The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In World War II, serving Jesus while spying for the United States

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David A. Hollinger is a historian at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America.”

Laying the political groundwork for Gen. George Patton’s North African landing of 1942, a top intelligence agent promised local communists that the United States would help them overthrow the government of Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco. The Americans would even drive the Spanish out of Morocco and thereby facilitate Arab independence. William Eddy, a member of the Office of Strategic Services, America’s first foreign intelligence agency, knew these were lies. Later in life, the devout Episcopalian’s conscience troubled him, and he wondered if he, a magnificently effective spy, or anyone in the OSS or later the CIA, could “ever again become a wholly honorable man.”

Eddy is one of four deeply religious American Protestants who are the subjects of Matthew Avery Sutton’s arresting and informative book, “Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War.” All served in the OSS, the World War II predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency. Sutton adds to our understanding of the clandestine services by revealing the little-known role of missionaries in these operations.

Eddy was a son of missionaries who served in Lebanon, and the Congregationalist Stephen Penrose, another of Sutton’s subjects, taught in a missionary college there. A third was John Birch, an active Baptist missionary in China, who is best known for the John Birch Society, created by right-wing Americans in 1958 long after his death in 1945. Sutton’s fourth figure is Stewart Herman, a Lutheran minister who was based in Berlin.

Many OSS agents had missionary backgrounds. Their foreign-language fluency and intimate knowledge of distant lands made them ideal recruits. But most had either drifted away from the faith or did not connect it to their government work. Sutton might have pursued this larger, secularized picture of many recruits more fully. But he is correct about his foursome: These men were certain that spying for the government and advancing Protestant Christianity were mutually reinforcing projects.

The four case studies allow Sutton to explore the diverse ways his subjects integrated the two projects. On the far right was Birch, whose priority was always to make China a Christian nation. As Sutton writes, “He saw himself first and foremost as a foot soldier in the army of the Lord.” Both the Japanese and the Chinese communists were an obstacle to this goal. Birch believed that “God wanted him to stop these enemies of the faith.” Although Birch became a brave, risk-taking agent for the OSS, he always felt more loyal to Gen. Claire Chennault, who assisted Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese nationalist leader, in his battle against the communists. “Serving Chennault was, for Birch, serving the Lord,” Sutton writes.

The other three were ecumenical and comfortable with the mainstream Republican and Democratic leaders of the time. Herman worked with anti-Nazi churchmen in Germany but showed a lack of sympathy for non-Christians. Sutton details Herman’s long struggle to appreciate the plight of Jews who had not converted to Christianity. He was devoted to the OSS and to the Dutch, British and American churchmen who were building the ecumenical World Council of Churches.

Penrose’s sense of world politics and of the Christian faith was more pluralistic than Herman’s. When working in the field, however, Penrose’s sympathy for Arab nationalists made him reluctant to have the OSS cooperate with Jewish groups in Palestine. The Jewish groups’ hopes for statehood were opposed by most Arab leaders. Sutton persuasively argues, however, that Penrose undervalued what the Jewish groups offered to the OSS. After the war, he was a major architect of the CIA.

Eddy, the most important of Sutton’s characters, was at the liberal end of the spectrum. Far from expecting Christianity to overtake other religions, he celebrated Islam. He hoped for a future when Christianity and Islam would achieve a harmonious alliance against the common evils of the human heart. Eddy’s suspicions of Zionism were equal to those of Penrose, but Eddy was careful to distinguish it from Judaism, which he also admired. Like Penrose, Eddy helped to design and launch the CIA. When he left government service in 1947, he became an executive of the Arabian-American Oil Company, or ARAMCO. He believed that the oil industry, American military power and Protestant Christianity were all linked and that together they would help the Islamic world become a full partner on the international scene. In that sense, Sutton shows that Eddy was a missionary to the end.

Sutton skillfully juxtaposes his four stories, revealing the actions of each figure throughout the war and its aftermath. We see Birch dodging bullets in China while Eddy was translating for President Franklin Roosevelt and the Saudi king at a meeting aboard a warship in the Red Sea. “Double Crossed” is a great read and a fresh, archive-intensive contribution to our understanding of American intelligence during World War II.

The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War

By Matthew Avery Sutton

Basic Books. 401 pp. $30