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Matthew Avery Sutton – Double Crossed – Review

Matthew Avery Sutton ReviewA Quandary Deeper than Truth-telling

A Review of

Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War
Matthew Avery Sutton

Hardback: Basic Books, 2019
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Reviewed by Nathan Day Wilson

At some level, any book about espionage is about the interaction between truth and lies. But this engaging and educational book by Matthew Avery Sutton, the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University, substantially intensifies that relationship and investigates its implications for religion, foreign policy, and international relations.

Here’s how: This book is about missionaries turned spies. For them, the quandary often goes deeper than truth-telling; it is fundamentally nothing less than the tension between moral ambiguity and clarity of conscience. Not just when is lying justified, but when (if ever) is killing? In the name of whom? At what point has a person of conviction who tells lies become a deceitful person?

While Sutton focuses on four people, he notes that they were not exceptional cases. In fact, dozens of missionaries were recruited as spies during and just after World War II to launch the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the first foreign intelligence agency for the United States that eventually grew to almost 13,000 Americans who, from 1942 to 1945, gathered intelligence for President Roosevelt and wreaked havoc against the Axis powers in every World War II theater.

The rationale was that missionaries not only had lived abroad but had lived as locals did. While other spies learned about the world through books and educational seminars, designed and executed by Americans, missionaries knew colloquialisms and cuisine, dialects and peculiarities, not to mention cultures and faith traditions. As Sutton memorably notes, missionaries, unlike many of their counterparts, knew not to put “ketchup on their tacos.”

In addition to these competencies, missionaries were good recruits because they were often characterized by zeal for and fidelity to their mission.

Take, for instance, William Alfred Eddy. Born in Lebanon to Presbyterian missionaries and raised in the Middle East, Eddy was fluent in Arabic and French before he attended the College of Wooster in Ohio. After serving in World War I, Eddy earned a doctorate in English at Princeton, where his dissertation focused on Gulliver’s Travels. He taught briefly at the American University in Cairo, but his spouse and children found life in Egypt to be difficult and so the family returned to the United States.

William Donovan, often considered the founding father of American espionage, recruited Eddy to the OSS at the start of World War II. Or, using more missionary-appropriate language, Eddy heard a call to serve his country again, and responded, “Here am I. Send me.” It is this intermingling of recruitment and call, of opportunity and responsibility, that reverberates throughout Eddy’s story and the others.

With his family remaining in the United States, Eddy was sent to Morocco. His knowledge of the Koran and his Arabic linguistic skills were critical as he formed relationships with Muslim leaders in northern Africa. Ultimately it was Eddy’s intuition and information that paved the way for the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942.

Eddy’s skills as a field operative did not go unnoticed – not by the American intelligence community, and not by its adversaries. Targeted by Axis agents, Eddy’s bosses warned him against “noticeable involvements” that might compromise his wellbeing.

Eddy, however, was convinced that he had much more to do for country and Christ. Namely, he developed and described in a memo to Donovan an “assassination program” to “kill all members of the German and Italian Armistice Commission in Morocco and in Algeria.” In order to protect the OSS (and United States government) and himself, Eddy hired a team of French hitmen and planned to frame the operation as a “French revolt against Axis domination” for the “shooting of hostages by the Germans and other acts of German terror.”

Around the time that Eddy was enacting his plan, he wrote to his family about the sacrifices he was making for Lent. “I am certainly abstaining from wickedness of the flesh,” he claimed. “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.” He was active in his local Anglican parish where he was “praying that all of us come through to better days when mercy and charity again return to the earth.”

Was Eddy morally confused or operating with a clear and coherent conscience? In other words, does his approval of planned assassinations while abstaining from movies in order to avoid wickedness make sense for a person of faith?

It may be the case that where one stands on that question depends on where one sits.

Those who consider Eddy’s actions to be morally coherent and consistent would note that – as indicated by Eddy in later writings and by other missionaries turned spies, namely John Birch – the logic, or the sense, came from the idea that they were eliminating those who did the devil’s handiwork. Further, the importance of rights such as the freedom to worship as one chooses justified doing whatever was necessary for that freedom, as one example, to flourish more broadly. In other words, the work of the United States and the work of the (Protestant) missionary movement at the time were essentially, if not entirely, the same. To support one was to support the other.

On the other hand, those who see these actions as morally inconsistent or ambiguous would posit – as indicated by Eddy after he returned to the United States and by others, namely Stephen Penrose, while still in the field – that the men of the cloth were never certain. In diaries and private correspondence both expressed concern about being able to justify their actions when they stood before the judgment seat of God. They and others also uncomfortably ruminated about how the elimination of the evil people would nonetheless negatively impact their innocent families and friends.

While the story is captivating and the storytelling often flows as well as any le Carré novel, the importance of this book comes from the ways, as a work of history, it illustrates the profoundly complex and always changing interactions between religion and global politics.

For instance, religion has the power to unite and to divide, to heal and to hurt. The Christian tradition, notably of the Protestant flavor, was identified during the WWII era to differentiate American freedom from Nazi oppression. It was to do the work of uniting. Since Vietnam, however, that same tradition has allowed its liberative power to be stifled by voices and forces intent on division in its name.

More broadly, the United States and other countries have consistently attempted to root foreign policy in the language and loyalties of moral conviction – whether derived from religious doctrine or humanistic principles. These efforts are not likely to dissipate, though they are likely to continue evolving. This book helps in that regard by enlightening our present with an important chapter of our past.


Nathan Day Wilson is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Read his blog at www.nathandaywilson.com and follow him on Twitter: @NathanDayWilson

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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One Comment

  1. Excellent review of what sounds like an engaging book. I’m curious what “voices and forces” the reviewer thinks have stifled the liberating power of Protestantism.