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Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas - Mossadegh’s #1 US Admirer

“A great popular hero”...“who should be respected and supported”

Arash Norouzi

The Mossadegh Project | April 4, 2011                          

William O. Douglas

In the early 1950’s, you’d be be hard-pressed to find a single American official, pundit, newspaper or magazine with a kind word to say about Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh.

One notable exception was U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas (1898-1980), a world traveler, civil libertarian, environmentalist, avid mountain climber, best selling author, and, undoubtedly, Mossadegh’s staunchest advocate in the West.

On repeated occasions, Douglas offered unequivocal praise for Mossadegh, whom he described as “a great popular hero” who “presents an opportunity that is rare”. The views of Douglas, who became the most prolific and longest serving Supreme Court justice in U.S. history, represented a far more informed opinion than most — Douglas not only knew Mossadegh personally, but had traveled extensively throughout Iran and Central Asia the summers of 1949, 1950, 1951, 1955, 1956, and 1957.

Justice Douglas trotted the globe repeatedly on his own initiative, writing of his adventures in five books between 1951 and 1958. He explored Iran and its provinces firsthand, interviewing numerous citizens, military personnel, and local chieftains, staying in rural villages in Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, climbing Mount Damavand, and camping with Bakhtiari tribal people in the mountains of western Iran. All these experiences were chronicled in an extensive article he wrote for LIFE magazine [June 18, 1951], which would also form part of his book Strangle Lands and Friendly People. “Persians and Americans have a close spiritual affinity”, he observed.

Mossadegh and Douglas would meet in the U.S. that same year, during Mossadegh’s six week trip to America and the United Nations. On November 5, 1951, Justice Douglas arrived at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC to personally invite Dr. Mossadegh on a tour of the U.S. Supreme Court. Mossadegh and his entourage (which included Allahyar Saleh, Fazlollah Noureddin Kia, Dr. Aligholi Ardalan, and son Gholam-Hossein Mossadegh) sat in on an entire legal proceeding to witness the American justice system in action. Justice Douglas, who spoke some Persian, was at Mossadegh’s side the entire day, explaining everything in detail through a translator.

The U.S. Supreme Court, Washington DC — November 5, 1951

Near the end of the Iranian delegation’s visit, and following a luncheon meeting Douglas had with members of Mossadegh’s staff, Douglas sent a letter to President Harry Truman, suggesting his view that the U.S. support Mossadegh and offer Iran financial loans. “I do not know and it is none of my particular business what the precise stage of the negotiations with Mossadegh is on the oil issue”, he wrote in his letter dated November 12th. “But I do know from this luncheon talk that Mossadegh needs time to work out the oil problem.”

Shortly after writing to Truman, on November 15th, Douglas followed up with a letter of encouragement to Dr. Mossadegh. He wrote, “There may be disappointment in your heart as you leave. But much good has been done. I think the great body of American sentiment will grow and grow in favor of you and your wonderful people, as the ugly and greedy British policy under Churchill’s management becomes as plain to everyone as it is to you and to me.”

When Henry Grady’s post as U.S. Ambassador to Iran was up in 1951, The Washington Post, for the second time that year, endorsed Douglas as his replacement to help mediate the oil issue. The Posts’ June 29th editorial prompted a satirical response from Grady himself from Tehran (Grady was later replaced by Loy Henderson). The White House had actually proposed assigning Douglas to Iran as a special mediator, according to a Drew Pearson column from July, but media publicity wound up sinking the idea.

Douglas continued to trumpet Mossadegh as the antidote to Communism the following year. In 1952, he wrote, “Very often the Communists offer the only political alternative that the peasants have to express their revolt against the existing regime. Sometimes there is a leader with democratic ideals who offers an alternative to Communist leadership. Such a man is Mossadegh in Iran and Nehru in India. The tragedy, the great tragedy of the century, is that we misunderstand the situation and fail to support these leaders. We follow British colonial policy and repudiate Mossadegh...”

