What’s past is prologue: the Terry A. Anderson Papers

In Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, the scheming character Antonio says, “What’s past is prologue.” While this phrase can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, archival collections and their contents often prove its most common meaning: what takes place in the past sets the stage for the present. It is so engrained in our profession that it is engraved on the National Archives building in Washington, D.C.

The recently processed papers of Terry A. Anderson, a 1972 Iowa State grad and Associated Press journalist who was held hostage in Lebanon for nearly seven years, illustrate this concept yet again. Held from March 16, 1985, until December 4, 1991, Anderson spent seven birthdays in captivity and just last week observed twelve years since his release.


Anderson blows out the candles on a month-late birthday cake to celebrate after seven birthdays in the custody of the group Islamic Jihad.

The historical record of Anderson’s story resembles the present all too well. During the 1980s, Lebanon was enduring a civil war; today, the country is bearing witness to the civil war in neighboring Syria closely. Hafez al-Assad was the Syrian president during that period; his son Bashar al-Assad is the current president. A key player in the Lebanese civil war was the sometimes militant group, sometimes political party Hizballah; now, Hizballah is involved heavily with Syrian government fighting.

Anderson’s  kidnapping was claimed by a group called Islamic Jihad (a name that still appears in the news), which has ties to Hizballah. In the 1980s, at least before Terry Anderson was kidnapped, Hizballah was relatively unknown to Americans. The group is so common in today’s discussions about global politics that a search on the New York Times website yields 900 search results from the last 12 months. What can Anderson’s collection about his interactions with the group tell us about its place now?


Anderson, in a photo released to the press by his captors in August 1988.

During the Lebanese civil war, which was marked by tensions between the United States and many countries in the region, Iran and Iraq were also at war. In 1985, the United States initiated an effort to sell weapons to Iran secretly in exchange for the release of kidnapping victims. Money from the arms sale was then used to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. This scheme, commonly called the Iran-Contra Affair, remains a black mark on the Reagan administration. Reagan claimed to have never known about the deals, though Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, a key figure in the scandal, asserts that the President did know. A great deal has been written on the Iran Contra Affair and the roles of various players; a number of books and even entire academic websites are devoted to it.

These subjects – Lebanon, Syria, the Iran-Contra Affair, North, Reagan – intersect with Terry Anderson’s experience. The weapons exchange with Iran was supposed to result in his and other hostages’ freedom. Some argued that the scandal it provoked actually hurt the chances of his release. When Anderson safely returned to the United States, these are the subjects he started researching to learn more about the backstory of his kidnapping and why he had languished so long in captivity. The subject files created during the course of that research – including the many Freedom of Information Act requests he filed with U.S. federal government agencies – form a large part of the Terry Anderson collection.

Once the key players of the Iran-Contra Affair and other of Anderson’s contemporaries are identified, their names start appearing in more recent news media. For example, also embroiled in the Iran Contra Affair was Robert McFarlane, the National Security Advisor to President Reagan. Anderson interviewed him for his memoir, Den of Lions, when he returned to the United States and began exploring the events that he missed while imprisoned; an interview transcript is in the collection. As a man who helped craft U.S. foreign policy at a time of plentiful terrorism, McFarlane continues to show up in the news from time to time, offering his opinion on recent events or allegedly wielding his influence improperly.


From the collection, an array of publications that Terry Anderson and his family appeared in during his captivity, 1985-1991.

Giandomenico Picco, an aide to the United Nations Secretary General, has an eye-grabbing name, and one that I thought I was unfamiliar with until, well, I knew to look for it. Like McFarland, Picco is still a sought-after voice on issues like the Syrian conflict and the recent accusations regarding the United States’ wiretapping of international figures.

The political climate of Lebanon and Syria is not the only past-prologue feature revealed by the Terry Anderson Papers. Desperate people of various ideologies continue kidnappings as a way to spread their message; journalists are kidnapped, imprisoned, and exiled regularly, as the news and the Committee to Protect Journalists tell us.

So, the landscape of war and kidnappings that Terry Anderson faced while on assignment in Beirut in 1985 remains. Some of the players even remain the same. If you have been paying attention to recent news regarding the relationship between Iran and the United States, you may have heard that Iran recently elected a new President, Hasan Ruhani (also spelled “Hassan Rouhani”). Many hope that President Ruhani will promote moderate behaviors and beliefs within his country, unlike his predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ruhani allegedly met with McFarlane and North during Iran Contra-related negotiations in 1986.

We invite you to come discover the prologues in the Terry Anderson Papers, MS-272, available to use in the Special Collections Reading Room, Parks Library 403. In addition to subject files and working files of research for Den of Lions, the collection includes a vast set of VHS tapes with local and national news regarding Anderson; audio tapes, many created by regular Americans who were affected by Anderson’s capture and eventual release; and materials related to the efforts of Anderson’s sister Peggy Say and fellow journalists who advocated for his release. A finding aid detailing the collections contents is available online.

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