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The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War
Read by Angelo Di Loreto
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WILLIAM ALFRED EDDY DID NOT LOOK THE PART OF SUPER SPY. NO MOVIE mogul would have cast him as a James Bond or a Jason Bourne. The middle-aged professor had a limp, a receding hairline, a pudgy face, and an expanding waist. He also had a disarming smile, a deep laugh, and an eternally delightful sparkle in his eye. He served as a marine in World War I, and after the war, he dedicated his life to the cause of peace. He became a missionary, sharing the Christian gospel with students in the Muslim world. When the United States returned to war in the early 1940s, he again responded to his nation’s call to serve.
Eddy joined a ragtag group of men and women who launched the United States’ first foreign intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services. Leading the OSS was William “Wild Bill” Donovan, an irascible Irishman who had gone from marine to lawyer to politician to spymaster. Donovan sent Eddy to North Africa, where the missionary could put his knowledge of the Koran, years of practice speaking Arabic, and partnerships with Muslim leaders to good use.
Not long after hitting the ground in Tangier, Morocco, Eddy became the target of Axis intelligence agents. The skills he had honed as a missionary made him a marked man. An Italian spy tried to plant a bomb in his car, but Eddy’s chauffeur was vigilant and kept him safe. A few weeks later, Eddy learned from a double agent working for the British that Axis spies were again scheming to “unobtrusively” slip a bomb into his vehicle. Eddy’s American bosses warned him to take the “greatest precautions” or he would be returning home in a box.1
Eddy was one of the OSS’s most effective field operatives. Donovan had sent him to prepare the way for Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa, which was central to American and British plans for taking control of the Mediterranean. Eddy advised Generals George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower on the incursion strategy. He also recruited a secret network of local agents on the ground in North Africa. His most audacious undertaking included a plot to “kill,” as he described it, “all members of the German and Italian Armistice Commission in Morocco and in Algeria the moment the landing takes place.” In a straightforward and matter-of-fact memo, he told Donovan that he was targeting dozens of people. He additionally ordered the executions of “all known agents of German and Italian nationality.” Never one to mince words, he called the proposal an “assassination program.”2
To orchestrate the daring and ambitious plot, Eddy hired a team of Frenchmen. His “principal” hired gun was the father of a boy who had been imprisoned in Paris by the Germans. “The father,” he noted, “is impatiently awaiting permission to carry out this assignment.” Eddy wanted to ensure that no one could trace the assassinations back to him or the OSS. He planned to frame the executions as a “French revolt against Axis domination.” “In other words,” he explained to Donovan, “it should appear” that the dead Germans and Italians were “the victims” of a French “reprisal against shooting of hostages by the Germans and other acts of German terror,” and not an OSS operation.3
Assassination plots were not the only thing on Eddy’s mind. At about the same time that he was recruiting French hit men, he wrote to his family about the sacrifices he was making for Lent. He described the Easter season as “abnormal” this year. “I am certainly abstaining from wickedness of the flesh,” he confessed. With his wife thousands of miles away, that was not too difficult. “I haven’t even been to a movie since Lisbon, I don’t overeat any more, and I allow myself a cocktail at night, but never before work is all done.” At the time, he was attending services at the local Anglican church. The “small community” of congregants, he wrote home, knew that fellow believers around the world were joining with them in “the act of consecration and penance.” He told his family he was thinking of them and that he was praying that “all of us come through to better days when mercy and charity again return to the earth.”4
The calculus was clear for Eddy. To honor the death and resurrection of his Lord and Savior, no movies, no fleshly wickedness, and not much booze. Pray for mercy and charity to return to earth. And in the meantime, covertly arrange for the murders of Germans, Japanese, and Italians. The war, the assassination plot revealed, seemingly changed everything for religious activists turned spies like Eddy. Or maybe it didn’t. Maybe assassinating those who did the devil’s handiwork represented the logical culmination of their sense of global Christian mission, how they planned to bring peace and charity back to earth. If they hoped to restart their religious work after the war, they first had to defeat the evil that blocked their path. Perhaps for Eddy and dozens of other holy spies, serving a secretive, clandestine US wartime agency tasked with defeating German and Italian fascism and Japanese militarism was another way, maybe the best way, to serve the very same Jesus they sought to emulate as missionaries.
