• History

Why the World Remembered ‘Instant Hero’ Ken Taylor

3 minute read

Former Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor, who died Thursday at the age of 81, was considered a hero in America thanks to his cunning plan to help six Americans, who he’d sheltered following the 1979 raid on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, escape Iran.

Though a new generation of Americans became familiar with the plan after the release of the 2012 film, Argo, the real story of the daring escape and Taylor’s role in it is pretty significant, too.

The Canadian Ambassador opened his doors to the American officials a week after Iranians stormed the American embassy. For two months, they busied themselves with books and endless games of Scrabble. “I’d nominate any one of them for the world Scrabble championship,” Taylor said at a press conference after they’d all returned home. “They are also probably the six best-read Foreign Service officers.”

But soon, reporters began poking around for information, which lit a fire under Taylor to work on helping the Americans escape. As TIME wrote in 1980:

Taylor ingratiated himself with local officials as a friendly and neutral diplomat. He learned just what documents and procedures would be needed in the processing of embassy personnel in and out of Tehran under the erratic Ayatullah Khomeini government. He began sending some of his own staff on unnecessary flights to establish a travel pattern and to study the clearance procedures.

The Canadian Cabinet met on Jan. 4 and approved a rare secret directive to issue Canadian passports to the six Americans–although not in their own names. The Americans were given the names of fictitious Canadian businessmen or technicians who would have valid reasons to travel to Tehran. U.S. sources have conceded that the CIA provided “technical assistance.” This apparently consisted of helping to fabricate the necessary Iranian visa stamps.

After someone called his home asking for two of the Americans by name, Taylor expedited the plan. First, he reduced size of the staff of the Canadian embassy. Then, shortly after an Iranian election, the Americans were moved out.

The six Americans nervously but successfully showed their false papers to Iranian airport officials and boarded regularly scheduled flights to Frankfurt. Then they went into two days of rest and debriefing at a U.S. Air Force hospital near Wiesbaden in West Germany, before flying to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. There they were reunited with their relatives. Then it was on to Washington and back to heroes’ welcomes in their home towns. On Monday Taylor and three staffers flew quietly to Europe and the Canadian embassy was closed.

The Iranians were notably upset, but in America, there was an outpouring of love.

In Detroit, billboards facing Canada suddenly sprouted Canadian maple leaves and appreciative messages like THANK YOU. CANADA. The Canadian embassy switchboard in Washington was overwhelmed by Americans wishing to convey warm sentiments; “Brilliant move.” “Courageous feat.” “Well done.” In Fergus Falls, Minn., Radio Station KBRF got an enthusiastic response to its suggestion that listeners send I LOVE YOU valentine messages to Flora MacDonald, Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs, who, as her nation’s top diplomat, had proudly confirmed the rescue story.

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