The 1950s can be described as a decade filled with some uncertainties, but many prosperities. The Cold War had just ensued between the United States and the USSR, and in the midst of this geopolitical friction, powers from around the world began forming alliances necessary to contain the threats they feared. One of those alliances was forged through joint efforts facilitated by the United States and the United Kingdom; their mission: degrade a Red Scare in the Middle East.
While the Soviets were continuing to expand their spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, one of the regions they were desperate to conquer was the Middle East. This was mainly due to economic reasons. Fearing a potential domino effect in the region, a coalition of Middle Eastern countries—with the help of the United States and the United Kingdom—came up with an intergovernmental alliance aimed to fend off Communist expansionism. This became known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), a military alliance that lasted between 1958 to 1979. Originally the Baghdad Pact, the organization was first established in 1956 by Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Their sole purpose was to prevent Soviet influence from expanding in lengths towards the Middle East. However, as Iraq dealt with a violent coup that abolished the constitutional monarchy and installed Arab Socialist Karim Qasim into power, the Baghdad Pact was eventually renamed to the Central Treaty Organization in 1958. CENTO, unlike NATO, didn’t function as a collective security organization but was instrumental in sponsoring various economic projects across the Middle East. The most notable was the Van-Sufian railway, a 362 kilometer railway system that traveled from London to Tehran, via Turkey. The organization, however, was hollowed with failures in between, and many felt that the activities pursued by CENTO weren’t enough to contain the spread of Communism in the Middle East. By 1979, following the Iranian revolution, Iran pulled out of CENTO, and this mutual security alliance was disbanded in its entirety.
In this “moment in U.S. diplomatic history,” we learn more about the role of CENTO by getting a first-hand account from Ambassador John McDonald, who served both as the U.S. Economic Coordinator to CENTO as well as U.S. Coordinator to CENTO in Ankara, Turkey. In his interview, conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy in October of 2003, he mentions some of the initiatives that he was involved in developing, including a railroad of friendship initiated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk of Turkey and Reza Shah of Iran that would link 1,500 miles worth of communications between their respective capitals.
John W. McDonald’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on June 5, 1997.
Read John W. McDonald’s full oral history HERE.
Drafted by Ani Prakash
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“Linking the three countries by telephone. You know you can’t operate in today’s world, or even the world of 1959, if all your phone calls have to go through London or Paris or somewhere else, always a great problem.”
“Microwave System” Magnificence:
Q: You say “microwave system,” this is communications?
MCDONALD: Yes, this is a line of sight, 3,000 miles long, the longest in the world, with 103 towers directing microwave systems across the deserts and mountains for 3,000 miles, which is basically a telephone backbone system to link the three countries by telephone. And that is what I did for four years. And again it was a unique opportunity for a U.S. diplomat to have that kind of hands-on work.
When I arrived I had an assistant and a secretary and that was it. Four years later I ended with 35 Americans on my staff with branch offices in Teheran and Karachi, a U.S. contractor of 250 people working on the microwave system and 10,000 Indians, Paks and Turks working on my projects. That was a dramatic growth, shall we say, in management responsibility.
Q: Where did the initial idea come from and what was the rationale for it?
MCDONALD: I guess it would be Mr. Dulles’ vision, because when the Baghdad Pact collapsed with Baghdad, this was just proving his point, as far as he was concerned, and he wanted someone to get off their rear end and do something. I think that was basically the drive behind it. Nobody knew quite what to do but they knew something had to be done because he wanted it done. So there was discussion about the idea of a regional office.
Now a regional office had never been done before and for a very important reason, and that is the ambassador, but particularly the Mission director, who had all the money in the country, always thought about their country [only]. I saw this all over the world when I traveled with the Administrator. You would go into a Mission director’s office and there would be a map for his country, and there wouldn’t be any other country on the outside of it. It was just isolated by itself. You wouldn’t see which was the North, South, East or West. But that was his country and his total focus was that. Cooperate with a country next door? It never crossed his mind. So when you are trying to connect two countries by rail, or three countries by telephone, you obviously have to talk to each other.
Here I was coming in and telling them to do something they had never dreamed of doing and they didn’t want to do. So it was a revolutionary concept. Everybody was totally turf oriented and here I was trying to take some of “their turf” away from them. Well, I wasn’t, I was trying to build a broader vision, but I had hours and hours of argument over this very issue with mission directors, particularly, but also with the ambassadors. It was only because my mandate, which I would carry around with me, was signed by the Secretary of State, that I was able to get away with what I did, which was to help them think regionally.
Q: Did you have much tie to the CENTO organization itself?
MCDONALD: Oh, yes, I met with them daily. They were the political cover. All the projects that I did passed through the Economic Committee in CENTO, approved by them. That is the way you got the other governments involved in the whole process. Let me just take the railroad, because that is a classic example.
