But of the 8 helicopters meant to be involved, one had hydraulic problems, one had a cracked rotor blade, and another was caught in a sandstorm. The field commanders got word back to Washington, saying the mission should be aborted. President Jimmy Carter gave that order.
But as the helicopters withdrew, one crashed into a transport aircraft, killing 8 servicemen. Had that not happened, Carter could have simply not told the country what had happened -- and he could have gotten away with it, because nothing had happened.
During his 1976 campaign for President, Carter told the American people, "I will never lie to you." The words had great resonance in the wake of Richard Nixon and Watergate. If the mission were aborted, and he didn't reveal it, it wouldn't have been a lie, just an omission, necessary due to national security. The story might have remained a secret for years. But Carter couldn't hide this.
And so he addressed the nation early in the morning, U.S. time. He was already in trouble in his bid for re-election. Had the mission succeeded, all the talk of the apparent Republican nominee for President, former Governor Ronald Reagan of California, of the Democrats being weak on national security would have evaporated. Instead, Carter now looked absolutely hopeless. His only hope of winning after this was getting the hostages home before the election on November 4. He didn't.
When President Barack Obama was told of the chance to kill Osama bin Laden in 2011, he knew that if the mission failed, it would be “his Desert One,” and he would probably lose his bid for re-election. Advised to do so by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he gave the order to go ahead, and it worked spectacularly: The target was eliminated, and none of our people were lost. Obama was re-elected. He was lucky. Carter was not.
Of the 66 people taken hostage on November 4, 1979 -- 52 of whom were still in captivity at the end, on January 20, 1981, spitefully held over a few minutes after Carter left office so he couldn't get the full credit for his hard work in negotiations -- 46 are still alive. Here are their names:
Thomas Ahern, Clair Barnes, Donald Cooke, William J. Daugherty, Robert Englemann, William Gallegos, Duane Gillette, Alan Golacinski, John E. Graves, Kathy Gross, Joseph M. Hall, Kevin Hermening (at 21, the Marine Sergeant was the youngest of the hostages), Donald Hohman, Michael Howland, James Hughes, Lillian Johnson, Moorhead Kennedy, Steven Kirtley, Kathryn Koob, Frederick Kupke, Steven Lauterbach, Paul E. Lewis, John Libert and James M. Lopez.
Also, Ladell Maples, Michael Metrinko, Jerry Miele, Michael Moeller, Elizabeth Montagne, Paul Needham, Gregory Persinger, William Quarles, Regis Ragan, David M. Roeder, Lloyd Rollins, Barry Rosen (the one infamously paraded in a blindfold before the media 3 days after the embassy takeover), William B. Royer Jr., Charles W. Scott, Donald Sharer, Rodney Sickmann, Joseph Subic, Terri Tedford, Victor Tomseth, Joseph Vincent, David Walker and Joan Walsh.
William F. Keough Jr. died in 1985, Leland Holland in 1990, John McKeel in 1991, Robert Ode (at 65, the former CIA officer was the oldest hostage) in 1995, Jerry Plotkin in 1996, Bert C. Moore in 2000, Richard Queen and Malcolm Kalp in 2002, Robert Blucker in 2003, Elizabeth Ann Swift (Cronin) in 2004, Gary Lee and Richard Morefield in 2010, Phillip Ward in 2012, Charles A. Jones in 2015, Thomas Schaefer in 2016, Neal Robinson in 2017, William Belk and Bruce Laingen in 2019, and Bruce German and Westley Williams earlier in 2020.
What if the mission had succeeded?
The immediate effect on Iran might have been devastating. Instead of having their faith in the new Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, deepened, those who had given themselves over to him might have lost faith in him, and there could have been a counter-revolution. The monarchy of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi would not have been reinstituted, but there could have been a true republic.
With the Ayatollah out of the way, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, always nervous about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in his own country, might have been less so. He was the aggressor in the the Iran-Iraq War that began on September 25, 1980. That war might not have happened, saving, on each side, at least half a million military dead and 50,000 civilian dead.
