Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1990, Page 28
A Respectful Dissenter: CIA's Wilbur Crane Eveland
By Mary Barrett
Former Central Intelligence Agency operative Wilbur Crane Eveland, author of the autobiographical Ropes of Sand, America's Failure in the Middle East, died Jan. 2 at the age of 71 in Boston's Dana Farber Cancer Institute. A major player in CIA covert activities in the Middle East after 1953, Eveland paid a severe personal price for publicly expressing over the past 14 years his "respectful dissent" from the conduct of US foreign policy in the Middle East.
"It is impossible to understand America's continuing failure in the Middle East without taking into account the misapplication of the CIA's responsibilities and functions in that area: the extent to which presidents have ignored its intelligence estimates; the degree to which its clandestine political action capabilities have been employed as substitutes for sound foreign policy and conventional diplomacy," he wrote in the introduction to his book, published over CIA objections.
"Because I played some part in shaping what America aspired to, and had to live with what we lost, I hope that this story of my own life may contribute to dispelling some of the confusion that has obscured the Middle East's problems and led to the misery and suffering that continue even now."
Eveland, born in 1918, lied about his age to enter the Marine Corps Reserve at 17. In 1940, he slipped out of his parents' home in Spokane, Washington in the middle of the night and headed east to join the army. Within a year he was inducted into the Corps of Intelligence Police, predecessor to the Counter Intelligence Corps, and was transferred to the Panama Canal Zone after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Moving rapidly through the ranks, Eveland served subsequently in France and Germany during the fighting there and later in the Pacific theater, picking up numerous awards and medals along the way. He left the army in 1945 but returned later to study Arabic and become a military attache. In 1950 he began a two-year assignment in Iraq.
After 1953, Eveland worked for the CIA as a troubleshooter for its chief, Allen Dulles. He became such an effective player in the Middle East arena that CIA political operative Miles Copeland said in his recent book, The Game Player, "I still think of the period 1957-60 as the Eveland Era of Arab-American politics." He is remembered as well for his informality, style and quick wit.
Eveland was on a first-name basis with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA top brass cousins Kermit and Archie Roosevelt. He knew Egyptian leader Gamel Abdul Nasser and the Shah of Iran. In his book he recounts involvement in such 1950s CIA covert activities as an attempt to rig elections in Lebanon and overthrow the Syrian government in Damascus. Eventually his work for the CIA was done on a contract basis, he said, to provide the agency with deniability for his actions.
He was in Rome through most of the 1960s where, under cover as vice president of Vinnell Corporation, he carried Vinnell/Defense Department ID with GS-18 status, making him the equivalent of a lieutenant general. In the 1970s, Eveland nearly saw substantial wealth as vice president of the Fluor Corporation, but after tangling with some of the heavyweights in the world of international business and politics, he landed penniless in a Singapore prison in 1976.
Reappraising His Life
It was then that he began the reappraisal of his life which led to his decision to write Ropes of Sand. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he accumulated much of the material which defined the modern history of US diplomacy in the Mideast and documented his own relation to it. Its 1980 publication was delayed when the CIA claimed to have a document in which he agreed not to reveal anything about his work. When the CIA did not produce the document, publication proceeded under threat of suit.
Eveland's profits never exceeded his debts, however. Without income, he hoped to live on his pension, but discovered that the government didn't think it owed him anything. Eventually, Eveland believed, the CIA leaked documents implying that he had passed secrets to his old friend, double agent and Soviet defector Kim Philby. Eveland was never able to get the government either to charge him with espionage or to pay him his pension.
Although the tensions of his work had destroyed his two marriages, and poverty was eating away at his self-respect, one stable thing in his life was his close relationship with a woman he called his wife, Daisy Gellatly. She had helped with Ropes and shared his struggle with the CIA. When she was diagnosed with cancer, he was devastated. She died in 1982. Eveland subsequently charged that her respirator was turned off by a member of the intelligence community, who coolly admitted the murder to Eveland. Soon after, Eveland reported that he barely escaped death when the car in which he was sitting was struck by a hit-and-run driver. Eveland fled, spending several months with his son Crane and his grandchildren Monique and Mike in Kansas. By 1984 he had moved to Massachusetts and was himself diagnosed with metastatic cancer.
He enjoyed his proximity to the Crane family estate in Woods Hole, MA. Some relationship to Charles Crane, a businessman who preceded him to the Arab world, became part of his personal mythology. He had read with fascination the report prepared by Crane and Oberlin College President Henry C. King, sent to the Middle East in 1919 by, President Woodrow Wilson. The King-Crane report recommended that a united Syrian state, including Palestine and Lebanon, be given independence, but the report was ignored by the US government and the European colonial powers.
During his last six years, Eveland did everything possible to conquer his illness. He underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatment with extraordinary good will. Hospitalized for the last two months of his life, he was still busy dictating an outline for a new book and composing letters to friends. There were days spent quietly with his son Crane and visits with friends from Washington. He never forgot his goals and he never lost his sense of humor. Even while dying, Bill Eveland was a class act. ❑
Mary Barret is the literary executor of the Wilbur Crane Eveland estate.