Ataturk in Turkey, and the Reza Shah in Iran in 1936 signed a treaty in which they said they wanted to link their two capitals, 1,500 miles apart, together by railroad to show a sign of togetherness. So they started in that direction. World War II came along and they stopped, World War II ended and they started up again. They finally got to where there was a 300 mile gap, which was across the mountains and lakes of what is Kurdistan, where the Kurds are in both countries, and nothing happened.
The Number One economic project that the CENTO Economic Committee agreed on was to finish that railroad, link it together. That became my job because I supposedly had the money. That is how that particular project was conceived.
Linking the three countries by telephone. You know you can’t operate in today’s world, or even the world of 1959, if all your phone calls have to go through London or Paris or somewhere else, always a great problem. So this was a backbone system to link the three countries with the most modern communication that was available.
So that’s the kind of thing that I was doing.
“About ten minutes later the head of the Iranian delegation said, ‘You know, I don’t trust those Turks, I’m very skeptical about this meeting.’ I said, ‘Well, just stay with it awhile, and see how it evolves.’ ”
Concerns Over CENTO’s Future:
Q: I’d like to capture a little of the spirit of CENTO in very early 1959. We mentioned Baghdad. The King had been slaughtered along with his family in a very violent coup on July 14, 1958, which took a very promising country, Iraq, a major country for the area, out of CENTO. What was the spirit of all the sudden losing this linchpin or what have you, at that time?
MCDONALD: There was a great deal of concern. There was fear. Where are we going? What is going to happen? Who is it going to happen to next? A lot of concern, and CENTO was the only regional organization in the area of any kind. So there was interest in making it work, because I believe they felt this was important to their own continuity and their own reputation. So they wanted things to happen and they were cooperative. They didn’t have the wherewithal, but they were very responsive to the kinds of things that I was doing. So I had ready access to any Minister in any one of the three countries and would get them personally involved in the kind of projects that we’re talking about.
I also started something in the technical assistance field that I think was rather remarkable and I’m very proud of. What I wanted to try to do was to build trust between the three countries, there was a great deal of distrust between the three countries. The Turks didn’t like the Iranians and the Paks didn’t like the Iranians and didn’t know the Turks who were too far away, so there was tension.
What I decided to do was try to bring professionals together in a particular field, from all three countries. I would pick the country that was ahead of the other two in that particular field. The first one I did was on mining. I brought people together in Turkey. Now this was a basic resource that was needed in all three countries.
So I brought mining engineers and government people from Pakistan and Iran to Turkey. We had a ten-day seminar. We had experts from the UK and the United States. And then we toured several mines in Turkey to see how they worked. Then a group of Turkish mining experts went with their Iranian-Pak colleagues to Iran for a week and looked there, on the ground. Then they all went to Pakistan and looked there, to see how they could bring some practical know-how to bear and help at that level without just the U.S. imposing its know-how.
At the end of that first gathering, actually at the very beginning of that first gathering, the head of the Turkish delegation came up to me and said, “You know, I don’t trust those Iranians, I don’t know why you are really trying to get us together.” I said, “Well, I want you to learn about each other.” About ten minutes later the head of the Iranian delegation said, “You know, I don’t trust those Turks, I’m very skeptical about this meeting.” I said, “Well, just stay with it awhile, and see how it evolves.”
By the end of not only the week but by the end of the time they finished touring they became friends for life, because they were all professionals, had all spent their life in the mining field, and they bonded and those differences passed. The second one I did was in Pakistan on economic development. They had a Harvard contract and were really doing a lot of good things and we met in [the mountain resort of] Murree, Pakistan, for ten days and brought economists together and had that same kind of interaction.
The third one was in Iran and was in preventive medicine. We had an expert come out from Johns Hopkins. There were eighteen medical schools in the three countries, and only one of them, in Shiraz, had one course in preventive medicine. None of them had ever even heard about it and had no interest in it. Well, we had a meeting of 150 people there for a week or so, with experts, and in that whole field it was sort of pre-Shiraz and post-Shiraz. Three years later every one of the eighteen institutions not only had courses, they had whole departments of preventive medicine.
So we were able to generate new ideas through this whole process. And that was done even after I left, I think it was done about 25 times and it brought professionals together, the same basic concept. And it really worked beautifully. We would publish after each one of those, so there is a whole library of reports available for people to read and beyond that. So that is the kind of thing that was done.
Q: Did you feel any threat, I mean both from the CENTO side then also internally from what you were doing with communications and all from the Soviets? Was there a problem from the Communist movement?
