Thursday, September 21, 2017

America’s Great Game

I meant to make a new nation…

-        T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1922)

I had formed a beautiful and gracious image and I saw it melting before my eyes….I did not think I could bear to see the evaporation of the dream which had guided me.

-        Gertrude Bell to King Faisal of Iraq (1922)

It was in this world made of failed British utopians such as Lawrence and Bell, those who were doing the work of the imperialists, into which America entered.

America's Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, by Hugh Wilford

This is a story of the early American Arabists, those who made the first moves into the region that was dominated by British and French colonialists, beginning, for the most part, during World War Two.  (Yes, they were initially “Arabists,” not Zionists.)

We are introduced to several characters: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt Jr., Chief of CIA covert operations in the Middle East and grandson of Teddy; Archibald B. Roosevelt, Jr., CIA officer and also grandson of Teddy and Kim’s cousin; Miles Copeland, a friend of the cousins; a long list of American anti-Zionists; numerous Arab, Jewish, and British leaders.

When Wilford began the research for this book, he was surprised by two things: first, such a book – a comprehensive look at America’s covert actions in the Middle East – had not previously been written; second, the first Americans on the scene were favorably disposed to the Arabs and Muslims. 

We will see how comprehensive a work Wilford has achieved in the coming weeks; as to the second point, I will note a curious similarity to the British position – not in London but for those on the ground, and certainly true in Palestine: overall, the British on the ground were favorably disposed, relatively, to the Arabs.

Wilford notes the domestic Arabist, anti-Zionist citizen network covertly funded by Kim Roosevelt; the large body of published memoirs of CIA Arabists.  The stories behind these will be interesting.

So, what changed?  What happened to turn this pro-Arab, pro-Muslim view into precisely the opposite?  It is a question Wilford recognizes that he must address.  For now, he summarizes: fears of Arab nationalistic leaders and communism; western access to Middle East oil; growing support in the US for Israel (for which he mentions the “so-called Israel lobby”).

Wilford begins the story with Kim Roosevelt, who, eventually, entered Iran in July 1953 under a false name to carry out the very well-known coup that toppled Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq.  But the story doesn’t begin here; it begins with Kim’s childhood: born in Buenos Aires in 1916; the exotic adventures of his grandfather Teddy; his youthful stories of his wholly imagined childhood in India; his own trips with his father, Kermit, Sr.; his friendship with Lawrence of Arabia.

Kim’s education at the Groton School for Boys and then Harvard – and it is interesting to find how important these institutions (along with Princeton) were to providing the individuals necessary to the mission of covert operations. 

Groton’s motto – “Cui servire est regnare,” or “For whom to serve is to rule” – should give some idea of the culture and ideas driven into its students daily.  From its first 1000 graduates came nine ambassadors, three senators, two governors, two secretaries of state, and one president (FDR).

After Groton and Harvard, Kim spent time on the faculty of the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena.  He was getting the itch, however, and was interested in going to work for Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, who was in the process of creating a unified strategic intelligence service.  In August 1941 – four months before Pearl Harbor – Kim joined Donovan.

Cousin Archibald also had youthful exotic experiences; he also attended Groton and Harvard; he was then offered a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, but turned this down as he intended to marry – all scholarship recipients must remain single.  He also entered the world of the colonialists, more directly, in 1942, when he found himself on a ship to capture a beachhead near Casablanca under General George S. Patton.

This “beachhead” was a part of Operation TORCH, a joint British – US invasion of North Africa.  The Soviets had been pressuring the Allies to establish a second front against the Germans.  The US military leadership was against the idea, but FDR directed them to proceed.  D-Day was set for November 8, 1942.

After he landed and a cease-fire was called, one Moroccan in particular sought Archie out: Mehdi Ben Barka.  Archie learned much of French colonialism during their time together; he didn’t like what he learned. 

Ben Barka was an interesting character: the first Moroccan Muslim to earn a degree in mathematics from an official French school; against colonialism; a revolutionary in the spirit of various revolutionary movements throughout the third world.  In 1962 he was accused of plotting to kill Moroccan King Hassan II; for this he was exiled in 1963.

Ben Barka was then “disappeared” in Paris in 1965.  The details behind this remain guarded.  For example:

Owing to requests made through the Freedom of Information Act, the United States government acknowledged in 1976 that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) possessed 1,800 documents involving Ben Barka; however, the documents were not released.

Wilford offers many examples of the treatment of the Muslims at the hands of the French – each one only increasing Archie’s disillusionment regarding America’s policy of collaborating with the French.  On the occasion of a riot in which French soldiers at best stood by (and, at worst, contributed), Archie witnessed twenty Arabs massacred.  Upon delivering a scathing report to his superiors regarding the French inactions (or actions), Archie was recalled to the United States.

The Arab world that Kim and Archie were entering was favorably disposed to Americans.  Perhaps primarily this was because they despised the French and weren’t terribly fond of the British; also because the experience with Americans prior to the covert activities of what was to become the CIA, most American involvement in the region was deemed to be beneficial: universities, hospitals, missionaries, Wilson’s Fourteen Points.

Archie saw the opportunity in North Africa for America to establish itself “as the great unselfish friend of the Moslems.”  Well, we know today that things didn’t turn out this way.


The earliest Americans on the scene grew up with fascinating tales and experiences of the exotic.  This was certainly true for the Roosevelt cousins, and it was true for many of the earliest agents and friendlies: the children of early twentieth century missionaries and university administrators, archeologists, businessmen – all who were born and raised in the region. 

Men such as these were to become instrumental in helping to develop contacts and otherwise gather intelligence while using the cover of their “official” positions.

In any case, this is to come.  And in this, the cousins would be instrumental.

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