The Iran Crisis of 1946: The Making of a Cold War Myth

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The Iran Crisis of 1946: The Making of a Cold War Myth


William Baker


 It has been 70 years since the Iran crisis of 1946 when the occupying Soviet Red Army not only refused to evacuate Iran as per treaty and promises to her Big Three allies, but reinforced their position with tanks and battle tested units, deployed, as the American vice-consul in Tabriz put it, for full scale combat. The result was the Iran crisis dubbed the "the first battle of the Cold War" by the media. Indeed there were many firsts during the Iran crisis:  It was the first public falling out between the United States and the USSR since the end of World War Two; Iran's complaint against the USSR (then occupying northern Iran) became the first matter taken up by the newly inaugurated United Nations Security Council; it was the case that resulted in the first veto exercised in the Security Council and the first walk out by a member of that body, in both cases by the USSR.  Yet the Iran crisis is barely remembered today and to the extent that it recalled it is because of an ultimatum accompanied by saber rattling conducted by President Truman that forced the Red Army withdrawal from Azerbaijan province. The historical record rarely speaks with unmistakable clarity but it does in this case. The popular belief that Truman forced the Red Army to withdraw from Iran "or else" is not supported by the evidence. Indeed, the historical record shows the reverse: there was no ultimatum and very little evidence of saber rattling by America. Here is an excerpt from my research on the supposed ultimatum and military threats issued by Truman during the Iran crisis.


            The Iran crisis remained vivid in Truman's mind both in his last years in office and in his retirement. In his January 5, 1946 letter to Secretary of State James Byrnes, Truman placed the situation in Iran at the heart of a new policy of firmness toward the Soviet Union and although he played a background role during the crisis it loomed large in his recollection of his years in the White House.[1] Yet, what stood out in Truman's memory was not Byrnes' diplomacy but his own role which he claimed forced Stalin to withdraw his army from Iran. Perhaps because of the rapid acceleration of the global conflict with Russia; the Korean war; under pressure from domestic critics who claimed he had not acted soon enough or hard enough to challenge Moscow; always anxious to live down the reputation of an "accidental president” inferior to the master politician (FDR) that preceded him; and stung by media reports that more experienced men like Byrnes were the actual decision makers in his cabinet, Truman began to distort the truth about how his administration managed the Iran crisis starting with elevating his own role from that of producer to director. Worse yet, he began to militarize the resolution of the dispute in his memory and convey that to the public as fact. The result was the establishment of a Cold War myth that became embedded in the public's mind. To the extent that the people of any country recalled the Iran crisis of 1946 it was the one in which Stalin retreated in the face of an atomic ultimatum issued by Truman.

            Starting on April 24, 1952, Truman advanced an overwrought interpretation of the events in 1946 when he claimed at a press conference that he had faced Stalin down over Azerbaijan province by issuing “an ultimatum to the head of the Soviet Union to get out of Persia.” Truman continued that Russia quickly obeyed: “they got out because we were in a position to meet a situation of that kind.”[2]  Given America’s relative state of conventional military demobilization following the end of the war, including the evacuation of the Persian Gulf Command (PGC)[3] long before the case of Iran became a test of wills in the Security Council, one could only assume that Truman meant the America was relying on her atomic monopoly “to meet a situation of that kind.” For Truman it had been an implied threat to use American armed force to produce a Soviet army exit from Iran that had worked when all else had failed. However, although the public came to accept it as fact, it was a claim not supported by the historical record.

            Roger Tubby, assistant press secretary at the White House, was immediately besieged by reporters looking for details about Truman’s previously untold version of the Iranian crisis. Instead he found it necessary to modify the impression his boss had left on the journalists. After examining Truman's assertion against the available evidence, Tubby concluded that America and the Security Council had pursued a firm and forceful diplomatic course to force the Red Army from northern Iran but had not issued an ultimatum or final warning that the time for talk was over and backed up by an implied threat of armed force. “I went over to the State Department,” recalled Tubby, “and found the letter in question. It was certainly a strong letter telling Stalin to keep his hands off Azerbaijan Province in Iran, but it was not an ultimatum. We had to issue a correction.” The correction stated that Truman meant an “ultimatum” in a “non-technical” sense and what he really was referring to was America’s leadership role in the Security Council and the world community.[4] Although the correction engaged in double talk to avoid embarrassing Truman, it was accurate in emphasizing that it was a firm use of diplomacy and determined political leadership by Washington that ushered Stalin out of northern Iran not saber rattling, atomic or conventional. Ultimatums or blunt messages were not the weapons that worked but Byrnes firm stand to see the Iran case to its conclusion did even in the face of resistance from the complaining party.[5]

