Monday, August 27, 2012

All the Shah's Men - Stephen Kinzer

"it seemed more like a dime novel than historical facts"
-Dwight Eisenhower, on Kermit Roosevelt's account of the 1953 coup in Iran

All the Sha's Men was one of the most successful book in 2003. The Economist picked it as one of its top 10 books on History that year. The quality of the research done in American primary sources (Russians and Iranians obviously denied access to their archives) is undeniable.

There are several comments on this book around the web, from Wikipedia's to The New York Times', where Kinzer works as a foreign correspondent. The most interesting review that I found is the one published by David S. Robarge at the CIA's Studies in Intelligence (the CIA is the agency that orchestrated the coup in Iran in 1953). 

Most reviews agree that Kinzer's book reads more like a novel than a scholar text, and some of them mention that Kinzer goes too far to make a direct causal link between the 1953 coup and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and 9/11 as an extension. 

While most readers will find the thriller-like style of Kinzer appealing, I think it trivializes the personality of the main actors of the plot. The book is also extremely partisan: Mossadegh was the good guy (Kinzer reckons he was a little bit stubborn, but most heroes are, anyway), the British were the bad ones, and Americans were good during Truman's term and became bad during Eisenhower's. That is, in a nutshell, what this book is about. My intuition tells me things had to be more complicated, but I can't get that information from the book. I will have to go to other sources, because Kinzer wastes too many precious paragraphs and pages writing like a novelist. Kinzer's style is excusable and even encouraged in introductory books, but All the Sha's Men is supposed to be an authoritative source on the 1953 coup in Iran. The bottom line is that this is a great book for non-experts; experts probably already read it and dismissed it for a lot of reasons, including but not limited to its style.

As usual, you don't even have to read the book or the reviews to know what it is about. The podcast below is an interview given by Kinzer in February in 2012, when the prospects of a bombing of Iran by Israel or the United States were serious. The fact that Kinzer is considered an authority on Iran 9 years after the first edition of his book is a testimony both of its quality and of the lack of interest to write about Iran from a scholarly perspective. In the interview, Kinzer discusses his book and the policy options of the United States to engage with Iran. 

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