Silenced Histories and Sanitized Autobiographies: The 1953 CIA Coup in Iran

By Balaghi, Shiva | Biography, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Silenced Histories and Sanitized Autobiographies: The 1953 CIA Coup in Iran


Balaghi, Shiva, Biography


"Shah Mohammed Riza Pahlevi flew here from Baghdad today," the New York Times reported in August 1953, "in a triumphal return to his capital just six days after he had fled the country under threat of dethronement. The first man to greet the Shah was Maj. General Fazollah Zahedi, who assumed the Premiership Wednesday after a bloody uprising by mobs and troops who had overthrown the increasingly anti-monarchist Government of Dr. Mohammed Mossadegh" (Love 1). The "bloody uprising" the Times reported was the culmination of Project AJAX, a collaborative covert operation by the British SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) and the US CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). It would be the British government's last regime change and the American government's first--a passing of the imperial baton, as it were.

Nearly sixty years have passed since that milestone, but an authoritative history of that coup has yet to be written with complete access to US and British government documents. Operation AJAX remains an open secret. Much of the historical materials relating to the coup has yet to be released to the archives, with US officials maintaining that their release poses a threat to national security. Even still, three of the major operatives involved with the coup for the SIS and CIA--Kermit Roosevelt, C. M. Woodhouse, and Donald Wilber--have published autobiographies detailing their roles in planning and carrying out Operation AJAX. Given that they were secret service agents, Roosevelt, Woodhouse, and Wilber had to receive permission from their governments to publish their memoirs. Indeed, their manuscripts would have undergone an editing process, known as "sanitization," by the SIS and CIA before publication. Why would the US and British governments permit the publication of memoirs by spies directly engaged in the 1953 coup at the same time that they refuse to release most of the official government documents on the matter? And what are the implications when autobiography becomes a primary source for writing histories of contentious events? In this paper, I address these interrelated questions. The refusal of the CIA to release the documents while at the same time approving the publication of memoirs by agents involved in the coup reflects the anxieties of empire. The United States national ethos centers on the notion that it is that city on a hill, a beacon of democracy for the rest of the world. Throughout the Cold War, it was America that was fighting to keep "the free world" from falling prey to Soviet expansionism. And yet, covert operations to overthrow liberal democratic governments became a cornerstone of US Cold War strategy. The 1953 coup in Iran is perhaps the most glaring example of the paradox of American power. The deniability of covert operations is critical to reconciling this seeming paradox that lies at the center of US national identity. Keeping official documents hidden while allowing the story to be told through the rambling recollections of spies allows one of the most important episodes of postwar US policy in the Middle East to remain chimerical, an open secret. (1)

OIL, COMMUNISM, AND THE 1953 COUP

Mohammed Mossadeq had been engaged in Iranian politics since the Constitutional Revolution of 1906. His political vision for Iran focused on "two major causes: strict constitutionalism at home and an equally strict policy of 'negative equilibrium' abroad to assure independence from foreign domination" (Abrahamian, Histary 114). If the Qajars had played superpowers against one another by granting similar concessions to each, Mossadeq wanted Iran to retain its independence by no longer issuing any concessions. Working with a parliamentary coalition that included the parties of the National Front and the Marxist Tudeh Party, Mossadeq passed a bill to nationalize Iranian oil in 1951.

The British government, itself a major shareholder of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, would have none of it. …

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