Seventy years ago, on November 16, 1949, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the shah of Iran, arrived at Washington National Airport. The shah’s good-will trip to the United States was the first ever by an Iranian head of state.
In his welcoming remarks, President Harry S. Truman observed that the United States and Iran had been “partners in the struggle against fascism” during World War II. Truman remarked that there was a “traditional friendship” between the two countries, and that his “Majesty's visit represents the high point of this relationship, which will, I am sure, become still closer in the years ahead.” The shah received a 21-gun salute and full military honors during the airport ceremony.
That evening, President Truman proposed a toast to the Shah at a state dinner held at the Carlton Hotel in Washington, DC. (The White House was undergoing a major renovation, so it was not available for state dinners.) Photographs of the shah’s visit to Washington are located on the Truman Library’s website at https://www.trumanlibrary.gov/photographs.
At the conclusion of his trip to Washington and other U.S. cities, the shah gave a large Persian Isfahan rug as a gift to President Truman. In a letter to his wife, Bess, Truman wrote that the rug measured 12 feet by 16 feet and that he “never saw a prettier one.” From 1957 until the late 1990s, the rug was on display at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. The shah also gave President Truman a sword and scabbard; those items were stolen from the main lobby at the Truman library on March 24, 1978. They have never been recovered.
Harry Truman was familiar with Iran’s history. As a young man, he had read about Persian leaders. After his presidency, Truman even publicly commented “I am Cyrus,” with regard to his own role in recognizing the new state of Israel. Cyrus was the ancient Persian king who helped Jews return home following their captivity in Babylon.
Following World War II, Iran was a source of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. The cause was the refusal of Soviet troops to leave northern Iran, which they had occupied during the war. In his book “A Preponderance of Power,” historian Melvyn Leffler described Iran as “the great focal point” of strain during the early Cold War period. After a considerable amount of diplomatic effort, Soviet troops finally left Iran in May 1946.
Iran was an important source of oil for the United States. For that reason, Iran’s security was important to the Truman administration and to President Truman himself. Even events that took place far from Iran had implications there. Just days after North Korea invaded South Korea, in June 1950, Truman recorded in his diary his concern that the Soviet Union would take advantage of the invasion, which was a diversion from its true intentions. He wrote, “Russia is figuring on an attack in the Black Sea and toward the Persian Gulf….”
Iran received foreign assistance from the Truman administration. The United States extended aid to Iran under Point IV, a program of technical assistance to under-developed nations fighting poverty and communism. Henry Bennett, director of the Technical Cooperation Administration, which administered Point IV, was familiar with Iran. In his biography of Bennett, author Paul William Bass recalled Bennett’s testimony before Congress, which asked him to comment about providing expensive combines for Iranian farmers. Bennett said that Iranians instead needed iron points to put on wooden plows, a much cheaper and more usable alternative to combines. In 1951, Bennett died in a plane crash in the mountains of northern Iran. A marker in English and Farsi commemorating the crash and its victims was placed at the crash site.
In 1951, the Shah was deposed and forced into exile following the democratic election of Mohammed Mossadegh. In 1953, Mossadegh was overthrown in a coup following his anti-Western political stance and his effort to nationalize British-owned oil companies. The Shah returned to Iran and led the nation until he was overthrown by Islamic revolutionaries 40 years ago, in 1979.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.