David R. Henderson  

All the Shah's Men

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On my summer vacation, I read more books and fewer blogs. The first book I've read this vacation is Stephen Kinzer's All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror. It's excellent.

I saw Kinzer speak at a Future of Freedom Foundation event in northern Virginia in 2008. I spoke there also, as did Glenn Greenwald, Bob Higgs, Sheldon Richman, Jonathan Turley and a number of others.. Kinzer's speech--I think it was about Cuba--was excellent. Kinzer was a long-time New York Times reporter.

Kinzer tells the story, in great detail, of how Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of TR and an employee of the CIA, set in motion the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh, the prime minister of Iran in the early 1950s. It's fascinating and disturbing: I found Roosevelt even more evil than I had expected.

I remember that when the Iran radicals had taken over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, they chanted and had signs about the CIA. Shortly after November 1979, I learned the connection with the 1953 events, but I had just assumed that they were angry about the CIA's role in 1953. Kinzer suggests an even more direct connection. He writes:

The hostage-takers remembered that when the Shah fled into exile in 1953, CIA agents working at the American embassy had returned him to his throne. Iranians feared that history was about to repeat itself.

In the back of everybody's mind hung the suspicion that, with the admission of the Shah to the United States, the countdown for another coup d-etat had begun," one of the hostage-takers explained years later. "Such was to be our fate again, we were convinced, and it would be irreversible. We now had to reverse the irreversible."

The whole story is tragic. Iran was a fledgling democracy stopped in its tracks by the U.S. government at the behest of the British government. When the Iranians finally overthrew the Shah, they got, not another liberal democracy, but a vicious theocracy.

The motivation for the coup was to get back the oil company that Mossadegh had nationalized. I don't defend nationalization, but overthrowing a government to reverse it is too extreme. I think Americans would be justly upset if, in response to the U.S. government's nationalization of an Iranian firm, Iran's government fomented a coup against the U.S. government. Moreover, as British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, of the Labour government, had said at the time: "What argument can I advance against anyone claiming the right to nationalize the resources of their country? We are doing the same thing here with our power in the shape of coal, electricity, railways, transport and steel."

Three other highlights, two economic, one not:

Incentives: "When the British government insisted that he [Reza Shah, the brutal self-proclaimed prime minister after a coup, from the 1920s to 1941] hire European engineers to build the rail line that was one of his grandest dreams, he did so on the condition that the engineers and their families agree to stand beneath each bridge they built when a train passed over it for the first time."

Misunderstanding of trade, on Kinzer's part and possibly on the part of the British, especially Churchill:
"Oil had been discovered around the Caspian Sea, in the Dutch East Indies, and in the United States, but neither Britain nor any of its colonies produced or showed any promise of producing it. If the British could not find oil elsewhere, they would no longer be able to rule the waves or much of anything else."
Not true: they could buy it.

Woodrow Wilson, whom I've generally regarded as one of the three worst U.S. presidents:
"The United States sharply criticized the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement through which Britain acquired colonial powers in Iran. That same year at Versailles, President Wilson was the only world leader who supported Iran's unsuccessful claim for monetary compensation from Britain and Russia for the effects of their occupation during World War I."
Go Woodrow!

COMMENTS (15 to date)
Dan Hill writes:

I second your endorsement of the book. I'd always been vaguely aware of the CIA involvement in the 1953 coup, but hadn't really understood how extensive, self-serving, and totally unprincipled it really was. The events of 1979 make so much more sense in light of understanding that.

But even today we insist on demonising Iran while sucking up to the Saudis. Yet in its fundamentals Iran is a more natural US ally with a far better educated and more westernised population and a potentially more diverse economy (the mullahs have messed it up, but Iran has more than just oil and sand). Time for a radical rethink of Middle Eastern policy.

Harold Cockerill writes:

Are we shocked that Britain would conspire to maintain its colonial empire? They killed the cream of a generation (their own) during WWI in an effort to maintain that empire and punish Germany (see Albert Jay Nock's analysis of the runup to WWI) . The coup in Iran was small potatoes compared to the earlier misery of the Great War. That America became a player in the great powers game is another result of the "progressive" era.

After WWI Churchill went on to help with the creation of the Great Depression by putting England back on the gold standard at pre war parity. American efforts to staunch the flow of gold out of England contributed to inflation here and the boom that popped in the early 30s. The resulting depression was fertile ground for Hitler, Mussolini and expansion of government power in the US.