In an article for The New Republic in April 1952, Douglas, who had also previously met with the Shah, described Mossadegh in extremely favorable terms. “If you and I were in Persia”, he argued, “we’d be for Mossadegh 100 percent”. That same year, Douglas wrote a guest column for Newsweek, titled How to Win Peace With Point Four: A vigorous aid program will thwart Communism, Win friendship for the United States. Once again, “Premier Mossadegh and his Parliament” received his hearty endorsement. Yet elsewhere in the same issue, the Point Four program was derided as “checkbook diplomacy” and “a fallacy”; and Mossadegh, repeatedly labeled “Old Mossy”, was accused of assuming “dictatorial powers”.

Douglas took every opportunity to promote Premier Mossadegh to Americans. “[He’s] the first great ruler in [Iran’s] history to have been raised up by the people”, he said, speaking to reporters outside his dentist’s office in Portland, Oregon. Meanwhile, Douglas was calling Britain’s actions “totally illegal and paid for by bribes.”

What would Justice Douglas have said about the long-term effects of the US-backed 1953 coup? One needn’t imagine. In the summer of 1962, Douglas remembered Mossadegh as “a millionaire friend of mine who tried to introduce democracy for the first time into Iran’s villages” whose government had been “crushed”.

Speaking before a group of Boston teachers in November 1965, he decried the folly of America’s decision not to support Mossadegh. “We united with the British to destroy him and we succeeded”, he said, clearly aware of the officially unacknowledged foreign hand in his demise. “Ever since, our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East.”

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Strange Lands and Friendly People
by William O. Douglas


In this, the first of two books describing his travels in Iran, Douglas recollects the story of how the constitution was saved in 1909 after the despotic Shah Mohammad Ali had seized it, as told to him by Bakhtiari leader Morteza Gholi Khan. Douglas was in the audience of the Majles and witnessed Mossadegh in action, shortly before that same body would elect him as Prime Minister and months before Douglas would welcome him in the United States. Excerpt:

These words came back to me a few weeks later when I sat in the visitors’ gallery of the Majlis.

One deputy purported to speak on behalf of a small village: tribesemen had stolen two hundred of their sheep.

Another deputy was speaking for some of the tribes: the Persian Army was preying on the tribes, practicing blackmail against them, and lining their pockets at the expense of the tribesemen.

Then Mohammed Mossadegh (passionately Persian and anti-Soviet in his leanings, the one who was to be Prime Minister before a year had passed and cause Persia’s oil to be nationalized) rose to attack the British oil concession.

The institution, which Morteza Gholi Khan saved from extinction a generation earlier, was still functioning as a public forum.

Letter to Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh
November 15, 1951

Douglas wrote this note to Mossadegh during his final week in America. That morning’s Washington Post editorial he refers to, Dismal Swan-Song, sharply criticized Mossadegh’s speech at the National Press Club the day prior. Excerpt:

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

I want to add one word before you leave the country and return to Iran. I am sure that your visit has been a very worthwhile one and productive of good will between America and Iran. You may today feel discouraged by reason of the kind of editorial which appeared this morning in the Washington Post. That editorial expresses the British point of view. I am sure that the American people, as well as the American officials, are coming to see as a result of your visit the great issues at stake in your country.

There may be disappointment in your heart as you leave. But much good has been done. I think the great body of American sentiment will grow and grow in favor of you and your wonderful people, as the ugly and greedy British policy under Churchill’s management becomes as plain to everyone as it is to you and to me.

Letter to Kurish Shahbaz
February 2, 1952

Kurish Shahbaz had become a protégé of Douglas after they had met in Iran; Douglas later arranged for his employment at the U.S. embassy there, according to the book The Douglas Letters. Shahbaz is listed in American Foreign Service Association records and has been described by Douglas in West of the Indus (1958) as “my interpreter on several Persian journeys and political adviser to the American Embassy.” Excerpt:

My dear Shahbaz,

...I have been trying to promote in every way I can the cause of Iran and its very wonderful leader, Mossadegh. I saw a lot of him when he was in Washington, DC, and was very much impressed. Right now I am in the process of making a movie about Iran which will be shown on our television stations. Some of these are the movies I took on my two trips to Iran. They have been supplanted by other movies. This is a movie which sustains pretty much the theme of my book, Strange Lands and Friendly People.

