Relatively little has been written about CIA operations in the 1940’s and 50’s. Hugh Wilford’s AMERICA’S GREAT GAME draws on personal interviews, papers, and recently declassified material of former operatives and their associates. The book is centered on the continuation by CIA of the 19th century’s joust by British and Russian agents for control of Central Asia. It delves into the intrigue of the loss of support for Arab nationalists like Nasser. In the book, there are rich anecdotes and the unbelievably larger-than-life three leading CIA pro-Arabists in search of Lawrence of Arabia styled romantic adventure, Miles Copeland, and the Roosevelt cousins Kermit “Kim” Jr and Archie – both grandsons of Theodore Roosevelt.
Kim Roosevelt was the first head of CIA covert action in the Middle East. He also masterminded the 1953 coup operation in Iran which toppled nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mosaddeq which restored power to the Shah. Wilford described Kim as having had clouded judgment of Persian politics which encouraged his tendency to view Iran as a place for personal adventure and playing spy games. Such an attitude is attributed to his identity as “a Roosevelt man” and his comparisons of his work to his father and grandfathers’ writing on their hunting expeditions.
Kim’s cousin Archie was a Middle East scholar and the chief of CIA’s Istanbul station. The cousins are referred to as the Oyster Bay Roosevelts – a tight knit family with common interests, tates, and sense of humor. Archie worked at the Office of War Information headquarters in Washington, DC developing ideas for propaganda in the Arab world. His formative years provided him the opportunity to witness the odds between the Protestant New England missionaries of Beirut at odds with the Catholic Maronites of the French which led to the division of Greater Syria after WWI. In WWII North Africa, France’s reputation grew worse with Vichy officials being allowed to remain in office even after the Allied invasion.
Miles Copeland was a covert action expert who joined the intelligence establishement during WWII. Copeland is quoted as saying “Both leaders and doers in a given society play three games at the same time…the personal, the domestic, the international – and sometimes a fourth, the bureaucratic.”
John Foster Dulles is described by Miles as having resorted to Allen Dulles’ crypto-diplomacy through Miles and Kim Rossevelt (the chief crypto-diplomat): “When someone had to hop on an aeroplane and go to Iran, Egypt, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia to talk to the Shah, Nasser, King Hussein or King Saud, the Dulles brothers would think of either Kim or myself, sometimes together, sometimes singly, and sometimes in the company of some professional VIP”. Wilford explains that crypto-diplomacy allowed for non-public conversation leading to breakthroughs such as the Suez base agreement of 1954. Conversely, the book explains that the crypto-diplomacy bred suspicion in the minds of foreign heads of state which also undermined and embarrassed the effectiveness of individuals like Ambassador Henry Byroade.
The book expands on early 1950’s CIA’s manipulation of Middle Eastern governments and the inconsistency of American involvement and support for the then emerging Arab nationalist movement
Wilford’s book eventually demonstrates that it was American support for Israel which ultimately destroyed the Arabists’ influence both within CIA and America.
Hugh Wilford is a history professor at California State University Long Beach and author of four books which include The Mighty Wurlitzer. If you are interested in the development of the Levant, early American Middle East politics, or the emergence of American intelligence in Central Asia, this book will be hard to put down once you get started.