A fateful convergence at Walter Reed Hospital

Arash Norouzi
The Mossadegh Project | January 3, 2017                    

Serving the military and civilian public for over 100 years, Walter Reed Army Hospital was in some ways a chronicle of the American century. The facility specialized in caring for wounded soldiers, a true necessity given the frequency of battles the United States has fought in — including both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Walter Reed was also the scene of an impressive intersection of political personalities. In addition to U.S. Presidents and high-ranking government officials, an array of world leaders and other foreign dignitaries received treatment there during their diplomatic missions to Washington, DC.

Perhaps the most consequential of these episodes occurred during an evolving international crisis. In October 1951, Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh spent a week of his U.S. trip in the Presidential suite at Walter Reed General Hospital, as it had been rechristened that year for its namesake’s 100th birth anniversary. An alleged “hypochondriac” who often complained of various health problems, he was examined by Harry Truman’s personal physician, Dr. Wallace H. Graham, as a courtesy of the President.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh discuss the oil issue at the Walter Reed Hospital presidential suite.

The posh east wing suite, complete with kitchen, sun room and even a white marble fireplace, also served as a conference area for Mossadegh and U.S. diplomats. Sec. of State Dean Acheson, Assistant Sec. of State George McGhee, the State Department’s Paul Nitze and interpreter Vernon Walters met with Mossadegh on October 24th to discuss ways of resolving the oil nationalization issue. Mossadegh checked out on October 30th and moved into the Shoreham Hotel, where these conversations continued.1

Acheson Talks To Ailing Mossadegh At Army Hospital Needless to say, the talks did not get very far. “[I]t’s a pretty sure bet Premier Mossadegh’s visit has been the most harrowing in the Department’s history”, quipped newspaperman Andrew Tully facetiously. “...Acheson is pretty hardy; after all, he’s spent practically his entire tenure being attacked by congressmen. But even he looked a little shaken after a two and a half hour talk with the premier at Walter Reed Hospital. “No comment,” Mr. Acheson told the press as he left the hospital, and his tone was that of a man in need of a stiff drink.”2

After Mossadegh returned to Iran, Truman mentioned wearily in a letter to a relative that although Dr. Graham’s Persian patient seemed content with the care he received, this offered no improvement at all in resolving the dangerous oil dispute.

The following year, Truman himself, suffering from an apparent virus, was hospitalized for the first time in his Presidency. After a thorough medical checkup at Walter Reed on July 16, 1952, Dr. Graham told the press Truman was “fine—just fine”, though he would remain under hospital care for three days.

In fact, the three-room executive suite at Walter Reed, built in 1947, had only been occupied once before—by Dr. Mossadegh.

U.S. President Harry S. Truman Coming only five days before the Chicago Democratic convention, there was concern that Truman’s condition might prevent his attendance, and could even influence their choice of nominee for the 1953 election (still a potential contender, Truman was the last President in U.S. history legally eligible to run for a third term). Yet despite this inconvenience, the President’s health was paramount. “You wouldn’t want to see me carried out of here (the White House) in a pineboard box, would you?”, Truman reportedly told the Democratic national chairman.

Alas, the Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would soon triumph in his bid for the role of Commander in Chief. The transfer of power had a decisive effect on the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute which began during Truman’s second term. Scrapping negotiations for covert action, Mossadegh was overthrown in August 1953 via a CIA operation Ike authorized, orchestrated in large part by the crafty Dulles brothers.

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles Six years later, on April 12, 1959, Sec. of State John Foster Dulles, ailing with abdominal cancer, checked back into Walter Reed for treatment. Though he had a hernia operation there in February, his condition had now reached its terminal stage. Visitors such as Eisenhower and Nixon rushed to his bedside, but eventually Dulles became unable to recognize them. By mid May, he slipped into a coma. On May 24th, Dulles took his last breath in a section of the very same suite first occupied by the Iranian “madman” he so reviled.

Listen: The Death of John Foster Dulles   

This coincidence didn’t go unnoticed by the irrespressible Andrew Tully. When Dulles was about to be admitted to Walter Reed, Tully, then working as the White House corresponent for the Scripps-Howard News Service, wrote the following commentary in his syndicated column Potomac Patter:

Saturday, March 7, 1959

Tears Leave Impression In Hospital

Scripps-Howard Staff Writer

WASHINGTON—Back when Harry Truman was still president, Washington had a picturesque visitor named Mohammed Mossadegh. Mossy earned his living as premier of Iran, [he wasn’t paid] but he got his headlines from his habit of breaking into tears every so often, sometimes for no apparent reason.

