The following is the story of my first encounter with the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970’s. The events depicted are true. Prior to these events I had no association or knowledge of Iran or its people. Since that day, I am surrounded by the history and human drama stemming from this watershed moment. Watching the hope of the world for modern freedom and equality grow dim, I have lived, fought, and prayed with my many friends from Iran.
Washington, D.C.: November, 1977
The Embassy of Iran in Washington D.C. had spent several fortunes to bring Iranian nationals who supported their Shah from every corner of the U.S. and Canada as a public relations gesture. They were flown into Washington, toured around the city in chartered buses and limousines, housed in classy hotels, and entertained in lavish style courtesy of their benefactor, the Shah, and the Iranian Embassy.
The distinct thing that comes to mind as I recall the Shah’s loyal subjects sightseeing at the Jefferson Memorial is women in fur coats. Although the Washington weather didn’t really call for furs, the fur-bearing species of this world were on exotic display in the humid, sultry air that day. Adorning the petite bodies and slender necks of hundreds of Persian women exhibiting themselves slowly up the marble portico steps — coats, hats, gloves, and muffs — were pelts of every variety, some with their animal owners’ head still sewn on to give an untamed impression. Jewels glistened from olive fingers and twinkled out from jet-black hair, sparkled from regal necks. This ostentatious display of royally bejeweled and fur decorated women on procession — guarded and herded by nervous, threatened men — was a strange scene from ancient times; especially as the Greek architecture of the Jefferson Memorial described a movie-set backdrop of ancient grandeur.
My National Park Service job at the time was to explain about Thomas Jefferson to the crowds who visited the memorial every day. When I tried to illustrate something about Jefferson and the Monument they were visiting, the Iranian tourists kept drifting their attention across the Tidal Basin towards the magnificent view of the White House beyond. They gathered in little groups to point at the helicopter landing pad nearby the Tidal Basin, where the Shah would soon land for what would be the last state visit of the Persian King.
One of these little groups, an obviously wealthy large family, invited me to ask about the purpose and meaning of their visit. The men-folk hedged, averting their eyes, while the women started to walk away. A young woman spoke up hesitantly, “We’re here to support the Shah”.
“What do you like about the Shah?” The question was meant to be loaded. In 1977, the Shah’s of Iran’s regime was a prime target of hand-wringing controversy about American support for “human rights abusers”. Although Americans had helped him secure his throne (twice), the Iranian monarch’s reign was assumed to be not-well-founded, tenuous, corrupt and cruel.
“We think he is modernizing our country, building roads and hospitals and things that help people to enjoy life”. Her intelligent eyes met mine; and although I had doubts her straightforward sincerity moved me. I wanted to continue our exchange, but she was herded away by one of her male keepers, down the portico steps, away from my interrogating dream. I knew that as controlled and contained as this attractive young girl’s life was now, it would become much more so, and more insanely unreasonable, under a religious dictatorship.
All at once, a confrontation erupted. As the girl’s family descended the portico stairs, a group of anti-Shah demonstrators, one wearing an executioner’s hood, began ascending those same stairs. The two groups – one a well-dressed and well-healed family and the other a masked and menacing group of thugs, met at the first landing and glared at each other — I felt certain that violence was about to ensue. I looked around for my co-workers, the National Park Police.
One of the anti-Shah Iranians, shabbily dressed and in scruffy contrast to his well-heeled countrymen, burst out in song. The language was strange to me but the song was familiar. Its revolutionary tone could have been shouted by Frenchmen at the barricades, or Hungarians standing off Russian tanks, or zealots of any time. Their gesticulations, now joined by six hearty voices, became militant and menacing; the threatened pro-Shah faction bundled their furs and huddled together in hasty retreat.
Which side held the key to freedom? Which ones would prevail in the struggle for the soul of their country – those with the wealth, intention, and means to modernize their country; or those with the religious revolutionary zeal?
