Hurley’s Dream

Wednesday, July 30, 2003
General Patrick Hurley.
General Patrick Hurley.

Sound familiar?

The country was Iran, the president was Franklin D. Roosevelt, the envoy’s name was General Patrick Hurley, the ally was Britain, and the time was the waning months of World War II.

The “Big Three”—Stalin, FDR, and Churchill

The Tehran Conference

It was on the eve of that war that the United States began to be enmeshed in Iran. Diplomatic relations had been established long before, but the United States had remained by and large a curious observer to the great game played by England and Russia, the two contending colonial forces. America’s absence from the intrigues—and thus from the spoils—of the great game afforded it a privileged place in the minds of the Persian people. Disgruntled and dismayed as they were with England and Russia, they em-braced the United States as a potential ally in their battle for independence.

America’s unique place can be seen in the fact that when, on August 25, 1941, England and the Soviet Union ignored Iran’s declared neutrality and in concert attacked and occupied the country, the ruling monarch, Reza Shah, appealed to the United States for help. On the night of the attack, he sent a telegraph, beseeching in tone, to Roosevelt asking him to “be good enough to interest yourself in this incident. . . . I beg Your Excellency to take efficacious and urgent humanitarian steps to put an end to these acts of aggression.”

Roosevelt was in no hurry to respond. He had been fully briefed about the British plans. He took a full week to respond to the urgent plea. In his meaningfully tardy letter, FDR in effect legitimized the attack by inviting Reza Shah to “view the situation in its full perspective.” He even made an oblique but unmistakable reference to suspicions that the king had been harboring pro-Nazi sympathies. But FDR did have one piece of good news for the desperate monarch: He promised that at his behest England and the Soviet Union would issue a public statement declaring that, once hostilities ended, they would immediately leave Iran. Such a pronouncement was indeed made, albeit a few years later, at the Tehran Conference. It was in preparation for that conference that General Patrick Hurley was dispatched to Iran as FDR’s special representative.

Hurley was an unusual choice and an eccentric character. Born into a poor family, Hurley had amassed a fortune as an attorney. He served in the army during World War I and then was secretary of war during the Hoover administration. In World War II, he rose to the rank of general and served on various diplomatic missions. His cowboy hats and rambunctious ways were hardly a fit for the staid world of diplomacy.

When Hurley arrived in Tehran, he saw the desperate social and economic conditions of the country. The economy was in shambles, poverty was endemic, and the roads were dismal. The two occupying powers cared little for Iran’s sovereignty and well-being.

To make matters worse, tensions between British and American diplomats were palpable. These tensions had their genesis in differing perspectives on policy. The Americans wanted to reshape Iran into their own image, while the British were comfortable with the status quo. American policy was based on the belief that change could only come by deposing the corrupt old-school Iranian leaders and replacing them with young Iranians educated and trained in the West. The British disagreed, dismissing these suggestions as dangerous fruits of American idealism, a sure sign of their inexperience in the Middle East. It was in this context that Hurley arrived in Tehran to prepare for the conference.

Hurley’s first task was to prepare for Roosevelt’s arrival in the city. Because of wartime security concerns, everything about the conference had to be kept in strict confidence. Only when all the details were worked out, and Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin had safely arrived in Tehran, was the government of Iran to be informed of what was happening. Security precautions were elaborate in the extreme.

Hurley’s range of responsibilities included everything from high policy to mundane tasks. One of his first jobs was to make living arrangements for FDR and his entourage in Tehran. Ever mindful of the game of symbolic politics, and wary of an effective coalition between England and the United States against the Soviet Union, Stalin was bent on having Roosevelt stay at the Soviet embassy. After visiting the Soviet embassy, Hurley impressed on FDR that it would be preferable to the American embassy in terms of comfort, security, and convenience. In spite of Hurley’s suggestions, Roosevelt decided to stay at the American embassy. But it did not take long before Soviet intelligence in Tehran “discovered” an elaborate Nazi plot to kill Roosevelt. In the end, Stalin had his wish: When the Tehran Conference convened, Roosevelt was the guest of the Soviet embassy.

While engaged in these negotiations Hurley met with a number of Iranians—from the shah to liberal-minded Persians of pro-American persuasions. Gradually, and inexorably, anti-British and anti-Soviet sentiments began to permeate his Tehran correspondence. He became deeply suspicious of the two countries’ plans for post-war Iran. It was at least partly in reaction to these suspicions that he helped prepare the draft of the Iran Declaration. Ultimately adopted at the Tehran Conference, the declaration was a pledge by the three powers to maintain the independent sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iran following the war.

The Iran Declaration would come to play a crucial role in the future politics of Iran and the international community. At the end of the war, the Soviet Union refused to pull its troops out of Iran, and it was the articles of the Iran Declaration that provided the legal basis for the Iranian complaint against the Soviet Union at the United Nations. President Truman sent something of an ultimatum to the Soviets demanding their withdrawal (some have even suggested that he threatened them with the use of nuclear power). The Soviets did withdraw, making Iran the only country that the Red Army ever occupied and then left.

