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All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror 1st Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 338 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0471265177
ISBN-10: 0471265179
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With breezy storytelling and diligent research, Kinzer has reconstructed the CIA's 1953 overthrow of the elected leader of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, who was wildly popular at home for having nationalized his country's oil industry. The coup ushered in the long and brutal dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Shah, widely seen as a U.S. puppet and himself overthrown by the Islamic revolution of 1979. At its best this work reads like a spy novel, with code names and informants, midnight meetings with the monarch and a last-minute plot twist when the CIA's plan, called Operation Ajax, nearly goes awry. A veteran New York Times foreign correspondent and the author of books on Nicaragua (Blood of Brothers) and Turkey (Crescent and Star), Kinzer has combed memoirs, academic works, government documents and news stories to produce this blow-by-blow account. He shows that until early in 1953, Great Britain and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company were the imperialist baddies of this tale. Intransigent in the face of Iran's demands for a fairer share of oil profits and better conditions for workers, British Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison exacerbated tension with his attitude that the challenge from Iran was, in Kinzer's words, "a simple matter of ignorant natives rebelling against the forces of civilization." Before the crisis peaked, a high-ranking employee of Anglo-Iranian wrote to a superior that the company's alliance with the "corrupt ruling classes" and "leech-like bureaucracies" were "disastrous, outdated and impractical." This stands as a textbook lesson in how not to conduct foreign policy.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


”…meticulously documented throughout…essential reading…” (Medicine Conflict and Survival, Vol. 21(4) October 2005)

That the past is prolog is especially true in this astonishing account of the 1953 overthrow of nationalist Iranian leader Mohammed Mossadegh, who became prime minister in 1951 and immediately nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. This act angered the British, who sought assistance from the United States in overthrowing Mossedegh's fledgling democracy. Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy's grandson, led the successful coup in August 1953, which ended in the reestablishment of the Iranian monarchy in the person of Mohammad Reza Shah. Iranian anger at this foreign intrusion smoldered until the 1979 revolution. Meanwhile, over the next decade, the United States successfully overthrew other governments, such as that of Guatemala. Kinzer, a New York Times correspondent who has also written about the 1954 Guatemala coup (Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala), tells his captivating tale with style and verve. This book leads one to wonder how many of our contemporary problems in the Middle East may have resulted from this covert CIA adventure. Recommended for all collections. —Ed Goedeken, Iowa S tate Univ. Lib., Ames (Library Journal, June 15, 2003)

"...He does so with a keen journalistic eye, and with a novelist's pen...In what is a very gripping read." (The New York Times, July 23, 2003)