During WWII Churchill worked to maintain Britain's colonial empire. FDR pushed back on this which is one of the few good things I can say about him. Would that that effort had continued instead of having the US become complicit in crimes that have greatly contributed to the mess in the middle east and in Europe today.

Lorenzo from Oz writes:

There was also a Cold War element to the coup shenanigans.

James Kannengieser writes:


Who were the other two worst presidents? Some guesses:


anomdebus writes:
Not true: they could buy it.

While I agree on net, could the difference be that the unseen doesn't end up written in budget ink?

Mike Hammock writes:

I seem to recall that the Romans made their architects drive a cart across a finished bridge before anyone else could use it, but I can't find any sources to back that up.

For anyone wanting to see videos of the 2008 FFF conference, this search within YouTube is working for me better than the link in the post above.

For just Stephen Kinzer, go to YouTube.com and enter "fff conference 2008 Stephen Kinzer" in the search text-field at the top of the YouTube webpage.

J Kadvekar writes:

How about putting some blame on the Iranian individuals themselves? In economics we are always told about focussing on actions of individuas.

The socialist prime minister of Iran was deposed by Iranian individuals and his govt replaced by Iranian individuals.

From start to finish, not one American individual was involved in the actual coup d'état If some Americans (from the CIA) influenced those Iranian individuals who finally took power, so did some Soviet individuals,so did some Arab individuals, so did many individuals from different factions in Iran.

But it was Iranian individuals themselves who actually physically committed the coup d'état, and who ruled Iran.

If Iranian individuals in govt are so easily influenced by Americans, then perhaps Iran shouldn't be a sovereign state at all: the "market" (for power) has shown the way.

Blaming the CIA or America has become an ideological mantra. In Iran or in Chile, the 99% of the blame for coup d'états should fall on people of those countries themselves.

mico writes:

Democratic Iran was on the road to a pro-Soviet Chavist state. Carter should have backed the Shah a second time.

David R Henderson writes:

Do you have a cite or two to back your claim?

Unlearning writes:

J Kadvekar,

Criticisms of individualism aside, your post is self-contradictory, since you seem to flit from individuals to nations so readily. For example, saying "99% of the blame should fall on the people of those countries themselves" attempts to transfer the blame from relatively small groups of people - often from long ago - onto others who live in the country. But why would those who happen to be in the same country be defined by these individuals?

J Kadvekar writes:


No, my post is quite clear: when I say "people", I am referring to the Iranians who carried out the coup d'état. I didn't mean each and every Iranian person.

Mr. Henderson is singling out Roosevelt as an evil man, not all Americans. My point is first, let's put ALL the Iranians (military men, bureaucrats, ministers etc.) who did this to their own country. Then, somewhere way down on that list put Roosevelt.

Anti-Americans do the opposite (be it Iran or Chile): they first put Americans on such lists. Iranians or Chileans who carried out the coup are rarely if at all mentioned.

J Kadvekar writes:


(bis) Indeed from Mr. Henderson's post, one doesn't learn of a single Iranian person who participated in the coup, who orchestrated it. Not a single name.

This exclusion of Iranians or Chileans in any discussion of coups in those countries is neither new nor surprising. The narrative is, Iran was a nice fledgling democracy, destroyed by the machinations of some Americans. The truth is it was destroyed in the main by some Iranians themselves.

Unlearning writes:

But this just leaves you with theoretical nihilism. All you can say is that some individuals participated in the coup and that is it. Their nationality is irrelevant because you are committed to such a hard form of individualism.

Such a position would not hold any lessons for the future, and I don't see how it would advance understanding at all.

J Kadvekar writes:


No, I am saying their nationality is v important. I am insisting on talking in terms of individuals because only then we discover who actually carried out the coup, and they were only Iranian people. Not American people.

"Theoretical nihilism" - no idea why you should say that since I am very interested in finding who did the coup. I am not committed to anything else than precision in fixing the blame for the coup in Iran: which was, a set of IRANIAN individuals, not Americans. And in fact, IRANIAN indviduals who were influenced by many factions of which Americans were but one part.

Such precision helps advance my understanding of who actually carried out the coup, and was responsible for overturning a democratically elected govt. Not just in Iran but also in Chile.

Such precision imp not just about coups, but many other things as well. Mr. Henderson is (rightly) very against gun control. For the Orlando massacre, would he blame the seller of the gun or the actual killer?

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