In closed meetings in 1961, several members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee warned the Kennedy administration that, no matter how many weapons he received from the United States, the shah of Iran was almost certain to be overthrown with grievous consequences for both nations.
"I just think it is going to be a miracle if we save the shah of Iran," said the late Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), 17 years before the shah's overthrow, the repercussions of which are still affecting the United States.
In transcripts of executive-session testimony made public yesterday, Church said of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi:
"All I know about history says he is not long for this world, nor his system. And when he goes down, boom, we go with him."
"This crowd," agreed the late Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.), "they are dead. They just don't know it."
Social ferment among Iran's masses and corruption under the shah's rule, many committee members forecast, doomed his American-supported dream of recreating ancient Persia's power and glory.
"I don't care what revolution it is," Humphrey said. "Somebody is going to get these fellows . . . . It is just a matter of time . . . . It is inevitable. You cannot keep it turmoil down . . . particularly when you give them guns, because that army is going to turn on them, just as surely as you and I are in this room."
In that June 15, 1961, hearing, the departments of State and Defense were seeking $75 million in military and support assistance for Iran.
Two months earlier, the fledgling Kennedy administration experienced its first policy disaster, the American-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, crushed by the Fidel Castro regime. Less than two weeks before, on June 2 and 3, President John F. Kennedy had his grim summit encounter with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev in Vienna.
Committee Chairman J.W. Fulbright (D-Ark.) said Kennedy reported that Khrushchev in Vienna said Iran's monarchy would be destroyed by revolution:
"Khrushchev told him Kennedy that Iran would collapse without his moving a finger . . . . It was going to collapse because of corruption and inefficiency of its own government."
"If we withdraw our military, it will certainly collapse," replied Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. Fulbright countered that "you have encouraged them to enlarge their military beyond their capacity to support it and this is one of the causes of the bankruptcy of the regime . . . ."
McNamara strongly disagreed. He said the forces "were less than they have pushed for" and Iran's problems were not due to U.S. military assistance.
A major one, the defense secretary said, was "ineffective political and economic long-range planning . . . , the same problem in most of these underdeveloped nations of the world . . . ."
Humphrey, later to serve as vice president to President Lyndon B. Johnson, said the United States must "put the pressure on Iran" to move "in a constructive direction."
"The same thing happened in Cuba," Humphrey said. "We did not pay any attention to it. Nobody from the executive branch ever came into this committee and told us one thing about the illiterate Cubans or the sick Cubans or the poor Cubans or the worker Cubans.
"All we ever heard about," Humphrey continued, "was the Hilton Hotel or the nice big golf course or something like that. Now we have Castro. He is there for quite a while; I'm afraid far too long.
"That is what we are going to get in Iran. And all that military aid is never going to save him, not one bit."
The United States by then had been deeply involved with the shah, especially since 1953 when the Central Intelligence Agency engineered the shah's restoration to power to thwart what was perceived as the threat of a pro-Soviet government.
All subsequent U.S. administrations supported the shah, particularly the Nixon administration which made Iran the surrogate for American power in the Persian Gulf.
The United States became "the Great Satan" in the revolution which destroyed his government and forced the shah to leave Iran permanently in January 1979 and led to the seizing of 52 Americans who were kept hostage by supporters of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini until the end of the Carter administration.
The shah died in exile in Cairo on July 27, 1980.
Other portions of the transcripts made public yesterday, declassifying once-secret testimony from June through December 1961, involved the Kennedy-Khrushchev Vienna summit, U.S. policy toward China, Berlin, Africa, nuclear disarmament, the United Nations and other topics, with Vietnam still a distant cloud on the congressional horizon.
Fulbright asked Gen. Lyman L. Lemnitzer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "Have you ever thought of sending guerrillas into North Vietnam?"
"Yes sir, we have," Lemnitzer replied. Asked whether any were sent, Lemnitzer replied, without offering any details, "Only to a limited extent."
He said there were "several problems," notably that "North Vietnam is a police state with the tightest security restrictions . . . that one finds in any communist state. Operating guerrilla forces under such circumstances is a very difficult operation indeed."
Secretary of State Dean Rusk told the Foreign Relations Committee that direct U.S. military involvement in the Vietnam war did not appear to be necessary, but he did not say it was inconceivable.
Rusk said that in South Vietnam, "with a country of 14 million people and armed forces of 170,000, plus local guards and defense forces around the countryside," an estimated "15 to 20 thousand guerrillas" there "ought not to be an insuperable problem."
"There are many difficulties," Rusk said, "but we believe that with substantial increased aid to help him South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem win his fight, it is possible we can see this job through without necessarily involving U.S. ground force units to try to do a job that would be extremely difficult for us to do in that kind of situation."