America's Great Game

The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East


By Hugh Wilford

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From the 9/11 attacks to waterboarding to drone strikes, relations between the United States and the Middle East seem caught in a downward spiral. And all too often, the Central Intelligence Agency has made the situation worse. But this crisis was not a historical inevitability — far from it. Indeed, the earliest generation of CIA operatives was actually the region’s staunchest western ally.

In America’s Great Game, celebrated intelligence historian Hugh Wilford reveals the surprising history of the CIA’s pro-Arab operations in the 1940s and 50s by tracing the work of the agency’s three most influential — and colorful — officers in the Middle East. Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt and the first head of CIA covert action in the region; his cousin, Archie Roosevelt, was a Middle East scholar and chief of the Beirut station. The two Roosevelts joined combined forces with Miles Copeland, a maverick covert operations specialist who had joined the American intelligence establishment during World War II. With their deep knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs, the three men were heirs to an American missionary tradition that engaged Arabs and Muslims with respect and empathy. Yet they were also fascinated by imperial intrigue, and were eager to play a modern rematch of the “Great Game,” the nineteenth-century struggle between Britain and Russia for control over central Asia. Despite their good intentions, these “Arabists” propped up authoritarian regimes, attempted secretly to sway public opinion in America against support for the new state of Israel, and staged coups that irrevocably destabilized the nations with which they empathized. Their efforts, and ultimate failure, would shape the course of U.S. — Middle Eastern relations for decades to come.

Based on a vast array of declassified government records, private papers, and personal interviews, America’s Great Game tells the riveting story of the merry band of CIA officers whose spy games forever changed U.S. foreign policy.


           I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts.

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

           I had formed a beautiful and gracious image and I saw it melting before my eyes. Before every noble outline had been obliterated, I preferred to go; in spite of my love for the Arab nation and my sense of responsibility for its future, 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)



American Council for Judaism


American Friends of the Middle East


Anglo-Iranian Oil Company


American Israel Public Affairs Committee


American Committee for Liberation


Arabian American Oil Company


American University of Beirut


American Youth Congress


Booz, Allen & Hamilton


British Petroleum


Columbia Broadcasting System


Continuing Committee on Muslim-Christian Cooperation


Central Intelligence Agency


Counter Intelligence Corps


Central Intelligence Group


Committee for Justice and Peace in the Holy Land


Coordinator of Information


Federal Bureau of Investigation


Freedom of Information Act


General Investigations Directorate


Member of Parliament


Near East/Africa Division


National Security Council


Operations Coordinating Board


Office of Policy Coordination


Office of Special Operations


Office of Strategic Services


Office of War Information


Psychological Warfare Branch


Royal Air Force


Revolutionary Command Council


Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6)


Trans-Arabian Pipeline


United Arab Republic


United Nations


Voice of America

Dramatis Personae


The CIA Arabists

KERMIT “KIM” ROOSEVELT JR.: Chief of CIA covert operations in the Middle East. Grandson of Theodore Roosevelt (TR), son of the businessman and explorer Kermit Roosevelt Sr. and Belle Willard Roosevelt, and husband of Mary “Polly” Gaddis.

ARCHIBALD B. ROOSEVELT JR.: Another grandson of TR and CIA officer; expert on the Middle East but beaten out to the role of covert operations chief by his cousin Kim. Married first to Katherine Winthrop “KW” Tweed, then Selwa “Lucky” Showker.

MILES A. COPELAND JR.: Alabaman friend of the Roosevelt cousins, Kim’s lieutenant in CIA, and later author of controversial books about intelligence. Married Lorraine Adie.

Their Predecessors, the OSS Arabists

WILLIAM A. EDDY: Lebanon-born Arabist, marine, scholar, intelligence officer, and American minister to Saudi Arabia, he blazed the CIA’s trail in the Arab world.

HAROLD B. HOSKINS: Eddy’s cousin; a businessman and diplomat who also pioneered American intelligence in the Middle East during World War II.

STEPHEN B. L. PENROSE JR.: Educator and chief of the OSS station in Cairo.

Other Americans


WILLIAM J. DONOVAN: Head of the OSS and Roosevelt family friend.

ALLEN DULLES: Donovan’s European deputy in the OSS; later deputy director of the CIA and then director between 1953 and 1961; a keen advocate of covert operations.