That day saw the arrival of the Shah on a state visit – the last of many such visits – and the most violent confrontation of passions in Washington D.C. That morning when I reported to work at the Jefferson Memorial bright and early, I saw an unusual activity of sound trucks being wired and painted in the parking lot. Some were being rigged-up to trumpet support for the Shah, while others carried the slogans of the anti-Shah radicals. Entering the rotunda of the Memorial, I signed-in to my shift; and that’s when I heard the battle of the sound trucks revving-up in ear-shattering volume,
“The Shah is America’s friend. Long Live the Shah!”
And from the other side of the parking lot,
The dueling sound trucks would be cruising Washington’s central streets all day, all around the White House and the Mall up to the Capitol, piercing the air with their threats and exhortations at high volume.
I picked up some super high-powered binoculars we kept at the Memorial for the police, and focused in on the preparations being made for a “Ceremony of State “on the White House lawn about a mile away. I moved the birds-eye binoculars slightly, and picked up three howitzer cannons lined up for a twenty-one gun salute. Rigid Marine artillery crews in full dress uniforms stood at attention. On the Ellipse in front of the White House, I could make out large groups of demonstrators forming, their separate crowds growing larger by the minute, and busloads of policemen arriving. I could see horses being unloaded from trailers and recognized some friends in the National Park Police Mounted unit astride their big chargers.
This was excitement not to be missed. My job gave me permission to travel with the National Park Police, and so I hitched a ride with one of my buddies in his police cruiser to inspect the impending battle site. As we passed the Washington Monument, I could see the large field massing with demonstrators. The size of the crowd shocked me.
“Do you see what we’re in for?” shouted my policeman friend as we passed competing sound trucks surrounded by chanting demonstrators. “(President) Carter doesn’t want to offend either group, so we had to issue demonstration permits to both sides. It’s going to be a hell-of-an-all-out-war between them. We’ll be stuck in the middle trying to keep the peace.”
The tension around the opposing groups of demonstrators was scary, a feeling so palpable that I wanted to get away from them as quickly as possible. “Looks like things could get nasty in an instant”.
My cop friend gave a confirming nod, “They didn’t even allow us to issue helmets and riot sticks. Didn’t want to incite the crowd I guess. Look at this crazy….”!
A wide-eyed demonstrator came right up on our windshield and spat on it. The cop turned on the wipers, but didn’t bother to get out of the car to confront the nutcase. “All we have is short night sticks and regular uniforms with soft hats.”
We pulled up to a group of mounted police, and I listened while they exchanged police gossip, obviously anxious about their impending confrontation with crazed Iranians. This was the special Park Police “SWAT” team which, I learned, was to be the last line of defense before the White House Secret Service started shooting. Their conversation was drowned out by one of those obnoxious sound trucks pulling up right next to their position, broadcasting the most ear-grating noise. A high-pitched, near hysterical, woman’s voice distorted at top volume:
“Down, down, down, down, down with the Shah”, repeatedly, and again. The cops tried, but couldn’t get her to move it until she was good and ready.
We heard on our police radio that the White House and Executive Office Building had been sealed off from the inside because Iranian demonstrators had attempted a human wave siege to break in. We also learned that car windows were being smashed in traffic around the White House, and that the police had taken casualties.
Back at the Jefferson Memorial, I took up my post at the top of the portico stairs and focused my “one mile” binoculars on the action. I could see two distinct groups of demonstrators forming on the White House Ellipse in front of the South Lawn. One group carried a virtual sea of placards and the other, much smaller, just huddled together – intimidated. The placards displayed the stenciled slogans of the anti-Shah forces: “The Shah is a U.S. Puppet”, “Death to the Shah”, and other slogans. Some carried the portrait of a Muslim holy man I could not recognize at the time, but who would become quickly and suspiciously familiar as the Ayatollah Khomeini.
