Aug. 19, 1953: Operation Ajax - Priya Satia

By Time Staff


21 Lessons From America's Worst Moments


As many Americans prepare to toast their country’s past on the Fourth of July, there’s no escaping that not every facet of that history has been worth celebrating. In fact, for a great number, this very moment may fall into that latter category, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rock the nation and a growing number of people confront the inescapable facts of past and present racism. June pollingrevealed that Americans are unhappier now than they have been in decades, and a majority believe the U.S. is heading in the wrong direction.

It is hardly consolation to be reminded that this is not the first low point in American history. But a look back at that past does reveal that, at the very least, even the worst moments contain lessons that can still apply today. And if we listen to those lessons, perhaps a better future will be possible. With that in mind, TIME asked 21 historians to weigh in with their picks for “worst moments” that hold a lesson—and what they think those experiences can teach u



Aug. 19, 1953: Operation Ajax

The British long exercised colonial power in Iran through the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. In 1951, as British colonies began to wrest their freedom from the empire, Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh nationalized the oil company in a similar act of anticolonial defiance. In response, the British turned to the U.S., appealing to American fears of Soviet influence. So, in August 1953, in “Operation Ajax,” two intelligence agencies, MI6 and the CIA, overthrew the popular, democratically elected Persian government. The Shah became a U.S.-backed autocrat, who Iranians saw as a puppet using American arms and policing techniques to loot Persia’s oil wealth. This was the colonial regime the revolution in 1979 overthrew. In 1953, the U.S. colluded in inventing a covert mode of pursuing colonialism in an ostensibly post-colonial world. More such actions followed in the region and elsewhere, stoking backlash against a hidden American hand continuing where the British and French had left off. The interventions were covert to evade the check of both American and global public opinion. When we tout America’s democratic traditions, we must understand that their effective functioning depends on our watchfulness and active curiosity


A portrait of the Shah is carried atop an Iranian Army tank patrolling the streets of Teheran after the coup that overthrew the regime of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images