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Cynthia Dwyer, ‘53rd hostage’ of U.S. crisis with Iran, dies at 84

Late on the night of Feb. 11, 1981, Cynthia B. Dwyer returned to her Amherst home after a two-day journey from Iran to see “Welcome home, Cynthia” banners on doors, signs and cakes commemorating her return to safety.

The freelance writer, often called the “53rd hostage,” had just been freed after nine months in an Iranian prison, tangentially connected to perhaps the most celebrated hostage crisis in U.S. modern times. The long and tense Iranian hostage standoff had ended for 52 other hostages three weeks earlier.

Back safe in her Amherst home that night, Dwyer preferred talking about the situation in Iran rather than about herself.

“I was just thinking about the Iranians I met in prison – that I’m here and when they get out, they’ll still be in Iran,” she said softly and sadly, according to a Buffalo Evening News article.

Dwyer, previously described by family members as a champion for the underdog, died Jan. 31. She was 84.

The Cynthia Dwyer saga – part of the larger Iranian hostage crisis – made huge headlines locally, nationally and internationally, even if millennials know about the crisis only through history books.

The crisis helped end Jimmy Carter’s one-term presidency, taught Americans the difficulty of dealing with an uncompromising foreign and foreshadowed the United States’ difficulty in dealing with Iran and other Middle Eastern countries.

This was also a local story in Buffalo, where more than 40,000 people signed “Remember Cynthia Dwyer!” petitions circulated by The News and WKBW-TV, urging the U.S. government to press for her release.

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Related content: Gallery: From the archives: Cynthia Dwyer

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And after she was freed, The News proclaimed the news in banner, eight-column headlines two days in a row. “Mrs. Dwyer Heading Home,” blared the headline atop the Feb. 10, 1981, editions.

The next day’s message was just as concise: “Cynthia Doesn’t Regret Trip.”

How the hostage crisis evolved

The Iranian hostage crisis not only remained a top news story in the United States for more than a year, but also proved to be a pivotal issue in the 1980 presidential election that swept Ronald Reagan into office in a landslide.

The crisis started Nov. 4, 1979, when a mob of young Islamic revolutionaries took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, capturing more than 60 hostages. A week later, Carter placed an embargo on Iranian oil. A few days later, the Ayatollah Khomeini announced the release of most of the women, African-American, and non-U.S. citizen hostages, saying that minorities and women already suffered “the oppression of American society.”

The ordeal dragged on for 444 days, weakening Carter politically. After economic sanctions and back-channel negotiation efforts failed, the president approved a high-risk rescue operation, dubbed Operation Eagle Claw, which was aborted at the Desert One staging area in late April 1980 after a helicopter crashed into a transport plane on the ground, killing eight service members in the resulting fire.

The Iranian hostage crisis even spawned its own network TV show, ABC’s “Nightline” with Ted Koppel, which aired every night at 11:30 p.m. Historians and political analysts have called the hostage crisis a huge factor in the 1980 election, when Reagan walloped Carter in the electoral vote, 489 to 49.

“The repetitive nature of Ted Koppel’s show, ‘Nightline,’ when he announced the number of days it had been since the hostages had been held in captivity, really was a death knell for Carter’s presidency,” former Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, recalled Monday. “It put a nail in his political coffin.”

‘I went there because I was curious’

During the height of the crisis, Dwyer, a freelance journalist, left the United States for Istanbul on April 10, 1980, arriving in Iran about five days later.

Why did she go?

According to comments Dwyer and her family made during and after the ordeal, she went out of curiosity, as a freelance journalist, to understand the plight of the Iranian people and to write sympathetically about the Iranian revolution.

“I went there because I was curious,” she said while on a flight to Europe on her way home, according to an Associated Press report. “I thought we needed to understand what was going on in Iran. I felt there had been too much emphasis on the hostages, and the situation could have dragged us into another Vietnam. Besides, I was also looking for a good story. I ended up with a very different one.”

In a postcard she sent from Tehran to her husband, John, and three children, she wrote, “Dearest Ones, I’m supremely comfortable after less than 24 hours in Tehran. It is much more beautiful than (a magazine article) said. Trees in full leaf and Mt. Damavand so close you feel you can reach out a window and touch it.”

That comfort was short-lived, though.

After Carter banned travel to Iran on April 17, Dwyer was seen on network TV strolling by the embassy compound in Tehran. And following the abortive attempt to rescue the American hostages, she was arrested May 5, 1980, eventually charged with espionage and other crimes against the revolutionary regime.

Her time in prison was not easy. “For a good part of 1980 and a month in 1981, I lived in constant fear of death as a prisoner in Iran,” she wrote in a 1990 Opinion article in The Buffalo News. “I defended myself against a charge of spying during about 50 hours of interrogation and at a ‘kangaroo’ trial, all without a lawyer.

“At Evin Prison I heard executions of many Iranians accused of treason. I lived with four women waiting trial for capital crimes. And when a Jewish-Iranian journalist, Simon Farzami, was executed as a ‘spy,’ I wore a black armband.”

Despite Carter’s round-the-clock efforts to win the hostages’ release, both before and after the November election, the 52 original hostages remained in captivity until Jan. 20, 1981, the day Reagan was inaugurated. Negotiations for Dwyer’s return were separate from those of the other hostages, because she wasn’t seized along with them at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

Historians have said the continuing economic sanctions and a change in American leadership persuaded Khomeini that nothing more could be gained by holding on to the hostages.

On Feb. 4, two weeks after the release of the 52, Dwyer was tried and convicted of espionage and other crimes, before being sentenced to time served. She was released Feb. 10.

“I did not have an attorney, and my instinct told me that if I had made a fuss about it, I would have been there longer,” she told the Associated Press on her trip back home,

The News’ executive editor at the time, Murray B. Light, wrote a column about Dwyer’s release.

“As we said in this space previously, The News has not agreed with many of Dwyer’s statements and definitely felt that her trip to Iran was ill-advised,” he wrote. “But we always have felt that her imprisonment was unjustified and illegal and that every effort had to be expended to win her freedom.”

Never lost zeal for Mideast issues

Dwyer remained low-key after her return, although her 1990 opinion article in The News showed that she never lost her zeal for the issues haunting the Middle East.

“Peace can only be achieved at a peace table, and both sides must show up there to talk to one another, to discover points of similarity, to live with dissimilarities, and to say ‘Never again’ to each other,” she wrote.

Her family politely declined to comment and asked that no personal information be published about the family. A death notice submitted by the family states that Dwyer was preceded in death by her husband and is survived by three children and eight grandchildren. A memorial service will be held later.

email: gwarner@buffnews.com