Constantly referenced, yet often misunderstood, TIME magazine’s choice of Mohammad Mossadegh as Man of the Year for 1951 has long been widely perceived as a tributary gesture. Yet TIME, like its sister publication, LIFE, had a very reliable track record of negativism toward the Iranian Premier. So why the perception that TIME admired him?
Though TIME has always made it clear that the Person of the Year distinction is reserved for the newsmaker who affected the world most, many incorrectly assume that it’s solely intended to honor the individual. It’s all about significance.
• Wishful thinking—
Many of those who view Mossadegh as a heroic figure see what they wish to see – an internationally known news magazine paying respect to an Iranian patriot, rather than a derisive, Orientalist hit piece against the leader of a supposedly inferior, backward land.
People don’t actually take the time to read the article itself (“Challenge of the East”), and are simply taken with the attractive cover and cachet that goes along with the “Man of the Year” title.
A couple of these theories seem well apparent in this sampling of letters sent to TIME reacting to the Man of the Year story.
It’s comical, really, when you think about it—incensed readers writing in to complain about something that, in practice, they actually concurred with. Inversely, admirers of Mossadegh proudly hold up the magazine as undeniable evidence of their hero’s greatness—when in fact, they ought to be outraged at how shabbily he was depicted.
Even historians get a little carried away with the issue. Defending past U.S. policies in Iran, Dr. Abbas Milani cited it as a supposed example of America’s warm attitude toward Mossadegh. Many books, documentaries and such place great emphasis on the TIME cover, often juxtaposing it with the seemingly ironic U.S. campaign to unseat the Premier, i.e.: ‘Even though TIME named him “Man of the Year”, they imply, the CIA took him out anyway...’ On the contrary, TIME’s derogatory cover story was perfectly aligned with the anti-Mossadegh narrative that would soon saturate U.S.-Iran policy... and, quite possibly, may have been deliberately co-ordinated with the government for propaganda purposes.
Who did TIME subscribers want to see named Man of the Year, anyway? In their final issue of the year (December 31, 1951), the editors revealed the results of their reader poll:
“Of TIME readers’ nominations for Man of the Year, 14% voted for General MacArthur; 9% for John Foster Dulles; President Truman and General Eisenhower, 4%; Churchill and Senator Estes Kefauver, 3%; Dean Acheson, Senator Paul Douglas and the American Taxpayer, 2%; Senator Taft, 2%; Senator McCarthy, Premier Mossadegh and John L. Lewis, 1%. The remaining 49% votes were scattered.—ED.”
Enjoy these rare, misguided missives from TIME’s letters section •
• TIME magazine archive
• Media archive
LETTERS — January 28, 1952
Man of the Year
In choosing your Man of the Year, Mohammed Mossadegh, the Premier of Iran, you have stirred up a lot of trouble for yourself, and as a subscriber I am disgusted and thought you had better sense. This radical and troublemaker has caused more harm in 1951 than any other known person—to himself, his country, and the peace of the world . . .
HUGH M. SCOTT
. . . Even Franchot Tone would have been a happier selection.
FREDERICK W. PEDERSON
La Crosse, Wis.
[Actor Franchot Tone had been in one of the most embarrassing Hollywood scandals of the year—a sordid love triangle between himself, adulterous, alcoholic actress Barbara Payton and actor Tom Neal, who beat Tone to a bloody pulp]
Congratulations . . . Certainly no other individual better symbolizes the conflict between East and West than does Mossadegh, and no other man poses such a frightening moral challenge to the Western world . . .
ALAN W. SPEARMAN JR.
[Note the impressionable Alabaman’s use of the phrase “moral challenge”—which comes straight from TIME’s article]
You have insulted your readers. Who among you was the Mad Hatter who was responsible for this tricky treachery! Or has the choosing of the Man of the Year become a frivolous, foolish, fantastic game indulged in by your irresponsibles? . . .
GORDON FERRIE HULL
[Gordon Ferrie Hull (1870-1956) was a famous physicist and professor at Dartmouth College]
¶ TIME’S Man of the Year is neither the winner of a popularity contest nor necessarily a great or good man, but one who has “done the most to change the news for better or for worse.” As TIME’S story said, this man in 1951, “sad to relate,” was Premier Mossadegh.—ED.