144. Editorial Note

Secretary of State Cyrus Vance submitted a resignation letter to President Jimmy Carter on April 21, 1980, citing his inability to support Carter’s decision to launch a rescue operation to free the American hostages held in Iran. At an April 11 National Security Council meeting, participants supported the rescue attempt; Vance did not attend the meeting as he was away from Washington. In his resignation letter, Vance noted, “I know how deeply you have pondered your decision on Iran. I wish I could support you in it. But for the reasons we have discussed I cannot.

“You would not be well served in the coming weeks and months by a Secretary of State who could not offer you the public backing you need on an issue and decision of such extraordinary importance—no matter how firm I remain in my support on other issues, as I do, or how loyal I am to you as our leader. Such a situation would be untenable and our relationship, which I value so highly, would constantly suffer.” (Department of State Bulletin, June 1980, page 2)

Vance delivered the letter to the President the afternoon of April 21:

“With great sorrow, I handed him the letter. He started to put it away. I asked him to read it. He did, and then slowly put it in his pocket. He said we would have to talk again. I told him that I wanted to make it clear that I would resign whether or not the mission was successful. I agreed to his request not to make my resignation public until after the rescue attempt, and to remain in my position until the mission was completed. It was clearly understood that my decision was irrevocable, whatever the outcome of the rescue operation. Over the next three days I offered whatever advice and help I could to make the operation a success.” (Hard Choices, page 411)

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During the subsequent attempt on April 24, two U.S. aircraft collided during a refueling stop, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans. For the text of Carter’s April 25 address to the nation, wherein he indicated that the rescue operation had been aborted but that casualties had ensued, see Public Papers: Carter, 1980–81, Book I, pages 772–773.

During the morning of April 28, Vance met with the President at the White House, where he received the President’s letter accepting his resignation. He and Department of State Spokesman Hodding Carter III rode back to the Department of State and discussed the press conference Vance intended to hold later that morning. Vance recalled that it was “a sad moment and not the way I had wanted to end the work we had begun in January 1977 when we had forged what I believed, and still believe, was a foreign policy worthy of a great nation.” (Hard Choices, page 412)

Vance announced his departure from his position during a briefing held in the Department of State’s press room:

“I believe that all of you have received copies of my letter to the President and the President’s letter to me.

“I have the greatest admiration for the President, and I am most grateful for the opportunity which he has given me to serve him and our nation.

“As I leave office, I’m proud to have been able to participate in the important foreign policy actions and new directions which have been taken under President Carter’s leadership. They are important, not only for the present but for the future of our nation as well.

“As you know, I could not support the difficult decision taken by the President on the rescue operation in Iran. I, therefore, submitted my resignation to the President last week. I have told the President that I continue to support fully his policies on other foreign policy issues. I have assured him that he can count on my support for his continued leadership of our nation. He will always have my deepest respect and affection.

“Thank you all whom I have gotten to know well over these last 3½ years. That has also been a pleasure for me.

“Q. What is it about the rescue mission that you could not support?

“A. I do not want to go into details. I think my position is very clear on that, and that’s all I want to say. Thank you very much.

“Q. Is anybody else leaving with you?

“A. No. I hope that everyone in the Department will stay and support the Acting Secretary and the President, and I’m going to tell him that.

“Q. Are you going back to Wall Street?

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“A. I haven’t made up my mind what I’m going to do. That might well be the case.” (Department of State Bulletin, June 1980, pages 2–3)

On April 29, the President announced from the Briefing Room at the White House that he had designated Senator Edmund S. Muskie (D–Maine) as his Secretary of State nominee, touting Muskie’s “extensive knowledge of foreign affairs.” Following Carter’s announcement, Muskie offered a brief statement:

“The world is in turmoil. The issues are complex. But I believe that in this instability the United States must be perceived as stable and as a source of strength in the free world. As Secretary of State, I will devote my full energies to achieve these goals. I respond to this challenge with genuine hope. America remains a land of great opportunity.

“If these are dangerous times, they are also times of uncommon opportunity. I harbor no doubt that the great majority of Americans share that view and will sacrifice to that end, and I cannot stand in the wings when so much is at risk and so many have raised questions about the country’s sense of purpose.

“And so let me end as I began: First to thank the people of Maine for their unstinting support for many years and to recognize a great contribution already made by Secretary Vance and my thanks to the President for an awesome but a stimulating challenge as I face the months ahead. Thank you, Mr. President.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1980–81, Book I, pages 791–792)