Interview with Barbara Waller, widow of Operation
AJAX man in 1953
May 19, 2005
“When Mossadegh and Persia started
basic reforms, we became alarmed, we united with the British
to destroy him; we succeeded;
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
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
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
- Mark Gasiorowski, professor of political science at Louisiana State
University and author of ‘Mohammad
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
having a father who has cherished and loved this great man all his life,
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
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of historical documents,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
44 and everybody else
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
acting consul in
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
Tehran. All the horse
carriages had left and replaced with funny little cars, the minis,
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.
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?
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
the least cruel of the Europeans but they were manipulators.
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.
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
he cried a lot.
It shows how little I know. But I know he was much loved by the people.
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
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
put it back
on the street. “There
you are sir” they told him and they continued with their march!
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
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
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
In Mashhad at the time, there weren’t many
buildings just a British bank, consulate general, Afghan consulate
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
and we would invite them to the consulate. There were French visitors.
The Hospital would put them up. Bicyclists would come through Iran
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;
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
boy. And there was Maryam who helped me with the children. I always
to them. The chances are you may see the social friends but
your cook or the others, you will never see them ever again.
do you think of now? What is currently happening in Iran?
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
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
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
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
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
it comes to
political decisions, mistakes are bound to be made.
died on November 4, 2004. It was ironic that 25 years before, on
this very same day, the Students had seized the
in Tehran. He and many others like him believed that the Russians
would take over Iran
with the cold war still in place; they tried with every means possible
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
complications from pneumonia Nov. 4 at Virginia Hospital Center
Mr. Waller was a historian who wrote full time
after retiring from
the CIA as its inspector general in 1980. Perhaps best known among
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
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
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).
who had lived in McLean since 1978, was born in Paw Paw, Mich.,
and raised in Detroit. He graduated from the University
Unable to join the military during World War II
because of an ear disorder, he got a job overseas as a diplomatic
In 1943, he joined the Office of Strategic
Services, the predecessor to the CIA, and worked in counterespionage.
with the CIA, he served in Iran, Sudan and India. He was deputy
chief of the Africa division at CIA headquarters
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
Among his professional honors were the Distinguished
Intelligence Medal and the National Civil Service Award.
was chairman of the OSS Society and a member of the board and
past president of the Association of Former
was a member
of the Cosmos Club, the Institute of Foreign Affairs
and Diplomatic and Counselor
Survivors include his wife of 57 years, Barbara
Hans Waller of McLean; three children, Gregory Waller
of Charlottesville and
Waller, both of McLean; and two grandchildren.