Tell people today that the United Nations was once the center of the world—the place where struggling nations got a shot at a fair hearing instead of a monkey trial before they were overthrown—and most would probably shake their heads in puzzlement.
Yet it was at the U.N., in October 1953, that one of the greatest dramas of the nascent television age unfolded: The eccentric, hawk-nosed Iranian nationalist leader Mohammed Mossadegh squared off with the aristocratic ambassador of the fading British Empire. At stake was Britain's claim to own Iran's oil in perpetuity.
The press played the showdown like a prize fight, "the tremulous, crotchety Premier versus Britain's super-suave representative, Sir Gladwyn Jebb," in Newsweek's account. The Daily News groused, "Whether Mossy is a phony or a genuine tear-jerker, he better put everything he's got into his show if he goes on television here." Time magazine had made him its Man of the Year. Now came "the decisive act in the dramatic, tragic and sometimes ridiculous drama that began when Iran nationalized the Anglo-American Oil Co. five months ago."
Five centuries ago would be more accurate, in the eyes of veteran New York Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer, who has written an entirely engrossing, often riveting, nearly Homeric tale, which, if life were fair, would be this summer's beach book. For anyone with more than a passing interest in how the United States got into such a pickle in the Middle East, All the Shah's Men is as good as Grisham.
And what a character Mossadegh makes: a fiery, French-educated nationalist with wild eyes, a high patrician forehead and droopy cheeks. His legendary hypochondria—he was prone to fainting and constantly received even diplomatic visitors in bed—seemed to flow from some deep wellspring of Shi'ite martyrdom, Kinzer suggests.
But the author's real accomplishment is his suspenseful account of Persia's centuries-old military, political, cultural and religious heritage, in which Mossadegh's face-off with London comes as the stirring climax to a drama that began with "Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, titans whose names still echo through history." By the 1930s, most Iranians had come to regard the abject misery they plunged into with every passing decade of exclusive British control of their one great natural asset as another passing calamity in a long history of the same. But with the global stirring of post-World War II nationalism, Anglo-American Oil pushed them to the breaking point.
In 1947, for example, the company reported an after-tax profit of £40 million—the equivalent of $112 million—and gave Iran just £7 million," Kinzer writes. Meanwhile, the company ignored a 1933 agreement to pay laborers more than 50 cents a day, or to build "the schools, hospitals, roads, or telephone system it promised." Inevitably, riots began breaking out at Abadan, the oil city where hundreds of thousands of Iranians lived amid baked mud and sewage in cardboard hovels in shadeless, searing heat. Their British overseers lived in another world entirely—tending to their green lawns and gardens, watching their well-scrubbed children frolic in the fountains, attending air-conditioned, "no-wogs-allowed" movie theaters, and sipping gin and tonics in their private clubs. The Abadan riots also propelled the fiery Mossadegh to his rendevous with destiny. But although the Iranian leader held his audience at the United Nations Security Council with a moving explication of his country's destitution at the hands of Anglo-Iranian interests, his triumph proved short-lived—and was soon to become a bittersweet memory.
In 1953, President Harry S Truman, whose gut-level sympathy for the impoverished Iranians led him to rebuff British pleas to conspire in Mossadegh's removal, was gone. The incoming Republicans were much more favorably disposed toward the British, especially after Whitehall repackaged its pitch in terms of a communist threat: Iran would fall to the Soviets, they now said, if Mossadegh stayed in office. Within weeks, the Eisenhower administration was plotting to get rid of him.
After all this drama, the machinations of CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt in Teheran to bring down Mossadegh and replace him with the young Reza Shah Pahlevi seems almost like an epilogue. For connoisseurs of covert action, however, there's a hell of a story left, even if some of it will make even the hardest-bitten Cold Warrior wince.
The basic facts of Operation Ajax have been known for some time, in part from "Kim" Roosevelt's own memoir, in part from other sources, most notably a windfall of long-classified CIA documents leaked to Kinzer's New York Times colleague James Risen in 2000.
The author makes good use of the material, toggling his drama between Washington, where CIA desk officers furiously churned out material for bought-off Iranian newspapers and radio stations, to Teheran, where Roosevelt scurried among clandestine meetings with Reza Pahlevi—a man so timorous he flew to Baghdad when the plot seemed to unravel—as well as with various treasonous Iranian Army officers.
Ajax was a triumph in the eyes of many—especially, needless to say, in the CIA. That verdict, of course, discounts the whirlwind of 1979, when the Shah was overthrown by furious Shi'ite mobs whipped up by the Ayatollah Khomeini, who quickly spawned the terrorists of Hezbollah and other groups who plague us today.
"We got 25 years out of the Shah—that's not so bad," a CIA man once said to me, stirring a drink with his finger. As always, the Iranians had a different view. —Jeff Stein is co-author of "Saddam's Bombmaker" and editor of Congressional Quarterly's Homeland Security, a daily news Web site. (The Washington Post, Sunday, August 3, 2003)

On Aug. 15, 1953, a. group of anxious C.I.A. officers huddled in a safe house in Tehran, sloshing down vodka, singing Broadway songs and waiting to hear whether they'd made history. Their favorite tune, "Luck Be a Lady Tonight," became the unofficial anthem of Operation Ajax - the American plot to oust Iran's nationalist prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, and place the country firmly in the authoritarian hands of Mohammed Reza Shah.
In fact, luck was not much of a lady that night; as Stephen Kinzer's lively popular history of the 1953 coup recounts, Mossadegh's chief of staff got word of the conspiracy and rushed troops to defend the prime minister, thereby panicking the feckless young shah into fleeing to Baghdad and plunging the carousing Central Intelligence agents into gloom. The coup succeeded four tense days later, only after a C.I.A.-incited mob (led by a giant thug known memorably as Shaban the Brainless) swept Mossadegh aside. Luck was even less kind to the Ajax plotters in the longer haul; in 1979, the despotic shah fell to Islamist revolutionaries bristling with anti-American resentment.
Even the president who approved the coup, Dwight Eisenhower, later described it as seeming "more like a dime novel than an historical fact." Sure enough, "All the Shah's Men" reads more like a swashbuckling yarn than a scholarly opus. Still, Kinzer, a New York Times correspondent now based in Chicago, offers a helpful reminder of an oft-neglected piece of Middle Eastern history, drawn in part from a recently revealed secret C.I.A. history.
The book's hero is the enigmatic Mossadegh himself. In his day, British newspapers likened Mossadegh to Robespierre and Frankenstein's monster, while The New York Times compared him to Jefferson and Paine. Kinzer full-throatedly takes the latter view, seeing Mossadegh's achievements as "profound and even earth-shattering." But he acknowledges that the great Iranian nationalist was also an oddball: a prima donna, prone to hypochondria, ulcers and fits, who met the urbane American diplomat Averell Harriman while lying in bed in pink pajamas and a camel-hair cloak.
Mossadegh's Iran faced formidable foes: British oil executives, the C.I.A. and the brothers Dulles, all of whom come off wretchedly here. The least sympathetic of all are Iran's erstwhile British rulers, who continued to gouge Iran via the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. When the Truman administration prodded it to share the wealth with Iran, its chairman sniffed, "One penny more and the company goes broke." In 1951, to London's fury, Mossadegh led a successful campaign to nationalize the oil company, drove the British to close their vital oil refinery at Abadan and became prime minister. The British began drafting invasion plans, but Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson warned them ...


