The date was Nov. 4, 1979, the setting the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. For several days crowds had gathered outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, but little activity of real significance had occurred.
On that morning, when I arrived at the Iran-America Chamber of Commerce office, which, incidentally, overlooked the embassy compound, the crowd was relatively small, but as the hours passed, the number of individuals grew significantly.
Armed dissidents climbed to the tops of the buildings next to the embassy; the crowd on the ground began pushing against the embassy gates. Suddenly, the now infamous chant of "Death to America" could be heard for blocks.
From my seventh-floor vantage point I watched people scale the locked gates and rush toward the embassy structures. Marine guards were present but seemed entranced by the boldness of the intruders. They appeared to put up little resistance.
Halfway through the invasion the chamber telephone rang. I didn't answer the call but left the response to the receptionist. Within a minute or two the receptionist knocked on my door, stating that a member of the embassy staff wanted to speak to me; when I picked up the receiver, I discovered it was a senior member of the staff who had been detained in the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was concerned about the happenings at the embassy. Communication between the ministry and the embassy was impossible.
I described the happenings as well as I could from my vantage point and promised to keep the embassy official informed of additional developments. Several times throughout the day my office made calls to the ministry. The ministry would accept our calls, perhaps because we were not considered an official U.S. government entity. For the entire day we served as the communication center for the two U.S. Embassy officials detained in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The "Death to America" chant grew louder as the day progressed, and the large crowd did not disperse as readily as they had on previous days. Only the few individuals dubbed revolutionary students scaled the gates and stormed the actual embassy buildings. The majority of the crowd meandered about outside the embassy walls for several hours.
Even though my office overlooked the embassy compound, I remained unaware that the dissidents had invaded the embassy proper until somewhat later. The confusion and noise outside the walls drew more attention initially than the actual invasion.
"Death to America" has for the past 30-plus years been the official mantra of the government of Iran. Whenever the conservative religious leaders and/or revolutionary politicians want to create international publicity or instill fear in the Iranian electorate, they bring out the now-famous phrase and parade it on television, radio and other channels of communication.
The mantra does not, however, reflect the feelings of the majority of Iranians. Most Iranians, whether living in Iran or as part of the Iranian diaspora abroad, love the United States and the American people. Their main disappointment may be the U.S. government and its naiveté.
Franklin T. Burroughs, Ed.D., was serving as the managing director of the Iran-America Chamber of Commerce in Tehran at the time of the embassy takeover. He is a resident of Walnut Creek.