Publication Date

May 1, 1990

Perspectives Section




When Warren Cohen submitted his resignation as chair of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation, he did so because he felt that he was unable to meet his obligation to insure the integrity of the historical record as published in the Foreign Relations of the United States. Contributing to his decision was a review of the 1952–54 volume on Iran (vol. X in the 1952–54 series) that I made on November 17, 1989, before a closed session of the Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation at the Department of State. As a result, Page Putnam Miller, Director of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, asked me to summarize my review (which was made orally, from notes) and to provide some insight into why the Advisory Committee might have judged the deletion of certain materials in the Iran volume, which the Advisory Committee was not allowed to review, to have violated the credibility of the FRUS series and the integrity of the historical record.

I should say at the outset that, as usual with the series, the volume provided good, broad coverage of most of the issues cited in the introduction. The index to the volume was also helpful, as was the list of persons in the front of the volume, although Frank Wisner, head of CIA Covert Operations and Kermit Roosevelt, CIA Operations Deputy for the Middle East who was responsible for Operation AJAX (the overthrow of the Mosadeq government), were not mentioned.

These omissions are symptomatic of even larger ones when it comes to the documents themselves, where textual omissions range from numerous small ellipses and a fair number of larger paragraphs to cases where whole documents have been deleted.

While some omissions may be necessary from the standpoint of national security, others which are not necessary distort the record and compromise the integrity of the Foreign Relations series. If the purpose of the series is to provide a record of what was thought, what was done, and why it was done, in order to explain what happened and to instruct those who would learn from the past, such a purpose is not served by this volume, which purports to constitute “the official record of the foreign policy of the United States.” The volume asserts that it includes, “subject to necessary security considerations, all documents needed to give a comprehensive record of the major foreign policy decisions of the United States. …” Such documents include not only those of the Department of State, but those of the National Security Council, the CIA, and other agencies.

In light of that fact, the circumstances surrounding events in Iran in 1953, the importance of the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mosadeq in U.S.-Iranian relations, the CIA’s selective and public distortion of its role, the lack of a convincing rationale for withholding from the record much of the information that is now thirty-five-years old, and the lack of any disclaimer at the beginning of the volume, the omissions combine to make the Iran volume in the period of 1952–54 a fraud. In making this statement, I am not attacking those who worked on the volume but the political decisions that left so much out.

The following is a brief account of what is suggested by the documents that are in the volume.

Mosadeq came to power and had a series of confrontations with the British. He nationalized the oil industry and the British left the country. Over time he became unpopular and formed a temporary alliance with the Tudeh (Communist) Party. He was overthrown by the Iranian people who, tired of the stresses of his rule, responded spontaneously to forces who were loyal to the monarchy and who supported the Shah’s leadership.

The real story is quite different. One can construct it with the help of books written by the three principals involved: the CIA agent who planned the coup and headed up another related covert operation called BEDAMN, Donald N. Wilber’s Adventures in the Middle East: Excursions and Incursions, 1986; the CIA Operations Deputy for the Middle East, Kermit Roosevelt’s Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control In Iran, 1979; and the Chief of MI6 Officer in Iran, Christopher M. Woodhouse’s Something Ventured, 1982. (One assumes that these books passed security review before being published. Such clearance, needless to say, suggests a double standard of sorts when it comes to historical documentation.) Another especially helpful and carefully written account is Mark Gasiorowski’s “The 1953 Coup D’Etat in Iran,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, August 1987. Gasiorowski interviewed all but one of the CIA officers directly involved in the coup who were alive in the mid-1980s, five CIA officers who worked on Iran in Washington, D.C., as well as other U.S. and British participants. Relevant documents available from British and American archives (which supplement the volume but all of which I have not examined) as well as useful secondary sources are also cited therein. If one looks between the lines and fills in ellipses and omissions with information that these publications have brought within the public purview, it becomes clear that:

After Mosadeq came to power, the British tried to subvert him. They sought to undermine his base of support through economic sanctions and military intimidation, and finally sought to remove him. After diplomatic ties between England and Iran were broken, the British turned to the United States. Woodhouse, Chief MI6 Officer in Iran, travelled to Washington, D.C. to seek U.S. support. A meeting was set up in early December of 1952.

At this point there is a serious omission in the Foreign Relations volume. A memorandum of conversation between United States and British officials, dated December 3, 1952, (originally in the volume’s galleys), was deleted. The memorandum’s subject was whether or not the United States was interested in collaborating with the British to overthrow Mosadeq.

The reason I know of this deletion was that I worked on the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, 1979–1980. Despite limited access to the CIA’s in-house assessment of Operation AJAX and enormous time constraints, a couple of us worked to reconstruct a record of U.S.-Iranian relations from 1941 to the (then) present. We were trying to piece together a historical record so that in the event the American hostages in Iran were tried, President Carter would have as clear an understanding as possible of the history that informed U.S.-Iranian relations and the administration would be able to argue its case more effectively.

I had just published a book on the Truman administration’s relations in Iran during the early Cold War; Kermit Roosevelt’s account of the overthrow of Mosadeq had just been published; and I remember being struck (as I read the galleys for the period 1951–52) by the memo in question. I have since been reminded of it by Woodhouse’s book, which includes details I had forgotten, but none of which, in my judgement, would warrant its deletion from the volume.