Mossy got sick while he was here and he was stashed away in the presidential suite at Walter Reed Hospital. [He checked in for medical tests and rest, but wasn’t ill] Despite his periodic fits of weeping [didn’t happen] he was a good patient and the staffers grew quite fond of him.

Well, several weeks ago the presidential suite was being readied for another VIP patient—Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. In the course of tidying up, a corpsman went poking in one of the closets and came upon a memento of the Mossadegh stay that sent him into appreciative giggles. On sober second thought, however, he decided it was his duty to deny it to posterity.

So he rubbed off the penciled sign on the closet wall: “Mossy Wept Here.”

Andrew Tully had been a newspaper publisher, war correspondent and roving reporter, and evidently, even dabbled as a humorist. And Mossadegh would figure prominently in one of his forthcoming books, which became a New York Times bestseller.

CIA: The Inside Story (1962), contained an entire chapter on the U.S. coup in Iran, though it portrayed Mossadegh negatively. CIA Director Allen Dulles publicly blasted the book, despite the fact that Dulles had been personally friendly with Tully, who freely shared information with the spy chief.

Eisenhower and Winston Churchill visit John Foster Dulles (in wheelchair) at the Walter Reed Hospital presidential suite, May 5, 1959.

The Walter Reed nexus produced an ironic roster of friends, rivals and strange hospital bedfellows. When Dulles was hospitalized, he was visited by Eisenhower and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Eisenhower took the opportunity to present Churchill with a framed portrait he had done himself in 1955, a rendition of Yousuf Karsh’s iconic 1941 photograph. Eisenhower’s amateur painting of a seated, scowling Churchill, a staunch enemy of the man he (Churchill) called “Mussy Duck” (Mossadegh), was mounted above the fireplace in the sitting room of the presidential suite (it had previously hung above the couch).

In the years to come, several other principal figures who helped destroy Premier Mossadegh spent their final moments at Walter Reed.3

• On August 10, 1961, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith died of a heart attack at Walter Reed. The former CIA director played a significant role in the overthrow of Mossadegh in 1953. His mentor, Gen. George C. Marshall, died in the same hospital Oct. 16, 1959.

• On March 28, 1969, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower expired due to congestive heart failure at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Glimpses of Eisenhower waving from his hospital room window at Walter Reed the previous October ended up being the last public images of the former President.4

• On November 1, 1979, former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower died at Walter Reed Hospital after a five week stay following a stroke.

• On January 19, 1980, Mossadegh’s most vigorous American advocate, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, died at Walter Reed Hospital after a month-long stay for progressive lung and kidney failure.

In August 2011, after over a century of service to wounded American soldiers, ailing Presidents, and foreign dignitaries, Walter Reed Army Hospital closed its doors for good. Merging with Bethesda National Naval Medical Center, it was reborn later that year as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

The original historic Walter Reed building, including its third floor Ward 8 presidential suite, remains standing...a hollowed out, silent witness to history.


1 Premier Mossadegh and President Truman had a luncheon meeting at Blair House on October 23rd. Mossadegh checked into Walter Reed later that day, leaving on the 30th, according to the Associated Press.

2 Visit of Iranian Premier Gives State Department the Jitters — October 25, 1951. Andrew Tully’s columns were so jocular, loose and error-ridden that they should not be taken literally. I have found no verification for Acheson’s alleged “no comment” quote, for example.

3 More passings:

• On March 5, 1967, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, still under house arrest in Iran, died of cancer.

• On January 29, 1969, spymaster Allen Dulles passed away due to the flu and pneumonia in Washington, DC’s Georgetown University Hospital.

• In September 1993, journalist Andrew Tully (1914-1993) died in a Silver Spring, Maryland nursing home of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

4 Eisenhower’s grandson on spending his final days with his grandfather in hospice care at Walter Reed in 1969: “In Ward 8, one senses the continuum of history that Eisenhower wrote about so eloquently. Here the great become mortals, fragile humans who must submit to the care of doctors and surgeons to extend their lives. All patients are joined with each other in this struggle as old as time.” — Going Home To Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969 (2010) by David Eisenhower with Julie Nixon Eisenhower

Search MohammadMossadegh.com

Related links:

Edinburgh University Students Nominate Dr. Mossadegh For Distinct Honor (Oct. 1951)

Max Thornburg: Notes For Discussion With Dean Acheson (July 1951 Memo)

Dr. Ismail Yazi (1931-2020) | Maxillofacial Surgeon Who Diagnosed Mossadegh’s Cancer

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

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