WALTER BEDELL SMITH: Dulles’s irascible predecessor as CIA director.

FRANK G. WISNER: OSS chief in southeastern Europe and first head of CIA covert operations.

DONALD N. WILBER: Scholarly expert on Iran who was stationed there as an OSS officer during World War II; later helped plan the Iranian coup operation of 1953.

MICHAEL G. MITCHELL: First head of the CIA’s Middle East section, he recommended Kim over Archie Roosevelt as covert operations chief for the region.

STEPHEN J. MEADE: Tough army officer periodically loaned to the OSS and CIA to perform special missions.

MATHER GREENLEAF ELIOT: Young CIA case officer for the American Friends of the Middle East (AFME).

LORRAINE NYE NORTON: Eliot’s successor as AFME case officer (they later married).

JAMES M. EICHELBERGER: Wartime Counter Intelligence Corps colleague of Miles Copeland; later advertising executive and CIA station chief in Cairo.

JAMES BURNHAM: Ex-Trotskyist intellectual and CIA consultant whose writings influenced Agency operations in Nasser’s Egypt.

EDWARD G. LANSDALE: Kim Roosevelt’s “nation-building” colleague in the Far East; often identified as the model for Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

JAMES JESUS ANGLETON: Legendary head of CIA counterintelligence, he also ran the Agency’s “Israeli account.”

HOWARD “ROCKY” STONE: Young member of the CIA team in Iran in 1953. He attempted unsuccessfully to mount a similar operation in Syria in 1957.

WILBUR CRANE EVELAND: Army officer and Middle East adventurer loaned to Allen Dulles from 1956 to plot regime change in Syria.

State Department

DEAN ACHESON: Director of the Lend-Lease program during World War II, secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, and patron of Kim Roosevelt.

JOHN FOSTER DULLES: Brother of Allen Dulles; Acheson’s sternly moralistic successor as secretary of state.

EDWIN M. WRIGHT: Middle East specialist in army intelligence during World War II and State Department afterward.

LOY W. HENDERSON: Veteran foreign service officer and Soviet expert; assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs in the run-up to the creation of Israel; ambassador to Iran at the time of 1953 coup.

JAMES HUGH KEELEY JR.: Arabist diplomat serving as ambassador to Syria at the time of the 1949 coup there.

JEFFERSON CAFFERY: Veteran diplomat serving as US ambassador to Egypt at the time of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution.

HENRY A. BYROADE: Young ex-soldier and assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs; selected as Caffery’s successor in Egypt to cultivate Nasser but undermined by CIA “crypto-diplomacy.”

Kim Roosevelt’s Arabist, Anti-Zionist Citizen Network

GEORGE L. LEVISON: Prominent anti-Zionist American Jew; close friend of Kim Roosevelt.

ELMER BERGER: Anti-Zionist rabbi and another intimate of Kim Roosevelt’s; executive director of the American Council for Judaism.

JAMES TERRY DUCE: Influential ARAMCO vice president based in Washington.

VIRGINIA C. GILDERSLEEVE: Distinguished educator and high-profile anti-Zionist.

GARLAND EVANS HOPKINS: Minister and editor; executive officer of successive Arabist, anti-Zionist organizations, including AFME.

DOROTHY THOMPSON: Celebrity journalist who presided over AFME.

CORNELIUS VAN H. ENGERT: Retired foreign service officer who helped liaise between Allen Dulles and AFME.

EDWARD L. R. ELSON: Presbyterian pastor of both Dwight Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles; a director of AFME.

The Arab Players


‘ABD AL-ILAH: Regent of Iraq during minority of King Faisal II.

NURI AL-SA‘ID: Pro-British prime minister of Iraq; murdered along with the Hashemite royal family during the 1958 coup.

Saudi Arabia

‘ABD AL-‘AZIZ AL SA‘UD: Ibn Saud, the warrior-king and founder of Saudi Arabia; succeeded by his less impressive son SAUD.


SHUKRI AL-QUWATLI: Syrian president overthrown in the 1949 military coup but returned to power in 1955.

HUSNI AL-ZA‘IM: A Kurdish army officer, he became president after leading the 1949 coup but was deposed and executed only months later.

ADIB AL-SHISHAKLI: Tank commander, friend of Miles Copeland, and participant in numerous coup conspiracies, he became president himself in 1953.