            The April 24, 1952 press conference was the beginning of a long series of assertions by Truman of a saber rattling version of events all of which contained the same essential elements: He issued an ultimatum to Stalin to exit Iran or else American military power would be used to force a Red Army withdrawal. Indeed, Truman persistently inflated his own role in the Iran crisis whenever the topic emerged after he left office and the role he cast for himself as that of an Old West sheriff laying down the law to the outlaw Stalin. Worse yet, he consistently ignored the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian complaint at the conference tables. In spite of the Tubby correction Truman would explicitly use the word “ultimatum” once more after he left the White House and always strongly implied that an ultimatum had been issued by him to Stalin over Iran and that it was backed up by threats of armed force.

            In his memoirs published in 1955 and 1956 Truman did not explicitly use the word "ultimatum" as he had at the April 24 press conference but he strongly implied it. Here, he recorded that having tried and failed at all the diplomatic niceties, he ordered Byrnes to send a "blunt message to Premier Stalin.”; Soviet compliance with her legal obligations to withdraw from Iran, followed immediately.[6] Truman strongly implied that his alleged “blunt message” caused Stalin to evacuate his army from Iran. Truman, however, did not offer any proof of the “blunt message” sent to Stalin on his order, how it was transmitted, or even a sample of its contents to gauge its severity, that is, if “blunt " amounted to an ultimatum. Truman, however, left little room for doubt about what he believed the relationship between cause and effect. Indeed, in preparation for the writing of his account of his years in the White House, Truman in an interview stated that he told Byrnes to “send a message to Stalin if he doesn’t get out well move in.” Truman added that Admiral Leahy was present when he so instructed Byrnes to send this de facto ultimatum. Yet, in his diary, Leahy never reordered any such ultimatum instruction, “blunt message” or anything like it had been given to Byrnes, something a hard liner like Leahy (one of the founders of the "get-tough-with-Russia" faction) was not likely to forget.[7]  It is the case that on March 4, 1946 Truman had met with Byrnes to consider the Iran situation in view of the failure of the Red Army to fully evacuate even though the deadline agreed upon at the London sessions of the Council of Foreign Ministers had passed. The next day Byrnes followed Truman’s instructions and sent a firm but proper protest to the Russians that was delivered on March 6 to the Kremlin by the American chargé d'affaires in Moscow, George Kennan. That message put the Kremlin on notice that Washington was aware of aggressive moves into Azerbaijan province by the Red Army and that Truman expected Stalin to live up to his treaty obligations with Iran and England and past pledges to himself and to FDR to fully restore Iranian sovereignty and evacuate all armed forces. Yet it could hardly be called an ultimatum and the closet it got to being “blunt: was the language that America “could not remain indifferent” to the situation in northern Iran. In his memoirs, however, Truman did not characterize this letter as the alleged “blunt message”. Indeed, he wrote, that because the diplomatically correct missives like that dated March 4 were not producing results he had to issue a harsher letter to Stalin which he had previously called a “blunt message”.[8] Yet, neither Byrnes nor Kennan could recall ever receiving or delivering the second (i.e. “blunt” message) to Stalin demanding withdrawal which Truman implied produced the immediate results just as Leahy, whom Truman said had direct knowledge, never mentioned it in his memoirs. Because of his position at the American embassy, in all likelihood Kennan would have been the man chosen to deliver an “ultimatum” or “blunt” message to Stalin, just as he had definitely delivered the March 4 note to the Kremlin. His denial of any such message reaching his hands is critical. He attributed Truman’s faulty recollections to the political and psychological pressures on the president to “get tough” with Russia: “It is my impression that Mr. Truman (whom in general I much admired) had an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate, in later years, certain aspects of the role that he played when in office in relations with the Soviet Union. His claim that he sent an ‘ultimatum’ to Stalin seems to me to fall in nicely with this pattern. I strongly doubt, in short, that any communication that would properly answer to this description ever went forward.”[9]

 It is also possible that Truman was confusing in his mind the January 5, 1946 letter that he claimed to have read aloud to Byrnes thus conflating it with the firm but proper and verifiable diplomatic notes sent during the Iran crisis. The January letter was indeed blunt, concluding that Truman was tired of "babying the Soviets" and venting his pent up anger and frustration at the way Stalin was bullying their mutual wartime ally Iran and pressuring Turkey into territorial concessions. He had written that it was time to protest as loudly as possible Soviet activities in Iran and said that Stalin only understood the language of force—all elements one would expect to see in an ultimatum or “blunt message." Yet, that letter was never sent to Byrnes or anyone else, let alone Stalin, and may not have even been read aloud to Byrnes as Truman maintained (but Byrnes denied) although it did mark a crucial evolution away from FDR’s Soviet policy on the part of the new president.[10]

