could have been killed in the process? And second]y, do you think that the United States would be better off to end the crisis now, even if it means extreme danger to the hostages?

THE PRESIDENT. Obviously an operation of this kind would have had some risk, but we were convinced that the hostages could be removed successfully and safely.


Q. Mr. President, does it seem to you that if you cannot resolve this crisis soon it may cost you your renomination or reelection? And does it seem to you that, as Harry Truman said and as you have said, the buck stops there, that that would be a fair judgment?

THE PRESIDENT. The political connotations of the holding of our hostages is not a factor for me. I've had to make decisions that on occasion might very well have been unpopular, and some that I have made may prove to be well advised in the judgment of the American people. But I've had to make those decisions under the most difficult circumstances, dealing with a nation's leaders who cannot speak for their own country and who constantly change their position and even constantly change their own identity.

But I see no relationship to this effort that I am continuing with the prospects or lack of prospects of political benefit to me or approval in a political circumstance.


Q. Mr. President, as we look at the situation in Iran in terms of what they may understand you might do, what have you led Iran's leaders to believe would happen if they harmed the hostages? Do you think such fear is saving the hostages' lives now? And if there is such fear, does that encourage you to refrain from further military action that could endanger them?

THE PRESIDENT. In November, I think it was November the 20th, we were constantly hearing from the terrorists who held our hostages that they would be immediately tried for war crimes and executed. We spelled out to the public, and therefore to Iran, the extreme adverse consequences to them if such action should be taken, without being overly specific, but letting them know that there would be serious consequences for their nation and their people. We specifically spelled out one step in that process short of military action, and that was the interruption of commerce to Iran.

Our Nation is firm in its resolve. It's remarkably united. Our people have been surprisingly patient. But I don't think there's any doubt among the leadership in Iran, in the Government or among the terrorists themselves, that it is to their advantage not to physically harm the hostages whom they hold. And I hope they will be convinced as time goes by—not much time, I pray—that the adverse consequences of the action that we have already taken, with diplomatic and political isolation and with economic sanctions, is fragmenting their own structure of government and dividing their own nation and preventing Iran from making the progress that was envisioned when they had the revolution itself.

It's a remarkable commentary on this fragmentation that in spite of the deep commitment of their new constitution, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and their public officials, they have not even been able to hold an election in Iran after months of effort.

So, I believe that being joined by our allies in similar kinds of economic sanctions might very well be a factor that would bring the Iranians to realize that it's much better for them to release the hostages unharmed and to resolve this crisis.


Q. Mr. President, can you tonight assure the American people that there is no connection between the inability of the American military to retain highly skilled maintenance and technical personnel and the abnormally high failure rate of the helicopters on the rescue mission? And in a broader sense, does this high failure rate worry you if it came to a showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the .Persian Gulf?

THE PRESIDENT. There is no connection, because we focused the enormous resources of our Nation and its elaborate military capability on this particular equipment that was used in this operation. Had there been some shortage of either technicians or spare parts or maintenance capability, it would not have been permitted in the particular case of the helicopters, the C-130's, or the equipment the men took in for the rescue operation. So, there is no connection between those at all.


Q. Mr. President, could you explain why you appointed Senator Edmund Muskie to succeed Cyrus Vance, when Senator Muskie has limited foreign policy experience and holds only a secondary position on the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Senate?

THE PRESIDENT. Senator Muskie has more than 20 years experience in the Senate. He's been heavily involved in foreign affairs there as a member, as you point out, of the Foreign Relations Committee. He's played an active role in nationwide campaigns throughout this country as a Vice-Presidential candidate and also as a Presidential candidate himself.

He's familiar with our entire Nation. I think he's highly sensitive about the aspirations and ideals of our country that ought to be mirrored in its foreign policy.

He's also had a remarkable position in the Senate as the chairman of the Budget Committee, where every single proposal made for the expenditure of Federal funds in the foreign affairs field or the military field or the domestic field has to come before his committee for careful analysis before it goes to the appropriations committees.

So, because of that broad range of experience and the esteem with which Ed Muskie is held in this country by Democrats and Republicans and, indeed, because of his international reputation, I consider him to be extremely well qualified to serve as Secretary of State.

MR. CORMIER. Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT. Thank you, Frank.

Note: The President's fifty-seventh news conference began at 9 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. It was broadcast live on radio and television.

Jimmy Carter, The President's News Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/249848

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