This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals.
In 1949 and 1950, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas travelled to the Middle East to examine why revolution was sweeping the region. Nicknamed “Marco-Polo Douglas” due to his passion for travel and exploration, his visit became the first of several travelogues. On both trips Douglas travelled extensively in Iran, developing a passion for the country and its people. He remained a high-profile advocate of democracy in Iran and staunch critic of American policy until his death in 1980.
This paper analyzes the development of Douglas’s vision towards Iran as well as his relations with numerous American and Iranian officials. His trips coincided with the transition of US foreign policy from support for democracy in Iran in the early 1940s, to fear of Communist encroachment and support for firm authoritarian rule. Against such a transition, Douglas argued that if the United States focused on democracy rather than the unpopular Shah, Iran could eventually become a modern developed state that naturally allied with the West. In siding with the Shah, Douglas warned that America was seriously “misunderstanding its problem in that part of the world,” and claimed that US policy would lead to “one of the greatest crises…in modern history.”
Douglas’s call for caution proved prescient as American support for the 1953 coup continues to hamper US policy in the region to this day. Moreover, prolonged American support for the Shah culminated in an uncontrollable revolution and the loss of Iran as a Western ally. His alternative approach, based on positive action rather than the negative stance of anti-Communism, called for a greater understanding of the people of Iran, its tribes, institutions, and culture. Social reconstruction, in particular land reform and mass education, he argued, could achieve American goals much better than support for authoritarianism. Regularly touted as a candidate for secretary of state, vice-president, and even the presidency, Douglas’s story highlights an alternative and important strain in American politics that steadfastly opposed American policy towards Iran in the 20th century. His strongly held beliefs were precisely those missing in US policy formulation between 1950 and 1979. Moreover, his assertion that Iran needed “to be known more intimately by the West” remains just as important today as America continues to struggle in its relations with Iran. Reexamining and building on Douglas’s views on Iran will be instructive to those interested in US-Iranian relations in both the 20th and 21st centuries.