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Archie Roosevelt's Memoirs of an Intelligence Officer

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Blue street, Ghardaia

Mzab, Algeria

 

Chaki Zinda

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Portrait of Abdullah Ocalan

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Learning the Koran

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cover 40

When your name is Archibald Roosevelt Jr, when you are the grandson of a president of the United States (Theodore Roosevelt) and the cousin of another president (Franklin D. Roosevelt) your career cannot be an ordinary one

In June 1939 anything was possible for this freshly graduated student from Harvard who, still uncertain about his destiny, went West to work for the San Francisco Chronicle. But the Second World War and his grand father’s inherited nearsightedness were going to turn him into an Intelligence Officer.

After Pearl Harbour, Archie (as he came to be known) joined the Army Specialist Corps, a civilian organisation partially integrated into the army for special assignments. He followed a brief training course in a new Intelligence school – where one of his mates was Vernon Walters, the future deputy chief of the CIA and US ambassador to the United Nations.

Operation Torch

Reading Archie Roosevelt’s For Lust of Lnowing, one cannot help being jealous of the extraordinary fate of this young man. Suddenly, he is part of Operation Torch, aboard a vessel of the American fleet sailing towards Morocco to land near Casablanca.Thanks to his knowledge of French, he becomes General Patton’s interpreter, and translates the negotiations with General Noguès and Admiral Michelier. Bored with interpreting, Archie uses his initiative to get in touch with the Moroccan nationalists – and the list of his contacts reads like an almnac of North African nationalism. He met people like Mehdi ben Barka (the nationalist leader later kidnapped and killed in France) and Ahmed Balafrej, and started writing « reports reflecting the nationalists aspirations to throw off French rule .» It was the beginning of an unhappy encounter with French colonial policy.

Transferred to Algiers, he spent enough time in Constantine to meet Dr Benjelloul and Ferhat Abbas, the future head of the FLN provisional government in 1958, who handed him the manifesto of their « mouvement revendicatif ». Arriving in Tunis a few weeks after the removal of the liberal-minded Muncif Bey, he sees Saleh ben Youssef, Habib Bourguiba, the future president of the republic, Sheikh Thaalabi – and goes on reporting on the problems of French colonialism.

« I felt passionately that the situation had to be brought to the attention of our government, which was blindly following an oppressive French policy completely contrary to the ideals for which we were fighting in the present World conflict, » writes Archie. No wonder that one day in the summer of 1943 General de Gaulle urgently requested General Eisenhower to recall Archibald Roosevelt Jr. This put an end to Archie’s career in North Africa – and for a long while he was « kept away from the French .»

After a brief assigment in Cairo, he was posted as assistant military attaché in the summer of1944, to Bagdad, which turned out to be a « magic city » for him. At long last, he was in the Middle East. He could improve his knowledge of the Arabic language, he started learning Persian, and decided to write a definitive report on the Arab tribes of Iraq. Between a trip to the Marshes, ten years before Wilfred Thesiger, and an expedition with the Shammar near Mosul, he had dinner with Badia Afnan, the first Iraqi lady to throw off the veil, and visited Washington with the Regent, Abdul Illah. Archie also got to know the old school British Intelligence officers who, he felt, « included a large number of Arabists generally sympathetic to Arabs and Islam, unlike the French » who considered « their » Arabs inferiors, fit subjects for the mission civilisatrice de la France.

Iraq was a turning point in Archie’s career: although he was still considering studying for a phD in what was called at that time a « Center of Semitic Studies » in Princeton or Harvard, he had growing reservations about pursuing an academic career: he wanted to play an active part in an expanding American role in the Middle East. It was during a flight to Tehran, where he was assigned in March 1946, that he made up his mind.

Archie Roosevelt had the knack to get posted to the right place at the right time. The Russians appeared then to be on the verge of realising a centuries-old dream – the conquest of Iran. It was the time of the Azerbaijan crisis, one of the worst moments of the early cold war. It was also at that time that the Kurds of Iran enjoyed for a brief few months the freedom of the ‘republic of Mahabad’. Archie Roosevelt was one of the very rare Westerners to meet personnally its president Qazi Mohammed, one of the heroes of the Kurdish national movement. Indeed, Archie Roosevelt’s article in the Middle East Journal of July 1947 on the « Kurdish Republic of Mahabad » was one of the very few available historical documents on this crucial chapter of Kurdish history, until he provided some more interesting details in his memoirs.

Cousin Kermit

One wonders why such a man, who could have been (as he admits he had the choice) an ambassador or even assistant secretary of state, decided to become an Intelligence Officer. The answer is in his memoirs: « I knew that before attaining these enviable heights, there would be frustrating years of service as vice-consul and junior officer… in the end, the attraction of being my own boss in an important Middle East post was irresistible. »

This is how Archie Roosevelt worked for the CIA from 1951 until 1974, being posted in Beirut, Istanbul, Ankara, Cairo, and Jerusalem, where he was in touch with his cousin Kermit Roosevelt and Miles Copland. After some time he ceased being involved with Middle East affairs and became the CIA chief representative for Western Europe.

But Archie Roosevelt is not one of these former CIA men who tell everything after they are finished with the agency. He adheres to the 30 year rule, and he reveals few secrets about the events which took place after 1950. Still, reading through these pages in which he alludes to his contacts in the Middle East with all those who made contemporary history, one can only look forward to the seond volume of his memoirs.

(The Middle East magazine, May 1988)





 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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