Author Commentary on Losing Hearts and Minds: American-Iranian Relations and International Education during the Cold War | Wilson Center

Author Commentary on Losing Hearts and Minds: American-Iranian Relations and International Education during the Cold War

While most subfields of history have evolved considerably in the twenty-first century, the study of “diplomatic history” has been particularly transformed by methodological diversification. This new reality is conveyed in my recent book on American-Iranian relations during the reign of the last shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (r. 1941-79). In Losing Hearts and Minds, I analyze the educational ties between Iranian students and Americans between the Second World War and the Iranian Revolution.

In contrast to traditional histories of diplomacy and conflict, I engage with a range of diverse literatures and sources in order to examine the American-Iranian relationship from the perspective of “America and the World.” As I write in the prefatory remarks to the book:

“This historical subfield is not diplomatic or military history in a new guise; nor is it an entirely new subfield that discards old insights for what can be fleeting methodological trends….The history of America and the world is the history of the nation, its peoples, and people from all over the globe operating within a web of political, military, economic, and cultural relations.”

My approach remains centered on the question of power, a question that has driven diplomatic historians since the field’s inception, but that is absent from many interdisciplinary approaches studying the global. My “America and the World” approach casts a broad enough umbrella in order to capture the multidimensional historical moment in which Americans and Iranians lived during the Cold War era. 

This can be illustrated through the case of international education, particularly in the circuits of Iranian student migration to the United States. Around 1950 Iranian university students began to arrive in the United States in small numbers, and by 1960 the Iranian student community had grown to approximately 5,000. For various reasons, that number climbed to more than 50,000 by 1979 to become the largest group of international students in the United States. The large student presence created opportunities for dialogue between Americans and Iranians in the three decades prior to the Iranian Revolution that did not exist before (because of Europe’s prewar position in Iran) or, given the post-revolutionary political tensions, since.

Besides simply unearthing the movement of people and opportunity for dialogue, I argue that international education, in a binational sense, served cross purposes. On the one hand, American schools provided the Shah with the manpower necessary for his modernization program, the White Revolution. To demonstrate this, in the book I examine particular educational initiatives, ranging from Harry Truman’s Point Four initiative to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s nuclear training program for Iranian engineers, to show that education was a means, alongside more traditional forms of influence, by  which the United States supported the Pahlavi state.

On the other hand, many Iranian students in the United States held anti-shah views and organized with likeminded Americans to develop a rights-based critique of the Pahlavi state and U.S. foreign policy. Their critique evolved through three phases. First, it focused on single issues, such as free speech in the early 1960s. During John F. Kennedy’s administration this critique also informed foreign policy considerations. In the mid-1960s,  international critiques diverged with the foreign policy community as activists placed the Shah’s Iran within a broader critique of “authoritarianism” and, prior to the revolution, attempted to communicate the suffering of Iran’s political prisoners to international audiences through the language of “human rights.”

Historiographically speaking, in this book I bring together disparate literatures that are not always in conversation with one another. When I began writing the book a decade ago, there was very little work on educational ties between the United States and the world, let alone the United States and Iran. While the historicization of mid-twentieth century thinking about modernization and human rights had transformed the study of U.S. foreign relations, those frameworks had not yet reached the study of U.S.-Iran relations in any meaningful way, either. In this book I engage with these literatures to apply their questions and frameworks to American-Iranian relations. As a result, I address topics that would interest non-Iran specialists, including those interested in how the Kennedy administration engaged the third world, and those interested in when and why human rights became an international concern.

I used archival records familiar to many historians of U.S. foreign relations. It is important to note that, just as was the case for subaltern studies scholars decades ago, new approaches to studying America’s global interactions do not necessarily require new archival collections; therefore,  US government records from the National Archives and Records Administration II in College Park, Maryland remain essential. The desk records and other lower-level collections in the State Department reveal country-specific insights not found at higher levels of government, and the records of the military missions, the pre-1961 aid agencies, and the U.S. Information Agency complement the more political material in Record Group 59. An important though oft-overlooked subset of papers came from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs records at the University of Arkansas. This, along with other collections located in Fayetteville, are must-sees for any historian of international education. I also conducted research at the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Carter presidential libraries, and I perused the relevant files at the National Archives of the United Kingdom in Kew.

With new questions, however, inevitably comes the discovery of new collections, or the discovery of new, previously overlooked, information in existing collections. For example, the personal papers of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas at the Library of Congress contain letters to and from prominent Iranians. Because Douglas was an avid Iran watcher who had friends in the opposition, he wrote widely and collected a range of oppositionist publications. These papers, to my knowledge, had never before been used to explain Douglas’ views on Iran. Equally informative were the records of the International Commission of the U.S. National Student Association at the Hoover Institute. These records contain correspondences between American and Iranian activists, mainly during the first half of the 1960s, and they challenge thinking about the dynamics of America’s cultural cold war and student activism. The Ford Foundation records from the Rockefeller Archive Center, along with papers from American universities involved in Iran, yield invaluable information. I also accumulated my own archive of English-language Iranian student publications through my research and with the assistance of interlibrary loan librarians. Student publications appeared in a surprising number of archives, ranging from State Department files to papers in the Swarthmore Peace Collection, a finding that indicates the extent to which the ideas of Iranian students circulated globally, including within an American political and cultural context.

Losing Hearts and Minds is representative of the “America and the World” approach to studying the past. It is based on archival sources that escaped generations of historians, it engages with literatures that are not often combined, and it employs methods that have not been previously applied to the study of U.S.-Iran relations. These sources and methods reveal the contradictions of American power during the Cold War, and they provide the field with a historical case study of American-Iranian dialogue that is important to remember in our own troubled times.

Matthew Shannon is a historian of America’s global interactions during the twentieth century, particularly with Iran. In addition to teaching in the History Department, he is the director of Connections, the capstone course in the Core curriculum that focuses on global citizenship. 
More posts by Matthew Shannon