They were never quite sure.
The US government closely guarded the secret that missionaries and religious activists had become spies and assassins. The cover-up began with William Donovan. At the end of the war, the general pivoted from battling Germans and Japanese to planning for the postwar world. The OSS leader hoped that the United States would establish a permanent foreign intelligence agency. After the ticker-tape parades and impromptu street-corner kisses had ended, he took to the pages of Life to make his case. He highlighted how his organization had used hard work and old-fashioned American virtues to contribute to the Allied victory. His “amateurs in intelligence,” he boasted, “showed what intellect, diligence, courage and willingness to get around can accomplish in a supposedly esoteric realm.” Donovan worked to reassure readers that his operatives were good, patriotic, respectable Americans and not the liars, cheats, and scoundrels many people at the time associated with spy craft and secret police like the Gestapo. “The heart of American wartime intelligence,” he surmised, included a “collection of highly implausible ‘operators.’” Then he named them: scholars, researchers, economists, engineers, historians, sociologists, linguists, anthropologists, and experts on labor movements. In other words, everyday professionals populated the OSS, people just like you and me. He recruited his officers from universities, private research institutions, commercial businesses, law firms, and labor organizations. They included many of the nation’s best and brightest men and women.5
But these were not the only people Donovan had recruited. The spymaster intentionally hid the fact that another group of Americans had played a substantial role in wartime intelligence gathering, espionage, and covert operations. Dozens of missionaries, missionary executives, priests, religious activists, and at least one rabbi also worked for the OSS. These operatives exchanged their calling to serve God for a more temporal and temporary duty.
As Donovan made the case for what was to become the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), he ensured that the stories of the OSS’s godly spooks remained top secret. He and his missionary operatives went to great lengths to hide, obfuscate, and sometimes outright deny their collaborations. Neither the missionaries nor their religious agencies nor American military leaders felt comfortable acknowledging the wartime lying, deceiving, manipulating, and even killing that these religious activist operatives engaged in. Donovan’s godly crusaders did what they did because they needed the United States to win the war in order to guarantee their freedom to work around the globe. But they did not want to bring any attention to their wartime actions. If native peoples knew that some missionaries had worked as government spies, how could they ever trust the ones who insisted they were only doing the Lord’s work? They couldn’t. As a result, the wartime stories of Wild Bill’s religious operatives have remained almost entirely hidden.
This book tells the story of a secret army of holy spies who fought around the globe for the sake of their God and their country. None of them had ever imagined that this was the work they would do. But Japan’s surprise attack on the United States on December 7, 1941, changed everything. Americans from all walks of life heeded the call to serve. For many, this meant enlisting in the armed forces or going to work in munitions factories. For a handful of people whose religious activities had inadvertently provided them with a unique and valuable skill set, a different opportunity arose. Donovan and other American intelligence officers realized that they could send missionaries and priests back to their foreign posts as secret agents.
Donovan’s religious operatives had good precedents for their actions. Spying is one of humankind’s oldest professions. In the Old Testament book of Numbers, twelve spies scouted the promised land and reported back to Moses. A little later, Joshua dispatched spies to Jericho. Although Donovan was no Moses, he knew that American missionaries were keen to secure access to what they envisioned as their own promised lands.
In the nineteenth century, missionaries often worked at the vanguard of American imperialism. They were frequently the first Americans whom foreign people encountered, and they routinely influenced foreigners’ views of the United States. In China, India, Hawaii, the Philippines, the Middle East, and many other places, missionaries served as cultural mediators, helping bring diverse peoples and regions into contact with one another. Their work forced American diplomats to engage with other governments, and they represented an unofficial foreign service. Theirs was an imperialism not of armies and force but of ideas and humanitarian-oriented institutions. These ambassadors hoped to spread American values, ideas about human rights, and democracy to all who would open their doors to them. They rarely used weapons to accomplish their work.