            Other foreign policy makers have never reported anything approximating an ultimatum (or “blunt message”) or threats of military force—conventional or atomic—by Truman during the Iran crisis. Future secretary of state and then assistant chief of the Division of International Security Affairs, Dean Rusk, categorically rejected any claims of military threats or ultimatums by Truman. Rusk helped to write Byrnes’ speeches on Iran and worked with Dean Acheson to fashion American positions during the crisis. Rusk said he had never heard about an ultimatum, a final warning, or a blunt message to Russia about Iran nor saw any evidence of such in the years after the crisis. Rusk cast strong doubt upon Truman’s claims of American saber rattling—including use of the A-bomb to force the Red Army to leave Iran—for several good reasons: He assumed Truman would not be so capricious in the use (or threatened use) of A-bombs especially given how fresh the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was in the world of 1946; America’s inventory of A-bombs was very small at the time, making any ultimatum less than credible especially given that the Soviets likely knew of this American limitation from extensive espionage and Washington probably knew that they knew because the degree of Russian spying in America was now becoming undeniable; and Rusk knew of no one in the foreign policy bureaucracy that had heard of an ultimatum or threats to use conventional forces or atomic weapons.[11] Loy Henderson, another important State Department bureaucrat (and future ambassador to Iran) in a well-placed position as head of Near Eastern Affairs told historian Herbert Feis that he knew of no “admonitory” message issued by Truman or Byrnes to Stalin during the Iran crisis. Historians compiling documents for the U.S State Department could find no corroboration in the records of the State Department or the Defense Department (the renamed War Department) of assertions about an ultimatum or blunt warning and noted no important figure in government—except President Truman—claimed knowledge of such an ominous warning to Stalin and the Soviet Union.[12]  Indeed, no important foreign policy leader or presidential advisor (e.g. Byrnes, Harriman, Kennan, Bohlen, Leahy, Henderson, Rusk, Dean Acheson, and Walter Smith) has ever revealed knowledge of an ultimatum or a “blunt message” being sent from Truman to the Soviets or threats of armed force by the White House over Iran. For Truman to issue such a message without consulting or at least informing these persons after the fact would have been contrary to his anti-Roosevelt style that required seeking advice from and fully informing cabinet members and advisors, a practice that had won immediate praise from George Kennan, Charles Bohlen and other critical players who had been frequently ignored by FDR. Unlike Roosevelt, Truman did not consider himself to be his own best advisor on foreign policy.

Even when long out of office, Truman persisted in his assertions about the Iran crisis insisting that threats American use of armed force caused the Red Army withdrawal from Iran. In the August 25, 1957 edition of the New York Times, Truman again claimed he had gone mano a mano with Stalin and won. “For example,” Truman said, “shortly after the end of World War II, Stalin and Molotov brazenly refused to keep their agreement to withdraw from Iran. They persisted in keeping their troops in Azerbaijan in northern Iran…The Soviet Union persisted in its occupation until I personally saw to it that Stalin was informed that I had given orders to our military chiefs to prepare for the movement of our ground, sea, and air forces. Stalin then did what I knew he would do. He moved his troops out.”[13] Truman, however, offered no indication of where this order to the USA military chiefs was, how it was delivered, why no American military leader had ever revealed such an order (even many years later) or how it was delivered to Stalin and by whom. Kennan and the new American ambassador to the USSR, Walter Smith, never revealed any such bellicose message to Stalin. It is possible that Smith, General Eisenhower’s gruff former chief of staff, might have at first believed he was held to a standard of secrecy but once Truman began speaking of the supposed communiqué in public such an assumption by Smith (if he ever entertained one) would no longer be operative. Indeed, Truman would have wanted Smith to speak out to confirm his version of events. In Kennan’s case, the man most likely to have been assigned to deliver an important message to the Soviet leaders, lived to see the end of the Cold War and wrote extensively of his service in government. No such assumption of secrecy would have made him reluctant to reveal this alleged message if it had existed. The only reasonable explanation why so many men in critical positions never spoke of a 1946 ultimatum or anything approximating one (except to deny knowledge of it) let alone preparations for military action, or publicly attempted to corroborate what Truman was often saying in public to that effect, was that there had not been one.