MIKHAIL ILYAN: Conservative Syrian politician who plotted regime change with Wilbur Crane Eveland.

‘ABD AL-HAMID SARRAJ: Clever chief of Syrian security service who foiled successive CIA plots to overthrow the government.


FAROUK: Licentious young king overthrown in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.

MUHAMMAD NAGUIB: Popular Egyptian general who led the revolutionary government.

GAMAL ‘ABDEL NASSER: Brilliant young army officer who usurped Naguib and, with CIA support, emerged as the Arab world’s leading nationalist.

MUHAMMAD HAIKAL: Egyptian journalist and confidant of Nasser’s.

‘ALI SABRI: Air Force intelligence chief and later director of Nasser’s Office of the Prime Minister.

HASSAN AL-TUHAMI: Miles Copeland’s liaison with Nasser’s government.

ZAKARIA MOHIEDDIN: Nasser’s interior minister who oversaw the creation of the General Investigations Directorate.


‘ABDULLAH I: Hashemite emir, then king, he was assassinated in 1951; succeeded a year later by grandson HUSSEIN, who would later receive CIA support.


CAMILLE CHAMOUN: Pro-American, Christian president whose fate became a crucial test of the Eisenhower Doctrine.

The Israelis

TEDDY KOLLEK: World War II Jewish Agency intelligence official, friend of the Roosevelt cousins, and later mayor of Jerusalem.

DAVID BEN-GURION: Founding father of Israel and the country’s first prime minister; helped establish the intelligence partnership between the CIA and Mossad.

The Iranians

MOHAMMED REZA PAHLAVI: Young Shah of Iran covertly backed by the CIA.

MOHAMMED MOSADDEQ: Charismatic nationalist prime minister deposed in the 1953 coup.

The British

RUDYARD KIPLING: Bard of the British empire and Roosevelt family friend whose novel Kim inspired later generations of intelligence officers, including the CIA Arabists.

T. E. LAWRENCE: “Lawrence of Arabia,” the British army officer who liaised with the Arab Revolt of World War I and fired the imaginations of the Roosevelt cousins.

HARRY ST. JOHN “JACK” PHILBY: Renegade British Arabist, adviser to Ibn Saud, and father of the Soviet mole H. A. R. “KIM” PHILBY.

ANTHONY EDEN: Three-time foreign secretary, he succeeded Winston Churchill as prime minister in 1955 before mounting the disastrous Suez operation that led to his resignation in January 1957.

HAROLD MACMILLAN: Foreign secretary under Eden and prime minister after him, he engineered a post-Suez reconciliation with the Americans while working behind the scenes to restore the British position in the Middle East.


THIS BOOK BEGAN WITH TWO surprises, the first being that it did not already exist. From the 1953 coup that deposed the nationalist prime minister of Iran, Mohammed Mosaddeq, down to more recent reports of secret prisons, waterboarding, and drone warfare, the Central Intelligence Agency has played a defining role in the troubled relationship between the United States and the Middle East. Yet, apart from several books on the Iran coup and a few scholarly articles, there is no single work specifically devoted to the subject.1 Not even histories of the Agency itself have much to say about its Middle Eastern operations other than Iran. Quite why this is so I am still not sure. It might have something to do with the inaccessibility of most of the CIA’s own records about the subject—although, as I soon found out, other sources were publicly available—or perhaps it is because of the vague air of disreputability that seems to surround such topics in US academic circles. In any case, it struck me that this book was calling out to be written.

The second surprise came as I began delving into the subject. Contrary to what I expected, given the CIA’s actions in Iran and diabolical reputation throughout much of the Arab world, the individuals responsible for the first US covert operations in the region were, I discovered, personally very sympathetic toward Arabs and Muslims. Indeed, Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt, the grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt who headed the Agency’s Middle East division in its early years and commanded the 1953 operation in Iran, was a friend and supporter of the leading Arab nationalist of the day, Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Even more surprising, Roosevelt arranged secret CIA funding for an effort within the United States to foster American appreciation for Arab society and culture, and to counteract the pro-Israel influence of US Zionists on American foreign policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict. In doing so, he was giving expression to a strong “Arabist” impulse in the early history of the CIA that was traceable to its predecessor organization, the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Particularly influential in this regard was a group of Middle East–born OSS officers who, during the 1940s, had worked secretly to bring the United States and the Arab states closer together and to head off the partition of Palestine. Descended from nineteenth-century American missionaries in the Arab world, these men were anti-Zionist less because of any inherent prejudice against Jews and more because of a fierce—in some cases almost mystical—belief in the overriding importance of American-Arab, and Christian-Muslim, relations. I soon realized that writing a history of the CIA in the Cold War Middle East would involve reconstructing this now lost world of secret American Arabism.

