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Long ago
Interview with Barbara Waller, widow of Operation AJAX man in 1953

Fariba Amini
May 19, 2005

“When Mossadegh and Persia started basic reforms, we became alarmed, we united with the British to destroy him; we succeeded; and ever since, our name has not been an honored one in the Middle East.”
- Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas

“So this is how we get rid of that madman Mossadegh!”
- Secretary of State John Foster Dulles referring to a copy of the CIA plan for the overthrow of the Mossadegh government

“Waller was stationed in Iran during World War II, working for the OSS, the CIA's predecessor. A good description of OSS activity in Iran is in Donald Wilber's book Excursions and Incursions. He then joined the CIA after WW II was stationed in Iran most of the time until about October 1952, when he came back to Washington to head the CIA's Iran operations desk. In this capacity, he ran AJAX from Washington in August 1953. He later went on to serve in very top posts in the CIA and, I believe, headed its retirees' organization, the Association of Foreign Intelligence Officers. He also wrote a few books. I found him to be a strong Cold Warrior but politically very liberal -- very much in the John Kennedy mold.”
- Mark Gasiorowski, professor of political science at Louisiana State University and author ofMohammad Mosaddeq and the 1953 Coup in Iran

I have become truly intrigued by the events of more than five decades ago not only because I am a student of history, but mainly because it has affected me personally as I grew up in a household living with memorabilia from Dr. Mossadegh, having a father who has cherished and loved this great man all his life, not only as his attorney but his idol. I have vague memories of when my father and Mohandess Mossadegh (one of Mossadegh’s sons) would go together to see him in Ahmad Abad and as children we would accompany my parents on few of these trips.  

It is also the 123rd anniversary of Dr. Mossadegh who was born on May 19th, 1882. Every time I go through the pages of historical documents, I feel the injustice that was bestowed upon this great visionary politician who wanted nothing for himself but all he ever wished for was what he could do for the good of the country and its people. He came from nobility and was a noble man yet he rejected the practices of Iran’s aristocracy. We are indebted to his vision, to his clear realization of what democracy is all about and how we as a people can call ourselves democratic minded when and if we preach what we practice.

I had called to talk to John Waller who was in Iran from 1947-1952 when in August 1953, Mossadegh’s government was toppled by Iranian, British, and American agents and a million dollars from The CIA. A year ago, Waller was hospitalized suffering from pneumonia as his wife told me. I had hoped that he would be back at home and I would have a chance to meet him, to talk to him of the past.

On the phone, he told me “but you know it was long ago. It is the past. I don’t recall every thing.” After I told him who I was he said in a friendly voice, “then maybe I should interview you!” For us, this maybe true, that 1953 was a long time ago, but as a nation who still lives with the memory of a tragic event in our modern history, it is still very much alive in our hearts and minds.

A few days ago, I called their house and his widow told me that John Waller had passed away. I asked her if she would speak to me and graciously she accepted to do so. She would certainly shed some light into their journey in Iran in the most volatile times.

Here is my interview with Mrs. Waller who lived in Iran and who experienced the years leading to the coup of 1953 where a nation’s fate was changed forever. It is also an interesting recollection of the days in Tehran and in Mashhad where John Waller found and established the consulate in Mashhad, Iran in the late 1940’s. 

John Waller was a political analyst for the State Department. He was an embassy employee in Tehran and met his wife Barbara at the American Embassy when he was only 24 years old. They were married in Tehran. She was given away by Ambassador Allen in the gardens of the Embassy in Tehran. They were wed and all their three children were born in Tehran.

Her son was born in Mashhad and she still calls him a Mashhadi. John Waller was a distinguished and handsome officer who not only loved history but wrote many books on the subject. Among the books he wrote:  "Tibet- A chronicle of exploration, Gordon of Khartoum", "Beyond the Kyber Pass: The Road to British Disaster in the First Afghan War", "The Unseen War in Europe" and "The Devil’s Doctor".

He was also an artist specializing in portraits. In his office where you can find any kind of books from politics to art and many on Iran, there are drawings hung. I was especially intrigued by two portraits of the Late Ayatollah Kashani and one of Jalal Tallebani drawn by John Waller himself. I also found a book on Mulla Nassreddin, an old one which had a leather hardbound cover.

