Tested Themselves in Tehran, Richard & Cynthia Helms Expect Tough Times for U.S. Diplomats
The life of the American diplomat was already perilous before the ordeal of the Iranian hostages. In 1973, when Richard Helms, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was appointed ambassador to Tehran, he was informed by the State Department that if he were kidnapped, he would not be ransomed. Not surprisingly, Helms, now 67, and his British-born second wife, Cynthia, 57, moved warily about the country. Five members of the Iranian police accompanied Helms whenever he ventured outside the embassy, and other guards were assigned to Cynthia. In January 1977 Helms returned to Washington to open a consulting firm, and Mrs. Helms turned to writing, drawing on her prior experience as an interviewer for the Smithsonian's radio network. Her account of the stressful years in Tehran, An Ambassador's Wife in Iran (Dodd, Mead, $12.95), was published as the U.S. celebrated the return of the 52 hostages. In an interview with Clare Crawford-Mason of PEOPLE, the Helmses recall their stint and consider the consequences of recent events on the foreign service.
Will people seeking careers now a void the diplomatic corps?
Richard: Recruiting will be difficult, because no U.S. ambassador—or even businessman—can feel completely safe in the more difficult areas of the world. Already, foreign service officers are refusing assignments to some embassies. Yet Americans react unexpectedly at times. Maybe now a certain type of person will step forward in greater numbers.
Are the former hostages wrongly viewed as heroes?
Richard: Yes, and I think their own demurrals show that. It's a privilege to serve one's country. If you get knocked about, that's what life is. Nobody has a smooth sail from womb to tomb.
Cynthia: In the sense that they went through a terrible trauma, they did bear up heroically, and they are to be greatly respected and admired. But in the traditional sense of the word, no, they are not heroes.
Does the agreement for their release set a dangerous precedent? Should we abide by the agreement?
Richard: It is not a good idea to abrogate international agreements made by a previous Administration. The dangerous precedent is bargaining for and ransoming prisoners.
Should we pull our diplomats out of unstable countries pre-crisis?
Richard: If possible—but it is not easy to predict the events that touch off these political tinderboxes.
How should the Carter administration have handled the situation?
Cynthia: The hostages might have come out sooner if we had done nothing. The political and media emotion made the hostages more valuable to the Iranians. They are a nation of negotiators, and we convinced them they had something valuable.
Richard: The hostages were prisoners of war, and we should have declared war. That doesn't necessarily involve shooting. It would have given the President the legal power to impound Iranian funds without financial complications, and it would have brought the Congress and the people together. I don't mean to sound nasty, but we should have left the hostages to their own fate. They would have been returned earlier if Carter had not put a value on them with all this hoopla.
Did the Iranian personality complicate the problem?
Cynthia: They are an excessive people—they show a great deal of emotion. Even the most sophisticated Iranians weep and wail at religious observances. Their involvement is explosive and extreme in poetry, games, wine drinking. They are taught to show their feelings from childhood. And because they have been conquered and occupied so many times, everything outside the family is regarded with suspicion.
What was your reaction when the hostages were taken?
Cynthia: Obviously, we wanted to know how the radicals got in. There's a high-rise apartment house near the north wall of the compound, and it overlooks the tennis courts. The security people always worried that anybody trying to assassinate Dick would shoot from that house. He always played in long white pants—no one else did—and so made a very recognizable target.
Richard: It's just a habit. I've got knobby knees.
Cynthia: On Feb. 14, 1979, when leftists stormed the compound and held it for a few hours, the first firing did come from that apartment house.
Could the embassy compound in Tehran have been secured?
Cynthia: There are 25 acres to guard. It always seemed to me that with a good ladder terrorists could come over the wall at any number of points.
Richard: In any country, the host government is responsible for the safety of all properly accredited diplomats. If the host government is not prepared to do that, you can't guarantee the safety of your people unless you keep an army on the premises, which you can't do. Even if the Marine guards successfully fend off the first dozen or so people to come over the wall, there can be hundreds behind them.
Were there any notable breaches of security during your tenure?
Cynthia: Once we were having a party at the residence and I noticed an unfamiliar Iranian woman sitting next to Dick. She kept fumbling in this very large pocketbook. In a whisper, I asked Dick who she was, and he said, "I thought she was a friend of yours." It turned out she was the wife of an Iranian judge and had some psychiatric problems. She had come to the embassy looking for the wife of one of the previous ambassadors, who had been a great friend of hers.
How did she get in?
Cynthia: She approached an Iranian policeman outside the wall and told him she wanted to see "Mrs. Ambassador." He took her to the gate and told the guard, "She has an appointment." The guard, not bothering to check her name in the card file, took her to the front door, where the butler assumed she was a guest.
Was this a fluke?
Richard: A one-in-a-million event, no question about it.
Cynthia: I'm not so sure. The police the Iranians provided were often illiterate. The guards at the gate often couldn't read the passes people carried, so they'd just let them in. The police never would admit they couldn't read.
Were the Marines always prepared for trouble?
Cynthia: As a whole they were wonderful people, but they were young—18, 19—and I think they were bored. They were always in the kitchen eating and watching television. I hesitate to say this, since the successors of those young men have just come back from such a terrible ordeal, but perhaps the guards should have been older and better trained.
Richard: The British tend to hire retired noncommissioned officers to guard their embassies. Worldwide, I think our Marine guards have done very well. I don't know if the system could really be improved upon.
Are day-to-day security precautions stringent enough?
Richard: In terms of spotlights, checkpoints, locks, guards and so forth, I think the State Department has been very conscientious.
How does a foreign service career affect marriage?
Cynthia: It makes it difficult to raise a family, moving from country to country and sometimes living in primitive economies. It's difficult for a woman when the children cannot play outside and when local conditions make buying food for dinner an all-day project.
Was there a place in the embassy you considered free from bugging de vices?
Cynthia: No. When we wanted to talk in private, we walked in the garden.
Richard: Considering my past in the CIA, it was ridiculous to take the chance of saying something between us that might be recorded. So we agreed before we left Washington that there was nothing we were going to do or say to each other—in bed or anyplace else—that would indicate any nonsense on my part as ambassador.
How did you handle your domestic squabbles?
Richard: The guy listening to that bug is probably a married man himself and understands that sort of thing! That's no problem.
Cynthia: Well...you convinced me it wasn't a problem.
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