With a warning that seizures of Americans abroad must not be repeated and would bring "swift and effective retribution," President Reagan received the former hostages at the White House -- a symbolic close to an emotional ordeal for both the hostages and the American public.
In recent times possible only the return of prisoners of war from Vietnam in the 1970s, or the first manned moon landing, urban riots, civil rights marches, and assassinations of the 1960s matched the hostage drama in national impact, experts say.
President Reagan wanted a personal, constrained ceremony at the White House. But at the same time he and his advisers recognized the role such presidential ceremonies play in unifying and refreshing the national spirit -- like an inauguration marking an orderly end of one era and a fresh, hopeful start.
Hence, there was also a remarkable celebration here in the nation's capital: a motorcade through a thicket of yellow ribbons from Andrews Air Base, past Capitol Hill, and down the Pennsylvania Avenue inaugural parade route to the White House; 6,000 invited guests on the south lawn; fireworks over the Potomac at dusk.
The Reagan team sought to play down the "gala" side of the ceremony partly because they saw risks in too close a link between the President and the Iran drama.They preferred to keep any sense of American failure in the crisis at arms length -- as a Carter- Democratic responsibility. President Carter, to his political peril, closely tied his political fate to the hostage crisis, his own advisers agree.
But in warning that another seizure of Americans abroad would not be tolerated, Reagan ran the risk of limiting his options in a future case where again negotiation, not force, may be in his only recourse. Domestically, he must still prove himself firm but not rash, aides say. Details of a new Reagan hostage policy are being developed under the State Department's lead.
In any event, the official greeting of the 52 freed hostages by the President was one of those historic state pageants that help a public, as well as the individuals involved, shift gears.
"At this point it's out of the realm of foreign policy and into the realm of national celebration," said Thomas Patterson, scholar at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
The ceremony helped relieve Americans of negative feelings about the past, observes Murray Edelman, an expert on political symbolism. "It obliterates concern with the remotem past, with the issues that were issues in the news when the hostages were first taken -- the legitimacy and adequacy of American policy in Iran," Mr. Edelman says.
"It is a downplaying of one kind of issue -- America concerned with protecting its citizens in a situation in which it was unable to do so. It became a way to forget guilt Americans felt at not being able to protect them, and humiliation in the eyes of the world for a year."
Such a ceremony, far from being "merely symbolic," helps the public collectively turn to a new, more positive era.
"It was necessary and desirable," says Austin Ranney, Washington political affairs expert. The traumatic feelings of Vietnam prisoners of war, their families, and the public "quieted down significantly" with the ceremonial returns later. "These feelings run pretty deep in the human spirit," Mr. Ranney says. "A ceremony marks an end. . . ."
The public, with millions of Americans viewing the official Iran hostage homecoming, actually helped invest the event with significance, Mr. Edelman says.
He likens such a celebration to the triumphal arches familiar back to the days of Roman legions: "An arch in itself doesn't have any meaning. Its visual, semantic emptiness is what makes it useful on ceremonial occasions, because people can read into it what they very much want to believe.
"When people can be reassured that what they believe is shared by others -- we each have our misgivings, our doubts, and our wonderment about the various things that happened -- they are comforted."
Americans feel perplexed by conflicting questions over the hostage episode, Edelman says: Should Carter have invited the Shah to America? Was the CIA really involved in helping the Shah torture people?
At the same time, Americans fell ambivalent. They support American foreign policy. They saw the Shah as the bulwark against communism.
"Since everyone is likely to have some ambivalence and doubt," Edelman says, "it helps us all to take part in a ceremony and tell ourselves the same things, and partly to refuse to discuss the same things."