Archive

Archive for April, 2012

Thoughts of Persia

April 18, 2012 2 comments

Mitt Romney has a history problem. I’m not talking about his personal history; his public persona suggests his worst infraction was sneaking a sip out of a bottle of Coke behind the family’s sprawling Bloomfield Hills home. No, I mean he has a problem getting the facts of history right, as an op-ed piece he wrote to rattle his saber at Iran shows. The thrust of the piece was to paint Barack Obama as weak in the face of Iran’s rising nuclear threat, and he would be different, by gum. He started the piece by referring back to the release of the U.S. hostages on January 20, 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

The hostages, back on U.S. soil, after more than a year in Iranian custody.

To Romney, the release was Iran’s acknowledgment that they faced some tough times under Reagan’s watch if the hostages weren’t freed (not, as is widely accepted, because months of negotiations and internal Iranian concerns led Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to their release). Yup, why Reagan was so tough on the Iranians, he secretly sold them weapons, in violation of U.S. law and his own promise never to deal with terrorists. Yeah, Romney pines for the good ol’ days, under Sheriff Ronnie. You probably won’t hear too much from Romney on the Iran-contra scandal…

Attending Phyllis Bennis’s recent talk about U.S.-Iranian relations got me thinking about the shared history of those two countries. The recent past, with the hostages and ever-tense relations often inflamed by bellicose rhetoric, has not been pretty. But the History Nerd wondered: Was it always thus?

Our man in Tabriz…

Depends on who you ask, I guess. Justin Perkins recounted receiving some good treatment at the hands of the Muslim government of Persia, circa 1835. Perkins was the first American missionary to live in what we now call Iran, arriving there in 1834 with his wife. His mission was to work with the Nestorians, a Christian sect that traced its roots back to a 5th-century dispute over the teachings of Nestorius. The Persian Nestorians lived in and near the mountains of Kurdistan. Perkins not only had to deal with a foreign culture as he spread Congregationalist teachings and general learning. He also confronted religious obstacles in the form of local superstitions and “papal errors” that had crept into Nestorianism, the latter courtesy of missionaries sent from Rome. Perkins’s son recounts these years in Persia in the biography he wrote of his father, noting that even though the Nestorians were surrounded by “the gross darkness of Mohammedanism,” the land’s Muslim rulers treated the elder Perkins well.  One member of the ruling family ordered that Perkins and his associate have army protection, as thanks for their “attending to the education of the people, and render[ing] the people useful by teaching them European science.”

Learn more about those ancient Persian empires in a book by yours truly.

The Americans and Iranians first established official diplomatic relations during the 1880s. (An earlier trade treaty had been negotiated but never put into effect.) By this time, Persia was still an independent nation, but a shell of the great empire it had once been. Actually, three separate empires had risen and crumbled in the region, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty of the 6th century BCE. By the 19th century, however, Persia had become another battleground in the “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain for dominance in Central Asia. The glory of Cyrus and Darius and Mithridates and, yes, even  Khosrow I, was long past.

That point was forcefully driven home in 1919, when the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave the British virtual control of Iran. The people, as U.S. State Department correspondence indicates, were incensed by their government’s capitulation, but feared demonstrating against it because of the presence of British troops. One report said that Iran’s intelligentsia realized some foreign influence was inevitable, and “they would have welcomed such on the part of the United States.” Persians hoped for some sort of American remedy, and some were disappointed when it never came. The rising tide of nationalism, though, led to the takeover of the government in 1921 by the first Pahlavi shah, the father of the infamous shah who would be one of the greatest U.S. allies in the region—and a player in the later hostage crisis.

U.S. troops prepare to move supplies along the Persian Corridor.

By this time, a discovery beneath Persian soils set the groundwork for those deepening U.S.-Iranian ties. The country had oil, lots of it. And as we all know, America would eventually need some of that oil, and a general balance of power in the region that favored its interests. But Americans did not arrive in any force in Iran until World War II. Fearing a German takeover of the country (the first shah had established close ties to Germany), the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran in 1941. A small number of U.S. troops and civilians arrived to help move supplies through Iran–the so-called Persian Corridor–to Russia and keep oil flowing to the Allies. The Americans built roads and operated plants that made vehicles and aircraft for the Soviets. Thousands of Iranian civilians also took part in these efforts.

