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Trent University Oshawa Professor Wrote the Book on Ken Taylor and the Iran Hostage Crisis

Dr. Robert Wright shares his thoughts on professional historical standards and the need for myth-busting with students

Former Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, former Consul General of Canada in New York Dan Sullivan, and Trent University History Professor Dr. Robert Wright
Former Canadian Ambassador to Iran Ken Taylor, former Consul General of Canada in New York Dan Sullivan, and Trent University History Professor Dr. Robert Wright

Trent University History professor and author of Our Man in Tehran, Dr. Robert Wright accompanied Canadian hero Ken Taylor to the Washington premiere of the Hollywood film Argo. After weeks of buzz in the media following the Toronto screening of the controversial film, Mr. Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran during the hostage crisis the film is about, was an invited guest of director Ben Affleck.

Response to the Controversy

Set during the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, the film focuses on the role of CIA agent Tony Mendez and the plot to “exfiltrate” six American embassy workers hidden in the homes of Mr. Taylor and his wife Pat, and Canadian Immigration officer John Sheardown. The controversy is that the film minimizes the role of Mr. Taylor, who during the thick of the crisis in Tehran, worked clandestinely with the CIA, at great personal risk, to help free the six Americans.

According to Ken Taylor himself, upon return from the Washington premiere, Argo may be good entertainment, but it doesn’t make for good history. “I don’t know how many interviews I’ve given over the past few weeks – maybe hundreds,” said Mr. Taylor, “but what I’ve said in each one is that there is one definitive book on the crisis and that’s Robert Wright’s book.”

Professor Wright’s book, Our Man in Tehran: Ken Taylor, the CIA, and the Iran Hostage Crisis, was published in 2010 by Harper Collins and went on to become a national best-seller.

On Professional Historical Standards

According to Prof. Wright, a lasting relationship between him and Mr. Taylor was cemented in their careful collaboration on the book. Both Prof. Wright and Mr. Taylor agreed on the academic rigour with which they wanted the story treated, and Prof. Wright’s adherence to professional historical standards soon built a trust between the two men. “Ken and I both agreed that the whole thing had to be founded on the documentary record,” said Prof. Wright.

“Many of the other people I interviewed felt the same way about having an academic historian on the story,” he added, “particularly those from External Affairs – extremely bright and well-educated people who, temperamentally and also by training, tend to be cautious.  They liked the idea of keeping to the documents.”

On Myth Busting in the Classroom

“I think professional historians are now very much in the business of deprogramming, particularly in the classroom,” says Prof. Wright. “Students acquire their knowledge of the world, and certainly their knowledge of the past, mainly through mass media. I teach an undergraduate course on Cuban-North American relations at Trent, for example, and I can tell you that what most students think they know about Cuba and the United States they got from film. Professional historians can point out where Hollywood movies go off the rails.

“Professional historians, in a way, keep the public record of whatever they study. So if you study diplomacy as I do, or culture, or women, or the immigrant experience, or whatever, in a way you're shaping the past for the public, whatever that public is. I really like the idea that diplomats, here and abroad, read and discuss my work. I really like the idea that at least one former Canadian prime minister has read my books and thinks highly of them.”

The Importance of Studying in the Humanities

“People forget that an educated public was always one of the goals of the liberal arts, and we in Canada, to very, very high degree, have achieved that,” says Prof. Wright. “Many of the students we've been educating at places like Trent University for decades carry out into the world the critical skills they acquired as young men and women. The trick, I think, is to provide them with engaging stories across all media, including books. It’s a challenge, of course, but if you ask me, it’s still worth doing.”

Post Script: An Enduring Model of International Co-operation between Governments

At the Toronto screening, the final moments of the film suggested that credit given the Canadians (and Mr. Taylor specifically) was a mere political manoeuvre designed to avoid anti-American backlash against the remaining 52 hostages in Tehran.

In response to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) premiere, Canadian media lamented the “insult” to Mr. Taylor and to Canadians in general. The Washington Times called the movie “unbelievable but true” noting ironically “Hollywood can’t make this up.” Not so, claimed Brian Johnson’s September 12 article in MacLean’s just days after the TIFF premiere. “Ben Affleck Rewrites History,” concluded Mr. Johnson, criticizing the shift in focus from Mr. Taylor (“Our Man in Tehran” - a reference to the national best-selling book on the subject written by Trent’s own Dr. Robert Wright) to the actions of the CIA.

Once the affront became national headlines, Mr. Affleck invited Mr. and Mrs. Taylor to a private screening of the film, asking him to rewrite the movie’s postscript which now reads “The involvement of the CIA complemented efforts of the Canadian Embassy to free the six held in Tehran. To this day the story stands as an enduring model of international co-operation between governments.”

Posted on Tuesday, October 16, 2012.

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