The authoritarian regimes, bloody revolutions and tense diplomatic relations in the Middle East dominate the news today. Much of this turmoil was presaged by the activities and experiences of three covert CIA officers in the 1940s and 1950s, says Hugh Wilford, professor of history at California State University, Long Beach. In “America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East,” Wilford chronicles American adventures in the Middle East after World War II. He recently spoke to U.S. News about romanticized spy games, staged coups and the consequences of it all. Excerpts:
What does the phrase “Great Game” in the title refer to?
It was coined in the 19th century to describe the competition between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia and, in particular, espionage conflicts between those two powers. It was popularized by the British writer Rudyard Kipling. The notion of spying as a game was extremely influential on the first generation of CIA officers in the Middle East. They tried to do something different from the European imperial powers in the region and in particular Britain, but in the end they ended up playing a version of the great game that Britain had been playing with Russia.
Why did you focus on three CIA officers to cover this period?
Well, they really were the most important intelligence officers of their generation in the Middle East. The cousins – Kermit and Archie Roosevelt, both grandsons of Theodore Roosevelt – sort of fought it out to lead the covert operations in the Middle East. The CIA was founded in 1947, so we are talking here about the late 1940s and 1950s. And the third member of this sort of triangle was Miles Copeland. Not from the aristocratic background of the Roosevelt cousins, he was from Alabama – a very smart, dynamic young man. They sort of took him under their wing, and between them they led the American intelligence efforts in the Middle East.
What were they trying to accomplish?
Kermit Roosevelt had this notion of America forming an alliance with the Arab countries as they emerged from under the sway of Britain and France. He was very concerned with backing Arab nationalists in the region. He saw that as the best way of keeping it within the American orbit, as the Cold War was gathering momentum. And so it was definitely about keeping the Middle East out of Soviet hands [and] about Western access to oil. I think there was also an element of idealism. These were very young guys in their 20s and 30s, and they had almost a romantic view of the good that America could do in the region.
What are some of their actions that have consequences to this day?
There was a revolution in Egypt against the British client monarchy of King Farouk, and that regime was replaced by an independent nationalist government that eventually emerged with Gamal Nasser as the leader of Egypt and increasingly the region. And then Kermit Roosevelt sent a CIA team led by Miles Copeland to Cairo to stabilize the government. A lot of this was concerned with enabling the Nasser regime to wage psychological warfare against its internal enemies within Egypt and elsewhere within the region. The CIA helped stabilized the government, which Egyptians are still to some extent trying to cast off today. [Also] if you want to understand the origins of authoritarian rule in Syria today, it is important to go back to the 1940s and the 1950s and see the role the CIA played in that land.
What else might surprise readers?