When Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote about the overthrow of democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in his 1963 Presidential memoirs Mandate For Change, he was, to put it mildly, censoring himself. Yet in a private diary entry ten years earlier, written exactly three weeks after the 1953 coup, the President was far more forthcoming.
Eisenhower, who had kept a detailed diary intermittently since the 1930’s, covered a range of issues both domestic and foreign in his October 8, 1953 entry. Yet it’s his brief summary of the U.S.-backed August coup in Iran that is of particular historical significance — it represents what is the only known direct admission of involvement in the secret operation by the Commander in Chief himself.
The entry also gives light to a frequently debated aspect of the coup — the effectiveness of the Central Intelligence Agency. Though he is not mentioned by name, Eisenhower showers praise on the determined CIA agent whose quick-thinking and resolve played an evidently crucial role in the coup’s success, one Kermit Roosevelt, Jr.
Exactly when the entire diary entry was released to the public is difficult to say. The Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum lists the document as being declassified somewhere between 10/1/09 - 9/30/10 — but even the sensitive bits had been quoted from at least as far back as 1984, when noted Eisenhower biographer Stephen Ambrose used excerpts in Vol. II of Eisenhower: The President. Jim Newton, author of Eisenhower: The White House Years (2012), takes full credit for its release, writing that while portions were released in 1981, the document was “declassified at the request of the author in 2009” and then “formally released” on May 10, 2010. Newton’s claim is contradicted by the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum’s director, Karl Weissenbach. Interviewed by the Associated Press in February 2011, Weissenbach stated that archive staff chose to release that document after Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Cairo acknowledging the coup. Whatever the case may be, the diary has at least been accessible to certain journalists for years, since some of its key portions have been quoted in a number of books.
Eisenhower himself was actually the first to quote from the entry in Mandate For Change. Yet of the four paragraphs pertinent to Iran, Ike only quoted the last two (on his hopes for future developments in Iran), and omitted the crucial first half, which would have exposed the secret U.S. role. However, he also excised one more tiny detail, and not for the sake of brevity. Where he had written “Now if the British will be conciliatory and display some wisdom...”, Eisenhower took out the apparently undiplomatic phrase “...and display some wisdom”, a reference to the well demonstrated overconfidence and hubris of the fading British empire.
Ike also recycled (in modified context) the infamous “dime novel” anecdote from his diary in his 1963 memoirs, a statement similar to some press comparisons at the time to the work of English novelist E. Phillips Oppenheim. A writer of fantastic and far-fetched thrillers, Oppenheim’s titles, including The Magnificent Hoax and The Spymaster could have easily doubled as titles for the coup in Iran. Eisenhower regarded Mossadegh as a dictator in league with the Soviets — a Communist stooge — and wanted to try covert means to unseat him. The plot of Oppenheim’s political thriller Exit a Dictator (1939) “concerns the attempt of a certain "Mr. Alexander" to overthrow the Russian government without resorting to violence”. Asked the book jacket, “Is this story of international intrigue more evidence of Mr. Oppenheim’s ability to prophesy the future of world affairs?”.
One writer invoked Oppenheim on the very day of Ike’s diary admission. In his well known syndicated column, Fulton Lewis, Jr. informed thousands of newspaper readers that the United States was surely “directly involved” in Mossadegh’s overthrow. Going by his diary, Ike wouldn’t have liked the announcement, fearing it would not only jeopardize future covert operations, but harm America’s image in the region.
Eisenhower’s concern suggests that he was well aware of Mossadegh’s popularity both in Iran and in neighboring countries. There’s no way of knowing, however, whether he would still be “embarrassed” (as he put it) to have his diary admission of the illegal overthrow of a well-loved leader made public years later.
Eisenhower Diary — October 8, 1953 (excerpt)
“Another recent development that we helped bring about was the restoration of the Shah to power in Iran and the elimination of Mossadegh. The things we did were “covert.” If knowledge of them became public, we would not only be embarrassed in that region, but our chances to do anything of like nature in the future would almost totally disappear.
Nevertheless our agent there, a member of the CIA, worked intelligently, courageously, and tirelessly. I listened to his detailed report, and it seemed more like a dime novel than an historical fact. When we realize that in the first hours of the attempted coup, all element of surprise disappeared through betrayal, the Shah fled to Baghdad, and Mossadegh seemed more firmly entrenched than ever before, then we can understand exactly how courageous our agent was in staying right on the job and continuing to work until he reversed the entire situation.
Now if the British will be conciliatory and display some wisdom; if the Shah and his new premier, General Zahedi, will be only a little bit flexible, and the United States will stand by to help both financially and with wise counsel, we may really give a serious defeat to Russian intentions and plans in that area.
Of course, it will not be so easy for the Iranian economy to be restored, even if her refineries again begin to operate. This is due to the fact that during the long period of shut down of her oil fields, world buyers have gone to other sources of supply. These have been expanded to meet the need and now, literally, Iran really has no ready market for her vast oil production. However, this is a problem that we should be able to help solve.”
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