There were also stacks of the documents that had been seized at the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979. From all accounts he followed Iranian politics quite closely even though he had long left his post. He spoke fluent Farsi. Mrs. Waller, who could not speak the language anymore, would say words in Farsi, with an exquisite accent. She remembered events, names and incidents that are so interesting to a student of history. She is charming, very pleasant and at the age of 81 still beautiful and speaks with a special aura.

Here is her reminiscence of Tehran, Mashhad and the years she and her family spent in Iran in the most volatile times. She would remember things slowly but surely.

Tell us about your time in Iran and how you and your husband started your journey. You said you lived in Gholhak?

We lived in many places at least in seven houses. We also lived in Shemiran and Gholhak. Because we were given a rental allowance, the State Department decided that it was too much so we had to find houses with a lower rent. Thus everybody dashed around looking for residences that would not be too expensive to rent. So we kept on moving, quite often. This would have been early 1947. It was a small embassy, a total of 6 people. I was working there but I was not allowed to continue so I stayed for another 3 months until they found a replacement for me.
My children were all born in Iran.   

Were you happy living in Iran?

Yes I was terribly happy; it was lots of fun. It was a young Embassy. I think the Ambassador was the oldest; he was 44 and everybody else was in their 20’s. Our embassy was the old German embassy in Takhteh Jamshid, I spoke Persian while I lived there. Now I have forgotten most of it. As a matter of fact the two older ones (my children) spoke Farsi fluently better than English so if we wanted to get a point across I would ask their help. 

I had very good relationship with many Iranians. I don’t remember names now but we met many at the parties. The  people I met outside, when I went to the bazaar, everyone was very nice.

What was your husband’s title at the embassy?

He was a third secretary. We were in Tehran for two years and then John was assigned to the consulate in Mashhad so we went to look for a place in Mashhad at the same time that the Russians had left. It was near Bagheh Khouni [Bloody Garden]. We rented a big central Asian house; it had Russian wall stoves; three houses in a big compound near the shrine and even a dungeon. It was owned by a Mr. Kouzeh Kanani.

There was also a secret pathway that let to the roof for escape. And there were beautiful cherry trees from Samarghand. It also had very tall ceilings. Those Russian wall stoves were marvelous because there was no draft. We had a hammam though we never used it. It was the year 1949. You would walk by the green house; two large stoves, up the stairs, water running, and the light came from above the sun shining through the stoves and it gave it a most beautiful golden light. But it was too expensive to light the stoves with apricot woods. My husband was the acting consul in Mashhad.

We loved that city. We wanted to come back after home leave. We did for another three months. But my husband was called to return to Tehran. All the horse carriages had left and replaced with funny little cars, the minis, the British cars. I never went to the shrine. I was pregnant at the time; I went to the Bazaar a lot. They didn’t like to see me with short sleeves.

But we didn’t have to wear the hejab at all. Reza Shah was a follower type of Ataturk and yanking the Chadors out of women’s heads and also insisting that men wore hats.  So the educated people wore hats and upper class women didn’t wear the chador. I remember once a friend of mine had come back from the Bazaar and she said it was very quite, a strange quietness. well, we found out later that Razmara had been assassinated. .

Was your husband part of the coup?

Oh no, he didn’t participate in the coup, certainly Not. He was there at the time but we left in November 1952 before the coup. Yes he knew of the preparations. There were many riots. He would not talk much about politics to me. There was something called "dasteh marmouz" (secret hands) anything that would happen, it was the British’s faults.

If there was a tree across the road and we couldn’t get over it, they would say, oh the British had their hands in it! Iranians were very suspicious of the Brits. In my opinion, they were the best colonizers and the least cruel of the Europeans but they were manipulators.

We left Iran at the same time that the British were leaving. [Mossadegh kicked the British out for their interference in Iran’s politics] They left on a convoy through the desert to go to Beirut. The British military attaché told us this would be great
Cause then I could go hunting in the desert!

John knew that there were a lot of things going on; we would go to a party and all these men would walk back and forth, talking a lot. Politics was all that they talked about.

