Friday, September 29, 2017

America in the Middle East - bionic mosquito

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

Wilford continues the story with the Americans moving into Cairo; there was a need to coordinate Lend-Lease activities in the region.  It turns out that Lend-Lease was useful for purposes other than sending Jeeps to Europe.  From the time of his transfer from the State Department to the OSS in April 1944…

…Kim [Roosevelt] was a key player in Project SOPHIA, a secret program for spreading OSS officers throughout the region under cover of [Lend-Lease.]

Bill Donovan had been looking into setting up a Cairo office for the OSS as early as 1942; the office was established in May 1943.  With this now in place, the office would be charged with collecting intelligence, spreading propaganda, and conduct a massive campaign of political warfare.

The Americans were blessed with a unique asset – the tremendous goodwill developed and earned by American Missionaries and educators in the decades prior.  While the British and French were looked at with suspicion and even despised for their colonial attitudes in the region, the Americans were seen, rightly until this point, as benevolent.  This goodwill was the currency that the Americans would exploit to gain their advantage. 

Stephen Penrose, Jr. was the first American assigned to the Cairo office.  He was the son of the president of Whitman College, a small college in Washington founded by New England missionaries.  He would spend time teaching at the American University of Beirut (AUB), where he would later return as president.

This background brought him connections in the Arab world; he brought in several former colleagues from AUB to staff the Cairo office – including David Dodge, the great-grandson of AUB founder Daniel Bliss.  Penrose leveraged his contacts on several missionary boards, obtaining street maps and other detailed information of the various cities and locales in the region. 

Kim Roosevelt would travel to Allied-occupied Iran, under cover of the Lend-Lease program.  He would meet with Joseph Upton, a Harvard-educated expert on Persian antiquities, apparently in Tehran overseeing the archeological work by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  He was, in reality, an OSS field agent.

Another agent in Tehran was specialist in Persian language and history at Princeton University; a third majored in art and archeology at Princeton before pursuing a scholarly career.

By this time, Kim’s cousin Archie had returned to the Middle East, and they met upon Kim’s return to Cairo.  Tours of Palestine and Lebanon would follow, including meetings with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.  But still, this was a time for Arabists, not Zionists, in the United States government.

When Kim departed and with the war over, he wrote in his final report that the entire US effort in the Middle East was a waste of time and money.  Archie remained in the region, now in Iraq.  Despite being married, Archie found the happiest moments of his life when assigned to the Middle East. 

The end of the war brought on the Cold War and the continuation of the Great Game – with Britain hanging on but with visible signs of the transition to America in taking the lead Anglo role.  Communists were to be found in every corner; the Soviets were assumed to be behind every antagonistic action aimed at the colonialist British.

Archie was in an interesting spot – several years earlier he had learned that communists were involved in running the American Youth Congress (AYC), a national youth group prominently supported by his cousin, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.  He would publicly criticize her for this role.


At the end of the war, Archie returned home for a short time; to his wife’s disappointment, he quickly took an assignment to Iran.

Iran – long a plaything in the Great Game between Great Britain and Russia; soon to be the plaything of the United States and the Soviet Union.  And soon to be home for the first – and perhaps most well-known – major CIA intervention in the region.