It would also mean having to answer an obvious question: What changed? Why did the CIA go from being sympathetic toward Arabs and Muslims to being seen as their adversary? Certain factors long recognized as affecting US–Middle Eastern relations in general were clearly part of the explanation. There was the influence of the Cold War and the resulting tendency of such US officials as Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, to resort to covert operations in order to eliminate nationalist leaders perceived (usually incorrectly) as vulnerable to communist takeover. Washington’s determination to preserve Western access to Middle Eastern oil inevitably placed it at odds with local nationalists, who, after more than a century of French and British imperialism in the region, were equally determined to cast off Western influence, including meddling by secret agents. So too, of course, did growing US support for Israel, a phenomenon partly caused by the rise within the United States of the so-called Israel Lobby and the relative decline in power of the Anglo-American elites from whose ranks the CIA Arabists were overwhelmingly drawn. Finally, various third parties—including Arab conservatives who felt threatened by the nationalist movement and officials representing the old European powers in the Arab world, especially the British—proved adept at luring the United States into defending the region’s established imperial order, again to the detriment of friendly American relations with nationalists like Nasser.

All of these elements clearly contributed to the eventual eclipse of CIA Arabism and will therefore receive due attention in the narrative that follows. As I researched the subject, however, I became increasingly conscious of another set of pressures acting on Kim Roosevelt and his colleagues that had less to do with grand geopolitical and strategic considerations than with more individual, personal concerns. Like many senior CIA officers of their generation, Kim and his cousin Archie Roosevelt, another chief of the Agency’s Middle East division in the early years of the Cold War, had been raised and educated in an elite environment that conditioned them, long before they ever directly experienced the region itself, to look upon the Middle East much as the British imperial agents of an earlier generation had: as a place for heroic individual adventure, where a handful of brave and resourceful Western spies could control the fate of nations. To a certain extent, this legacy of spy games and kingmaking was offset by the American missionary tradition conveyed to the early CIA by the OSS, which tended to emphasize instead the moral values of Arab self-determination and mutual cultural exchange. However, the adventurist tendency was also reinforced by the presence in the early CIA’s Middle East division of another distinct social type best exemplified by the southerner Miles Copeland: bright, ambitious young men from nonelite backgrounds who had gotten into the CIA thanks to the opportunities for social mobility opened up by World War II (usually via the Counter Intelligence Corps rather than the more aristocratic OSS) and who, while not possessing the same social origins as the Roosevelt cousins, did share their appetite for game playing. The story of CIA involvement in the Arab world during the early years of the Cold War is therefore, in part at least, one of an internal struggle between two contradictory influences: the British imperial legacy and the American missionary tradition. If the latter, more moralistic, idealistic impulse shaped the Agency’s earlier operations, it was the former—comparatively pragmatic, realistic, even cynical—that eventually came to dominate, with the Iran coup acting as a sort of tipping point.

My interest in these personal and sociocultural factors was prompted by several considerations. The academic field of American diplomatic history has recently followed the example of other historical subdisciplines by taking a “cultural turn,” and even an “emotional turn,” exploring the effect on US foreign policy of a range of issues not usually associated with the supposedly rational, hardheaded business of diplomacy.2 Second, I believe strongly that biography or group biography—foregrounding individuals and trying to depict their social and emotional lives in all their complexity—makes for a particularly rich and rewarding kind of historical writing.3 Finally, and most important, the evidence seemed to me to require such an approach. The playing of games, whether it was an American version of Britain’s “Great Game,” or the clash of personal wills that eventually arose between Kim Roosevelt and Gamal Nasser, or Miles Copeland’s abiding interest in game theory, was not merely a metaphor. It was a crucial historical determinant in the formation and eventual demise of CIA Arabism.



On Sale
Dec 3, 2013
Page Count
384 pages
Basic Books

Hugh Wilford

About the Author

Hugh Wilford is a professor of history at California State University, Long Beach, and author of four books, including The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America. He lives in Long Beach, California.

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