MCDONALD: No, nothing direct at all. I was also able to put together an air to ground navigation system which built on our line-of-sight communications link. It turned out that there were very, very few ground to air communication links in those days. This is, again, during the ’59 to ’63 period.
There is a fairly narrow corridor between Russia and Syria. Maybe it is only 60 miles wide, with Turkey and Iran sort of meeting in the Tabriz area. Several aircraft would stray into Yerevan because of the fact that there weren’t any signals. This really pushed CENTO and the U.S. to work in that area. We moved very quickly on an air to ground navigation system throughout the whole area. Pan Am was flying through there in their round the world flights at that point and it was a great boon to air traffic along the way. But that was the only interaction, the Soviets let us alone totally.
“You can tell by my stories that I learned something about how to manage bureaucracies and this is what you have to do to get innovative ideas through any kind of bureaucratic structure.”
A Tough Grind in Tehran:
Q: How about bridging that 300-mile gap by the railroad?
MCDONALD: Well, that was a tough one and we were very innovative in our efforts. Part of that 300 mile gap was Lake Lan, which is one, I think, of the third or fourth largest, highest body of water in the world. That was at about 5,000 feet or so and it was ringed by mountains all around. So we built a railroad car ferry across the lake, it is about 120 kilometers long, something like that. That was very innovative and is still going, by the way. You had to bring in the ships piece by piece, put them together so you had to build a little seaport and so there were a lot of challenges for that.
There was a major bridge that had to be built in Iran that took some extra time and some money. The engineers that both the countries provided were fascinated by the challenges. Across the plains of Eastern Turkey we had to build snow barriers right in the middle of nowhere because the wind patterns would pile up snow during the winters. They have very heavy winters and so the working season for building the railroad was restricted.
I went back over that railroad in 1976 with my wife and we had a wonderful time. We crossed onto the ferry and did the whole bit. It was very exciting to see it all having been finished, it wasn’t finished in the four years I was there but the funding was finished.
Let me tell you about the funding because this is a very interesting story. You know you can tell by my stories that I learned something about how to manage bureaucracies and this is what you have to do to get innovative ideas through any kind of bureaucratic structure.
By this time ICA had turned into AID. And the AID economists took a look at my railroad because I kept asking for more money. We needed another 20 million dollars to finish the whole thing, to finish the bridge and all that sort of thing. It was going to be a loan, not a grant. The economists in AID did a major study and called me back to Washington and told me that the cost-benefit ratio was unproven. I went ballistic and said this was something that started in 1936 and now they were telling me, when we had maybe fifteen miles to go or something like that, which is where the money had to go, that it was now not cost effective! You know we really tangled on this one and I got nowhere. I went to the Administrator, who was a Mr. Bell by that time and he turned it down. Well, I wasn’t going to accept that. To me this was AID looking at it just from an economic development point of view and not seeing the broader military as well as political perspective.
So what did I do? I went back to Turkey and by this time I’d been there awhile and I knew everybody. I met with the Military Committee of CENTO, separately, not collectively or officially. I met with the three-star American General and the three-star Turkish General and the three-star Iranian General. The Iranian and the American were very good friends over the years. I laid out the problem and I said Washington-AID is looking at this from a very [narrow] perspective. They all wanted the railroad completed from a military point of view, because there was no way to carry heavy equipment across that part of the Middle East. So I said what I wanted them to do, if they agreed, was to meet and pass a resolution talking about the importance, from a military point of view, of the completion of that railroad. Then with the British and American and the three regional parties send it back to the Pentagon and then we’d see if the Pentagon couldn’t talk to the State Department and then let the State Department talk to AID.
They agreed and that’s exactly what happened. The Secretary of State then got the picture and he reversed AID and we got the money and the project was completed. Twenty years later I met Mr. Bell and told him who I was and he said, “Oh, you’re the guy.” He still remembered. He said, “Do you know you are the only person who ever got me reversed in my four years as Administrator?” I said, “No, I didn’t know that…Sir.” He never forgot, never forgot. And I had not met him. Anyway, I just thought that would be an interesting story.
It shows you, also, the narrowness of a piece of bureaucracy and where the State Department can have an impact because it has a broader perspective. So this is an important element in the larger picture we are dealing with today.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
University of Illinois, 1939–43
JD in University of Illinois 1943–1946
National War College 1966–1967
Joined the Foreign Service 1946
Berlin, Germany—Intern Program 1946–1950
Bonn, Germany—Allied High Commission Secretariat 1950–1952
Paris, France—Staff Secretary, U.S. Regional Organization 1952–1954
Ankara, Turkey—U.S. Economic Coordinator CENTO 1959–1963
Cairo, Egypt—Economic Officer 1963–1966
Buenos Aires, Argentina, Kenya, and Geneva— Ambassadorships 1978-1983