The Power of Righteousness
The New Republic [full article]
April 28, 1952

Excerpt from article by William O. Douglas, largely about the future of America’s technical assistance program, Point Four.

William O. Douglas Let me tell you about Mossadegh in Persia. I should say parenthetically that he’s a personal friend of mine, and I have a great admiration for him. When he left this country in November, empty-handed, I was sad for him because of the tragedy of the situation. The British said, “He won’t last three months as prime minister. We have a prime minister we’ll put in when Mossadegh falls.”

You know what has happened in Persia. Since December when Mossadegh returned, 80 seats have stood for election in the parliament—80 seats out of 136. How many do you think Mossadegh got? Seventy-five. You know the province up on the Russian border called Azerbaijan— the troublesome province that was under a Soviet-controlled Government about 1945? How many seats do you think Mossadegh got from Aberbaijan? He got all of them. He was opposed on all sides by two groups: the British and landlord groups and the Communist group. Out of two million votes the Communist group got 25,000 votes; but out of the first 80 candidates, the Communists in Persia didn’t get a single candidate into the parliament. I say a man who can control a country at the polls like that is a strong man. I say he’s a man who should be respected and supported.

Mossadegh is a wealthy man—an aristocrat. He has a land program that calls for the break-up of the feudal estates of Persia, for a sale of that land to the peasants, so that Persia will have the kind of land program that we, thank God, have had in this country, even before the Civil War, when all the land of the West was opened to our people and nobody got too much. Mossadegh would limit the holdings in Persia. The land problem, is the heart of the problem of Iran. Mossadegh is out to solve it. Mossadegh in Persia presents an opportunity that is rare. There aren’t many political leaders that you can back in the Middle East because they’re largely the status quo group, the feudal group, the landlord group. And why spend American taxpayers’ money financing them?

Let me tell you about the composition of the new Persian parliament today. This is a grass-roots parliament; it represents a revolution come to the Middle East. That is something that has never happened in the history of the Middle East—a grass-roots parliament, as a result of a free election. Why? Because every goat herder in Persia loves Mossadegh and believes in him, just like the people in this country—most of them—loved FDR. Among the 75 new members of the Majlis are three professional politicians, 25 small landlords, 35 intellectuals. I suppose that would include most of us. There are six clergymen; there are two trade unionists; and there are three small businessmen. There are still 56 seats to stand for election, and I predict that Mossadegh will bring in 110 of the 136. Even though he doesn’t, he already has 75 out of 136 which is rather good by American political standards, and even with that Mossadegh may get through his land reforms. And so I think we should be supporting Mossadegh, because those opportunities don’t come very often in the Middle East.

We in America have great technical skills. We can produce machinery; we can produce a material civilization. But I imagine that Russia could do about as well as we could do at that level. I don’t underestimate the tremendous power of our technical capacity and the importance of the material civilization that we have and its significance in terms of employment and the comforts of life and our standard of living. But I hate to think that America will go down in history as the nation that made the first atomic bomb or had the finest bathrooms or the greatest television sets or the fastest motor cars. Surely, America should be remembered and measured by things more important than that. What is this thing, America, in our hearts and souls? Is it something we can put up and see and look at? I don’t believe so. I think it is what we wrote into the Declaration of Independence. And it wasn’t written just for ourselves. Abraham Lincoln believed that the Declaration of Independence was designed not for Americans alone but was a document that would inspire other people to shake the weight and burdens from their shoulders the world around—the people of all races and all tongues. That’s the idea of America we should spread abroad. That is the idea of America that I think is real and vibrant. America stands for freedom. America stands for independence. America stands for justice. Not justice in the landlords’ sense; not justice in the French or the British or the Dutch or the Russian colonial sense—but justice in the American sense.