Did he ever meet Mossadegh?

I think he did, with the Ambassador, out at his country place, Ahmad Abad.

Did he say anything to you about Mossadegh?

No. He just said what the Time magazine had said, that he was a very emotional man, burst into tears quite often. I guess in his trial he cried a lot. It shows how little I know. But I know he was much loved by the people. There were always riots going on. One time John was driving to his work and he was busy looking out that when his car fell into a joub and he got out and complained; well some of the rioters came and helped him get his car out of the joub and he continued! He said to them, See what you have done? You made me fall into a joub. They said sorry. Alright, one, two, three, they lifted the car and put it back on the street. “There you are sir” they told him and they continued with their march!

You must realize that the cold war going on. When we were in Mashhad, the governor said he would give us half a day warning if the Russians come, we must escape from the roof tops. I would imagine myself carrying two babies under my arms with my chador and racing over the rooftops of Mashhad!. Of course that never happened. The threat of Russia coming to Iran was always real. There was always this fear of the Russians coming over to Iran and taking over. And living in the shadow of the history of the two spheres of influence Russia on the top and the British from the South it was going on while we were there.

In Mashhad at the time, there weren’t many buildings just a British bank, consulate general, Afghan consulate and American missionaries working there. We would meet all sorts of people coming through; there were no hotels. Many would stay with us at the consulate. Sometimes we would give our own room to the guests coming through. Words would get around that there were some Europeans and we would invite them to the consulate. There were French visitors. The Hospital would put them up. Bicyclists would come through Iran and Afghanistan and we would meet them. It was interesting times.

In the summer we would sleep outside on the balcony. The school master and his wife would stay with us. Oh, there was so much I have forgotten. I am old; I remember Americans, GI types would come. I saw one of them a couple of years ago in California.

What was your husband’s role?

He reported everything. What was going on? He was a political officer. He would send reports: So and so happened; so and so did this. That was part of his job. 

Did he say that it was ever a mistake?

No he never did. He did feel sorry for the Shah; he was a young man. He wasn’t a bad one. He wasn’t evil. He was a weak man. And his father was a strong man. John met the Shah. I went to the wedding of Soraya at Golestan Palace. It was an elaborate event. There were 600 extra invitees; someone had sold more tickets in order to make extra money. She looked beautiful but the weight of her train which was over 75 pounds made her almost faint.   

What was your impression of ordinary Iranian people besides the upper class?

They were very pleasant people not always honest as they might be. I would get along alright because I had stayed long enough to learn the language. People wouldn’t know that I am American. My Farsi was good enough to know how to deal with everyday stuff. I spoke German too and Iranians loved Germans. They were nice to Iranians. Iranians didn’t about Hitler. But the Germans had build roads and railroads. They liked the Germans.

There is a funny incident when I was trying to find something in a tub and toilet shop. I didn’t know the word. I was looking for the word in Farsi so I made it up. The only one I could think was Dousteh Ahangar, the Plummer’s friend.

They thought it was the funniest thing. They knew what I wanted so they found it and gave it to me. Boughalamoun, Turkey, I wanted to buy one for Thanksgiving. I still pronounce it in a funny way. It sounds like gobblin. We had a wonderful cook, his name was Mehdi. There was also Gholam Reza who was our house boy. And there was Maryam who helped me with the children. I always wondered what happened to them.  The chances are you may see the social friends but your cook or the others, you will never see them ever again.

What do you think of now? What is currently happening in Iran?

Oh well, I must say that the young will have to overcome the old. They should be allowed to lead normal lives. The things they put on their heads. That is not good.

What about the US?

I don’t know what they are doing about it. I don’t think that is the best way to handle it.

I guess we are afraid of the bomb. And we were upset with what happened at the Embassy and the Mullahs [in 1979 hostage crisis]. The young people should not bow down to the older ones.  

The elders should give religious advice but not interfere in politics; that is not in their realm. Even during the time we were there, Kashani and the other one, I don’t remember his name. They were always into politics. John did a wonderful portrait of Kashani. 

