Beginning in the late 1800’s, Americans helped shape modern Iran. Here are vignettes — in their own words.
On December 25, 1910, Persia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs reached out to the United States, asking for help in straightening out the country’s economic difficulties. It was thought that the Americans could advise the Persians independently from the European and Russian influences in the country at the time.
As a result, in May 1911, William Morgan Shuster became the first Treasurer-General of the Persian Empire, tasked with helping Iran to organize its finances. Shuster had actively supported Iran’s 1906 Constitutional Revolution, which limited the powers of the monarchy.
He encouraged the Persian people in their desire to have a true voice in their government. But after pressure from the Russians and British, Shuster was expelled from Iran, in December 1911. In his book, The Strangling of Persia, published the following year, Shuster wrote:
Time with whose passage certain pains abate. But sharpens those of Persia’s unjust fate.
Arthur Millspaugh aka Dr. “No Money”
Economist Arthur Millspaugh of Augusta, Michigan, picked up where Morgan Shuster left off and became the Administrator-General of the Finances of Persia in 1922. The reigning monarch, Reza Shah, invited Millspaugh to help manage Iran’s economy, and the American is credited with reducing the country’s reliance on foreign loans.
In his book The American Task in Persia published in 1925, Millspaugh writes: “When the American Financial Mission arrived in Persia, in the fall of 1922, we were welcomed by one of the newspapers of Teheran (the capital) as follows: ‘You are the last doctor called to the death-bed of a sick person. If you fail, the patient will die. If you succeed, the patient will live. I do not applaud your arrival. I shall applaud, if you succeed.’”
On Persian psychology Millspaugh wrote:
There seemed to be a deliberate conspiracy among the Persians themselves to blacken the reputation of their countrymen. When I arrived, almost every Persian with whom I talked, having had some disappointing experience or subjective interest, leveled a withering indictment at all Persians except himself.
Skeptics predicted Millspaugh would spend “three months in collecting his salary before leaving Persia in despair.” Millspaugh worked in Iran from 1922–1927 and again from 1943–1945, and was eventually expelled from the country. It is said that his “strictness in dispensing public funds had earned for him the nickname Dr. Pul Nist (Dr. No Money).”
President Harry Truman’s Point IV Mission
On January 20, 1949, during his inaugural address, President Harry Truman said: “I believe we should make available to peace- loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life.”
Point IV was launched in the early 1950s, with the United States offering several developing countries scientific, educational, and financial assistance. My grandmother, Helen Jeffreys, became a registered public health nurse and was part of the Point IV Team in Iran.
In 1952, William Warne became the Country Director to Iran for Point IV. In his book Mission for Peace, William Warne wrote, “In its operation in Iranian villages, through the Iranian agencies Point IV made history. It has helped to build or equip hundreds of village schools. It has distributed hundreds of thousands of chickens and many hundreds of tons of improved wheat, barley and cottonseed. It has opened health centers, drilled wells, treated millions of animals…located safe water supplies, trained thousands of rural teachers.”
William Warne knew that people in Iran and America were curious about the motives of Point IV, and suspected that America was just trying to “buy friendships.” Warne pointed out, “Like the big fish of the sea large nations have in the past attacked and swallowed whatever smaller ones happened to fall within the range of their darkling ‘known worlds.’
“On our continent we have tried the experiment of living together in peace with Canada. It worked. So why should we not try the same experiment with other countries far away? We are dedicated to individual freedom and national self-determination. We are not imperialists, yet we can nevermore live alone on this shrunken planet.”
Although Point IV was not the official name of the program, Warne said, “Point 4 is understood around the world. In the remote places the words become a passport, a warranty of friendship, a whole language when no other words would have meaning.”
Helen Protected Area in Iran
In the 1950s, my grandmother, Helen Jeffreys Bakhtiar, was a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy. She traveled to Iran to work with William Warne and serve as a public health nurse as part of President Truman’s Point Four Program. The rural improvement project sent American experts in agriculture, health and education to work in villages in less-developed countries.
