Marquis Childs, Liberal Interventionist

On Power, Nationalism, Mossadegh & Iran Revolution

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | September 20, 2013                  

Marquis Childs Marquis William Childs (1903-1990) was a columnist, author, foreign correspondent, lecturer and novelist for nearly half a century.

He began his career at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1926 and later became its Washington bureau chief in 1962. Co-mingling with the powerful, Childs interviewed numerous Presidents and world leaders in the course of his distinguished career, and in 1970 was awarded the first ever Pulitzer prize for commentary.

Childs wrote, co-authored or edited well over a dozen books, including the influential bestseller Sweden: The Middle Way (1936), Eisenhower: Captive Hero. A Critical Study of the General and the President (1958) and Ethics in a Business Society (1954), which studied “modern applications of Christian ethics” in economic circumstances.

Though Marquis Childs believed America ought to project its power throughout the world, he was also alarmed by the hubris that accompanies power. “My judgments have been tempered over the years by a growing awareness of the hazard of power”, he wrote in his 1975 book Witness To Power. “It may not be literally true that all power corrupts but the more it is exercised the more likely it is for the individual to deceive himself into believing that he is infallible. And when it comes to absolute power we have seen in this grisly century all too many examples of what that can mean.”

Childs had few qualms about supporting the Shah’s autocratic regime in Iran, however. Tracing his nationally syndicated column Washington Calling through the decades, one finds a confused and often diametric logic with respect to Iran.

Early in the oil dispute with Britain, Marquis Childs saw the potential consequences as not only dire—but extremely imminent:

May 18, 1951

It is hard for us here to realize, preoccupied as we are with so many troubles, that Iran could mean the beginning of World War III, and not next year or the year after but next week or next month.

But Childs was also gravely concerned about what the loss of oil supplies could mean to the West, with the ever present danger, he warned, of severe gas rationing in the U.S.

May 25, 1951

If the world’s largest oil refinery at Abadan were to be seriously damaged or destroyed, it would be anyone’s guess how quickly oil could be started flowing again.

Childs’ main concern about nationalization was the threat it posed to foreign investors. Nationalism in Iran, he believed, was fueled by a “fanatical religiosity and skillfully exploited by communism”. As he wrote:

June 6, 1951

Iran is not unique. It is a glaringly conspicuous example of the threat to American as well as British companies in areas where the level of life is abysmally low. Certain American companies live in fear that their large investments in Central and South American countries will come under the eye of politicians riding the nationalist—and nationalization—wave.

Childs emphasized the importance of bridge-building with India and its “brilliant and often temperamental genius” Premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, as the U.S. selected a new ambassador to replace Loy Henderson, who had been reassigned to Iran.

September 28, 1951

In times of ferment such as the present, however, too much cannot be expected from an ambassador. Henderson is in an even tougher spot now as American ambassador to Iran, where the oil crisis is boiling up so violently as to suggest the possibility to open conflict. The Iranian upheaval is fed by the same kind of violent nationalism that is, in part at least, at the root of Nehru’s belief in Asia for the Asians.

In a June 21st column on Iran’s oil nationalization law, Childs declared that “the awesome and overriding respect for the supremacy of western military and economic power has gone.” In October, he lamented the dwindling of “Western prestige and power in the Middle East” and signaled America’s duty to “fill the vacuums left by the withering of British authority”. He saw both Iran and Egypt as hotbeds of “fanatical nationalism” and recommended U.S. intervention in both areas to alleviate the situation:

October 10, 1951

What no one officially dares to say is that the Iranian government wants the U.S. to intervene and, in effect, take over the technical direction of the huge British oil refinery at Abadan. Neither Premier Mossadegh nor anyone else in Iran could, of course, make such a request publicly. But their desires are well known.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Perhaps the only way at this very late moment to try to save the Middle East when so much has already slid down the abyss of history is by direct American intervention.

