Movies have always been used for propaganda and some movies, like Argo, also rewrite history. It’s too bad so much distorted truth has to occur in a movie like Argo, in which Ben Affleck plays a CIA agent. According to President Jimmy Carter, “Tony Mendez, which is the CIA character that Ben Affleck played, was just in Iran for a day and a half,”. Let’s now set the truth to the fictionalized ‘Argo’ movie which rewrote history.
During the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 it wasn’t only the mighty and brave CIA valiantly rescuing Americans, but that is how history has been rewritten for the screen. There would have been no Americans to rescue in the first place if a Canadian hadn’t secreted them from harm.
Ken Taylor was the Canadian Ambassador in Iran who kept the Americans hidden at the embassy in Tehran and facilitated the escape. He became a hero in Canada and the United States after.
On November 4, 1979, 54 hostages were seized when a group of Islamist students and militants took over the American Embassy in Tehran. The episode reached a climax when, after failed attempts to negotiate a release, the United States military attempted a rescue operation off the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier. On April 24, 1980, Operation Eagle Claw resulted in a failed mission, the deaths of eight American servicemen, one Iranian civilian, and the destruction of two aircraft.
On the day the militants seized the American Embassy six American diplomats evaded capture and remained in hiding at the home of Canadian diplomat John Sheardown, under the protection of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.
In late 1979 the Canadian Government secretly issued an Order In Council allowing Canadian passports to be issued to some American citizens so that they could escape.
In cooperation with the CIA who used the cover story of a film project, two CIA agents and the six American diplomats boarded a Swissair flight to Zurich, Switzerland, on January 28, 1980. Their escape and rescue from Iran has become known as the “Canadian Caper”.
The Americans were safely hidden by Canadians for almost 4 months, from November 4, 1979 until January 28, 1980. Tony Mendez and the CIA were in Iran for 1 1/2 days.
The “caper” involved CIA agents (Tony Mendez and a man known as “Julio”) joining the six diplomats to form a fake film crew made up of six Canadians, one Irishman and one Latin American who were finished scouting for an appropriate location to shoot a scene for the notional sci-fi film Argo.
Early in the morning on Monday, January 28, 1980, Mendez, “Julio”, and the six American diplomats, traveling with real Canadian passports and forged entry documents, made it easily through security at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.
After a short delay because of mechanical difficulties with the jet airliner, the group of eight boarded Swissair flight 363 for Zurich, Switzerland. By coincidence, the aircraft was named Aargau, after the Aargau canton in northern Switzerland.
Upon landing in Zurich, the six diplomats were taken by CIA operatives to a mountain lodge safe house for the night. There, they were told that, for diplomatic purposes, they would not be able to talk to the press, and that they would be kept hidden in a secret location in Florida until the hostage situation was resolved.
Mendez and Julio continued to Frankfurt, Germany, where Mendez wrote his after-action report. The next day, the story broke in Montreal, written by Jean Pelletier for La Presse; it was quickly picked up by the international press.
The six diplomats were driven by the CIA from Switzerland to Ramstein Air Force Base in West Germany to be flown across the Atlantic to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
After the six American guests left on Monday, January 28, the Canadian embassy was closed that same day, with Taylor and the remaining staff returning to Canada. The six Americans arrived home on January 30, 1980.
The six rescued American diplomats:
Robert Anders, 54 – Consular officer
Mark J. Lijek, 29 – Consular officer
Cora A. Lijek, 25 – Consular assistant
Henry L. Schatz, 31 – Agricultural attaché
Joseph D. Stafford, 29 – Consular officer
Kathleen F. Stafford, 28 – Consular assistant
Ambassador Taylor, Sheardown, and their wives, Patricia Taylor and Zena Sheardown, along with embassy staff members Mary Catherine O’Flaherty, Roger Lucy, and Laverna Dollimore were appointed to the Order of Canada, Canada’s second highest civilian award.
Zena Sheardown, a Guyanese-born British subject, would normally have been ineligible, but was awarded the membership on an honorary basis, due to the intervention of Flora MacDonald.
Taylor was subsequently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the United States Congress for his assistance to the United States of America.
Pelletier, then the Washington correspondent to La Presse, had uncovered some of the facts of the diplomat situation before January 28, 1980, but he did not publish the story in order to preserve the safety of those involved, despite the considerable news value to the paper and writer.
Several other news organizations were also in possession of some elements of the story. Pelletier’s article ran on January 29 as soon as he knew the hostages had left Iran, but by exposing the operation, the story demolished plans by the US to secretly house the six Americans in Florida while the hostage drama continued.
The Argo story was blown, but the CIA role was kept secret by both the US and Canadian governments at the time for the safety of the remaining hostages; its full involvement was not revealed until 1997.
Officially, Jimmy Carter had maintained for negotiation purposes that all of the missing American diplomats were held hostage, so the rescue came as a complete surprise to the public.
American gratitude for the Canadian rescue effort was displayed widely and by numerous American television personalities and ordinary people alike, with Taylor a particular focus of attention. The Canadian flag was flown across the US, along with “Thank You” billboards.
The 2012 film Argo is a fictionalized cinematic representation based on the ‘Canadian Caper’ operation.
Viewing ‘Argo’ one should remember the adage ‘Don’t believe everything you see’.