TIE A YELLOW RIBBON
Born Penelope Babcock in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she was always known as ‘Penne’ (pronounced Penny). Her parents were Margaret Shippen and Frederick Babcock, the founder of the Federal Housing Association.
After school and graduating from George Washington University, Penne was recruited by the FBI to work as a research analyst.
It was there that she met her husband, Lowell Bruce Laingen (always known as Bruce), a junior diplomat in the US Foreign Service.
After their marriage, they had a son called William.
Bruce’s first posting abroad was in 1960, to Karachi, Pakistan. His young family went with him.
When they arrived, the American embassy had not arranged any accommodation for them. The place they were given was a hovel, filthy and dark. They were not upgraded throughout their time in Pakistan.
On the first night in Karachi, they were told they were expected for dinner at the Ambassador’s residence. They drove there, but when they arrived they were told children were not welcome, so baby William had to be left in the car. Penne had to keep nipping outside to see if William was OK.
She hated Pakistan. She had quite a few health issues, including a miscarriage and William was extremely unwell. “Between us we had every illness known to man.” But her second son, Charles, was born there.
She also hated how the Ambassador would invite himself round for dinner with very little notice – “we just accepted it like good little girls.”
In 1964, the recently widowed Jackie Kennedy visited Karachi and arrived in a dust storm. She was introduced to all the diplomats and their wives. Penne found her “a bit wet” but noted how all the men doted on her. She did concede that Jackie was probably still in mourning for her husband.
Penne filled her time working for the American Women’s Club doing charitable activities, including teaching orphans to sew.
Then her husband was recalled to Washington DC.
After a spell in America, he got his next posting, to Kabul in Afghanistan. By now they had a third son, James.
Penne loved Afghanistan. She found the people hospitable and friendly, and she threw herself into an active social life. She played an important role in the ‘American Women’s Gift Shop’ which employed over 100 local craftspeople and gave every penny of its profits to building a school for local children.
She was genuinely disappointed when Bruce was once again recalled home in 1971.
In America, she threw herself into church and school life but in her spare time became a driver for the Red Cross.
Her husband was sent on a brief fact-finding mission to Tehran, Iran, and Penne went with him. Whilst Bruce was in a meeting, she tried to go shopping but was sworn at, spat at, shoved around and eventually had to take shelter in a shop as some men tried to attack her. She was eventually rescued by soldiers from the American embassy – but she swore she would never set foot in Iran again.
But then the Foreign Service put out a ‘Directive on Spouses‘document, detailing how ambassador’s wives should behave and emphasizing their ‘responsibilities’. It was particularly hard on junior diplomat’s wives, who were given additional instructions in a document called ‘How to Be an Ambassador’s Wife’
Penne had had enough. She founded FLAG (the Family Liaison Act Group), to protect wives’ interests. The US Government considered her a radical. She was known in Government circles as the ‘Dragon Lady’. And she was quietly warned that if she didn’t stop, it would affect her husband’s career. She was told to “stop rocking the boat.”
It didn’t stop her at all. She continued her protests, demanding a Separation Allowance for wives whose husbands were sent abroad, and a training package, including briefings in local customs, beliefs and expectations, for wives who accompanied their husbands abroad.
In 1977 Bruce became ambassador to Malta, based in Valetta. He was joined by Penne and the children. She threw herself into Maltese society and did such a good job that Bruce’s successor in 1979, a single woman, was openly welcomed by the Maltese.
Back in the USA, Bruce went alone on a fact-finding mission to South America. Whilst he was there, he got an urgent message from Washington. The ambassador to Iran had had to leave unexpectedly. Would he go and hold the fort for a short spell of 6 weeks?
He discussed it with Penne. She was reluctant to join him after her earlier experiences in Iran, and as the post was ostensibly only short-term, it was decided she would stay in the States with the children.
Bruce did his 6 weeks and was then offered the job permanently. He was discussing whether to accept it on a permanent basis when the embassy was stormed, and the Tehran Hostage Crisis began in 1979.
Ironically, the embassy was stormed on Bruce’s birthday.
Penne’s home was immediately surrounded by the media. She went on TV but refused to blame the Iranian people. She also refused to cry in front of the cameras.
Instead, she mobilized FLAG and offered full support to Jimmy Carter’s government. The Foreign Office initially ignored her, as did the State Department, and she did not receive even a single call from anyone in the Diplomatic Corps. She later said all she received from the government was “superficial support.”
So, she took on the job herself. She visited the families of all the staff trapped in the embassy – and gave them continual support (with FLAG). She said she was responding to the families – not to the US Government.
In private she visited Annapolis (HQ of the US Navy – her oldest son was based there) and had lunch with wives of former Prisoners of War, learning coping strategies from them.
Finally, the government did contact her and asked if she would fly to Europe to discuss the situation with Heads of State there. She agreed.
The State Department sent a helicopter to pick her up. It landed in the fields belonging to Bruce’s brother, near Minneapolis. He was a farmer and it destroyed some of his crops. He was furious.
Penne made her trip. When she returned, she was appalled to find the State Department sent her a bill for $8,000 – the whole cost of the trip. “I realised America was not as capable as I thought we were.”
At the same time, she was dealing with the stress of her son William having nearly been killed in a helicopter crash – being forced to ditch in the sea.
She kept her fury private. She had a dartboard in the basement with the Ayatollah Khomeini’s face upon it. And she kept a diary.
Nevertheless, she felt fairly helpless – until a friend suggested tying a yellow ribbon round a tree as a sign of support for the hostages. She did…and the idea took off around the country.
She founded the Yellow Ribbon Committee – “people were feeling the need to be united about something and feel good about themselves.”
The idea was taken up by the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts. Yellow ribbons were seen throughout the USA, and bumper stickers, T-shirts etc.
Then Rosalynn Carter, the President’s wife, invited her to hang a ribbon on Capitol Hill. The two women did this together.
She then put one round the biggest tree in the USA, the Wye Oak in Maryland.
She sent a ribbon to Bruce. He put it up in the window of his office, but his captors tore it down, fearing he was sending secret messages.
The National Security Council contacted her to say there was to be a rescue attempt. She retorted, “well, I don’t think that is any of my business.”
The rescue attempt was disastrous. It probably led to the end of President Carter’s political career. Penne never blamed him personally despite feeling he had not handled the situation well. She acknowledged it was an unprecedented, difficult situation.
She was furious at the lack of support from the government agencies around the President. She threatened to sue the State Department until her lawyer told her that was illegal in the USA – “but you are allowed to sue the Secretary of State”, he told her.
The hostages were released after 444 days, just as Ronald Reagan became President. She never blamed Carter but she despised Reagan. “He took all the credit and never lifted a finger to help.”
She was aghast that when the hostages returned to the USA, Reagan never came to meet them. Instead, he sent his Vice President George Bush and his wife, Barbara.
In the bus carrying the hostages from the plane to the military base (surrounded by American press), Barbara Bush gave Bruce her lipstick, and he wrote “Thank you” on the bus window.
She remained bitter about the whole experience. Bruce was much more forgiving – but he chose never to work abroad again.
In 1986, Penne was offered a place on the ‘Service Wife Board’. She turned it down – “They didn’t want me when I needed them. Now they do – and I don’t need them.”
Ironically, she began to object to the Separation Allowance that she had campaigned so hard for. She felt that it encouraged families to be split up.
In retirement she became a writer – but never published her diaries of the period.
Bruce died in 2019. All three of their sons served in the US Navy.
RIP – Reagan Isn’t Popular