Diplomats in Harm's Way

This section recognizes the dedication and sacrifices of foreign affairs personnel who have faced particularly dangerous conditions during their service abroad.


Diplomats at Risk

Following are just some of the many of the stories of U.S. diplomats and foreign employees of American missions who have faced great danger in crisis situations.  An excellent reference on incidents before 1995 is Joseph G. Sullivan’s   Embassies Under Siege: Personal Accounts by Diplomats on the Front Line, published by Brassey’s in 1995.   Unfortunately, that volume has not been updated to chronicle the heroism and sacrifice of  those serving in later years. 


Bruce Laingen and John Limbert—Iranian Hostage Crisis: 1979-81

On November 4, 1979, during the chaos of the Iranian revolution and following President Jimmy Carter’s October 22 decision to admit the Shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment, Iranian student demonstrators invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held American personnel there hostage for the next 444 days.  At the hour of attack, Charge d’Affaires Bruce Laingen, Deputy Chief of Mission Victor Thomseth and Security Officer Mike Howland were at the Foreign Ministry, where they became “semi-hostages” until captured by the militants and put into solitary confinement in a prison near the end of the crisis.  While in the Foreign Ministry, the three were sometimes able to speak with officials in Washington as well as with diplomats representing other foreign embassies still open in Tehran, but otherwise faced many of the hardships of other hostages.  Laingen’s wife, Penelope (“Penne”), became the leader of hostage family members in the United States and popularized the use of a yellow ribbon to signify solidarity with loved ones or fellow citizens in danger abroad.

Meanwhile, at the embassy, 66 American hostages (their numbers later were reduced to 52) suffered severe privations at the hands of their captors.  Political Officer John Limbert, who had previously lived and taught in the country and was probably the most fluent Farsi speaker of the group, was just one among that courageous and resilient band.

Bruce L. Laingen served as ambassador to Malta (1977-1979).

John W. Limbert served as ambassador to Mauritania (2000-2003) and was President of the American Foreign Service Association (2003-2005).

bookLaingen, L. Bruce.  Yellow Ribbon: The Secret Journal of Bruce Laingen.  Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1992.

bookThomseth, Victor L. “Crisis after Crisis: Embassy Tehran, 1979,” Embassies under Siege. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 1995.