Baskerville Q&A with Thomas M. Ricks

At the end of this morning’s entry about the centennial of Iran’s “American martyr,” I noted that Dr. Thomas M. Ricks was to discuss his forthcoming book about Howard Baskerville via a live global chat, hosted via the US State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs. While the technology apparently didn’t cooperate, I am grateful to receive a raw transcript, prior to its formal publication.
With my own minor edits and a reordering of the topics, here are Ricks’ replies from today’s very interesting session. Topics covered include: How does Ricks know so much about Baskerville, and how is he studying him? Was Baskerville an idealist? How important was he? Might Baskerville even now be a bridge between Iran and the US?
Ricks describes his project:

[Baskerville] is the subject of my present research which should be completed this fall and resulting in a book. In doing this history work, I have come to realize how many ways we are affected by the world around us, the joys and sufferings people undergo, and the ways people solve problems. Baskerville was very affable young man and may I be so bold as to say an excellent ambassador of many of our American ideals and bravery. He truly enjoyed his life in Tabriz and lived life to its fullest.”

Question: “Is Mr. Baskerville a martyr, a hero, or an “example”?

Thomas M. Ricks: “I believe that Baskerville shows us Americans the potentially good role we as a people may pursue with the “other” people of the world. He is an excellent example, in my mind, of our own ideals (he says so himself) of commitment to just and progressive causes in the name of the majority (environmental issues, human and civil rights of women and children, etc.), rather than supporting the myriad of hard liners and global tough guys. Baskerville was motivated as much by his commitment to the Presbyterian mission spirit of public service as he was by his own reading of French and modern US history and the aspirations (and political culture) of his family and the atmosphere in the 1900s when there were so many diverse actions and political positions in the US.”

On how Ricks first encountered the Baskerville story:

“I learned about Howard Baskerville when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Azerbaijan in 1964 about 45 years ago! I was living with another volunteer in the Kurdish town of Mahabad (SaujBulaq in Kurdish) and took the regional bus to Tabriz (a five hour ride) to meet volunteers, the Presbyterian doctors at the American Hospital in Tabriz, and to stop by to see the American consul of the time.
When I stopped by the Hospital on one such visit from Mahabad, I noticed the American cemetery next to the hospital with the names of all those American missionaries buried there, including Baskerville. I noticed that his grave site was the only one with fresh flowers on it.
The missionaries at the time of Baskerville were of three types: those who proselytized by going to the Iranian villages with their bibles; those who taught in the elementary and secondary schools of the Mission; and those who were active in the medical field working in the 5-6 different hospitals in western, northern, and eastern Iran. There was even a medical college in the West Azerbaijan city of Urumiah (known as Rezayeh during the Shah’s time).”

Was Baskerville an “idealist?”

“There’s no doubt that Baskerville was an idealist. This is not to say that he was impractical or a dreamer or slightly off the mark as it were. Howard Baskerville was very much part of his time, just out of undergraduate school, and would have made an excellent Peace Corps Volunteer (as so many of us were in our 20s when we went into the Iran III peace corps program). Howard had multiple motives, including his conviction that the Iranian Constitutional movement was just and progressive in nature and that the missionary families’ lives were beginning to be endangered.
He was also motivated by the actions of his friends, such as Mirza Hasan Sharifzadeh, who was gunned down in front of the French consulate in Tabriz having just left a meeting of negotiators trying to settle a business dispute between some of the city’s leading merchants. At the time of Sharifzadeh’s death, Sattar Khan had pronounced publicly that the “anjuman (society) has lost its brains,” meaning the movement for an independent and democratic/progressive Iran has lost one its “dear ones”.

On Baskerville’s “courage” in inspiring or “shaming” Iranians support the cause of the “freedom fighters.”

“There is evidence that his death created great interest in the Anjuman’s militia and Sattar Khan’s fighting for Tabriz. One merchant, on the day after Baskerville’s death, came to the Wilson house and gave Reverend Samuel Wilson a nicely woven cloth saying “we know that he died for us” to put on Baskerville’s grave. The missionaries, by the way, were stunned by the outpouring of love and gratitude for Baskerville’s courageous action. There are letters in the Presbyterian Historical Society here in Philadelphia that make many comments about Baskerville. In 1929, the American Consul in Tabriz (August Ferrin) collected material for his 7 page report to Department of State in Washington, D.C. The 1959 50th anniversary was entirely organized by Tabrizis much to the surprise of the State Department.”

Suggestion: “What about calling the day of Martyrdom of Howard “the day of friendship of Americans and Persians?” Could you work on it? I mean could you ask US government about it?”

“That’s a very good suggestion about a day of partnership (hambastegi) between Americans and Iranians. The word “shaheed” (martyr – sh) is used by the Iranians that I have known and is used by those who administer the Constitution House in Tabriz. So, I’ll work with the Baskerville family and see if they are interested in doing the very same thing. It may be more productive, by the way, to have the family initiate some action and then marshal the support of the area studies programs in Iranian studies around the country along with a number of Middle East institutions and programs to also support the idea.

(my emphasis added — I like this idea. sh)

Q: Is the United States “scared” of Iran?

“I don’t [think] the US government is “scared” of Iran as such; the stockpile of US weapons is enormous and the presence of US military personnel is globally located. I DO think that American people are very worried about Iran and have been frightened by the present Iranian government (not the Iranian people). The “scaring” of the American public is not new in our foreign affairs. However, many Americans as well are delighted by Iranian arts, music and food, as well as by the history of Baskerville and why he died in Tabriz.
The missionaries who were in Iran from 1853 to 1960 totaled perhaps as many as 500. These missionaries are now living in the States and are active still in their communities and parishes. Their love for all things Iranian is legendary as many attend talks that I and my colleagues give on modern Iran with considerable interest and knowledge, coming up to us speaking very good Persian (aka Farsi) to our collective delight.”

Q about Methodology of his Baskerville studies:

“…I am a social and cultural historian using written records (diaries, state department records, the official missionary records and letters of the missionaries). Oral history is also part of my methodology, collecting the remembered histories of former missionaries and their offspring (many of whom were born and raised in Iran speaking not only Persian fluently but also Azeri Turkish, Armenian and Assyrian!). Finally, I am documenting the schools themselves by photographing the old buildings in Tehran – for example, where the missionaries lived and worked, including Alborz College and the equally famous Presbyterian girls’ school called Iran Bethel (later in 1930 changed to NurBakhsh and like Alborz High School is still being used today as a public girls’ school in a beautiful old building on Khiaban-e Filastin in Tehran).

Postscript: Readers can now find a full, but still incomplete transcript of this global chat here.