Truman The Noninterventionist

Jan 16 2012 @ 10:12am

A reader writes:

Not to pile on your "Ike The Interventionist" post, but I just finished reading All the Shah's Men by Stephen Kinzer, and if you had to lay the blame of all our current troubles with Iran at the feet of one man, you can make a strong case that Eisenhower is that man.  (Other candidates: Kermit Roosevelt, who did most of the US's groundwork in the coup, and Winston Churchill, who pushed hard for it from Britain's end.) Eisenhower greenlit the coup practically the moment he was in office. Whether it was his indifference to the facts on the ground in Iran, his own hawkishness, or even the ease with which the hawks around him manipulated him, Eisenhower's willingness to topple Iran's democracy set us on a collision course with the Middle East, and Tehran in particular, that we've been feeling the result of over the past 40 years.  That fact alone makes him arguably one of the least impressive presidents of the last century.

Another also read Kinzer's book:

While he may not be "in the full rounding" of best president of the last century, the end of Harry Truman's administration was more inline with what I think you were intending. Let me offer some evidence.

In All the Shah's Men, Stephen Kinzer writes about how in 1951-1952 British concerns over Mossadegh's nationalization of AIOC led Churchill's having no problem planning a coup. Mossadegh found out about Britain's intentions (Oct 1952) and hobbled the effort by closing the British Embassy in Tehran. Kinzer writes that the British asked Truman for help and he turned them down, claiming that the new CIA "had never overthrown a government, and Truman did not wish to set the precedent." (pg 3)

The British, not taking no for an answer, especially with Truman as a lame duck, began lobbying the not yet sworn-in Eisenhower. Kinzer writes that the American attitude towards a coup changed radically after Dwight Eisenhower was elected in November of 1952. Within days of the election, a senior agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service came to Washington for meetings with top (still serving in the Truman administration) CIA and State Department officials. Eisenhower had not even taken office yet and already the two Dulles brothers were changing US foreign policy and attitudes toward interventionism.

Truman had many flaws, but he was uneasy about undermining democratically elected governments. In fact, it was not until the events of 1949 (Soviet nuke and establishment of Communist China) that Truman really began to pivot from his default foreign policy goals of promoting stability and thwarting the return of Fascism, making sure Germany couldn't rise again militarily and undercutting Franco's regime, which was seen as "established with Fascist support."

I know, I know, I haven't adequately addressed Kennan and the birth of Containment in 1946/47, but I wanted to make the point that Truman, at least to the British, in October of 1952 still was not in favor of intervening by coup. And that Eisenhower either knew of what was being planned (to be carried out under his name) while he was president-elect, or he was hands-off and let the Dulles brothers begin setting precedents.

For further reading, Stephen G. Rabe in The Killing Zone, David F. Schmitz in Thank God They're On Our Side, and Greg Grandin in The Last Colonial Massacre do an excellent job of telling the history of the US intervention in Guatemala in 1954 (organized by … the Dulles brothers).