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (July 18, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471265179
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471265177
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (338 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #268,387 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By N. Tsafos on December 8, 2004
Format: Hardcover
It is impossible to read this book without feeling sympathy for the Iranians and their leader, Mossadegh Mohammad, for whom Stephen Kinzer has special affection, and without developing a sense of distaste first at the British, and then at their accomplices, the Americans. All the same, it is also impossible not to cast a doubt on the book's main conclusion-that the US-led coup in Iran in 1953 lies at the root of Middle East terror.

Stephen Kinzer, a veteran reporter for the New York Times, is no stranger to American coups, having contributed to the writing of the history of the CIA coup in Guatemala in 1954. In "All the Shah's Men," Mr. Kinzer chronicles another coup, one that preceded Guatemala and laid the foundation for America's thinking that coups can be a useful and effective tool of foreign policy.

The book narrates the history of foreign involvement in Iran that culminated in the toppling of Mossadegh Mohammad and the re-coronation of Reza Shah as Iran's leader. Mr. Kinzer goes back centuries to choreograph the details of foreign involvement in Iranian politics, and pays particular attention to the last century and a half: in 1872, for example, Nasir al-Din Shah offered a most sweeping concession to Baron Julius de Reuter to, among others, exploit Iran's natural resources, a privilege revoked a year later. After that came other concessions, extended and then revoked, agreed and then renegotiated, on oil and other business.

What made the landscape explosive was the resignation, in 1941, of Reza Shah, Iran's king, and the subsequent emergence of Mossadegh, and a person who rested much of his political fortune on the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation (in 1951).
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Format: Hardcover
This is a short and very readable account of the American sponsored coup that overthrew the Iranian government of Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. I recommend this book for a variety of reasons. First, it briefly summarizes Iranian history in a way that readers without a lot of background can absorb. Secondly, Kinzer tells the story of the coup without loading the reader down with so much detail that the essentials of the story are obscured. Thirdly, while Kinzer clearly blames the British, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and the Eisenhower Administration for making a short-sighted decision, he acknowledges that there is no way to disprove the justification for the coup, i.e., that it was necessary to prevent a Soviet takeover of Iran. As an aside, Harry Truman comes off looking very wise in resisting pressure from Britain to support the coup; a decision the Eisenhower Administration reversed.
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Kinzer's work is great for alot of reasons, and the book manages to perform a few tasks very well. First, it presents the events of Summer/Fall 1953 in Iran many times through the words, written and spoken, of those involved. Second, it provides the context of the 1953 coup by explaining Britain's and America's relationships to Iran over the course of the early 20th century, as well as providing a brief overview of all Iranian history to understand the Iranians' desires in the 20th century. Third, it tries to offer balanced opinions of why, in the end, Britain decided to topple the elected government of Iran and why it was done covertly thru the U.S. Finally, it offers some very brief ties between the U.S./British overthrow of Mossadegh and later Iranian events, illustrating some of the links between Mossadegh's overthrow, the Shah's brutal rule, the later revolution's overthrow of the Shah, Iranian terrorism and worldwide terrorism.

My big criticism is that despite the excellent coverage of the coup and it's context in the past, he spends very little time examining the long-term effects. Almost ten chapters are devoted to pre-1953 events- he gives post-1953 events only one chapter. I would have appreciated as in-depth an analysis of post-1953 Iran as well.
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This book is my favorite over the last 2 years, and I read more than 50 books every year (about one book per week). My only complaint is that the title of the book should have mentioned Mossadegh....something like, "The Story of Mossadegh: How the British and the CIA Destroyed a Great Soul and a Great Nation." All the Shah's Men are not important - history will forget them, at most in a few decades. Mossadegh's legend will grow with time, just like those of Socrates or Mother Teresa. Mossadegh was to the Iranians, what Gandhi was to Indians, or what Martin Luther King was to the African Americans. Its just a matter of time - the current Islamic govt. in Iran is too afraid of the democratic ideals that Mossadegh represented. Sooner or later Mossadegh will occupy the place in history that he rightfully deserves - there will be many more books, movies, and who knows even future revolutions inspired by him.
Many thanks to Stephen Kinzer for publishing an accurate account of how Churchill's and Eisenhower's short term oil interests and communophobia ruined a budding democracy in a great historical land. Note that the book was just published in 2003 and a lot of material was inaccessible until very recently.
Iran or Persia was home to Rumi, the great sufi mystic, and Zoroaster, the great spiritual teacher. Iranians are moderate people, representing the best values of Islam. Yet, a typical American's assessment of Iranians is that they are fanatic zealots and hate the whole western culture. And may be there is some truth to that. But have you ever wondered why Iranians became so disgusted and suspicious of the Americans and the British. Read this book.
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