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  • Matthew Hermane

Harold Lamb’s “Iran, Key to the West”: A Forgotten WWII Story


As a research assistant working on the Roshan Institute’s Lalehzar Street Archive digital project, I spend a great deal of time at the National Archives II in College Park, Maryland. Oddly enough, I have never actually seen where the boxes of timeworn documents I tediously flip through come from. Whatever lies beyond me, the check-out desk, and the steadfast archival staff is a world unknown to me; the only image I am able to conjure is a cavernous warehouse of Raiders of the Lost Ark proportions safeguarding dusty treasures long forgotten. Naturally, it is always a pleasant surprise when my monotony is interrupted by something remarkable that has presented itself from this metaphorical abyss, as was the case when I came across Harold Lamb’s unpublished nonfiction account titled “Iran, Key to the East.”

A native of New Jersey, Harold Lamb (1892-1962) was a historian and a writer of screenplays, short stories, and novels with over 100 published literary works to his credit. Lamb’s fictional writing focuses mainly on tales with Cossack, Crusader, Asian, or Middle Eastern protagonists; his most popular works were The Three Palladins (1977), Durandal (1931), and The Sea of Ravens (1983). Incredibly, alongside his fictional writing, Lamb produced nonfiction works covering topics such as the crusades, the discovery of North America, and the creation of Constantinople as well as biographies about figures like Babur, Charlemagne, and Cyrus the Great. As a historian, his fictional writing is regarded for having excellent historical accuracy while still pursuing exciting plotlines. This is exactly the formula followed in his 1943 account “Iran, Key to the East.”

“The bomber snored up from the hellish heat of a Persian Gulf airport, and we began to breathe deep again,” begins Harold Lamb’s forgotten, buried away account of Iran and her pivotal World War II role. This story, written in 1943, is apparently Lamb’s assessment of his time spent in Iran while traveling alongside U.S. military personnel carrying out President Franklin Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease policy. In addition to sharing his gleanings from the activities going on around him, he provides valuable observations about society and vivid descriptions of Iran itself. In continuation of the story’s introductory flight, regarding the American faces he sees around him, he notes, “Ten years before, when I had lived in Iran, there hadn’t been enough of us in the whole desert country to fill the bomber’s rows of seats. Now these kids belonged here; they know their way around, thousands of them.” He describes Iran as an isolated frontier of the war – the country where the Atlantic Charter between the U.S., Britain, and Russia was tested, but “outside the news,” forgotten to millions of Americans. From his height in the plane, Iran’s significance is not lost upon him though. It’s a “continental land-bridge”, the “link between nearer and farther Asia” with the old Silk Road and the Soviet Union to the north, India to the East and the Persian Gulf to the south – “From our vantage point in the stratosphere we could see Iran as it is, a mostly-desert, isolated plateau of some 600,000 square miles – bigger than pre-war France and pre-Hitlerite Germany together.”

Most captivating about Lamb’s story are his romantic notions of Iran and Iranians, which were widely shared by other foreign visitors to Iran of the time. He declares, “There has always been an Iran. For twenty-eight centuries, that is. It was both hardy and cultured at first, and it carved itself the first world-empire. You’ve heard of the laws of the Medes and the Persians, of Zoroaster, the written tradition of the Avesta, and those wise men out of the east, the Magi? All Iranians.” He describes the mighty empires that have come about and faded during Iran’s existence – Greeks, Byzantines, Turks. He characterizes Iranians as hearty by nature, able to make due even in the most unforgivable of conditions. Challenges to this romanticism are also presented by pointing out obvious contradictions to the previously attributed glory, “For a long time no census figure of the population was possible because no one had counted the women!” Lamb is also well aware of the difficulties Iran is faced with - the looming influence of Tsarist Russia, the oil fields of British desire; these are the reasons Iran is so pivotal to Allied powers, and in such a delicate situation. The rest of Lamb’s story describes the path to Iran’s present plight - the youth and inexperience of the Shah, American financial missions, and the failings of the alluring oil industry. Throughout his narrative, Lamb yearns for an Iran that speaks for itself, that stands up for its own interests. He concludes with the following lesson:

This war is being fought for the broader issue of freedom of peoples to adjust their own lives. And the leaders of the small nations have shown a clearer understanding [of] their problems under the ordeal of conflict than outsiders. Certainly Iran, whose culture has matched ours for so long has within herself the spirit to shape a better social order and hold it intact.

History has proven some of Lamb’s assessments to be right, and others to be very much off target. Some of his characterizations are outdated, simplistic, and plain inaccurate. However, a first-hand account is never one that should be discounted, especially one presented as candidly as Lamb’s. “Iran, Key to the East” underscores the importance of ongoing investigation, and reinvestigation, of our past. Sometimes, hidden away in the most mundane of places, we can find invaluable sources that not only provide fresh perspectives on exhausted topics, but also do so in interesting, entertaining ways. Harold lamb’s World War II account is surely one of these, and one deserving of much more attention and scrutiny.

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