"Washington Calling" column by Marquis W. Childs

Having ‘lost’ China, Childs imagined the U.S. post-mortems for Egypt and Iran if the West continued to dawdle, hem and haw:

October 18, 1951

You can see the witnesses squirming under the interrogation. Did you ever intend to abandon Iran to Communism? Where were you on the night of Oct. 18., 1951, and didn’t you at one time have a conversation in Tehran with a member of the Tudeh Communist-dominated party?

In 1952, Childs wrote about the implications of U.S. antitrust laws with regard to its proposed management of Iranian oil in a mostly professional, reporter-like manner. Yet he couldn’t resist getting in this pot-shot:

November 11, 1952

“The shaky government of weepy Premier Mossadegh is living on the fat accumulated from the past while Mossadegh keeps on insisting that the British can never return to operate the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.”

After Mossadegh was overthrown largely as a result of the CIA plot Operation Ajax, Childs reacted more soberly than many of his fellow pundits:

August 26, 1953

While former Premier Mossadegh wept and fainted and procrastinated, the country’s financial reserves melted away. In the State Department it is believed that temporary aid can be furnished Iran to see the government through the immediate crisis. Far more difficult is a settlement of the three-year-old oil dispute.

In 1954, Childs used this reference anecdotally:

February 6, 1954

The New York Times reports that the Zahedi regime is making use of one Shaban Jafari, a former wrestler, who beats up pamphleteers opposing the regime while Zahedi’s police follow up by arresting the victims. Jafari rejoices in the name of Beemokh, which means the brainless one.

Every country has its Beemokhs and lately their number seems to be increasing. In the West these brainless ones mean the death of everything Western civilization has achieved...

After the Bay of Pigs Invasion which failed to topple Fidel Castro, Childs wrote that “errors of appraisal and understanding have been evident in other trouble spots where revolutionary change has been confronted with the claims of the status quo.”

April 24, 1961

In Iran, where some observers believe “another Cuba” is possible in the not too-distant future, the same elements in a somewhat more complex combination are evident. The American effort, since the nationalistic movement represented by Mohammed Mossadegh was repressed, has been directed at persuading the Shah to introduce a minimum of reform. Instead corruption, phony elections and an increasingly severe repression have persisted. No one will say whether an explosion can be prevented.

“Certainly nothing should be done to harm the position of the Shah”, wrote Childs in late November 1978, when the U.S.’ stalwart ally was declining. Childs admitted, however, that SAVAK had been “exceptionally cruel and repressive”.

After the 1979 revolution went in motion, Childs termed the banishment of the Shah (whom he and his wife had met in his Tehran palace in May 1975) a “tragedy” and proposed direct U.S. military intervention in response. He took this idea directly to President Carter’s Chief of Staff, Hamilton Jordan:

January 23, 1979

At that point Carter (long before Camp David) was way down in the polls. I reminded Jordan of how President Gerald Ford’s rating had gone up after a show of force when Cambodia had seized the American ship Mayaguez. Maybe a show of force in Iran would have the same result for Carter. His response was instructive: “What the hell do you want us to do? Start World War III to raise the president in the polls?”

A month later, Childs ruminated on the lessons of the Iranian revolution...

February 27, 1979

If it is possible to learn from history, Iran should be one more dramatic lesson on the peril of supporting a dictatorship, no matter if the dictator is disguised with the trappings of modernity.

...only to immediately contradict himself:

Above all, that is the lesson of Iran: that subterranean forces so deeply buried can undo almost overnight what had seemed a progressive democracy in the Western style.


Marquis Childs Columns:

Desperate Situation in Iran Calls tor Action: Three Steps Suggested | May 25, 1951

West Is Losing In Middle East | October 18, 1951

Importance of Colonialism To Britain Now Assessed | December 15, 1951

Anti-Trust Laws Ended Iranian Move | November 11, 1952

Iran’s New Regime -- The West’s Last Chance | August 26, 1953

Related links:

Columnist Stewart Alsop Suggests U.S. “Choose” Shah of Iran — December 10, 1951

VIDEO: NBC News’ Camel News Caravan on Iran Referendum, August 6, 1953

The Bystander Is Too Innocent | LIFE magazine, August 11, 1952

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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