Traveling by jeep to remote villages, the daughter of conservative Baptists from Boise lobbied tribal elders on the need to educate women about health care. In one instance, Helen single-handedly convinced a reluctant village cleric to allow local women to attend her prenatal class.
In 2008, our family learned that the storied Bakhtiari tribe had honored Helen and named a mountain and entire environmental region after her. The Helen Protected Area commemorates her public health contributions.
Located in the central Zagros Mountains of Iran, near the ancient city of Isfahan, the area around Kohe Helen or Helen’s Mountain, is home to a wide variety of species, including brown bears, leopards, wildcats and eagles. Iranian environmentalists have marked the mountain and the surrounding forests as a protected area.
Helen wrote beautifully about Iran in her handwritten letters from the 1950’s. (My mother, Laleh Bakhtiar, saved them all and wrote a book about Helen’s odysseys in Iran.) Helen was friends with the noted Bakhtiari tribal leader, Yahya Khan. Visiting his summer villa in Dastana near the ancient city of Isfahan, Helen wrote:
A perfectly beautiful place, so many trees with a large stream running through the village. The Bakhtiari mountains are within walking distance, and we were able to see snow on the mountains. There is a project being contemplated which would assist primarily the tribal people, and I am delighted to be in on the planning of the program.
The villagers of Iran loved Helen, the blonde, blue-eyed, selfless woman who spoke Persian with an American accent. When she fell ill in 1954, Yahya Khan held a prayer vigil for her in his home. Those who attended said 12,000 prayers in hopes of her recovery, sent her flowers, and burned incense to ward off the evil eye.
An American Martyr in Iran: Howard Baskerville
Howard Baskerville graduated from Princeton Theological School and moved to Tabriz, in northwest Iran in 1907 to teach history and English at the American Presbyterian Mission’s Memorial School. Soon after his arrival, the city became the center of resistance to royalist forces seeking to crush Iran’s Constitutional movement.
In 1906, Persians from all walks of life had come together and demanded a new constitution — one that would reduce the power of the monarchy and grant the people more say in their government through an elected parliament. Baskerville had become an ardent supporter of the Persian people’s desire for democracy; he enlisted in their ranks and commanded 150 men defending the city. Howard Baskerville was 24 years old when he was killed on a battlefield in Tabriz on April 19, 1909.
One of his students, Rezazadeh Shafaq, was on the battlefield when Baskerville was shot in the heart, and later recalled, “Baskerville has had a permanent place in the memory of the Iranian public.” In 1950, a tablet was placed at Baskerville’s grave in Tabriz inscribed with this poem:
Oh thou, the reverend defender of the freedom of men. Brave leader and supporter of justice and equity. Thou hast given thy life for the felicity of Iran. Oh, may thy name be eternal, may thy soul be blessed.
The primary source for the historical entries above, also featured in the digital book, The Persian Square, comes from The Encyclopedia Iranica with permission from the late Dr. Ehsan Yarshater and Dr. Ahmad Ashraf. Available on iTunes and Amazon, The Persian Square hasn’t been updated since 2015 but the historical references have endured time.
Author Iran Davar Ardalan is the Founder and Storyteller in Chief of IVOW AI, an early stage startup specializing in AI-driven cultural content. She is also the former Deputy Director of the White House Presidential Innovation Fellowship Program in Washington D.C. Prior to this, she was Director of Storytelling at SecondMuse and before that a journalist for two decades at NPR News.
In 2015, Ardalan’s last position at NPR was senior producer of the Identity and Culture Unit. Realizing that there is a gaping hole in AI algorithms that will define our future, she created IVOW AI, bringing together a team of journalists and technologists to design cultural IQ in AI. Ardalan, who has also served as Managing Editor at Hanson Robotics, has been recognized with a 2017 NASA Team Leadership award for Space Apps, a Gracie Award from the American Women in Radio and Television and a shout-out in the popular comic strip Zippy. In May 2014, she was the recipient of an Ellis Island Medal of Honor, for individual achievement and for promoting cultural unity.