Speeding along Washington's wide Constitution Avenue behind a convoy of motorcycle policemen, a long black Cadillac carried President Jimmy Carter, who sat on the rear seat and scribbled notes. He was bound for Capitol Hill to perform the traditional ritual known as the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. It was January 23, 1980.
Only a tiny coterie close to Carter was aware that he was about to drop a bombshell: a request to Congress for permission to register women for the draft for the first time in the nation's history. Five years earlier, Gerald Ford had discontinued registration. So Congress would have to pass an amendment to the Selective Service Act if women were to be included in a renewal of registration.1
Carter's dramatic request seemed to many to be an acknowledgement that the U.S. armed forces had been permitted to deteriorate during his tenure in the face of threats to American security from the Soviet Union, which had built a powerful war machine, and from other global locales. One of those dangers resulted from a situation in Iran, a rugged land of snow-capped mountains and barren deserts about 21/2 times the size of Texas.
Iran's ruler had been the Shah, a staunch ally of the United States, who had been forced into exile. Power was seized on November 4, 1979, by the aging Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Muslim extremist with a deep hatred for the United States. A short time later, angry mobs of Ayatollah's followers stormed the American embassy in Teheran and took hostage fifty-four members of the staff. Ambassador William Sullivan happened to be gone at the time.
It was one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of the United States. Perhaps encouraged by the image of Uncle Sam's impotence, two days after Christmas the tank-tipped Soviet army invaded neighboring Afghanistan, a primitive country of lofty mountain ranges that had been fought over by warlords since Alexander the Great conquered the region in about 330 B.C.
Moscow announced to the world that the Soviet army had been "invited to intervene" by Afghanistan President Hafizullah Amin. One of the first