Because Truman persisted in advertising his version of events which completely ignored the diplomatic strategy fashioned by Byrnes and the actions of Ambassador Ala at the Security Council, the claim that an American ultimatum backed up threats of armed forces caused Stalin to retreat from Iran became a myth in the popular version of the Cold War. In 1960 during a question and answer session with students at Columbia University, Truman reasserted that he had issued a “blunt message” accompanied by military threats during the Iran crisis: “When Stalin refused to move out of Iran at the time agreed, I sent him word I would move the fleet as far as the Persian Gulf. He got out.” Truman continued that this de facto ultimatum was “all part of the foreign policy to save the Free World.”[14]  In a 1962 interview with historian Herbert Druks, Truman embroidered his comments at Columbia University and elsewhere with an even more specific assertion of an ultimatum combined with military threats, saying that he had warned Stalin in writing, that “…unless their [Soviet] withdrawal did commence within a week’s time and was completed within six, he would move the fleet as far as the Persian Gulf and he would send American troops back into Iran.”[15]  No copy of the document Truman spoke of has ever been found. Yet, Truman continued to maintain that he had "laid down an ultimatum" to Stalin about Iran until his death, never retracting or modifying his claims or amplifying them with verifiable details or providing evidence beyond his own memory. It is true that at the height of the crisis, on March 8, 1946, Truman announced the dispatch of the USS Missouri to Turkey in two weeks time ostensibly to carry the body of the recently deceased Turkish ambassador to the USA back to his homeland.[16]  Deployment of the famed battleship upon which the surrender of the Japanese was signed was thick with symbolism which Truman no doubt intended since the U.S. Navy would normally not be called upon to be a floating hearse and even then there were plenty of inferior ships that would have served the purpose. Clearly it was meant to make an impression on Turkey by reassuring Ankara of American support. Stalin was not likely to be impressed by a naval display especially a symbolic one and if he was no evidence has emerged of it. In any case the Soviet withdrawal from Iran was underway by the time the Missouri arrived in Turkey so even had it been designed to impress Stalin it played no role in ushering the Soviet army out of Azerbaijan province.[17]

            What concerns us here is less the construction in Truman’s mind that he forced the Soviets out of Iran with an ultimatum or blunt message backed up by threats of armed force, but that he conveyed it to the public on several occasions as fact. Consequently the public was left with the misimpression that diplomacy played little or no role in resolving the dispute on Iranian terms and that saber rattling (if it even occurred) counted for everything.

            Historians will continue to debate the reasons for Stalin's lingering in northern Iran and even reinforcing his occupation army at the last minute with tanks and units equipped for combat.[18] Loyalty to the Pishevari government can be ruled out; Stalin was a master of the pawn sacrifice and the pro-Soviet government in Tabriz would have been no exception if it suited his needs. Instead it may been a test of Western resolve just as the Big Three wartime alliance was unraveling; the opening bid for a Soviet sphere of influence the Middle East; an attempt to intimidate Turkey and Iran into major concessions to Moscow; or part of an effort that dated years past to leverage extensive oil concessions from Tehran that would make Russia in the north of the country what England was in the south.[19]

            Equally, historians will debate why Stalin withdrew his army after accelerating tensions with the United States at a time when he was counting on good relations with Washington to finance Soviet reconstruction. It may have been the uncomfortable heat of world public opinion now that the Red Army was acting less like liberators and more like bullies; it may have been the result of being outmaneuvered in the Security Council by Byrnes who resisted pressure to remove the Iranian complaint from the Council's agenda; or it may have been the face saving jointly owned Soviet-Iranian oil company that Stalin proposed and Qavam agreed with combined with his friendly (albeit temporary) policy toward domestic communists (who entered his cabinet) and the Pishevari government in Tabriz. What cannot be seriously debated is that an American ultimatum was issued or that saber rattling by Washington was the key element that caused the Red Army whitewall from Iran.



[1] Truman's January 5, 1946 letter to James Byrnes was marked "unsent" yet Truman claimed he read it aloud to his secretary of state. The letter amounted to a reprimand of Byrnes for failing to press Stalin at the Christmas 1945 meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers held in Moscow. In particular Truman cited Byrnes' failure to sufficiently challenge Stalin on Iran and Turkey both of which were under intense pressure from the USSR to make substantial concessions or face the prospects of long term Red Army occupation of northern Iran. Iran became, by early 1946, the immediate focus of Truman's formation of a new hard line policy toward the USSR. Indeed, shortly after taking office Truman had admonished Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov telling him that his government was not living up to agreements that had been reached during the war. Years latter, revisionist historians have admonished Truman claiming the Soviets were living up to their agreements and promises and that it was Truman who was grossly exaggerating  matters when he subjected Molotov to a tongue lashing. In the case of Iran, however, Truman was on firm ground. The Soviets had violated both the 1942 Tripartite Treaty and the understanding reached at the London Council of Foreign Ministers sessions to completely withdraw her army by March 2, 1946. They had already consistently violated the 1942 Tripartite Treaty and the 1921 Friendship Treaty by interfering in Iran's internal affairs, a prime example being the Red Army interdiction of an Iranian military column heading into the north of the country to restore law and order. Both treaties prohibited Soviet interference in the internal affairs of Iran and allowed the national government the freedom to maintain law and order.