My husband wanted to go back to Iran. We wanted to go but there was so much anti-Americanism. We did go back to India. He worked for a company. He retired from the Central Intelligence Agency and wrote many books. His first book was about the Sino- Indian relations. 

He was very interested in the Arts. He bought some portraits in Naderi, wonderful paintings from Qajar period to be hung at the consulate in Mashhad. But we never got to go back to Mashhad. To this day, I have such fond memories of the place. 

Did you ever think the US made any mistakes towards Iran?

Oh sure we did. How could we not. We made many mistakes. Poor Mr. Carter and that Birthday cake! Of course in any situation, especially when it comes to political decisions, mistakes are bound to be made. 

John Waller died on November 4, 2004. It was ironic that 25 years before, on this very same day, the Students had seized the American Embassy in Tehran. He and many others like him believed that the Russians would take over Iran and with the cold war still in place; they tried with every means possible to stop it. The crusade against Communism blinded their eyes in lieu of what would happen in a democratic Iran.

John Waller said many years later, “It was a question of much bigger policy than Iran, it was about what the Soviets had done and what we knew about their future plans. It’s interesting to see what Russia put on its priority list, what it wanted. Iran was very high on it. If anybody wasn’t worried about the Soviet menace, I don’t know what they could have believed in. It was the real thing.” 

Dr. Mossadegh never trusted the British or the Russians. He did trust the Americans and believed they would help him establish a true democracy in Iran and bring about economic development. 

He relied on the people as well. The Americans on the other hand did not give enough credit to Mossadegh and because he could not be bought, they believed a Russian take over of Iran would be inevitable if Mossadegh were to stay. Oil, this black gold of the Middle East was the major issue. America, as the emerging power was now interested in it as much as their British counterparts who had invested had been.

Mossadegh, John Waller, the Shah and many from that period have died and each has left their mark. For Iran and Iranians, the legacy of the great visionary of Iran will live on for years to come. Without a doubt, He remains the most adored politician of contemporary Iran.

The Washington Post
CIA Official John Waller; Was Historian and Author
November 7, 2004 Sunday

John H. Waller, 81, a former high-ranking official in the CIA who also wrote half-dozen books on espionage and other topics, died of complications from pneumonia Nov. 4 at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington.

Mr. Waller was a historian who wrote full time after retiring from the CIA as its inspector general in 1980. Perhaps best known among his writings was "Beyond the Khyber Pass: The Road to British Disaster in the First Afghan
War," published by Random House in 1990.

The book examines 19th century war and international intrigue in India and Afghanistan as Queen Victoria's Britain and czarist Russia struggled for strategic advantage in the region.

Mr. Waller, who spent time in Central Asia during his years as a CIA operative, detailed the 1840s siege of Kabul and the deaths of thousands of British soldiers.

Mr. Waller also wrote "The Devil's Doctor: Felix Kersten and the Secret Plot to Turn Himmler Against Hitler" (2002), "The Unseen War in Europe: Espionage and Conspiracy in the Second World War" (1996) and "Gordon of Khartoum: The Saga of a Victorian Hero" (1988).

Mr. Waller, who had lived in McLean since 1978, was born in Paw Paw, Mich., and raised in Detroit. He graduated from the University of Michigan and worked briefly in banking.

Unable to join the military during World War II because of an ear disorder, he got a job overseas as a diplomatic courier for the Foreign Service.

In 1943, he joined the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA, and worked in counterespionage.

Later, with the CIA, he served in Iran, Sudan and India. He was deputy chief of the Africa division at CIA headquarters from 1964 to 1968 and chief of the Near East division from 1971 to 1975.

He wrapped up his government career after a four-year stint as CIA inspector general.

Among his professional honors were the Distinguished Intelligence Medal and the National Civil Service Award.

He was chairman of the OSS Society and a member of the board and past president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. He also was a member of the Cosmos Club, the Institute of Foreign Affairs and Diplomatic and Counselor Officers Retired.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Barbara Hans Waller of McLean; three children, Gregory Waller of Charlottesville and Stephanie Robinson and Maria Waller, both of McLean; and two grandchildren.

For letters section
Fariba Amini

Fariba Amini





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