244. Information Memorandum From the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Rodman) to Secretary of State Shultz1


  • Further Thoughts on the TWA Hijacking2

We seem to be heading toward an outcome that will release our TWA hostages. Nevertheless I continue to be disturbed by the way we have conducted this episode and by the impression that may be created by the outcome.

One can always get one’s people out by paying the ransom. This we have not wanted to do, or to be seen to do, because of the dangerous message it conveys about yielding to terrorism. Basically I am afraid it could look like we paid the ransom, no matter how much we claim the two sets of prisoners were “unlinked.”3 Clearly some sort of deal is inevitable—and we are very lucky that releasing the Atlit prisoners is something the Israelis have been willing to do. But the overall impression conveyed will depend on the context.

The same outcome can appear in different ways depending on the context. To take a wildly unrelated example: In the Korean war, a settlement on the 38th parallel would have appeared a great success had we struck a deal immediately after beating back the North Korean invasion; once we took off into North Korea and were then driven back to the 38th parallel, it looked a lot less of a triumph. In the present case, the context is one of much diplomatic maneuvering and military restraint (even in El Salvador); the only signs of pressure are the presence of our ships off the coast and the warnings from the White House the other day, but these barely dented the overall impression of an unwillingness to take risks.4 Meanwhile, continual harping on the [Page 1075] illegality of the Atlit detentions creates the inescapable impression that we are hinting at a deal.

Jimmy Carter got our hostages out, but he looked weak for a number of reasons: the 14 months of national humiliation, the overall context of an ineffective foreign policy, and the fact that the pressures that got our people out were unrelated to his actions.

In this case, in my view, if we had given a greater impression of toughness (by more visible pressures, hitting at El Salvador, etc.) the same outcome would seem more our doing. We would have seemed more to have the upper hand, to have dominated the situation, and to have forced the outcome.

The danger is that the policy of negotiating with terrorists will seem vindicated. Just watch the public reaction that comes: Liberals will crow that patient diplomacy worked; those who have argued for a more forceful line against terrorism will be on the defensive; the President will be praised to the skies by people whose philosophy of foreign policy is nowhere near his own. His ability to educate the American people about the real world will have been badly weakened; the reputation of Jimmy Carter will be refurbished. The message sent to terrorists around the world will be ambiguous, to say the least. And we will be beholden to Syria, to boot. The President will gain short-term popularity at a long-term cost.

The only antidote to such an outcome, in my view, is swift and vigorous retaliatory attacks against targets that we presumably have refrained from hitting out of fear for the safety of our hostages—targets that are available in El Salvador, the Bekaa, Baalbek, or elsewhere—once our people are safely out. This is one case where we do not want to leave the message that “negotiations (by themselves) work.”5

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Peter Rodman Files, Department of State Chronological File, Chron 06/27/1985–07/01/1985. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Rodman.
  2. On June 14, TWA Flight 847, en route from Athens to Rome, was hijacked and flown to Beirut. The hijackers then flew the plane from Beirut to Algiers, from Algiers to Beirut, and then back to Algiers. During this period, the hijackers killed one American passenger and released some of the 153 people on board the plane. (Joseph Berger, “Gunmen Seize Jet in Mideast Flight; Passenger Killed: 104 Americans on Board: During Odyssey, T.W.A. Plane from Athens to Greece Goes Twice to Beirut and Algiers,” New York Times, June 15, 1985, pp. A1, A4) Documentation on the hijacking is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. XLVII, Part 2, Terrorism, June 1985–January 1989.
  3. One of the demands made by the hijackers was the release of Lebanese Shiite Moslems taken prisoner in Israel.
  4. On the evening of June 19, 15 people, including 6 Americans, were killed by gunfire at a San Salvadoran café. Documentation is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. XLVII, Part 2, Terrorism, June 1985–January 1989. During the June 20 daily press briefing, Speakes read to reporters the President’s statement regarding terrorism. In it, the President indicated that he had directed Shultz and Weinberger to provide assistance to the Duarte government “to find and punish the terrorists” responsible for the act. Continuing, he stated: “To this end, I have today directed that we expedite the delivery of security assistance items on order by the Salvadoran Government and am prepared to use my emergency authorities to furnish the Salvadoran Armed Forces with additional military assets which will help them prosecute their campaign against the Communist guerrillas. Their hope that terrorism will weaken our resolve or support for the revitalization of democracy in El Salvador is futile. If other U.S. military assets can be effective in this regard, then I shall provide them.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1985, Book I, p. 800)
  5. On June 30, the TWA hijackers released the remaining passengers. That evening, at 6:01 p.m., Reagan delivered remarks from the Oval Office for broadcast over radio and television. In his remarks, Reagan asserted: “The United States gives terrorists no rewards and no guarantees. We make no concessions; we make no deals. Nations that harbor terrorists undermine their own stability and endanger their own people. Terrorists, be on notice, we will fight back against you, in Lebanon and elsewhere. We will fight back against your cowardly attacks on American citizens and property.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1985, Book II, p. 886)