[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened August 1977
Oral History Interview with
July 26, 1974
by Richard D. McKinzie
Mr. Wright has asked that this letter be included as a preamble to his interview.
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW
MCKINZIE: Mr. Wright, perhaps you could start by telling how you got into Government work and your personal background before you went into the Government.
WRIGHT: My background is a rather unusual one because my father went out to the Middle East in 1878 and I was born in Iran. As such I have dual citizenship. I've never used my Iranian citizenship, it's conferred upon me by birth. I grew up in Iran and learned to speak Armenian and Turkish. I was born in Tabriz, which is in
the northwestern part and a Turkish speaking area.
When I came back to America I went to Wooster College and graduated in 1918. Then I took three years of theological work. My father was a missionary and I thought I would need some theological background for work in the field. I went to McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago and then back to Iran. I spent 16 years in educational work there, being the principal of several high schools in Tabriz, in Rasht, and in Hamadans (1921-1937).
I came back here after the Iranian Government had nationalized all the schools and there was no purpose in staying in Iran. I decided to take a course in ancient history at Columbia University. I thought I would get my doctorate in ancient history and for the next four years, 1937 through 1941, I was working on
This has a great deal to do with my working in the Government, because I had lived in the Middle East. I was interested in it, especially the religious background. I have studied Islam a great deal, I have studied Arabic, and I wanted to get the whole Jewish point of view. I took three courses under Dr. Salo Baron, who is perhaps the outstanding Jewish scholar in America. He is the author of a seven-volume history of the Jews.
What I wanted to do was get this religious background. I'm convinced that religion underlies much of our language, though we don't recognize it.
In other words, the themes and dogmas of religion underlie the way we see the world. If you would understand especially the Middle East, which never had a renaissance, you simply have to know this religious background. I
majored in the religions, culture, and history of the Middle East.
When the war came on, the OSS put out a general request to find people who knew the Middle East. As I recall, there were only six people in America at that time (of American parentage), who could read or write Persian. I was one of them. Practically all of us got dragged into the Government. We had no political background in the Middle East and practically no interest in politics there. There was no great dirth of what you might call specialists or experts in the Middle East. There were a few from archaeology, a few missionaries' children, and a few from business. Many of us were dragged into the research branch of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), to prepare materials for the U.S. Government in case the United States became involved in that
Eventually, Mr. [Winston] Churchill called up President [Franklin] Roosevelt and said that they did not have the facilities to handle supplies for Russia across Iran. [For details: George Lenczowski, Russia and the West in Iran, 1918-1948, Cornell U. Press, pp. 273-275.] Immediately the OSS asked me to prepare a study on the railways and transportation systems of Iran. I wrote a very complete one because I found in the Library of Congress all the sources, in Persian, of the railway maps and whatnot that had been sent in earlier. I was able therefore to prepare a full study on the Iranian railway system. This got into the Department of Defense and Mr. Roosevelt said, "Well, we'll take over the Iranian railways and operate it under the Persian taskforce."
They found my name on this study and immediately offered me a captaincy in Intelligence. They assigned me to go to the Middle East and work in the Intelligence side of
the operations (E-2).
I was sent, in 1942, to Iran. I might mention the Russians protested my being there, because they knew I spoke all the languages. They reported that I was an American spy and a dangerous character, and that I would be shot immediately because I was so hated by the Russians--a bluff which had its effect.
The result was that the Defense Department moved me out of Iran and sent me to Cairo. I spent the rest of the war in Cairo in Intelligence and handled the Iranian situation from Cairo. This is the way we had to do it, but I made frequent trips there.
Also there opened up a position in Palestine. We had had a man there but he was transferred and Palestine had no Intelligence officer. For a year I worked in Tel Litvinski, which is just outside Tel Aviv, the U.S. Army headquarters.
This period is very important for what I have to say about serving under President Truman, because while I was there I realized that there was going to be a war between Jews and Arabs; that was just certain. This was because of the concepts of the two societies. One has to get into the attitude of mind and the philosophy of these two societies to understand this problem.
I made a special study of Zionism, and I talked with as many people as I could find who were the leaders of the Zionist community. I interviewed Golda Meir at that time; she was then labor secretary. I had conversations with Reuven Zaslani, who later was called Shiloah (all these people changed their names later on); Dov Joseph, who became the mayor of Jerusalem during the war; and Teddy Kolleck. I made a special effort to meet them, talk
with them, and find out what Zionism is; what it stands for. I also found that there was a school in Tel Aviv, known as the Gymnasia Herzliya. It was the training school in which most of the modern leaders of Israel had gone; Moshe Dyan and others. I talked with a number of the teachers and professors there. I felt that this was a school dedicated to inculcating and indoctrinating [Theodor] Herzl's ideas into the minds of the young Jews in Palestine. [See: Moshe Menuhin, The Decadence of Judaism in our Times, Exposition Banner Book, 1965. He was a graduate of this school.]
