Handling a Hostage Crisis, 1904-style

FoleyWe were all appalled by last week’s gruesome video showing American hostage James Foley’s barbaric murder by terrorist thugs called ISIS. Or ISIL. Or however they’re identifying themselves these days. With their hands drenched in the blood of so many innocent people, what they are screams louder than who they say they are.

Making matters worse, the thugs are still holding other Americans captive. Like it or not, we have a new hostage crisis on our hands. Which is renewing an old debate: how do you handle such a crisis? Do you respond with military force? Refuse to negotiate with hostage takers? Pay ransom and meet demands? Or sit back, do nothing and hope for the best?

Consider, for a moment, how Washington handled a major international hostage crisis way back in 1904.

PerdicarisOf the many odd people who have wandered into American history, Ion Hanford Perdicaris was among the strangest. His father immigrated from Greece in the early 1800’s and married into a wealthy South Carolina family. Then he doubled his fortune by investing in gas works up north.

Perdicaris was born into the lap of luxury in 1842 and enjoyed the life of a rich playboy. When the Civil War broke out, he hopped a ship to Athens where he handed over his American passport and became a Greek citizen, hoping that would spare his family’s South Carolina property from destruction. He eventually settled in Tangier, Morocco and indulged in the Good Life. He built a showplace called The Place of Nightingales and filled it with exotic animals. He studied Moroccan culture (which he loved), partied, wrote books, frequently travelled to New York on business, and even seduced a married English woman – who left her husband and settled into Perdicaris’ mansion with her four children.

AbdelazizFast forward to 1904. Morocco was led by a 26 year-old Sultan, who ruled like a tyrant at the head of a corrupt government. To say Morocco was a mess was putting it mildly. Smelling vulnerability in the air, Britain, France and Imperial Germany all came sniffing around, hoping to expand their empires. Which is where Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli enters the story.

Raisuli-1Raisuli was the 33 year-old leader of a tribal confederacy bent on overthrowing Morocco’s oppressive government. Part pirate and thief, part heroic revolutionary, he was a Robin Hood combination of good and bad rolled into one. But on May 18, 1904, he bit off way more than he bargained for.

Raisuli’s men kidnapped Perdicaris and his stepson, demanding $70,000 in ransom (an enormous amount of money at the time), safe conduct, and control of Morocco’s wealthiest districts.

TR-globeIn the jargon of today’s 24-hour news cycle, this was major breaking news. When word reached Washington, President Teddy Roosevelt went ballistic. How dare a terrorist kidnap and hold a U.S. citizen hostage! (Because Perdicaris was so well-known in New York and the South, it was simply taken for granted that he was a U.S. citizen.)

Teddy immediately dispatched seven battleships, loaded with hundreds of Marines, to Morocco’s coast. Their mission was simple: if Morocco’s government didn’t end the hostage crisis pronto, the Marines would land and seize the customs houses, which bankrolled that nation’s economy. If Morocco wouldn’t cooperate, it would take a huge hit in its wallet. And if Perdicaris was killed, the Marines were to find, attack and destroy Raisuli’s gang.

Two weeks later, with the warships steaming across the Atlantic, someone in the State Great White FleetDepartment stumbled upon an inconvenient fact: Perdicaris was a Greek citizen, not an American. Never one to let details stand in his way (this was, after all, the president who famously said, “I took the [Panama] canal zone and let Congress debate”), Teddy went ahead as planned. Raisuli thought Perdicaris was an American when he seized him; that was good enough for the White House. [In fact, Washington kept Perdicaris’ true nationality a secret for 29 years after the kidnapping.]

With the American warships nearing Morocco, Washington was furiously working behind the scenes for a peaceful resolution. Britain and France were secretly persuaded to pressure the Sultan to give in to Raisuli’s demands. It looked like bloodshed would be avoided. A nice victory for Teddy, right? There was just one problem.

Poster1904 happened to be a presidential election year, and while all this was going on the Republican National Convention was underway in Chicago. Delegates were ho-hum about Teddy’s re-nomination. (Remember, the country had inherited Roosevelt as president as a result of McKinley’s murder three years earlier.) There was little excitement about Roosevelt’s candidacy, or the upcoming fall campaign.

Then eight little words changed everything.

After making a big show of flexing America’s military muscle, Teddy and his cabinet feared they would look weak by accepting a peaceful settlement. Knowing Morocco’s Sultan was about to cave in to British and French pressure and meet the kidnapper’s demands, Secretary of State John Hay sent a bluntly simple communique to America’s ambassador in Morocco: “This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

GOP convnentionWhen the message was read to the convention in Chicago, the delegates went wild. This was the famous Teddy Roosevelt they had known before, the cowboy leader who had boldly charged up San Juan Hill with guns blazing. Now he was displaying courage and guts again, standing tall in the face of terrorism and not backing down! The country instantly rallied behind him, and “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead” became a national catchphrase.

So when Raisuli, who was very much alive, released Perdicaris unharmed on June 21, the message was clear: Teddy had triumphed over the bad guys. The country went crazy celebrating the good news, and Roosevelt sailed to an easy reelection that November.

CartoonIt’s easy to dismiss this episode as a comedic farce. No one was harmed, the United States wasn’t out anything but the cost of the coal to send its battleships across the Atlantic, the Sultan was overthrown four years later, and Perdicaris and Raisuli even became friends during their time as captive and captor, with Pericaris later saying, “I do not regret having been his prisoner… He is not a bandit, not a murderer, but a patriot forced into acts of brigandage to save his native soil and his people from the yoke of tyranny.”

But there was a serious side as well to what history now calls the Perdicaris Incident. When lives are stake, Americans respond positively to a president who displays backbone and courage. The country also wants action; not reckless, knee-jerk responses, but well thought out counter-measures. And while people often cheer saber rattling, we also expect our leaders to seize every opportunity for peacefully ending the crisis through quiet, back channel efforts.

TRPerhaps the most important lesson of all: nobody messed with Teddy Roosevelt again for the remainder of his presidency.

Washington can learn a lot today from that crisis back in 1904.

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4 thoughts on “Handling a Hostage Crisis, 1904-style

  1. Chris S.

    Excellent post! One of the best obscure incidents in history. Worth mentioning that Roosevelt oversaw the Algeciras Conference two years later, which settled European disputes over Morocco and postponed World War I for a decade. Raisuli meanwhile fought Spanish invasion for over a decade, then sided with them during the Rif War of the 1920s before Abd el-Krim killed him.

  2. J Kirk Richards

    Went off in search of the…alive or … dead quote and found your wonderful and detailed account. Like so much of popular (American but I will not be surprised to find similar stories elsewhere and elsewhen) history the real tale trumps the tail-twisting and movie versions. Thanks.

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