And much of the terrorism of the 1980s would not have happened. Without funding from the Ayatollahs' government ("Ayatollah" is a title meaning "Sign of God," and Khomeini was not the only holder of that title in the government), Hezbollah (meaning "Party of God") might have had to scale back. The Lebanese Civil War might have turned out very differently, and the men America lost in Beirut in 1983, in 2 separate attacks, might not have happened, regardless of who was President at the time.
In America, people would have rallied around Carter. The economy would still have been an issue. But this, plus the rush of patriotism over the Olympic hockey win over the Soviet Union 2 months earlier, would have made Carter the great patriotic symbol, not Reagan. This helps make his boycott of the Olympics in Moscow that Summer look like a principled stand, instead of an act of petulance as it looked to those of us around then. And, since April 25, 1980, he hasn't had to focus on Iran. He can focus on the economy.
In the history that we know, Reagan closed his one and only debate with Carter with a key question: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" For a majority of Americans, that answer was, "No." But if the hostages had been rescued, how many more would have said, "Yes"?
Carter won just 6 States: His native Georgia, his Vice President Walter Mondale's home State of Minnesota, Maryland, Rhode Island, West Virginia (not shocking for a Democrat then) and Hawaii, plus the District of Columbia. The Electoral Vote was 489 to 49.
Carter did not win normally reliable Democratic States like New York and Massachusetts. And, since 3rd party candidate John Anderson was a Republican (he was a Congressman from Illinois), it's highly unlikely that he swung any State from Carter to Reagan.
If we take every State from which Carter got at least 45 percent of the vote but did not win, and swing it to him, that adds Tennessee, Mississippi, South Carolina, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina and Louisiana. Remember: Carter was a Southerner. This would have made the EV count Reagan 417, Carter 121. Not even close to being enough.
But maybe that successful rescue would have completely wiped out Reagan's arguments about competence and strength, and Carter could have thrown them back at Reagan. It's hard to believe, with subsequent Presidential nominations having gone to Bob Dole (73), John McCain (72), Donald Trump (70) and now Joe Biden (77), but, at 69, Reagan was seen as a doddering old man. Of course, that wasn't helped by his never having been seen as all that bright, even when he was a young actor.
So what about the States that Carter didn't win, but still managed to get at least 41.7 percent of the vote? That adds Delaware, Missouri, New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Maine, Massachusetts and Illinois. Now, the count is Carter 280, Reagan 258. Carter wins.
So by the time he's sworn in for a 2nd term on January 20, 1981, he's more popular than he's ever been. And, with President Anwar Sadat of Egypt still alive at this point, and Palestinian Chairman Yassir Arafat not having support from Iran, maybe a deal can be reached for a "two-state solution." Don't be surprised if Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel supported it, as long as he didn't have to give up any part of Jerusalem: A Palestinian capital built in the eastern suburbs could have worked then. Sadat might still have been assassinated later that year, but it would have been after yet another triumph for him.
With Iran, Lebanon and Palestine off the table; and inflation, interest rates and unemployment under control, Carter could have initiated his energy policy. By 1984, things would really have been better in America. Although, to be fair, Carter and his Administration would have had no more control over early 1980s music and fashion than did Reagan and his: Those would still have been ghastly.
It is possible that, after 8 years, people would have been tired enough of Carter to not vote for his Vice President in 1984. So even if Mondale still ran (likely), he could have lost. But, with Reagan having been beaten, and "the conservative movement" now discredited twice in a generation (along with Barry Goldwater in 1964), the Republican nominee would not have been from that movement.
It would more likely have been a "country club Republican" like the elder George Bush, or perhaps a "Washington insider" like Senate Republican Leader Howard Baker of Tennessee, than a tax-cut champion like quarterback turned Congressman Jack Kemp of New York. Given Bush's connection to Reagan's defeat, Baker would have been a likelier choice, especially since he could have taken the South from the Democrats, without having the reputation of a racist Southerner. But he might have taken Kemp as his running mate, as a ticket-balancing, a Northerner from the conservative wing.
With Iran a republic, there would have been no need for an Iran-Contra scandal. And while Baker would have supported the Contras in Nicaragua publicly, he would not have broken the law to do so. Building on the work of Presidents from Truman through Carter, he could have worked with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to an end. He likely would have been easily re-elected in 1988, and been President when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, and when the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
Supreme Court nominations matter. Carter never got to make one. He could have nominated the 1st female Justice to replace Potter Stewart in 1981, but it wouldn't have been Sandra Day O'Connor, not even as a compromise choice. Given the record she already had, he could have nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who would now be in her 40th year on the Court, a record.