Things were different under Donovan during World War II. The actions of missionary operatives made overt and explicit what had in earlier generations been subtle and implicit. The cross and the flag, missionaries and the military, were building, expanding, and defending the American empire together. Religious activists collaborated closely with the US government, wielding along with their Bibles everything from poison pills to dung bombs. The differences between sinners and saints, missionaries and mercenaries, were no longer distinguishable, at least not for the duration.
Although missionary operatives believed in the Allied cause, most were not proud of their wartime actions or the choices and compromises the conflict forced upon them. Men of great faith became men of great doubt. “We deserve to go to hell when we die,” Eddy later lamented. “It is still an open question,” he continued, “whether an operator in OSS or in CIA can ever again become a wholly honorable man.” Distinguished journalist and religion writer Malcolm Muggeridge, an agent for the British Secret Intelligence Service, agreed. “Intelligence work,” he insisted, “necessarily involves such cheating, lying and betraying” that it destroys one’s character. “I never met anyone professionally engaged in it,” he concluded, “whom I should care to trust in any capacity.” They both agreed with Joseph Stalin’s adage: “A spy should be like the devil; no one can trust him, not even himself.”6
Espionage is not like most occupations. It is not even like serving in the military. An operative’s success is often proportional to his ability to bend the rules, to fix the game, to load the dice. Operatives and agents betray, bluff, bribe, cheat, con, dupe, fake, forge, hoodwink, and manipulate. Covert actions are always about ends; they are never about means. Evangelism is not like most other jobs, either. Preachers and missionaries usually believe that God has called them specifically to their work. They embark on their careers with a sense of divine mission. They seek to build up the kingdom of God, not dismantle kingdoms of man. They seek the protection of the cross; they do not expect to double-cross.
Excavating the stories of the United States’ clandestine missionary spies is difficult. Muggeridge insisted that scholars would never be able to tell the full story of what happened during the war. “Secrecy,” he resolved, “is as essential to Intelligence as vestments and incense to a Mass, or darkness to a Spiritualist séance.” Historians trying to write about wartime spies, he argued, were on a fool’s errand. And he was right that the OSS, and later the CIA, did not make it easy to recover the histories of their religious operatives. Yet despite Muggeridge’s warnings, we can glimpse into the shadows to trace the actions and contributions of at least a few of the most important religious activists who went to work for Donovan. This book centers primarily on the wartime careers of William Eddy, John Birch, Stephen Penrose, and Stewart Herman. They served around the globe, from North Africa to Europe, from the Middle East to Asia. They left a trail of letters, diaries, and other personal documents, which when read in the light of recently declassified government records and sources obtained through the Freedom of Information Act illuminate their wartime actions and the challenges they faced. They did their part and more to ensure that the Allies won the war. Their lives show us how World War II became for some Americans as much a crusade for expanding American power in the name of religious liberty as a war to avenge Pearl Harbor.7
William Eddy was working for the US government as an attaché when President Franklin Roosevelt took the United States to war. The Beirut-born child of missionaries, decorated World War I marine, and Episcopalian educator had spent the 1920s and 1930s trying to make the case for Protestant Christianity as the solution to the world’s problems. With American participation in the growing conflict looking inevitable, he volunteered for a temporary job working under the director of naval intelligence. The navy sent him to Cairo in the summer of 1941. “So far as I can work out,” he wrote his wife, Mary, “I am to be a… ‘Lawrence in Arabia’ to promote Allied propaganda among the natives, and a reporter on politics of the Arabs and Egyptians. At least it will be a creative job, not stereotyped.” Military leaders hoped that Eddy could convince Muslim leaders to support the Allies. Eddy was one of the few Americans with the requisite skills to do the job right. His missionary background, fluent Arabic, and knowledge of the Koran prepared him for intelligence and diplomatic work in a way that almost nothing else could. Worried that the US government had too few people who understood Muslim cultures, Eddy promised to do the best he could for both his homeland and the Arab peoples he had long served. He had just returned to Washington, DC, for new orders when the Japanese struck the American base on Oahu that December.8
The American entry into the war meant less to John Birch, a missionary working in China. He was already essentially at war with Japan as he labored to build a small community of Chinese Christians near the front lines of the latest Sino-Japanese conflict, which had been raging for years. In 1940 Birch established a mission at Hangzhou, a major city in Southeast China, a little more than one hundred miles from Shanghai, but he suspected that death and destruction would soon overshadow his work. Shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese launched an offensive in the area. Birch had to abandon the church. He fled the front to Shangrao, a couple hundred miles into the interior of China, where he established a new mission. It too soon fell to the Japanese.