Why did we refuse to put Tunisia on the agenda of the Security Council? Why do we refuse to give these little people of the world a hearing? Do we believe in the righteousness of power? I thought we believed in the power of righteousness.

Well, that’s Point Five. If we can go to a region in India where there is an equitable distribution of the land, where there is opportunity for the common man, and tie into that program—then we are promoting the American ideal—then we are identifying ourselves with the peoples of the world in their aspirations—then we’re making impossible this crude, this crass, this dismal thing known as Communism.

If we go to a region to make a group of landlords richer, then we are promoting the thing that at home we hate. If we go to Persia and back Mossadegh with Point Four, giving him wholehearted support, then we’re promoting the cause of the civilization that we believe in, then we’re promoting freedom, justice and opportunity, and dignity for the common man. Those who oppose him, who align themselves with the forces that would destroy him, are conspirators to turn the Middle East into a Russian concentration camp.

If you and I were in Persia, we’d be for Mossadegh 100 percent. If we were in India, we might not be for Nehru 100 percent, because Nehru has been compromised by reason of his position in the Congress Party—though we’d be for him about 90 percent. [Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru] If the conditions existed in America that exist in the Middle East and Asia, we tonight would be forming an American revolutionary committee—a committee to promote a revolution—to lead a revolution—to destroy the octopus that was overpowering us. The proudest thing in our history is the American Revolution. The ideas that it espoused are ideas that spinned throughout the world. Point Five is the American Revolution. Let’s make it a good revolution. Let’s put our ideas behind it and a few of our dollars. The strange thing about it is that if you’ve got some good ideas, you don’t need much financing. It is the lousy ideas that require a lot of money.

Justice Douglas, in Address to Class at New School, Opposes ‘Expediency’

The New York Times
June 4, 1952

Quoted at his commencement address of the New School for Social Research in Manhattan on June 3, 1952, where he also received an honorary degree.

In his address Justice Douglas said the people of Asia and Africa, who were struggling for independence from colonial powers, too often associated the United States with “forces of repression” rather than “forces of liberation.”

“We Americans must never trade our principles for expediency”, he asserted. “England is our friend. But that friendship should not lead us to underwrite England in the Middle East. If we must choose between an unfair oil deal by the British in Persia and a Mossadegh who, true to his democratic tradition, leads a revolt against British exploitation, we must support Mossadegh.”

If the price of French support in Europe is the underwriting of French policies in Africa and Asia, we must still adhere to our principles of freedom and justice and not align ourselves with the repressive policies that make Africa and Asia boil with trouble where the French still rule. If we trade our principles for this support or that support around the world we become merely another great power engaged in the ancient game of power politics.

“Instead of showing the peoples of the world an alternative to communism we in effect make communism seem inevitable to them.”

Douglas Says U.S. Should Aid Iranian Land Reform
The Associated Press
January 12, 1953

Douglas’ comments about Iran on "Man of the Week", a CBS television program.

WASHINGTON – (AP) U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said Sunday night that if Premier Mossadegh of Iran gets his land reform program going the U.S. should “tie on to it” with all the help we can give. (read more...)

Justice Douglas Says Russians Act From Strength, Not Fear —
Mid-East Held the Goal

The New York Times
February 12, 1953

Speech about Russian political imperialism made at luncheon for the Jewish Welfare Fund in San Francisco, February 11, 1953.

Justice Douglas, remarking that such trials as that of Rudolf Slansky1 and his associates in Czechoslovakia were ominous, asserted:

“First, they tell the tragedy should the Middle East be lost to the West. They emphasize how foolish and short-sighted our Persian policy has been. They point up how disastrous it has been to support the British on the oil question rather than [Premier Mohammed] Mossadegh — a great popular hero in Persia, the leader of a non-communist movement of vast proportions.