Baker might well have promoted William Rehnquist from Associate Justice to Chief Justice in 1986, replacing Warren Burger, and Antonin Scalia to take Rehnquist's seat. And he might have nominated David Souter to replace William J. Brennan in 1990. But there's no way he would have appointed Robert Bork to replace Lewis Powell in 1987, because he'd have known the man who helped President Richard Nixon carry out "the Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973 couldn't be confirmed. This might have been the time to appoint O'Connor.
And he might have appointed a black conservative to succeed black liberal Thurgood Marshall in 1991, but it wouldn't have been Clarence Thomas: Regardless of the sexual harassment allegations against him, Thomas was not sufficiently qualified, and Baker, with a fine legal mind, would have accepted this.
With Baker being relatively successful, would his Vice President have won in 1992? Maybe not: There would likely still have been a recession. Then again, it could have been over by the election, and Jack Kemp would have been a harder candidate for Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas to beat than George H.W. Bush was in the history we know. He would have been harder to paint as a racist, or bad on the environment -- indeed, on that score, Clinton might have been a victim of Carter's success. The health care argument might not have worked.
Then again, the alternative to "Hillarycare" in 1993 was essentially what became known as "Obamacare." Maybe Kemp could have gotten that passed in 1994. It would have helped.
With Byron White retiring in 1993 (and Ginsburg, who got that seat in real life, already on the court), and Harry Blackmun doing so in 1994, Kemp gets 2 Justices. One is probably Anthony Kennedy. Does this mean that Roe v. Wade is overturned? Refusing to would have been Ginsburg, Souter, John Paul Stevens, and, given their real-life records, probably O'Connor. So if Kennedy, Baker's 1991 Justice and Kemp's 1994 Justice joined with Rehnquist and Scalia to strike it down, that's 5-4 striking it down.
Abortion laws then go to the States, many of which would ban it outright. This makes the 1996 election, essentially, a referendum on the rights of women. And maybe the Democrats nominate the 1st female major-party nominee. And it isn't Hillary Clinton, who probably never runs for office after Bill's 1992 defeat.
Maybe, instead of waiting until 1990 to do so, Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco runs for Governor of California in 1986. Which means she serves 2 terms, leaves office early in 1995, and can concentrate on her 1996 campaign, which would also make her the 1st Jewish major-party nominee. God, would I love to have seen a debate between DiFi and "the Republican JFK," both in their primes.
So Feinstein becomes the 1st female President, and the 1st Jewish President. The Republicans try to point out her anti-gun stances (after all, she became Mayor in 1978 because her predecessor, George Moscone, and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated), and her husband Richard Blum's questionable business practices (a bit overblown, it's not like he's Donald Trump).
Maybe they regain control of Congress in 1998, and there's an impeachment trial in 1999, anyway, with sex having nothing to do with it. (Although she has been married 3 times, Feinstein has never been accused of sexual misconduct.) Or maybe not: There almost certainly wouldn't have been enough evidence, no matter how much "Christian" conservatives would've wanted there to be against the Jewish female President.
Governor George W. Bush of Texas probably still overcomes any issues his father may have had in 1984 as Reagan's 1980 running mate, and wins the 2000 Republican nomination on the backs of the evangelicals. But, with Feinstein running against his intelligence and the Republican Congress, and not having to worry about a sex scandal, like Al Gore worried over Bill Clinton's, she wins going away.
And, in August 2001, she gets that briefing about Osama bin Laden -- the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan still happened and, presumably, with Saddam's army not weakened by 8 years of regional war, the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 did as well -- and takes preventative measures. On September 11, 2001, she addresses the nation, and tells them what was prevented.
Although she never would have gotten a chance to appoint a Supreme Court Justice -- unless Baker's 1991 appointee, or Kemp's 1994 appointee, died or had to resign before the 2004 election -- Feinstein would have appointed enough federal judges that most of the State bans on abortion would have been overturned. And if Anthony Kennedy or either Baker's '91 Justice or Kemp's '94 Justice got the message, then maybe a "Roe v. Wade II" would have been in place by 2004.
