January 20th marks not only the anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration as president of the United States in 1981, but also the release of 52 American hostages who were held in Iran for 444 days.
President Reagan had hoped to make announcement regarding the release of hostages in his inaugural address and, in fact, wrote an insert of his own for that contingency. If the hostages were released on Inauguration Day, he was going to get a signal, and then he was going to announce to the country that the hostages were released. Ken Khachigian, Reagan’s chief speechwriter, argued with him about making the announcement during the inaugural. According to Khachigian, who gave his account of the matter during a Miller Center symposium:
I said it would interrupt the historical quality of the speech, that he could easily do something about that after the speech. It wouldn’t fit into the nature of the inaugural address. But had they been released during that speech and had he gotten that signal, he would have read that insert.
Of course the hostages were released shortly after Reagan took the Oath of Office on the day Jimmy Carter departed, but not early enough for Reagan to receive the signal and include the announcement in his inaugural address.
In short diary entries in the days following the Inauguration, Reagan wrote about the conclusion of the crisis:
Hostages will arrive in country tomorrow. It seems some of them had tough questions for Carter in Germany as to why they were there so long and why there were there to begin with.
Ceremony on S. Lawn to welcome hostages home. Thousands of people in attendance. Met the familys [sic] earlier. Now we had in addition the familys [sic] of the 8 men who lost their lives in the rescue attempt. One couple lost their only son. His widow was also here. I’ve had a lump in my throat all day.
Check out these interviews conducted for the Miller Center's Jimmy Carter Oral History Project, which offer insights into not only how the President and his team handled the hostage crisis for the U.S. government, but also how the crisis crippled Carter's 1980 re-election campaign. Interviews for the Ronald Reagan Oral History Project also shed light on how Reagan's team viewed the situation, and how they approached it even before the nation's 40th President was inaugurated.