At that time many of Herzl's writings were not yet translated into English. In fact, they were not translated until 1952, so no one had really any easy access to this material unless he knew German or Hebrew. I don't know either one of these very well. I studied some Germany and some Hebrew, but I talked with the people who were the professors there and also got to know Edwin Samuel, the son of Lord Samuel who was the
first High Commissioner of Palestine.
With Edwin Samuel, I made trips all through the kubbutzim. We spent several days at Ein Geb, Mishmar Ha-Emek, and at various other of the kubbutzim. During this period I became convinced that Americans didn't know what Zionism was at all.
The material was not in English. There was very little of it known to America, and I came to the conclusion that it was a very dangerous type of philosophy of living.
What I found out was that Herzl had taught that all the Jews of the world should go to Israel. This was the idea that dominated the Yishuv (the Yishuv means the Jewish community of Palestine) and even Ben Gurion, who was at that time Secretary of the Jewish Agency.
The Jewish Agency was a shadow government. It already was a government of Israel; simply waiting for the veil to be pulled and it would
emerge. It had all the functions of government. I found their ideas were that all Jews should leave the Gentile world. This is in Herzl: "Gentiles hate Jews, they are going to destroy the Jewish world." It's a paranoic view of things. The only way Judaism can be saved is for the Jews to leave the Gentile world completely; to go to a Jewish state, as Herzl put it in his book. There they would rule themselves and be able to get away from the hatred of the Gentile world. The Gentiles are out to destroy Judaism. [See: Theodore Herzl, The Jewish State, N.Y., 1943.Diaries in II Volumes]
I did not believe this. I think it's a false concept of society, and especially false of American society. Nevertheless, this is the foundation of Zionist thinking.
The second step was that this Jewish state must be in Palestine. This is the sacred home of the people; its literature was developed there, and their attitude was that Judaism
cannot survive in any other place except Palestine itself. That's where it grew and germinated, and it's got to get back there in order to save itself. Otherwise, Jews are going to assimilate in other countries. Herzl himself made the statement that, when the Jewish state is set up, if a Jew does not go to live in it he is anti-Semitic because he chooses to live with Gentiles rather than live with Jews which are his real community.
I got all these ideas through talking with people who were Zionists. The third step in Zionism was that they must have large enough a state in order to keep the whole Jewish population there. At that time there were about fourteen million Jews, and now that meant owning a very large territory. It is not brought out in Zionist propaganda in America, but what they claim is all the territory from the Suez Canal clear north to the mountains of Cappadocia,
in southern Turkey. [Statement by Herzl. Also see Numbers 34; Genesis 15:18, Joshua 13, II Samuel 8:5-6.} It includes all of Lebanon, much of Syria, Jordan, and Sinai. This is the territory they call "Eretz Israel," the land of Israel, which is mentioned in the Bible.
Furthermore, in the Bible you will find the boundaries of "Eretz Israel" as given by God. There are several places these are found, Numbers, the 34th Chapter and so forth.
One of the men whom I discussed this with was Rabbi Meyer Berlin, the Chief Rabbi in the Mizrachi group. These are the ultra-orthodox group, who accept the Old Testament literally. Everything that it says is exactly just as it's described.
I might mention my concept of the Bible is that it is largely mythology; Jewish legend; distorted history. [See: John Van Seter, Abraham in Legend and History, Yale, 1975. Frank M. Cross, Caananite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Harvard, 1973.] There are a lot of poems and other sorts of things like this. There are a number of moral teachings in it, but they are
the minimum part of it. Large parts of it are just ritualistic and have no meaning in the modern world at all, but if you want to understand Jewish legend, that's the book to go to.
When I talked to these people I saw that they took it literally. Furthermore, in one of my conversations with Mr. Ben Gurion he made the remark that, "the Bible is our charter." I began to realize that Zionism is a thinly veiled theocracy. The Bible was in their minds when they were talking, but they used modern nationalistic language in order to hide the fact that this was theocratic in nature. They realized that a theocratic society would not appeal to America.
