60 years ago, TIME magazine reluctantly named its Man of the Year for 1951: the elected Premier of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh. According to TIME, Mossadegh was immensely popular, representing the hearts and minds of millions of people both within and outside his country’s borders. And that, they argued, was precisely the problem...
Riding a wave of nationalist fervor, Dr. Mossadegh had come to prominence after nationalizing the British controlled oil industry in southern Iran. Though he had performed numerous roles as a public servant since he was a teenager, in a few short months, the elderly aristocrat had become a figure of international consequence (this was TIME’s second cover story on him since June). What’s gone overlooked all these years, however, is that TIME’s distinction actually had little to do with Mossadegh himself.
This was not, as one would expect, an article about a man, but the meandering, public introspection of post-WWII America, searching for influence in the Middle East at a crucial historical crossroads. Mossadegh, whom TIME callously labeled “The New Menace”, was merely the most visible symbol of a trend toward independence they believed presented a “fundamental moral challenge” to the West, testing U.S. mettle in the most provocative and maddening of ways. To help define this agenda, they titled the cover article "Challenge of the East" — referring not only to the contemptible figure of Mossadegh, but to all Mossadeghs of the world, whomever they may be.
“Mossadegh, by Western standards an appalling caricature of a statesman, was a fair sample of what the West would have to work with in the Middle East.”, TIME explained. “To sit back and deplore him was to run away from the issue. For a long time, relations with the Middle East would mean relations with men such as Mossadegh, some better, some much worse.”
* The world would eventually discover just how much “worse” it could get.
TIME’s narrative, in essence, went like this:
• Parts of the backward “Near East” region of the world are erupting with an unfathomable, blind hatred of “the West”.
• With the British colonial era at end, a paternal void remains that America must find the “moral” resolve to fill — and quick, before Communism takes hold.
Of course, this logic was built upon fallacies — but that was the whole idea.
Over and over, for example, TIME insisted that Mossadegh was a leader seething with an irrational hatred for the West (never once producing an actual example — not even a made up one — to support the claim). This, supposedly, was the major source of Mossadegh’s popularity. “The fact that Iranians accept Mossadegh’s suicidal policy”, TIME informs us, “is a measure of the hatred of the West—and especially the hatred of Britain—in the Near and Middle East”.
The image of ignorant masses driven by a baffling disgust for “the West” was harped on repeatedly, and Dr. Mossadegh, the Persian Pied Piper, was said to be leading them down a road to oblivion, and — even more dangerously — inspiring the peoples of other nations to emulate his insane ways. “There were millions inside and outside of Iran whom Mossadegh symbolized and spoke for, and whose fanatical state of mind he had helped to create”, wrote TIME.
Actually, we’re told, Mossadegh — a “strange old man” and “dizzy old wizard” — embodied not only the boiling hatred of his people, but also their sheer uncontained jealousy (foreshadowing the post-9/11 “They hate us for our freedom” schpiel 50 years later). “In his plaintive, singsong voice he gabbled a defiant challenge that sprang out of a hatred and envy almost incomprehensible to the West.”
Not that TIME would have cared, but the facts don’t correspond to this narrative. As a young man, Mossadegh received his higher education largely in Paris and Switzerland. His government was in regular contact with the United States — more than any other nation — and U.S. officials found Mossadegh to be personable and engaging, not hostile. Though ebullient praise for Mossadegh from one of its own, U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, fell on deaf ears, Ambassador Henry Grady had on television in October described the Prime Minister, who spoke fluent French, as “a Persian gentleman” and later wrote in the Saturday Evening Post that “he reminds me of the late Mahatma Gandhi”.
Only weeks earlier, Mossadegh returned home from an exhaustive six week stay in the United States, visiting President Harry Truman and major U.S. landmarks such as George Washington’s home in Mt. Vernon, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the historic Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. “[T]he government and people of Iran recognize the government and people of the United States as the staunch supporters of right and justice”, Mossadegh had written in a letter to Truman in June. By all appearances, it would have been far easier to make the case that Mossadegh, with his proven track record of resisting Soviet expansionism and quest to emulate Western democracy, was pro-American rather than not.