As the two groups congealed and expanded, like living cells gathering energy to divide, the pro-Shah faction became insignificantly small. The anti-Shah forces thronged and dominated the field. Suddenly, overhead, the thump of helicopter blades deafened all other sound. Two of the Presidential helicopters, big imposing birds, whirred over the Jefferson Memorial on their way to the landing pad nearby. I felt a flood of electric energy. The whirring helicopters charged up the crowd.
Demonstrators surged in a single motion toward the helicopter landing area. The sea of placards, tens of thousands it seemed, waved forward like grass blown in the wind. A few minutes later, I felt the concussion of big-guns exploding, and heard a deep “ka-whump”.
The Marine artillery had begun its twenty-one gun salute and three mighty howitzers “ka-whumped” in rhythmic succession, further charging the air with the smell of gunpowder and the disquiet of artillery fire, signaling war. The noise started frenzy among the crowd. They surged back upon themselves as if fired upon by the cannons.
The sirens of the motorcade conveying the Shah and his Queen Farah to the White House blared their alarm. Scanning my binoculars over the crowd of pro and anti-Shah demonstrators, with police lines now dividing the two groups, I watched an eerie vicious momentum start to build, intensify, and then explode into a pitched battle.
The placards, which had minutes before waved menacingly, but harmlessly, at the Shah’s helicopter, were being disassembled. In an obviously preplanned sequence, the slogan-carrying signs became chin-high shields, and the sharpened stakes that once held them became a bristling hedge of spears and clubs.
The Park Police, equipped with soft hats and short night sticks, were outmatched for weapons. They began to retreat and regroup as they found themselves faced with a “Persian phalanx” of menacing, armed adversaries. Shields formed a moving wall, which came slowly, frighteningly toward them with threatening weapons, far outnumbering the Police.
Suddenly the shields surged forward and the police line broke. The anti-Shah crowd poured over the police and the pro-Shah group, crushing them. I could see high-heeled, fur-clad women trampled face down in the mud. Fist fights and clubbing exploded above them.
The police regrouped, but were still fighting, every man for himself, as they retreated to the White House fence. The horse-mounted policemen rode their lathered mounts into the mob, only to be isolated and attacked by groups of pike-wielding Persians, who surrounded and beat them while the moving sea of armed demonstrators surged past. I watched two horses go down. The Iranians were fearless and seemed bent on attacking the Shah within the White House grounds itself.
Our police radio crackled urgent messages in code. The background noise of chanting demonstrators and blaring sound trucks and sirens broke the transmissions.
The whole experience began to take on a surreal aspect for me. As I stood in the philosopher’s serene temple, watching and listening to the agony of human strife in pitched battle, just across the tranquil water of the Tidal Basin, across broad fields to the great obelisk of the Washington Monument to the President’s Mansion beyond; it was as if, in a dream, I was watching from the philosopher king’s heavenly cloud as a revolutionary battle played out before me.
The human wave of demonstrators had pushed the police line back to the fence surrounding the White House grounds. The police were taking a beating. They were no match for the hysterical passion of the mob of armed adversaries confronting them.
Meanwhile, all the formal protocols of a state visit were being conspicuously observed just beyond the chaos. President Carter and the Shah gave a ceremonial troop inspection across the beautifully decorated South Lawn while the battle raged just beyond the perimeter.
Suddenly, the colorful pageant was interrupted when a pink cloud, almost a mist, rose out of the battling mob; and I could distinguish a group of “SWAT” police with gas masks covering their faces.
“Tear gas,” I thought. I remembered that tear gas was strictly forbidden near the White House because it had been used against some Vietnam War demonstrators once and had invaded Richard Nixon’s inner sanctum. Heads had rolled for that fiasco, and ever since then tear gas around the White House was a strict taboo for the police. I knew they must be in serious trouble if they were shooting tear gas into the crowd.