“Second, they underline the importance of keeping Israel strong and vigorous. For Israel is a far-flung outpost of Western civilization, Western culture, Western ideology.”

1 Czech Communist politician of Jewish descent executed on December 3, 1952.

Speech by William O. Douglas (May 1960)

“We speak of the free press. Yet a man without ten milion dollars would have a difficult time to establish a printing plant adequate to compete with our prominent papers...”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“We have been so vastly regimented that almost overnight opinion is shaped to fit a synthetic image. Mossadegh—the man who first brought democracy to Persia’s villages and who strived to get a constitutional monarchy—became overnight at the hands of our press a clown, a demagogue, a neo-communist.”

The U.S. and Revolution
From The U.S. and Revolution: an occasional paper on the free society, Volume 2, Issue 12

From Douglas’ writings in 1961, continuing to encourage the U.S. not to fear “democratic revolution”. Excerpts:

William O. Douglas One reading American history and the stirring sentences of our Declaration of Independence would suppose that we would be on the side of the people and against the colonial rulers. The contrary has been true. The Dean Achesons who staffed our State Department stood firmly against Indonesian independence for five long years. The Henry Cabot Lodges who manned the United Nations stood resolutely against independence for Morocco or Algeria or Vietnam.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

When Guatemala showed signs of revolt, we helped install a fascist regime. When Mossadegh in Persia started basic reforms, we became alarmed. That man, whom I am proud to call my friend, was a democrat in the La Follette-Norris sense of the term.1 We united with the British to destroy him; we succeeded; and ever since our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East.

1 Referring to former Wisconsin Senator and Governor Robert Marion La Follette, Sr. (1906-1925) and former Nebraska Senator George William Norris (1861-1944) — both members of the Republican party.

Address at Yeshiva University in New York, NY — 1962

Douglas had previously spoken at Yeshiva University on November 13, 1950, warning about a misguided, militaristic U.S. foreign policy. “We need to create tolerance and good will in the world”, he said at the time while there to receive an award for his humanitarianism and democracy promotion.

“I mention these sad chapters in modern American history to explain why the internal political problems of the underdeveloped nations never excited us – except and unless the Pentagon became excited that some “communist” was taking over. But the Pentagon’s conception of a “communist” was so bizarre that we found American power and prestige on the side of totalitarianism and against democracy. The most vivid case in point is that of Mossadegh in Iran — a millionaire friend of mine who tried to introduce democracy for the first time into Iran’s villages.”

Rich Nations Urged by Justice Douglas To Consolidate Aid
The Associated Press (AP)
November 26, 1965

Address to the National Council of Teachers of English, in Boston, Massachusetts, Nov. 26, 1965. His prepared remarks repeat some talking points from his 1961 article, The US and Revolution (seen above). Excerpt:

...the Justice said the West must first overcome its “fear of revolutions whether political, technological or economic.”

Communists, Mr. Douglas said, fill their literature with the “blood and thunder” of revolution, while the West, “rich in the democratic tradition of revolution”, no longer publishes books on the subject.

Mr. Douglas said the West “missed great opportunities when we became preoccupied in fighting Communism, with the cold war, rather than with ideas of revolution, of freedom, of justice.”

He cited the reigns of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic.

Mossadegh, Mr. Douglas said, “was a democrat in the LaFollette-Norris sense of the term.1 We united with the British to destroy him and we succeeded. Ever since, our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East.”

Mr. Douglas said that Dr. Bosch was also a democrat. “And we threw our weight against him and his enlightened 1963 Constitution.”

1 Referring to former Wisconsin Senator and Governor Robert Marion La Follette, Sr. (1906-1925) and former Nebraska Senator George William Norris (1861-1944) — both members of the Republican party.


Related links:

LIFE Magazine Compares Iran’s Oil Nationalization To Boston Tea Party (August 1952)

Descriptions of Dr. Mossadegh’s Personality and Character

The Complete Exchange of Messages Between Eisenhower and Mossadegh

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

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