At the end of the war the Soviet Union was not happy, because it didn’t have the oil interests that the Brits and Americans had secured during the war. Joseph Stalin tried to reassert old Russian influence over northern Iran, supporting rebels there. He ended that support in April 1946, and Iranian troops, working with a U.S. military adviser, crushed the rebellion. The Soviets were out of what was a historical sphere of influence for them, and we were in. But U.S. leaders would continue to fear Communist influence in Iran and do whatever they had to do to keep a friendly regime in power there.

Those steps included using the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and putting the second Pahlavi shah onto the Peacock Throne. This part of the story is more familiar, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say, said shah used petrodollars and cozy U.S. relations to build a brutal dictatorship, which led to the revolution of 1978 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Which begat the hostage crisis and 30-plus years of tensions and talks of going to war with an Iran that supposedly covets nukes, to intimidate Israel and no doubt tweak the Americans yet again.

To the Iranians, Iranian-American professor Vali Nasr claims, 1953 was a motivating factor in the future animosity between Iran and the United States. The U.S.-inspired coup was a “humiliation,” one that was “exorcised by the taking of the American hostages in 1979.” The Iranian nationalism that first emerged during the 1920s had been stoked anew, and remains today, even if many Iranians oppose the new authoritarian regime that replaced the old one (“Meet the new boss…”).

What do the Iranians think of the tough talk from a Romney or other Americans? Efraim Halevy, a  former head of Israeli intelligence, said that Romney’s op-ed piece could fuel Iran’s desire to quickly do more work on a weapon, before Romney—conceivably—wins the election. But Iran’s real concern was not building a bomb, Halevy asserted, but preserving its regime, as economic sanctions begin to take effect. Whatever happens, our relations with Iran will remain complex–perhaps a little too much so for the historically challenged Romney.

Advertisements

The Big Election of ’12

April 4, 2012 3 comments

Big election coming up later this year, I hear. Don’t want to get into that yet; let’s wait till the Republicans choose between Sick Rick and Ragged Mitt, though Mr. Remove-Silver-Spoon-and-Insert-Foot seems to have it locked up. Tonight’s results could spell the end for Rick, though the grossly self-righteous never seem to go away quietly.

No, today the History Nerd wants to look back to another big election, one from a century ago that at least one historian thinks changed America. The election of 1912 featured some heavy hitters, the caliber of which makes the current crop look like Doug Wilson and his cohorts in Agrestic (yes, I’ve been rewatching early seasons of Weeds).

The 1912 election was the only time in our history that three men who had or would sit in the Oval Office faced each other: the incumbent William “Big Boy” Howard Taft, former president Teddy “Manly Man” Roosevelt, and soon-to-be pres Woodrow “What, me racist?” Wilson. And there was even a fourth candidate of renown (or to some, infamy): Eugene “You Don’t Know Nothin’ from Socialist” Debs.

Perhaps even more amazing, the field included a progressive Republican. Imagine that, a time when that expression was not an oxymoron. Hard to believe given how this year’s GOP presidential hopefuls seem to covet the label “Neanderthal” (and with apologies to Neanderthals everywhere with that crack).

Now that's a globe!

Here was the scenario: Roosevelt had served from 1901 through 1908, earning a reputation as a “trust-buster,” a progressive who wanted to conserve public lands, who said “corporations engaged in interstate commerce should be regulated if they are found to exercise a license working to the public injury.” Of course, TR was immediately branded a socialist by the right wing of his part—no, actually, not. While Roosevelt wanted to control corporate excess, he was still a capitalist, still had respect for the “strong and forceful men upon whom the success of business operations inevitably rests.” And he was a devout imperialist, always ready to swing that big stick.

Man, I just wanna be on the Supreme Court...