I raced downstairs to monitor the battle on a television set in the employee break room. All the networks were broadcasting live pictures of the chaos in front of the fence. They showed ghostly silhouettes of hand-to-hand combat in a pink fog of tear gas, and all this within full view of the “State Ceremony” crowd of diplomats and press cameras. Cameras followed the Shah and President as they completed their “inspection” of the honor guard and headed toward the speaker’s platform.
An ominous silence descended as the President and the Shah, with their wives beside them, faced the bleacher rows of press and television cameras. The click and whir of camera film winding was the only sound, as everyone quieted in anticipation of the President’s welcoming remarks. The din of battle carrying on less than one hundred meters away even subsided as the demonstrators retreated from the pungent tear gas.
Then the sound truck I had heard earlier, with that excruciating high-decibel woman’s voice, drove up through the cloud of gas to the fence itself, the grating voice exhorting over the blaring speakers, “Kill the Shah – Kill the Shah – Kill the Shah”.
As if in a dream, the traditional performance of national songs at state ceremonies began, and the Marine Band played the national anthem of Iran. The diplomatic crowd surrounding the President murmured their anxiety, but the press kept their cameras rolling and captured profile shots of President Carter and Shah Pahlavi looking nervously toward the source of the unholy commotion. Everyone maintained their stiff posture and official nonchalance. Another round of tear gas, and screams, exploded beyond the fence.
Then, as the band broke into the national anthem of the United States, “The Star Spangled Banner”, with its opening, “Oh say can you see”, the throng of dignitaries and press started weeping, crying uncontrollably, without hesitation or inhibition, as though they were living through an unimaginable sorrow.
The cameras took a wide-angle shot and caught the entire crowd of jet-set diplomats, military eagles, and high-powered bureaucrats weeping wildly as the tear gas wafted over them. The Marine Band hurried the music until, by the end, the anthem was unrecognizable and everyone, musicians included, was crying into their sleeves and handkerchiefs. Witnessing this unholy spectacle, I could hardly contain my own tears of astonishment and sad emotion.
President Carter’s official words of welcome choked in his throat and he cut his remarks short. He escorted the Shah into the White House, both weeping as if caught up in some phenomenal tragedy, as if some great sorrow had overwhelmed them. The crowd ran sobbing for cover.
I left the TV and returned to the great bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson holding the scroll of the Declaration of Independence, gazing its bronze-fixed stare at the White House in the distance, watching this great struggle with permanent philosopher’s smile. I stood next to him, facing the White House, an infant in the shadow of the giant statue.
This battle raged is if upon a stage. The high and mighty were made to weep, and crowds of countrymen assaulted one another. Was this for freedom? Coordinated thugs pushed their way over the police, trampling the mothers and daughters of their country. Was this opposing tyranny, or was this some other tyranny to be more feared?
I can see today, as if that moment is frozen in my memory, Jefferson’s oath inscribed around the Temple’s Rotunda:
“I Have Sworn Upon the Altar of Almighty God, Eternal Hostility Against Every Form of Tyranny Over the Mind of Man”.
Today, in another century, still watching the drama of Iranian history unfold as a dream on my television screen, I remember that day, and Jefferson’s oath. The Iranian revolution collapsed in violent chaos into the terror of the Islamic Republic. The inquisitions, torture, and executions that founded the Islamic Republic question the motives of its revolutionary leaders from the beginning. The tyranny of medieval religious ideas oppresses the Iranian people as seldom before. The world Diaspora of Iranian refugees fleeing their homeland is a sad but continuing heartbreak. Are we still waging a battle against tyranny? Have we surrendered our rights and freedom? Or, have we become the tyrants? How can we free our minds from this nightmare of the evil imagination?
We are seeking the surest way to transform society and bring about an age where ordinary people can enjoy peace and security. Only by transforming our inner determination in the direction of good can we create genuine lasting change in our world, freedom for our children, and hope based on the true dignity of human life.
I recall some other words inscribed on the wall of the Temple,
“Nothing is more certain than that these men are meant to be free.”