Stephen B. L. Penrose Jr. felt shocked by the news that the United States was now at war. He was living with his young family in New York while working as the assistant director of the Near East College Association (NECA). The association oversaw a handful of Protestant missionary schools in Turkey, Greece, Syria, and Egypt. Its board of directors included numerous prominent Americans, including corporate attorney Allen Dulles. Penrose also served as a member of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the oldest and most heralded foreign missionary agency in the United States. “The whole thing,” he wrote his parents about the American declaration of war, “seems so utterly fantastic that I have difficulty in taking it seriously, which may of course be a great mistake on my part. We shall see.” Once the news settled in, Penrose decided that he needed to find a way to support the American war effort. He told his parents that he was letting a few people in Washington know that he was ready to take “a defense job if a reasonably urgent demand arises.”9
Stewart Herman Jr. was affected most directly and most immediately by the American entry into the war. The young Lutheran minister, who had worked for the previous six years as the pastor of the American Church in Berlin, was rounded up by the Nazis and interned right after Germany declared war on the United States in the days after Pearl Harbor. With that his pastoral work on the Continent came to an end, at least for the duration of the war. Over the previous half decade, he had developed close alliances with the leaders of the Confessing Church, one of the strongest anti-Nazi movements in the Third Reich. Herman’s knowledge of the German underground would prove extremely valuable, not just for the perpetuation of Christianity in Europe, but for waging an American war.
Little did any of these religious activists, missionaries, and missionary executives know that their lives were about to intersect. During the war, all four served in the Office of Strategic Services. Many missionaries and former missionaries worked in the OSS’s Research and Analysis Branch, safe in offices located in Washington, DC, and New York. Eddy, Birch, Penrose, and Herman, in contrast, all served in the field. In China, Germany, the United Kingdom, North Africa, Greece, Italy, France, the Balkans, and the Middle East, they made significant contributions to the nation’s war effort. They had many different reasons and motives for exchanging the cross for the sword, but each hoped that in working for the United States, he was working for God. They all shared a commitment to supporting American leaders’ efforts to build a better postwar world. They sought a new global order that blended a generic, inclusive Protestant Christianity with American power. But they had to win the war first. They had to defeat the evil that threatened them before they could get back to the good work of expanding God’s kingdom. “To make the devil flee,” Eddy had decided years earlier, “it is sometimes necessary to resist him.” Resist him they would.10
But resistance has consequences. What happens when missionaries become spies? What happens when they trade one calling for another or supplement one with a second? As they embraced their new vocation, most wrestled with difficult questions. How far should they go in service to country? How much of their character and values should they compromise? Should they lie and deceive? Use force? Kill enemies? At what point would their wartime choices smother their religious convictions? Would the war change the nature of their faith? Did they risk trading their eternal souls for the sake of temporal gains? Could missionary work and skullduggery mix? They could boil these questions down to one: Could a person faithfully serve God and the Office of Strategic Services at the same time?
The four spies also wrestled with less esoteric challenges. Eddy and Penrose, who had families, both desperately wanted to return home alive. If they died on the front lines, their children would grow up without fathers and their wives would have to survive without a breadwinner in the house. And if they did make it home, they wondered what normal life would be like after serving as professional liars and masters of deceit. For Birch and Herman, the issues were different. Younger men, they were both eager to settle into permanent careers and to live a life that had purpose and meaning. They sought to understand what they thought God had called them to do and what role the war played in God’s divine plans for them. They also wondered if they would have families of their own. Both began the war with few close relationships. They sometimes doubted if they would ever find love. Could they simultaneously wage covert war while opening their hearts to another person? For one group of operatives, the question was whether they could walk back from the abyss and return to trusting relationships. For the other, the question was whether clandestine work made trusting relationships impossible. Double Crossed examines how some of the United States’ first professional intelligence operatives wrestled with these questions and many more while winning the world’s most horrific war.