But, by then, there would (as there was in real life) likely have been another recession, and Feinstein wouldn't have had a war to hand off to her successor. Given the flak she would have taken as the 1st female and 1st Jewish nominee, her Vice President probably would have been someone not likely to "push people's buttons." It would have been less somebody like liberal "firebrand" Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, more like moderate Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. Gore probably would have lost his re-election bid for Senator from Tennessee in 1996, so, not him.
But after 8 years of Feinstein, Kerrey, no more charismatic than the similarly-named, similarly-heroic in Vietnam Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, probably would have lost in 2004, probably to someone who could have canceled out his advantages: Senator John McCain of Arizona. Without the baggage of the Iraq War and a recession, McCain wouldn't have needed the Hail Mary pass of Sarah Palin, who wouldn't have been on the radar yet, anyway. So, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is his Vice President.
But the economy was never McCain's strong suit. Maybe the recovery from the 2003-04 recession doesn't move much. And by 2007, a new recession begins, just as in real life. And maybe, with McCain having replaced Rehnquist and O'Connor in 2005, possibly with John Roberts and Samuel Alito as George W. Bush actually did, with Feinstein not having gotten the chance to appoint any Justices, this is conservatives' chance to finally kill Roe v. Wade for once and for all.
Stevens, Ginsburg, O'Connor, Souter and Kennedy vote to uphold; while Roberts, Scalia and Alito vote to kill. So it depends on 2 Justices: The one Baker appointed instead of Thomas in 1991, and the one Kemp appointed in 1994 in place of Stephen Breyer. If 1 of those 2 votes to overturn, abortion laws go back to the States, and many ban abortion completely.
And that, and the Crash of 2008 happening right on time, means not only does Senator Barack Obama of Illinois -- who may even have first won office earlier in this timeline -- become President right on time, but it might be a massive blowout, with white women flocking to him in a way that they didn't quite in real life. And Senator Joe Biden of Delaware is elected Vice President.
Right on time, he appoints Sonia Sotomayor to replace Souter in 2009 and Elena Kagan to replace Stevens in 2010. And, with so many doctrinaire conservatives having gone down in 1980, and Newt Gingrich's 1994 "revolution" also not having happened due to Kemp being the incumbent, Obama is the one to finally get universal coverage passed. He gets re-elected over Mitt Romney in 2012. And Merrick Garland is confirmed to replace the late Antonin Scalia in 2016.
So what about the 2016 election? Donald Trump only "won" because of anger against Hillary. Hillary is not on the political map in this timeline. Trump might still get nominated, but the Democratic nominee would take advantage of his flaws in a way that Hillary never tried to do.
Biden? No, his difficulty dealing with his son Beau's death would have stopped him from running that time. Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, a former Mayor of Baltimore? No, his hometown's 2015 riots would have knocked him out. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont? No, Democrats do not nominate non-Democrats.
It would have opened things up for a different Democrat representing New York. Ladies and gentlemen, the 45th (in this timeline) President of the United States, Andrew Mark Cuomo!
The coronavirus epidemic would still have happened, but he would have known how to handle it, and would probably be leading the likely Republican nominee -- Mike Pence? Ted Cruz? With neither of the George Bushes having won, Jeb wouldn't have a chance.
So here's the Presidents in this timeline:
1977-85 Jimmy Carter
1985-93 Howard Baker
1993-97 Jack Kemp
1997-2005 Dianne Feinstein
2005-09 John McCain
2009-17 Barack Obama
2017-present Andrew Cuomo
A better country, and a better world, all because one more helicopter was ready in Iran 40 years ago today than actually was.
UPDATE: The allegations that forced Cuomo to announce his resignation as Governor of New York on August 10, 2021 would put his Vice President in the White House. So:
1977-85 Jimmy Carter
1985-93 Howard Baker
1993-97 Jack Kemp
1997-2005 Dianne Feinstein
2005-09 John McCain
2009-17 Barack Obama
2017-21 Andrew Cuomo
2021-present Kamala Harris