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Hostage crises, then and now

The State Department is probably very pleased with the outcome of last week's hostage crisis in Algeria, although given the loss of innocent lives it would be impolitic for officials to say so.

In case you missed it, Islamic militants had held an unspecified number of people hostage at a gas field in eastern Algeria, including a small number of Americans. Dozens of militants and hostages — including three Americans, according to the U.S. — were killed during a series of attacks by the Algerian military. And you may very well have missed it; in most American news media, the story was eclipsed by accounts of a dead imaginary girlfriend and a semi-penitent reformed doper.

The sketchy coverage is an important reason why American officials may be happy. History shows that when hostage crises drag on and the public comes to make a personal connection with the captives, these situations cause governments serious trouble. That was the case with the long Iranian hostage crisis (1979-1981), which initially, as the recent movie "Argo" suggests, was marked by much government secrecy.

But an interesting and lesser-known precedent occurred in Algeria itself more than 200 years ago.

In 1785, only two years after the United States obtained independence, Algerian corsairs captured two American ships and held 21 crew members captive. Eight years, later they captured 11 more ships and more than 100 new prisoners, who joined the remnants of the earlier group (some had died or been released earlier). Not until 1796 did the new nation finally negotiate the release of these captives, some of whom had been held nearly a dozen years.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Algerians knew, even in an era of primitive communications, that Westerners who learned that their countrymen had been captured would do all they could to free them. For this reason, administration officials hoped to keep details of the captures quiet to avoid expensive ransoms or costly and disruptive military attacks. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, in particular, tried to keep his own efforts to use intermediaries to ransom the captives as secret as possible in the hope that the situation could be resolved cheaply and quietly. The Algerian captors allowed, probably even encouraged, captives to write home, and those letters — widely reprinted in newspapers, read in Congress, and dramatized in print and on stage — contributed to public pressure on the Washington and Adams administrations to do something.

Widespread public sympathy for the captives pushed the government toward an expedient but costly resolution that involved paying large ransoms for the captives and tributes in cash and shipbuilding supplies to the Algerian government to prevent future captures. The United States was not alone in paying such tribute. Most Western powers did the same because it was cheaper and easier than staging costly military operations that would hinder shipping to lucrative Mediterranean ports.

Public outrage over the captures and the tribute policy was an important factor in the creation of the U.S. Navy in the 1790s, including construction of the first major American war ships. It also contributed to the war in Tripoli (1801-1805), in which hundreds more Americans were captured. The United States prevailed, and that victory is memorialized in the Marines' hymn, "from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli." This show of force and a later attack on Algiers in 1815 helped to end (at least temporarily) the Algerian and North African practice of taking European and American captives.

With today's vastly improved communications and 24-hour news cycle, had the recent Algerian crisis continued much longer, biographies, pictures and perhaps even videos of the American and European hostages would inevitably have surfaced. The public would have begun to care for and worry about their fellow Americans. Had that happened, pressure on the administration could have forced officials to break their vow not to negotiate with hostages or to embark on a risky military operation of their own. Failure, or perceived failure, would have had dire consequences, and even a successful rescue could have led to unforeseen geopolitical implications. The actual resolution of the situation, in which Algeria took on the risk and the public never had time to connect with the hostages, precluded all of those dire possibilities.

And that is why some quiet celebrations are probably going on deep inside the Department of State.

Lawrence A. Peskin is an associate professor of history at Morgan State University and author of "Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785-1816" (2009). His email is lawrence.peskin@morgan.edu. This article is distributed by History News Service.

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