I might mention here that I have found Zionism very deceitful. There is a double meaning in all the words Zionists use, and [Chaim] Weizmann himself said one time, "Let the British or anyone else talk about Zionism
and they can use our terminology, but we know what the meaning of it is. It has one meaning to us, one meaning to the Gentiles." They've always had this double-entendre in everything that they have done. Whenever they use words you have to try to find out what is the context in which they are using these words.
This threw me back to studying the Bible again to see what they are talking about; what is "Eretz Israel," which includes this tremendous territory? Furthermore, in the covenants which God gave to the Jewish people, he said, "You are to be a pure and holy people and not to be contaminated by contact with Gentiles. Therefore, you should cast out all the inhabitants that are there and make it a Jewish state." [See Deuteronomy 7:1=6. Joshua 6:17; 8:21; 10:33. I Samuel 15:18, etc.] I found the same thing in Herzl: You must remove the Arabs and Palestinians in order to have an exclusivistic Jewish people.
I found Herzl's writings were really all ideas taken from the Old Testament, but dressed up in modern language, and that Zionism meant the incorporation of the whole Jewish community in Palestine. A large territory that was to be exclusively theirs, and the Arabs would be expelled.
I, at that time didn't have access to all the writings of Herzl, because they were in a language I couldn't use for research, but I got a lot through discussing this with various Jewish leaders. These are what I saw as their plans for the future. [I also met some anti-Zionists such as Rabbi Judah Magnus who was President of Hebrew University.]
When I was there I also made a point of discussing the Middle East with as many authorities as I could. There were a number of Americans who were in the American University of Cairo; I found the professors at Beirut extremely helpful; and Alfred Carleton, the president of Aleppo College. I made a point of
contacting as many Americans who lived in the area, who knew Arabic, and Arabic history. I myself knew a great deal of it because I had lived in Iran much of my life, and I also had a professor at El-Azhar University, which is the great theological school of the Muslim community in Cairo. I hired him to teach me Arabic so I could study the Quran and the background of Islamic history as well.
In other words, I went to the sources. I found that the area had not yet emancipated itself from the theocratic point of view of the world. Such ideas as we had in the West had never penetrated the Middle East. They are just beginning to penetrate now; technology and the objective and secular point of view. These people are introspective, they live in a world of imagination and mythology which they interpret as reality. This is true of Golda Meir, Ben Gurion and all the rest of them. They live in
a world of half myth and half reality. The result has been tremendous blunders that they have made in international relations.
One of the men whom I met when I was there was Loy Henderson. He was at that time our minister in Bagdad. I reported to him, and got to know him fairly well. I also knew George Wadsworth, our minister in Lebanon. I got to know some of these men very well and found them very well-versed in Middle Eastern history and the mood of the societies at that particular time.
I reported all of this to the Department of Defense and copies of my reports were sent to the Department of State. When I was demobilized and brought back from the Middle East in November of 1945, the Department of Defense immediately put me on what they called the "specialist corps." There were about 20 officers who were specialists in different parts of the world; who had studied
Chinese or Hindu or something else. I was put on that specialist corps to cover the Middle East. For the next six months I briefed General [George C.] Marshall about twice a week on the Middle East. Of course, this was a period when the Middle East was beginning to become important.
I should here make another statement: In 1944 Secretary Ickes made a statement that "the United States cannot oil the war much longer. We are running out of resources; we've got to open up oil resources in other parts of the world in order to fuel the war." The result was that in '43 the Department of Interior released very high-priority materials to go to Aramco in Saudi Arabia and technical personnel to develop those oil fields.
The Pacific fleet was partially operating on oil from Iran, but Iran was not able to rapidly develop its sources and Aramco was given the green light: "Build, get anything you need to,
and the United States Government will support you."
When these orders went out to allow Aramco to develop, the Defense Department sent off what we call a signal. It said, "Immediately prepare for us a special report on oil. We want to know what the oil situation in the Middle East is."
Now, I'm not an oil man; I'm not an economist. I'm a historian and a researcher, but the Army sends you to all kinds of odd jobs, especially if you're in Intelligence.
I was called in by General [Barney M.] Giles who said, "We want you to prepare this report."
Fortunately I had met in my contacts, many of the oil men, and I went to representatives of Caltex. I said, "Could I travel around with some of your men in the field and get the necessary technical language and some material?"
They were very anxious to cooperate with us.
The result was I made several trips into Arab territories along with the drillers and the field men. I talked with them trying to get the whole geological structure of the oil of the Middle East. I became, by osmosis, somewhat of an oil expert. I think of myself as sort of a person who explains things to other people in ordinary English. This is what I try to do, and I take no pride in the fact that I'm an oil specialist, I can take facts and put them in English, and that's been my value. What I did was prepare for the Defense Department a study on the oil resources of the Middle East.