[2] Truman quoted in David Roberson, Sly and Able. A Political Biography of James F. Byrnes. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 470.

[3] US Army Persian Gulf Command (PGC). At its height the PGC was roughly 30,000 strong composed of technical, construction and supply troops tasked with moving American donated war material (Lend-Lease)  from the Persian Gulf ports to the Soviet occupied north and then to the USSR. Ultimately about 27% of all WWII Lend-Lease designated for the USSR travelled by way of Iran. The PGC was present in Iran at the invitation of the British and not the Iranian government which had not been notified in advance of their arrival let alone consulted. Unlike the British and Soviet occupying forces the PGC was not party to any treaty.

[4] Tubby quoted in Robert Ferrell, Harry S. Truman. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994), 426; Editorial Note in FRUS, Vol. VII, pp. 348-349. What letter in question Tubby was citing is open to question. Bruce Kuniholm believed it was in all probability the March 9 note to the USSR. [Bruce Kuniholm,The Origins of the Cold War in the Near East. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980),321.]

[5] The complaining party before the Security Council being Iran. Eventually, the Iranian prime minster would urge the Security Council to drop the Iranian complaint and ordered Ambassador Ala to withdraw it, claiming that a resolution had been reached with Moscow. For an implied joint Iranian-Soviet oil company Stalin had agreed to evacuate his army. Of course since withdrawal was to be unconditional that concession to Stalin could not be publically announced. Byrnes insisted that the complaint remain on the Council agenda no matter what the government in Tehran wanted until it was positively determined the Soviet army had evacuated Iran.  

[6] Harry Truman, Memoirs by Harry S. Truman. Years of Trial and Hope. (Garden City, New York: Double Day and Co., 1956), 94-95.

[7] J. Philipp Rosenberg, “The Cheshire Ultimatum: Truman’s Message to Stalin in the 1946 Azerbaijan Crisis.” in Journal of Politics, Volume 41, August 1979, p. 936. The "get-tough-with-Russia" faction was a growing number of American diplomats and military figures who, by the end of World War Two, favored abandoning FDR's soft approach to Stalin and replacing it with a firm, even hard policy that ended or strictly limited diplomatic concessions to the Soviets.

[8] Harry Truman, Memoirs by Harry S. Truman. Years of Trial and Hope. (Garden City, New York: Double Day and Co., 1956), 94-95.

[9] Kennan quoted in Bruce Kuniholm,The Origins of the Cold War in the Near East. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980),321.

[10] Harry Truman, Memoirs by Harry S. Truman. Year of Decisions. (Garden City, New York: Double Day and Co.,1955),551-552.

[11] Dean Rusk, As I Saw It. (New York: Penguin, 1991), 126.

[12] Editorial Note in FRUS, Vol. VII, 348-349; Bruce Kuniholm,The Origins of the Cold War in the Near East. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980),321.

[13] Truman quoted in Jamil Hasanli, At the Dawn of the Cold War. The Soviet-American Crisis over Iranian Azerbaijan, 1941-1946. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), 242.

[14] Harry Truman,  Truman Speaks. (New York: Columbia University Press,1960),71.

[15] Herbert Feis, From Trust To Terror. The Onset of the Cold War. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1970), p. 84;Robert Ferrell, Harry S. Truman. (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994), 426-427

[16] Robert Rossow, "The Battle of Azerbaijan," The Middle East Journal. (Winter 1956, Vol. 10), 22.

[17] Red Army withdrawal was completed by early May 1946, two months past the agreed upon deadline and long after the other Allied powers had withdrawn their armed forces.

[18] Robert Rossow,“The Battle of Azerbaijan” in The Middle East Journal. Winter 1956, Vol. 10; 17-32.

[19] The suspicion (expressed by Truman, Bynres, etc.) that this was the opening bid by Stalin for a Mid East sphere received added weight during the Iran crisis when captured German foreign ministry documents were translated. Some revealed that during the life time of the Hitler-Stalin pact, the Soviets were negotiating with Germany for a Soviet sphere of influence in the Middle East starting with the Persian Gulf. The discussions fell apart when Stalin went too far and asked for the inclusion of Turkey in the Soviet sphere.