The United States had begun a covert action program in Iran in the late 1940s, but its purpose was to weaken the position of the Soviet Union—not Mosadeq. Covert action against the Soviet Union was authorized under NSC 10/2. An operation codenamed BEDAMN, whose activities fell within the guidelines of NSC 10/2, was aimed at Soviet and Tudeh influence. Among some of its activities, chronicled in Gasiorowski’s article, were the infiltration of agent provocateurs into Tudeh demonstrations, attacks on mosques in the name of the Tudeh, and efforts to undermine the base of Mosadeq’s National Front. The latter efforts were not within the guidelines of NSC 10/2 and were not official U.S. policy but were apparently decided upon within the CIA.

The United States was reluctant to support Mosadeq’s overthrow during the Truman administration and did not share the British opinion of him. Eventually, however, during the Eisenhower administration, the United States collaborated with the British to undermine Mosadeq’s popularity and the decision was made to overthrow him. The plan was approved by Prime Minister Churchill and President Eisenhower and was given the go ahead on June 25, 1953. It was confirmed by code phrases in a speech by Eisenhower and in a Persian language broadcasted by the BBC in early August 1953.

The background to this decision was revealing. In February 1953, top U.S. and British officials reviewed the situation and developed a plan to overthrow Mosadeq. The plan was originally christened “Boot” but was later renamed “AJAX.” The complicated evolution of the coup does not require elaboration here, except to say that the CIA spent $50,000 to hire a “fake” Tudeh crowd, which tore down statues of the Shah and his father and provoked fears of the Tudeh. This paved the way for paid pro-Shah and anti-Tudeh crowds joined by the army and police units. Upwards of three hundred lives were lost before the Shah was installed.

The volume shows a gap in the record from July 28 to August 11, 1953 for which there are no documents whatsoever of the crucial period prior to the overthrow of Mosadeq. Part of the explanation for this may be that Operation AJAX was being run by the CIA, most State Department personnel in Iran were uninformed about the operation, and Ambassador Loy Henderson had been “exiled” to Switzerland. Whether such documents were removed prior to examination, whether they were accessible but deleted (and therefore counted in the 2 percent of documents cited in a memo by the Office of the Historian as having been removed), or whether they were excluded because of the fact they involved CIA covert activities, I do not know (the galleys for the period 1953-54 were not available to me in 1980).

What is interesting about the coup is that there is little if any evidence of Mosadeq’s communist sympathies, the Tudeh’s capacity to seize power, or the necessity of a coup. Fears of these possibilities, Gasiorowski observes, were held primarily by people at the highest levels of the State Department and the CIA (i.e. John Foster and Allen Dulles), not by lower-level specialists. The CIA station chief in Iran, for example who opposed the coup, had to be replaced. Since the United States had penetrated the Tudeh party and was intercepting its orders, it was in a position to make reasonable judgements about the Tudeh. Such judgements were made, however, only at the “working” level. What comes through in all this is that the Eisenhower administration, in collaboration with the British, undermined a popular regime, created fears by provoking threats to Iran’s stability, and overstated the threats posed to national security interests in an effort to carry out the policies of the Dulles brothers.

In light of these matters, the misleading impression of U.S. non-involvement conveyed in the pages of the volume constitutes a gross misrepresentation of the historical record sufficient to deserve the label of fraud.

In an effort to initiate a discussion about the pros and cons of making more information public, I would like to examine briefly some of the arguments that could be made for omission:

  1. If the U.S. government can’t keep its secrets, no one will ever trust us when it comes to cooperation on sensitive covert activity that is judged to be in the national interest. This may be true, and it would be naive to insist that all sensitive information should be divulged. However, in the case of the overthrow of Mosadeq, everyone already knows most of the details; the key intelligence officers have written memoirs about it!
  2. Sources may be compromised. There is no one left alive who was involved at the time who could be compromised—and by now what networks we had have been eliminated.
  3. Relations with Iran could be damaged. We have no relations with Iran; they already know the worst.
  4. Revelations would substantiate distrust in the United States, at a time when we are working to build trust. Distrust has already been substantiated. Trust could in fact be improved by an honest acknowledgement of what was done. The Soviets seem to have recognized this in Afghanistan.
  5. Revelations might hurt relations between England and Iran. Again, the Iranians already know the worst.
  6. Revelations would set a precedent for the revelation of all such covert activity. No one is arguing that this case should set a precedent for all cases. What I am arguing is that in this case, given what has happened, it makes no sense to delete the material that was deleted.

At the very least, historians have a right to expect that the Advisory Committee can be trusted to play its role. This is the only way that U.S. foreign policy and the CIA can be subject to public accountability. Under the circumstances, there is no convincing argument why the documents should be withheld. Arguments that are made appear self serving. To the extent that the CIA chooses to bless the release of self-serving accounts, which are subject to the same criticisms that apply to the publication of the deleted documents in question, they have undermined their own arguments not to publish those documents.

Meanwhile, a lack of understanding of what occurred inhibits appreciation in this country of a historical event that is central to current and future relations with Iran. This is particularly true in light of the fact that diplomats frequently rely on the Foreign Relations series for their own understanding of the history of U.S. foreign policy.

At the very least, the Office of the Historian should provide some caveat or disclaimer that admits more forthrightly to the limitations under which it is operating (i.e. with CIA veto power over the publication of certain documents). It could provide a narrative of problems relating to declassification or some discussion of secondary sources that have a bearing on controversial issues that the State Department is either not in a position to comment on or not in a position to divulge because of legal constraints or reasons of national security.

Bruce R. Kuniholm is professor of public policy studies and history, chair of the department of Public Policy Studies, and director of the Institute of Policy Sciences and Public Affairs at Duke University. Professor Kuniholm was a member of the Policy Planning Staff in the Department of State in 1979-1980.