During the 1940s, American leaders came to understand in deeper and more explicit ways how central religion was to crafting a successful foreign policy. But historians, for the most part, have overlooked the role of religion in the war. Religion helped shape the work, policies, and ideology of President Roosevelt and many members of his administration. The president insisted that religious convictions and beliefs provided the foundation for healthy, secure democratic governments, and he defended “freedom of worship” around the globe. He made the fight against Germany and Japan in part a religious crusade, which is why missionaries, priests, religious activists, and a rabbi proved so eager to enlist in Donovan’s secret army. They believed they could serve God and country since American wartime policy objectives were so closely entwined with the aims of religious activists.11
Roosevelt’s goals and those of missionary activists blended seamlessly in the execution of the war. The OSS’s holy spooks fought to implement FDR’s religious ideals and commitments as they engaged in their clandestine work. They wanted the war to end not just because they hated the death and destruction that it generated, but because they also longed to get on with their real business of promoting Christianity and American interests abroad. They believed that what was good for the United States was good for Christianity and that what was good for Christianity was good for the United States. They were true believers in the old Puritan notion that God has chosen the United States to serve as his “city on a hill,” transforming the world through its example and its actions.
They shared a vision for the future best articulated by China-born missionary son and publishing mogul Henry Luce, who in 1941 took to the pages of Life to call on readers to make the twentieth century the “American Century.” Luce, like the OSS’s missionary operatives, called on Americans to accept “wholeheartedly” their duty, responsibility, and opportunity as citizens of the most powerful nation in the world. This meant, he insisted, that Americans must “exert upon the world the full impact” of their influence. The publisher demanded that the United States take a bold new place on the world stage. OSS religious activists believed that expanding American power and influence would enhance their efforts to build the kingdom of God around the globe.12
The United States’ victory in World War II, facilitated in part by missionaries and religious operatives, allowed the nation to claim global supremacy and a divine commission to export Americans ideals and values. Many Americans had long believed that God had destined the United States to lead the world, and the war provided them with the opportunity to fulfill what they saw as their holy mandate. Victory over Japan and Germany seemingly verified what Americans had long thought—that their nation was the new chosen land and they were the new chosen people. They saw in their past and in their wartime success the hand of God shaping history. They believed that their country was walking with the Almighty, called to share his truth. World War II spurred Americans to make the world more American, and with it, they hoped, to make it more Christian.
Americans came out of the war believing that they had a divine obligation to expand their nation’s influence and power. The work of Donovan’s holy spies supported this mission in at least three ways. First, two of the OSS’s missionary recruits helped create and launch the Central Intelligence Agency, and they built into the CIA’s charter some of the spy agency’s most controversial characteristics. In so doing, the OSS missionaries thought they were doing the right thing. History teaches us that perhaps they were wrong. Second, Donovan’s spies provided American leaders, from the president to some of the future directors of the CIA, with a playbook for using religious activists on an operational level to help meet foreign policy objectives. Missionaries, foreign religious agents, and both real and fake religious organizations became tools of the American foreign intelligence apparatus. Finally, the OSS’s missionary spies crafted new and important partnerships for the United States with the foreign leaders overseeing Mecca, the Vatican, and Palestine. FDR’s successors from Truman to Trump depended on these relationships as they crafted their foreign policies. OSS operatives established important bonds that allowed postwar American leaders to rally global leaders around the cause of religious freedom in ways that benefited the United States and its missionary empire. We cannot fully understand the Cold War crusade against “godless communism,” nor can we understand the religious foundations of the war on terror, without understanding religion’s prominent role in American intelligence and foreign policy during World War II and its immediate aftermath.13
Double Crossed recounts the sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, and sometimes profound ways that the founders of the United States’ pioneering foreign intelligence agency tried to use humans’ deep spirituality as a tool for war. American leaders discovered that the religious commitments of individuals, groups, and nations were rarely shallow or ephemeral. Rather, they intersected with global politics in powerful ways to motivate people to act toward many different goals. Modern American leaders are still struggling—and oftentimes failing—to understand this simple reality.
