Teaching With Documents, Volume 1


A Telegram from Persia

The transcript of the decoded telegram reproduced here describes the events surrounding the death in 1924 of Robert Imbrie, a United States Vice Consul to Tehran, Persia. The mob attack that killed Imbrie took place while he, a relatively new member of the consular staff, and Melvin Seymour, a United States citizen in the custody of the consulate, were touring the sights of the capital city.

As a result of this incident, the United States demanded from the Persian government: (1) an official apology; (2) indemnities for Imbrie’s widow and for Seymour, who survived the attack; (3) appropriate Persian military honors for Imbrie’s remains; (4) compensation for the costs of sending the USS Trenton to retrieve the body; and (5) punishment of the participants in the attack. The Persian government quickly met the first four demands and eventually executed by firing squad three members of the mob. By early 1925 all United States demands in response to the incident had been met.

For Persia, this "international incident" had important repercussions. Only three years earlier, in 1921, the ambitious Reza Khan, leader of the Persian Cossack forces, took part in a coup d’etat that purged the Persian government of outside influence and expelled Russian officers from the armed forces. After the coup, Reza Khan was named commander of the Persian Army, and in 1923 he became Prime Minister.

Now, as a result of Imbrie’s death, Prime Minister Reza Khan established martial law in Tehran, thereby buttressing his growing political influence with military strength. Within 18 months he was able to lead the National Assembly in deposing Ahmad Mirza Shah, the last of the long-ruling Kajar dynasty, and to be named Shah himself. He ruled Persia, which he renamed Ivan in 1935, until 1941, By then, his associations with Nazi Germany had so unsettled Allied nations that British and Russian troops occupied Iran. He was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, and died in exile in 1944. His son, only the second Shah of Iran in the Pahlavi dynasty, was himself exiled in 1979. For a more detailed account of the Imbrie incident, see Bruce Hardcastle’s article, "A Death in Tehran," The New Republic (December 19, 1979): 10-12.

Details of the Decoded Telegram

• "Green" at the top, right-hand side of the document signifies that this telegram was transmitted in a particular code, called Green. Other diplomatic codes in common use at that time were Red, Gray, and Blue.• "Vice Consul" is the lowest of the three main "consular" posts within the United States Foreign Service. Consular officers perform the specific function of. protecting the commercial and private interests of United States citizens on foreign soil.• "Bahais" were a 19th-century offshoot of the Shia Muslims’ (Shiites) religious majority in Persia. Their ideals of unity among all religions, universal education, world peace, and the equality of men and women made them subject to harsh discrimination by the Shiites.• "Seymour" is Melvin Seymour, a United States citizen who was being held in the custody of the United States consulatebecause of his involvement in an assault against another United States citizen in Tehran in 1923; thus, he is referred to as "prisoner."

Click the image to view a larger version

• "Kornfeld" is Joseph Kornfeld, the head of the United States mission in Tehran who sent the telegram.

The telegram reproduced here is from Decimal File 123 Im 1/78 (1910-1929), General Records of the Department of State, Record Group 59.

Suggestions for Teaching

The teaching strategies suggested below begin with students examining the specific details of the document and conclude with students discussing questions about the implications of an international incident such as Imbrie’s death.

1. Document Details. Help students examine the document for details by asking them to answer the following questions:

a. When was the document written?

b. How long did it take to reach the Department of State? (Remind students that the time difference between Tehran and Washington is 8 1/2 hours.)

c. When was a reply made to Tehran? In what form was the reply?

d. When was the document filed? What is its file number?

e. Look carefully at the received stamps and markings made by the Department of State. What do they tell you about the organization of that department?

2. Locating the Facts. Direct students to read the telegram and answer the following content questions:

a. Who wrote the telegram? Where was he located?

b. To what religious group did the Persian mob think Imbrie belonged?

c. Describe the sequence of events leading to the death of the Vice Consul.

d. What were Kornfeld’s sources of information about the attack on Imbrie?

e. What request did Kornfeld make to the State Department?

3. The Diplomatic Dilemma: A Role Play.

On July 19, 1924, Kornfeld sent a second urgent telegram to the Department of State that implicated the Persian military in the death of Imbrie. This second telegram ended with these words: "Very drastic action on the part of the government is fully justified."

a. Ask students to assume the role of State Department officials who have received both of these telegrams. Tell them it will be their task to determine the best diplomatic response to this incident to recommend to President Calvin Coolidge.

b. Ask the class to discuss the possible government responses and list them on the board. Their list might include: demanding an official apology from the Persian government, boycotting imports from Persia, recalling all United States diplomats in Persia, expelling Persian diplomats in the United States, refusing visas to Persian visitors to the United States, dispatching troops to guard United States diplomats in Persia, refusing to export goods to Persia, demanding punishment of mob attackers, and compensating the victims.

c. Discuss with students what the consequences of each of these actions might be for the United States. Consider the economic, political, military, and diplomatic advantages and disadvantages that might result from each action. Ask the class to decide which response would be most appropriate.

d. To conclude the activity, share with students the actual actions taken by the United States government (see Historical Background). Compare the students’ ideas with the official actions of the government.

4. Discussion Questions

a. Why did Kornfeld send this message to the Department of State by telegram?

b. How would you rate the reliability of Kornfeld’s sources of information about the death of Imbrie?

c. How much responsibility should the government of a country assume in protecting the safety of foreign diplomats?

d. How do you think United States military and law enforcement officers would have responded under similar circumstances?

e. What do you think is the best way to obtain justice in a criminal case involving two countries?

f. Should diplomats serving in foreign countries be immune to the laws of the host country? Why? Why not?


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Chicago: "A Telegram from Persia," Teaching With Documents, Volume 1 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989), 126–129. Original Sources, accessed May 27, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=33SF5G4QCQUH3MM.

MLA: . "A Telegram from Persia." Teaching With Documents, Volume 1, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by United States. National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Vol. 1, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1989, pp. 126–129. Original Sources. 27 May. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=33SF5G4QCQUH3MM.

Harvard: , 'A Telegram from Persia' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 1. cited in 1989, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board, Washington, D.C., pp.126–129. Original Sources, retrieved 27 May 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=33SF5G4QCQUH3MM.