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America's Own Lawrence of Arabia Played Key Role in Early US-Saudi Relations

He's not as well-known a figure in the modern history of the Middle East as Britain's T.E. Lawrence, but a U.S. Marine Corps colonel named Bill Eddy has been described as America's own Lawrence of Arabia. Eddy played a crucial role after World War II in forging a bond between the United States and Saudi Arabia and in shaping U.S. policies in the Middle East. The story of this largely unsung hero is told in a new book, Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East, by former Washington Post bureau chief and Mideast scholar Thomas Lippman. As VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi reports, it's a tale of an American whose keen knowledge of the Arab world helped him build bridges of trust between two very different cultures.

William Eddy was born in 1896 to a family of American Protestant missionaries in Sidon, Lebanon. He grew up speaking colloquial Arabic and, as author Thomas Lippman notes, he early on developed a strong affinity for both Muslim culture and the Arab people.

"He took them as his friends, his companions, neighbors, the people he lived with," Lippman says. "He learned their language, and he always was more comfortable in an Arab environment than he was in this country."

In his book, Lippman describes how Eddy's unique background and interests formed an ideal convergence that shaped both his military and political careers.

Colonel Serves With Distinction During World War II

Eddy graduated from Princeton University in 1917 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, just as America was entering World War I. After distinguishing himself at the famous Battle of Belleau Wood in France, he became a military intelligence officer, a role he would continue to play for most of his life.

Capitalizing on his fluency in Arabic, his many friends in the Arab world, and deep knowledge of the Middle East, Eddy provided valuable service to American intelligence and military operations as World War II engulfed the region.

"He was sent to Cairo as what they call a naval attaché, studying the ship movements in the Suez Canal, watching Germans, that sort of thing," Lippman says. "But then he was reassigned to Tangier in Morocco, where he was the chief of the American wartime spy, sabotage and espionage network known as the OSS, and he was instrumental in the success of the Allied [troop] landings in Morocco in 1942."

Personal Charm Helps Eddy Win King's Trust, Forge Ties Between Countries

Lippman says that by 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his advisors realized that Saudi Arabia - with its vast oil reserves - would be strategically important to the United States.

Roosevelt wanted to build closer ties with the oil kingdom and needed the right person to help him do that. He tapped Colonel Eddy and dispatched him to Saudi Arabia as the number-two official at the new U.S. mission in Jeddah.

Eddy's language skills, discretion, personal charm and affection for Arabs won him the friendship and trust of Saudi King Abdul Aziz. Lippman says Eddy helped arrange for the historic first meeting between the king and President Roosevelt in February 1945.

"When Roosevelt and the king finally agreed on the time and place to meet, it was Colonel Eddy who managed to negotiate all the cultural difficulties that surrounded the meeting of these two gentlemen, who were completely different in history, education, religion and every other way. Eddy put them together," he says.

The meeting was a success. The leaders mapped out future cooperation between their two countries, and Roosevelt, only a few months short of his death, won the king's approval for a U.S. military air base, near the eastern oilfields at Dhahran, to support the U.S. war effort.

Creation of Israel Prompts Eddy to Resign From Intelligence Post

When Colonel Eddy finally left the Middle East and returned to Washington after the war, he joined an interagency team that in 1947 created the Central Intelligence Agency. He served briefly as the CIA.'s first assistant secretary for intelligence and research. But in the autumn of 1947, as Lippman recalls, the United Nations' plan to partition Palestine and create the state of Israel convinced Eddy to resign.

"Just before the U.N. General Assembly vote on the partition, Eddy resigned from the government," Lippman says. "He gave a bureaucratic reason for doing it, but all the people in his family and his friends say he did that because he was seeing what was coming out of Palestine and did not want to be a part of it."

Lippman says Eddy believed the creation of Israel in a divided Palestine spelled disaster for American, Arab, Muslim and Jewish interests in the region, and he feared it would lead to wars in the Middle East. Eddy was not alone in those fears, says Lippman. Many Middle East veterans at the U.S. State Department, the War Department and U.S. intelligence agencies also opposed partition, and they let President Harry Truman know it. But Truman was facing an uphill re-election battle, and Lippman believes his political advisors persuaded Truman to back Israel in order to win the American Jewish vote.

Truman won re-election in 1948. Bill Eddy and his family returned to his roots in Lebanon, where he lived and worked until his death in 1962.

Eddy Sets Example for American-Arab Relations

Lippman says Colonel Eddy's extraordinary life offers at least one simple lesson for those hoping to ease the tensions between America and the Arab world.

"I think the message I'm trying to relay to readers is that it is entirely possible to be a patriotic American and a thoughtful person and be a friend to the Arabs, and that to be a friend to the Arabs does not necessarily mean today that you are hostile to Israel," he says. "It is too late for that. But this should not be a one-sided arrangement with the entire Middle East."

Lippman says Colonel Eddy's life offers a lesson as well for the new American president: building better U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds will require the cultural skills, sensitivity and scholarship that were the hallmarks of Colonel Bill Eddy's career.