The first American victory in the war on terror was won by Ronald Reagan, and it happened on Jan. 20, 1981, the first day of his presidency.
That was when the jihadists running the Islamic Republic of Iran released 52 American hostages precisely as Reagan took the oath of office. After 444 days of humbling Jimmy Carter, the rulers in Tehran decided to conclude their drama at the U.S. embassy before they had to face the new president. This marked the first of Reagan's foreign policy successes.
To begin, some background: When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the shah of Iran in February 1979, he established the first modern Islamist regime, one drawing on fascist and communist methods but with the quite different goal of implementing Islamic law (the Shari‘a). Like the Taliban regime that later came to power in Afghanistan, the Khomeinists claimed to have the answers to all life's questions. They created a totalitarian order intent on controlling every aspect of Iranian life domestically and spreading the revolution abroad.
In common with all radical utopian despots, Khomeini viewed the United States as the main obstacle to implementing his program. Like the Taliban leaders later, he attacked individual Americans. Only in his case, he settled for the Americans conveniently on Iranian soil, rather than going to the trouble of attacking New York and Washington.
On November 4, 1979, a mob indirectly under Khomeini's direction seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran, an action that encouraged Islamist confidence and unleashed Muslim fury against Americans worldwide. That fury then took violent form when Khomeini inaccurately declared that the capture of the Great Mosque of Mecca on November 20 was a U.S.-led assault on the sanctities of Islam. (In fact, it was carried out by a group of bin Laden-like fanatics.)
A wave of anti-American mob attacks then followed in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. The worst of the violence was in Libya and Pakistan; in the latter country, four deaths resulted – among the first fatalities of militant Islam's war on America.
In reaction, Jimmy Carter hemmed like Bill Clinton and hawed like John Kerry. He got bogged down in diplomatic details and lost sight of principles and goals. For example, he responded in part to the embassy takeover by hoping "to convince and to persuade the Iranian leaders that the real danger to their nation lies in the north, in the Soviet Union."
He responded to diplomatic efforts like a technician: "It's up to the Iranians" to make the next move, he said in late 1980. "I think it would certainly be to their advantage and to ours to resolve this issue without any further delay. I think our answers are adequate. I believe the Iranian proposal was a basis for a resolution of the differences."
In contrast, as president-elect, Ronald Reagan took a bold stance. He called the Iranian captors "criminals and kidnappers" and he called the political leaders "kidnappers." If they understood from his insults, he added, "that they shouldn't be waiting for me [to take office], I'd be very happy."
Reagan and his aides adopted a threatening tone. "We'll just have to do something to bring [the hostages] home," he warned. Edwin Meese III, his transition chief, spoke more explicitly: "the Iranians should be prepared that this country will take whatever action is appropriate" and they "ought to think over very carefully the fact that it would certainly be to their advantage to get the hostages back now."
Reagan's tough words and tough reputation won the United States a rare bloodless victory over militant Islam. Even a senior Carter administration official, though preferring to emphasize his boss's mistakes over Reagan's strengths, grudgingly acknowledged that "we probably would not be getting the hostages out now if Carter had been reelected."
Unfortunately, Reagan's later record toward militant Islam was less impressive, notably his 1983 retreat from Beirut and his administration's 1985-86 arms transfers to Tehran.
That said, the triumph from the dawn of Reagan's presidency reminds us of two points in the aftermath of his death on June 5: he had to deal with the problem of terrorism that plagues this era; and his stalwart, patriotic stance succeeded not just versus the Soviet Union but also against its successor totalitarian movement, militant Islam.