Why American ‘exceptionalism’ is not universally accepted
A little over 50 years ago, the United States embarked on a course of worldwide action from which we have not recovered, nor are we likely to anytime soon.
We undertook, through the Central Intelligence Agency, a series of attempts to overthrow the governments of small nations.
The CIA was created in the late 1940s, the follow-up to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which had conducted spying and clandestine operations for the Allies in Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II.
During President Truman’s administration, the CIA gathered intelligence data and helped “friendly” politicians around the world in nations where the U.S. sought to influence local policy. But Truman and his State Department rejected CIA proposals to provide arms and money to our “friends” to take down existing governments.
When Eisenhower took office as president in early 1953, things changed.
Ike named John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State and Allen Dulles as director of the CIA. The two brothers had both been attorneys with the powerful New York law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell.
John Foster joined the firm in 1911, Allen in 1926.
The firm represented a large number of American corporations that were involved in lucrative commercial enterprises around the world, and the Dulles brothers saw the promotion of those investments as a duty of American foreign policy.
Both brothers interpreted the dynamic of world politics as a colossal clash of capitalism vs. communism. In their minds, neutralism, nationalism and anti-colonialism amounted to just other iterations of communism.
The brothers immediately activated plans to overthrow some of those neutrals and anti-imperialist governments.
First came Iran.
Mohammad Mossadegh, a highly educated and influential politician, was elected premier in 1951 and promptly nationalized Iran’s oil industry, which was tightly controlled by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, owned mainly by the British government. Britain, through a disreputable agreement with Iran’s shah, also controlled Iran’s army, treasury and transportation system.
One of Allen Dulles’ law clients, the J. Henry Schroder Banking Corporation, was financial agent for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and he sat on the banking corporation’s board. John Foster Dulles was working for Chase Manhattan Bank, another Sullivan and Cromwell client, which was looking to do business in Iran.
On March 4, 1953, the National Security Council, with Eisenhower present, met to consider overthrowing Mossadegh.
The argument that won the day was that Mossadegh was weak and unstable, and ripe for a communist coup. The council created Operation Ajax to subvert Mossadegh, and a month later, Allen Dulles approved spending $1 million to accomplish it — the first time in U.S. history that its government had approved such an order.
On June 25, John Foster Dulles convened a meeting in his office for final approval of the 22-page Operation Ajax action plan, which had been drawn up in the preceding weeks by British and American agents meeting in Cyprus.
The plan was to be carried out by Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, 37, grandson of former President Theodore Roosevelt. It involved disseminating propaganda within Iran, creating chaos in Tehran and encouraging pro-shah military officers to conduct a coup against Mossadegh.
Foster and Allen kept the plan secret from their own key staff people. The Iran specialists at the State Department were not informed. When the chief of the CIA in Tehran, Roger Goiran, objected that overthrowing Mossadegh would only benefit “Anglo-French colonialism,” Allen Dulles removed and replaced him.
Kim Roosevelt entered Iran from Iraq on July 19, 1953, with a passport that identified him as one James Lochridge. He bribed journalists, editors and mullahs to denounce Mossadegh, organized dissatisfied army commanders and finally won the cooperation of the shah.
On Aug. 15, Roosevelt sent the shah’s Imperial Guard to arrest Mossadegh at his home, but Mossadegh had learned about the coup attempt. His own soldiers arrested the Imperial Guard. The shah panicked and fled to Rome with a pair of suitcases.
But Mossadegh, never dreaming that the coup had actually been engineered by the CIA, thought the danger was past with the shah now in exile. He relaxed his security, allowing Roosevelt to pay off street gangs to foment disruption, reorganize the military dissidents, and help lead a mob to Mossadegh’s home on Aug. 19.
This time, the coup succeeded, and the premier was overthrown, the shah returned, and Western oil interests once again took control of Iran’s petroleum industry.
Twenty-six years later, Islamic fundamentalists, rebelling against the shah’s repression and foreign interests, took control of Iran and a large number of American hostages.
Under the Dulles brothers, a number of additional CIA-engineered coups followed in the next few years, some of them successful (Guatemala and Congo), others not (Indonesia and Cuba).
Details about the attempts were kept hidden for years, and some have come to light only recently.
The Dulles brothers were among the earliest advocates for action against Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam as well.
Maybe the most important lesson for Americans to learn from the history of American foreign policy in the 1950s is that international relations are rarely simple.
Communist aggression was a threat during those postwar years — but it wasn’t the only motivating force throughout the emerging world.
We shouldn’t wonder when small nations regard us with suspicion or fear, and fail to share a belief in American “exceptionalism.”