Besides, Iran’s dispute was with England, not America. TIME offered no background on the situation until one sentence deep within the article — “The Anglo-Iranian Oil Co., most of whose stock is owned by the British government, had been paying Iran much less than the British Government took from the company in taxes.” The British had been rapidly nationalizing many of their own industries, making their opposition to Iran’s Oil Nationalization Law hypocritical in the extreme. Conceding its unfairness — but only momentarily — TIME went on to dismiss Iranian resistance against this exploitation as “fanaticism”.
Even when a more reasonable assertion emerged, one soon discovers, TIME has only posited it to knock it down. At one point, TIME cites General Douglas MacArthur’s recent farewell speech before Congress containing a “brilliant passage applicable to 1951’s biggest news — the turmoil in the Middle East. Asian peoples, MacArthur said, would continue to drive for independence from the West and for material progress, and this drive “may not be stopped.” The U.S. must “orient its policies in consonance with this basic evolutionary condition, rather than pursue a course blind to the reality that the colonial era is now past and the Asian peoples covet the right to shape their own destiny. What they seek now is friendly guidance, understanding and support, not imperious direction; the dignity of equality, and not the shame of subjugation.”
It sounds nice, TIME concluded, yet such talk is “sheer sentimentality”. America, they claimed, would love nothing more than to sympathize with those people, but when it assessed the situation, “the U.S. recoiled from the corruption, hatred, fanaticism and disorganization of the Middle East.” The problem? “...the West had not yet developed the moral muscle to define its own goals and responsibilities in the Middle East. Until the West did develop that moral muscle, it had no chance with the millions represented by Mossadegh.”
In between insults, TIME made a big deal out of statements from Lebanese diplomat Charles Malik, though they ought not have. Quoted twice, TIME closes
their article with a “brilliantly” worded excerpt from his freshly published article in Foreign Affairs. Ironically, Malik’s overlong sermon on the West’s
responsibility in the Middle East formed more of a counterpoint to what TIME was proposing than a validation. “Whatever face the Arab East shows today”,
Malik wrote, ”is fundamentally a reflection of the face which the West has shown it...”. In fact, these are the words just preceding the portion they chose to
“Strategy, commerce, exploitation, securing an imperial
route: these were why the West for the most part came to the Near East, not because it loved us. Add to this the immense racial arrogance of modern Europe. The West
has not been true to itself, and therefore it could not have been true to us.”
Of the one-sided alliance with Israel (which TIME also bluntly acknowledged), Malik predicted:
“If the present arrogance, defiance, and ambition are to persist...then, I am afraid, there will never be peace in the Near East, and the United States cannot be altogether innocent of responsibility for that situation.”
TIME’s anonymously-penned cover article framed its vision for the U.S. role in the Middle East as a “moral” mandate (the word was repeated eight times), yet could only muster pessimism and contempt. With the help of its cheerleading, nineteen months later, the United States and Britain’s mission to ruin the Iranian economy, foment civil unrest and covertly orchestrate the overthrow of Mossadegh’s democratic government managed to prevail. That “normal nationalist urge for political freedom” General MacArthur spoke of in Congress, and which the U.S. fought so hardly for itself, was coldly denied to others.
Yes, the January 7, 1952 issue of TIME is not merely some dusty old magazine from a bygone generation — it’s a chilling omen of things to come. For the next 60 years, “the West” would find itself mired in conflict after conflict, with no end in sight to the troubles...and even now, at the brink of war with a despicable Iranian regime it inadvertently helped spawn. What TIME helped usher in was not morality but an era of unenlightenment and amorality, giving voice to the tangled psyche of a nation that champions freedom, liberty and democracy rhetorically, but for “strategic” reasons, routinely violates these principles.
How’s that working out for you, America?