BEFORE THEY WERE SPIES (1883–1941)
“The Moral and Spiritual Defenses of a Nation”
FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT WANTED HELP. A LOT OF IT. AS HE
- "Matthew Sutton shows in this lively and fascinating book, the road from preaching the gospel to learning the dark arts of spy- craft was mapped out by Reinhold Niebuhr's theory that, Jesus's teachings aside, in a fallen world, state-sanctioned violence can be justified to destroy regimes."—Times Literary Supplement
- "Arresting and informative.... Double Crossed is a great read and a fresh, archive-intensive contribution to our understanding of American intelligence during World War II."—Washington Post
- "Not only a profound history of American Christian missions but also one of the most original and interesting histories of World War II in several decades."—Christianity Today
- "Sutton covers new territory in his interesting endeavor, as the work of the four has largely been secret until now. Readers will be fascinated by his revelations."—Booklist
- "Recommended for scholars of World War II and religious history, and the history of espionage, as well as general readers interested in the intersection of American history and Christianity."—Library Journal
- "Sutton's research is impressive, his writing is clear, and his account is exhaustive.... Sutton rescues a crucially important story that raises profound questions regarding the relationship between God and country."—Kirkus
- "This provocative book illuminates little-discussed history and raises larger philosophical questions. It is an unusually fresh and intelligent addition to WWII literature."—Publishers Weekly
- "A marvelous book about the holy spooks of World War II: the missionaries who toiled in secret and to considerable effect in the U.S. intelligence effort, convinced they were advancing both God's and America's cause. Matthew Sutton is a generous, discerning historian, and he succeeds splendidly in bringing this little-known story to life."—Fredrik Logevall, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam
- "Deeply-researched and engagingly written, Matthew Sutton's Double Crossed fills a gap in the literatures on 20th century secret-intelligence and the Second World War. Shinning a light on the cross-and-dagger intrigues of Protestant missionaries who spied against the Axis, Sutton shows how they helped lay some of the moral and even diplomatic foundations for what we now call globalization. This is both an adventure story and an important contribution to the emerging study of religion as a handmaiden of 20th-century secular power."—Mark Riebling, author of Church of Spies: The Pope's Secret War Against Hitler
- "In this absorbing book, Matthew Sutton skillfully and effortlessly guides his reader through the life-and-death clandestine operations of the United States' missionary-spies: bible-believing spooks who, during WWII, grappled internally with the contradictions of faith and violence, deep love of family, and patriotic duty but who never shied away from advancing the Allied cause -- no matter the cost. Double Crossed is an authoritative and highly revealing account of a (purposely) hidden facet of church-state collusion in modern America."—Darren Dochuk, author of Anointed With Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America
- "Double Crossed tells an astonishing and heretofore unknown story of the Christian missionaries and religious activists who doubled as American spies during World War II. Although their wartime scheming often conflicted with their religious principles, the work of the four men profiled here -- whose covert operations ranged from Europe to China and across the Middle East -- was absolutely critical to the success of U.S. military strategy and diplomacy, and it built the edifice for religious collaboration with espionage that, for better or worse, persists in the CIA to this day. Matthew Sutton has written a deeply researched, captivating, and indispensable contribution to our understanding of the role of religion in the history of American spycraft."—Marie Griffith, author of Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics
- "In a thrilling and remarkably original narrative, Matthew Avery Sutton explains the critical part missionaries played in American espionage during what was, for them, a holy war to save Christian civilization. For anyone who cares about the history of religion or the Second World War, this fine book will be a revelation."—Michael Kazin, author of War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914-1918
- "In this brilliant book, Matthew Avery Sutton has recovered the long-hidden history of Americans who blurred the line between religious missions and secret missions in the Second World War. Rooted in painstaking research and written with powerful prose, Double Crossed is a must-read."—Kevin M. Kruse, author of One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America
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- Sep 24, 2019
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