As I look back on this, thirty years later on, it was an infantile effort. Oil was just being discovered and very little was known about it at that time, and what has happened since then has been phenomenal. My report anyhow was sent in and copies of it went to the
State Department. It was one of the first official documents on this. Up until this time we had a petroleum advisor in the State Department, but he did not produce this type of popular work; that anyone can read and get the picture.
What I found out was that the average well in the Persian Gulf area produces from 500 to 1000 times as much as the average well in the United States, and costs only six to ten cents a barrel to produce.
These facts at that time were completely unknown, and they still are unknown to the average person in America. Americans are as ignorant of where their oil comes from as if it rained from heaven. So when there is an Arab oil embargo nobody knows who to blame for a shortage of oil. The confusion in America in 1973 over where our oil comes from is an indication of the stupidity and the ignorance
of the American people on the facts of life. I learned these facts of life back in this period, because I had to study it and report on it.
When I came back to Washington, the Defense Department had me prepare a special discussion with maps and visual aids. At one of these discussions they invited in the State Department people. The Defense Department felt they had something of value. They invited in [Dean] Acheson, Loy Henderson, Spruille Braden, and a whole group of the creme de la creme in the State Department, including Harold Minor.
I gave this talk on oil and Loy Henderson was there. He had heard me also in Bagdad, and afterwards he came up to me and said, "What are you going to do when you are discharged from the Army?"
I said, "I don't know. I think I'll go into teaching, because that's the field that I'm
especially interested in."
He said, "Well, don't you think about teaching; we want you to come into the State Department."
As a result he sent Harold Minor, his assistant on Middle Eastern affairs, and they got me to apply for a position in the State Department. That's how I got in.
When I reported in February of 1946, he said to me, "I don't want you to get tied down with any one kind of job. You're not so highly specialized, but I'm going to make you a special assistant and you will just simply handle everything that I assign to you."
In other words, there was no job description for me. It was because I knew the languages, the history, and the background so he wanted to use me just as a generalist; a sharpshooter on anything that happened. As such, I was his special assistant and I sat in the office right
outside Loy Henderson's office. I found him a remarkable person. He was honest, I could talk frankly to him. Although we had different backgrounds, but we had a lot in common. Immediately the Iranian issue came to the fore, the question of Azerbaijan. [See Lenczowski, pp. 284-303] He said, "You work with the Iranian desk on this."
I did a great deal of the work on briefing and writing of memos and going up to the United Nations at the time that this Azerbaijan issue came up. I might mention, in connection with leaks, that an official Government policy is to leak non-sensitive stuff. Mr. Henderson told me, "You know, the public doesn't know anything about this. You give as much information as you can, without compromising the State Department, to the various agencies around here."
I got to know Stuart Alsop, I gave him a lot of information. I got to know other men who were working in other areas and I was able,
through the press, to put out a lot of information on Iran. It was not confidential stuff, but I became known as the source of material for the Azerbaijan and Iranian issue. They found out that I was sort of an instant authority, that they could ask questions and I could give them information very quickly. So I got into contact with the press. It gave me an outlet and helped the American public to see some of the issues that were going on.
I don't consider this a violation of any oaths because I was not giving secret material. They wanted background material on the issues, and I was able to help them. It was not leaking secret material, it was simply using the information that we had in the personnel of the Department.
One day Ted Winetal of Newsweek came in to see me and asked me some questions about Iran. I told him, "Well, you know, there's a lot I can't tell you."
He looked at my safe containing all my material there and said, "You've got more material in that safe than we could collect for ten thousand dollars in two years."
I said, "Well, that's true, but it's just not material I can give out."
Many people in the State Department do have this material available. The problem is how do you get it out to the public, because you can do it from an illegal way, or you can try to help out the press. I was very fortunate in my relationships with these newspapermen; not one of them ever betrayed me. They did not quote my name and they didn't give away secret material, but we were able to use the information the State Department had to get across to the public what I looked upon as an educational program. It's essential because we did not have very many people in the Middle East and the American public knew very little about it. Suddenly the
United States was projected into Middle Eastern affairs.
In April 1945, I happened to be going from Bagdad to Teheran on a British army truck, on a morning in April when they turned on the radio and they announced the death of President Roosevelt. They said President Truman had taken over, and I knew nothing about this man. What is his background? He was almost an unknown to the average American and we wondered, "Is he going to be able to handle the type of problems that are coming in the postwar period?"
Up until the war we had not been