In 1989, the Department of State published a notorious volume that purported to document U.S. foreign policy towards Iran in the early Eisenhower Administration. The volume triggered an avalanche of criticism because it omitted any mention of the CIA’s role in a 1953 covert action that helped overthrow the government of Iran.
Later this year, after the passage of more than two decades, the State Department will rectify that error by publishing a supplemental volume of declassified documents in its Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series that is expected to fill in the missing pieces of the documentary record of the 1953 coup against the Mossadeq government of Iran.
The publication of the 1989 Iran volume was a milestone in the history of U.S. government secrecy that prompted widespread outrage and ridicule, but it also inspired remedial efforts that had some lasting impact.
The episode was recounted in detail in an impressive history of the FRUS series that was also published by the State Department last year (Chapter 10).
“FRUS historians could have been more assertive in their efforts to promote greater openness in the 1980s,” the FRUS history candidly observed. “They should have recognized that the Iran volume was too incomplete to be published without damaging the series’s reputation, consulted with stakeholders across the government and the academic community, and devised alternatives to releasing an unacceptable volume.”
Ironically, the defects in the official Iran history generated more broad public attention to questions of diplomatic history than the subject had received for many years.
“The ostensibly authoritative” FRUS volume on Iran “is ‘Hamlet’ without the Prince of Denmark — or the ghost,” the New York Times editorialized in 1990.
“We are poisoning the wells of our historical memory,” wrote Senator Daniel P. Moynihan in the New York Review of Books at the time. “The secrecy system has gone loony.”
On the plus side, the scandal over the Iran history galvanized efforts by historians and others to demand a higher standard of fidelity in official history. Those efforts led directly to the enactment of a 1991 statute dictating that the Foreign Relations of the United States series shall provide “a thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions and significant United States diplomatic activity.”
The forthcoming publication of the FRUS retrospective volume on Iran was noted in a new annual report from the State Department Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation.
It was confirmed by Historian of the State Department, Dr. Stephen Randolph, who told Secrecy News that the volume was expected to be released this summer, barring unforeseen events, along with another long-deferred collection on Chile, 1969-1973.
An initial selection of recently declassified CIA records on the 1953 coup with related background material was posted last year by the National Security Archive.
“The issue is more than academic,” wrote the Archive’s Malcolm Byrne. “Political partisans on all sides, including the Iranian government, regularly invoke the coup to argue whether Iran or foreign powers are primarily responsible for the country’s historical trajectory, whether the United States can be trusted to respect Iran’s sovereignty, or whether Washington needs to apologize for its prior interference before better relations can occur.”