America's history of hostage-swapping

Before Britney Griner, American presidents have struggled to deal with citizens held abroad

Britney Griner's imprisonment in Russia may — emphasis on may — soon come to an end. American officials have reportedly proposed a prisoner swap with Russia: The U.S. would give up convicted arms Viktor Bout in exchange for Griner and Paul Whelan, a former marine. 

News of the proposed exchange has been met with some anger in the U.S, Maya Yang reports for The Guardian. Bout "has a notorious international reputation," but even if he didn't, some observers wonder if giving him up "might encourage further hostage-taking" by America's foreign rivals. It's also true, though, that the U.S. and Russia have a long Cold War history of trading prisoners — perhaps most notably after American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union: After nearly two years' imprisonment, Powers was sent back to the U.S. in 1962 in exchange for Russian spy Colonel Rudolph Abel. Despite that history of swaps, Yang writes, "none have quite involved the notoriety of a figure like Bout." 

Hostage situations and prisoner swaps can be routine, as far as foreign policy goes — but they can also burst into scandal or dramatic clashes between America and other countries. Here are three times when U.S. presidents were tested:

The Barbary Coast

The Marines' Hymn opens with the following lyrics: "From the halls of Montezuma/to the coast of Tripoli/we fight our country's battles/in the air, on land, and sea." The "Tripoli" in that lyric refers to what might be regarded as America's original hostage crisis — when President Thomas Jefferson faced down the dreaded Barbary pirates. 

"For almost 300 years, leaders of the North African Barbary States hired ship captains to capture foreign ships in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean," the State Department says in its official history. After winning independence, the United State initially followed European countries' practice of paying "tribute" to the pirates to keep their ships free from interference. Jefferson changed course, sending the U.S. Navy to protect American shipping. In 1803, though, the U.S.S. Philadelphia ran aground near Tripoli — and its crew was taken hostage.

American troops recaptured the Philadelphia and set it ablaze. Recovering the hostages was another matter. A force of Marines marched 500 miles across the desert to Derna, where "the motley force charged the city and captured it — making the first time the Stars and Stripes were raised in the conquest of a foreign land," Peter Suciu writes for The National Interest. That still wasn't quite enough: The U.S. government eventually paid $60,000 for the prisoners. "Jefferson declared 'victory,' but it wasn't to last," Suciu writes. The Second Barbary War — a decade later — finally put an end to the practice of collecting tributes.

The Iran Hostage Crisis

If you're of a certain age, you can probably still remember CBS anchor Walter Cronkite counting — every single weeknight — how long American hostages had been held in Iran:

There are still many Americans who believe that the Iran Hostage Crisis ended Jimmy Carter's presidency. Shortly after the Islamic revolution, Iranian students in November 1979 stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took 53 Americans hostage — a situation that persisted for 444 days, the bulk of them during the presidential election year of 1980. Carter's approval ratings "doubled in the first month of the crisis," Mark Bowden later wrote in The Atlantic. "But in the following months, restraint had begun to smell like weakness and indecision. An April 1980 attempt to rescue the hostages by force ended when a U.S. helicopter crashed into a jet plane, killing eight servicemen. Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan, and spent his final days in office negotiating for the hostages' release.

"Carter's standing never recovered" from the extended crisis, Anne Gearan wrote last year in The Washington Post, "and when the captives were released hours after Reagan's inaugural address, it seemed a final insult to the departing president."

The Iran-Contra scandal

Reagan didn't really have an easier time with Iran, though. Throughout the early 1980s, Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon routinely captured American hostages — seven in all were in captivity by 1985. At the same time, Iran was locked in a brutal war with its neighbor, Iraq. And that's where things got complicated. 

In 1985, "Iran made a secret request to buy weapons from the United States," PBS' American Experience says in its overview of the crisis. That was a tall order, given both an arms embargo against Iran and lingering American anger over the Carter-era hostage crisis. But U.S. officials saw an opportunity to bring home the hostages. Reagan "convinced himself that he was not negotiating with terrorists." More than 1,500 missiles were shipped to Iran — and proceeds from the sale were illegally funneled to the Contras, a militant group battling the Marxist government in Nicaragua. Eventually, the hostages came home

When the sale became public, however, a Watergate-level scandal blew up. "Reagan eventually went on television to tell the American people that it was not an arms-for-hostages deal," Bryan Craig writes for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. It wasn't believable, or true. Reagan avoided prosecution — after a 1990 deposition in which he claimed more than 80 times not to remember details of the operation. (He was later diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.) Nearly a dozen other administration officials were convicted, however. Reagan got off better than Carter: He left office with a 63 percent approval rating.


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