This scene depicts the three leaders vanquishing Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini

The Hurley Report

At the end of the conference, as Roosevelt was leaving Tehran, he had a long talk with Hurley at the airport. That conversation provided the basis for what came to be known as the “Hurley report.” Roosevelt wanted to establish a foreign policy for the developing world, using American policy in Iran as the blueprint. FDR had suggested that the future purpose of U.S. policy in the developing world should be “to establish free governments and free enterprise and to lend expert advice and leadership in developing the resources and the commerce and building up generally the industry of each of the less favored nations so that the citizens through their own efforts, could raise their own standard of living.” Hurley took these ideas as his guiding principles and wrote his controversial report.

He began his report by asserting that “it is the purpose of the United States to sustain Iran as a free, independent, nation and to afford the Ira-nian people an opportunity to enjoy the rights of man as set forth in the Constitution of the United States and to participate in the fulfillment of the Principles of the Atlantic Charter.” Iran is a country rich in natural resources, Hurley wrote, and if it has a “government based upon the consent of the governed and of a system of free enterprise . . . [Iran] can achieve for herself the fulfillment of the principles of justice, freedom of conscience, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom from want, equality of opportunity, and to a degree, freedom from fear.”

Hurley knew that the job that confronted the United States would not be easy. He described at some length the formidable internal and external threats and potential obstacles to the plan. Internally, he pinpointed illiteracy as the greatest enemy to democracy and prosperity. He described the external enemy as the twin evils of imperialism and communism. Hurley used surprisingly harsh words about England and its imperialism:

The imperialism of Germany, Japan, Italy, France, Belgium, Portugal, and the Netherlands will, we hope, end or be radically revised by this war. British imperialism seems to have acquired a new life. . . . What appears to be a new life . . . is the result of the infusion, into its emaciated form, of the blood of productivity and liberty from a free nation through Lend-Lease. . . . British imperialism is also being defended today by the blood of soldiers of the most democratic nation on earth. . . . Sustaining Britain as a first class power has for many years been the corner stone of American foreign policy.

If this policy were to continue, and if the American government were to keep pretending that its ally, England, was still a first-rate power, then the British must be made to accept “the principles of liberty and democracy and discard the principles of oppressive imperialism.”

In Hurley’s vision, aside from strong declarations in defense of democracy and the independence of Iran, the American effort in the country must be “directed substantially toward the building of schools, hospitals, sanitary systems, transportational and communicating systems, irrigation systems and improvement of all facilities contributing to the health, happiness and general welfare of the Iranian people.” As the first step in that direction, the United States must provide “expert advisors in any or all of the fields of government” who will be fully “indoctrinated in the policies of our government toward Iran.” All such advisers must be employees of the Iranian government itself. Their help will only be necessary, Hurley suggested, in the early stages of this democratic experience, and then only to “protect the unorganized and inarticulate majority from foreign and domestic monopoly and oppression.”

Roosevelt was impressed enough with the report to send one copy to Churchill and another to the State Department. To his secretary of state he wrote, “Enclosed is a very interesting letter from Pat Hurley. It is in general along the lines of my talk with him. . . . I was thrilled with the idea of using Iran as an example of what we could do by an unselfish American policy. We could not take on a more difficult nation than Iran. I would like, however, to have a try at it.”

His note to Churchill was longer and more important for its implicit criticism of the British policy in Iran. More interestingly, Roosevelt’s epistolary game of politics with the prime minister highlights the often-ignored conflict and competition that occasionally surfaced between the United States and Britain in Iran. Differing visions of politics, as well as the exigencies of oil, sometimes trumped the solid foundations of the grand Atlantic alliance. Roosevelt wrote, “The enclosed memorandum was sent to me by Major General Patrick Hurley (former Secretary of War) whom you saw at Tehran. This is for your eyes only. I rather like his general approach to the care and education of what used to be called ‘backward countries.’” FDR ended his note with a clear challenge to his friend, suggesting that “the point of all this is that I do not want the United States to acquire a ‘zone of influence,’ or any other nation for that matter.”

Churchill took his time in answering. In the highly formalized and etiquette-obsessed language of diplomacy, his delay must be construed as an important part of his response. On May 21, almost three months after FDR’s letter, Churchill responded with an acerbic critique of Hurley’s facts and an uncompromising defense of British practices in Iran and the rest of the world. The general, Churchill chided, “seems to have some ideas about British imperialism which I confess make me rub my eyes.” Churchill then went on to defend what he, like Hurley, called British imperialism. Churchill wrote that Hurley “makes out for example, that there is an irrepressible conflict between imperialism and democracy. I make bold, however, to suggest that British imperialism has spread, and is spreading, democracy more widely than any other system of government since the beginning of time.” Apparently having taken umbrage at Hurley’s tone, and FDR’s implied dig, Churchill declaims, “We are certainly no less interested than the United States in encouraging Persian independence, political efficiency and national reform.”

Churchill was not the only one who was dismissive of Hurley and his dreams of making Iran into a showcase of democracy engineered by “unselfish American policy.” The State Department had even harsher words for him. After some soul-searching and debate, in a response authored by Dean Acheson, it ultimately found the report a “messianic global-baloney.”

FDR died a few months later, and with his interment, Hurley’s plans for turning a genuinely democratic Iran into a model for the rest of the Middle East were also buried in the archives of American diplomacy.