Taft, a one-time friend of Roosevelt, was a reluctant presidential candidate in 1908, running more to appease his wife than satisfy an urge to wield power. Ironically, while historian James Chace, author of the book 1912 considers Taft a “moderate conservative,”  he busted more trusts in four years than TR did in eight. Chace (who discusses his book here) also calls Taft “an extremely decent man,” a decency I’d like to think was shaped by his Unitarian faith. Given the dogma-less, pagan-accepting church the Unitarian-Universalist body is today, could a 21st-century UU even think of running for president? And isn’t it sad to think that belonging to a congregation with such deep historical roots in America and with such a tolerant, loving nature means you couldn’t get elected in a political climate that seems to thrive on religious litmus tests of all kinds?

Moderate conservative that he was, Taft was not progressive enough for Roosevelt, who also had a stronger hunger for executive prerogative than Taft. TR ran for the Republican nomination, lost it at what he and his supporters thought was a rigged convention, then joined the Progressive Party, which was soon known as the Bull Moose Party . The nickname came after TR compared himself to that hardy creature. The name seemed particularly apt when Roosevelt was shot while on his way to deliver a campaign speech. The fifty pages of the speech, tucked into his pocket, slowed the bullet somewhat (let’s see a Teleprompter do that), though it still entered his lung. Roosevelt gave the speech and then went to the hospital. During his two-week recovery, the other candidates refrained from campaigning. Would today’s candidates extend the same courtesy? Perhaps, but of course they could count on the Super PACs to keep doing their dirty work.

What were some of the wacky tenets of the Progressive Party? Well, its platform spelled out some of the lunacy pretty clearly: “The Progressive party, believing that no people can justly claim to be a true democracy which denies political rights on account of sex, pledges itself to the task of securing equal suffrage to men and women alike.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, sometimes it seems a few modern-day Repubs rue that. And TR also wanted “the fixing of minimum safety and health standards for the various occupations, and the exercise of the public authority of State and Nation, including the Federal Control over interstate commerce, and the taxing power, to maintain such standards.” Talk about a Republican turncoat! And then there was this: “The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use.” Sounds like the germ of Social Security and—dare we say it—national health care. Why, if that had happened back then, we’d be like a Third World nation by now. Oh, wait, with the growing disparity in wealth between the top and the bottom classes, we are like a Third World nation…

Back when a Southerner was proud to be progressive.

Then there was Wilson, the former president of Princeton, a historian, the governor of New Jersey. He had some progressive bona fides, thanks to his efforts to clean up corruption in NJ. But he was also, as Chace bluntly says, a Southern white supremacist. In later decades, post-Nixon, he might have been one of the many Southern Democrats who turned Republican. Whatever his party, Wilson was by all accounts prickly and stubborn. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he could also be holier-than-thou—but not so holy as to refrain from a marital affair. In another instance of “Could this happen today?” TR knew about the indiscretion and did not use it against his opponent.

Debs snagged 900k votes in 1912.

Debs, of course, was sorta the Ron Paul of his day, though with a decidedly different ideological bent. He had no chance in hell of winning, though he had a small number of devoted supporters (in sheer numbers, Paul probably has more, but of course the electorate was much smaller then). Chace sees Debs as more of a pro-worker union organizer than a full-blown Marxist. Starting in 1900 he ran for president five times as a socialist, the last one, famously, while in jail for protesting America’ involvement in WWI.

So, take a step back and see what we have: Four candidates more liberal, in some ways, than the last two Democratic presidents, and certainly more liberal than any Republican since then. These men ran at a time when people could challenge the power of corporations and not be seen to be seeking “to destroy America.” It seems so distant and fairy-tale like…

The outcome of the election was not too surprising. With basically two Republicans running, they split their party’s vote and Wilson won. Taft actually came in third in both the popular vote and the Electoral College. And the true importance of the election was perhaps showing that progressive ideas had a home in American government, even if the Progressives didn’t win. Chace says the election set the tone for the rest of the century, with progressive idealism taking on conservative values.

Never again, I reckon, will we see a Republican who champions the progressive. Instead, we get Republicans who are reactionary, not merely conservative. I can’t imagine what TR or even Taft would think of what has become of the GOP. We’ll see what becomes of it after this ’12 election.