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Wilford’s Success No Secret

Published: December 17, 2014

History’s Hugh Wilford’s America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, a history of how the first generation of CIA operatives shaped U.S. relations with the Middle East, has been awarded the gold medal in the Washington Institute’s 2014 Book Prize competition. Wilford, who joined CSULB from the United Kingdom’s Sheffield University in 2006, also will receive a $25,000 prize.

The Washington Institute Book Prize, now in its seventh year, is given annually to new books that have illuminated the Middle East for American readers. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy is an independent, nonpartisan research institution promoting debate and research on U.S. policy in the region.

In recognizing Wilford with the prize, the judges said: “Historian Hugh Wilford offers a riveting study of the CIA’s early involvement in the Arab world, showing … that the CIA, just like the State Department, was populated by Kiplingesque romantics and the sons of missionaries who gave the agency a strongly Arabist tilt…. Fine writing and research in untapped archives come together in this invaluable account….” America’s Great Game was published by Basic Books.

Wilford was delighted by his book’s recognition, which follows on the appearance of more than 30 reviews, including a selection as Editor’s Choice of the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal. “All points of view on the Middle East seem to have found something of interest in it,” he said.

One reason for his book’s recognition, he believes, is the scholarly research that went into it.

“It is an important story that really hasn’t been told before,” he said. “The CIA was the main instrument of U.S. foreign policy in the region during the early Cold War period. The Institute also wants to recognize books that reach beyond the scholarly audience. I wanted to reach out to a general readership and I think the Institute recognized that.”

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Wilford believes the distinction validates his choice of a controversial topic.

“The Institute understood the importance of this early moment in US-Middle East relations when there was a powerful pro-Arab, anti-Zionist element within the U.S. government,” he explained. “The CIA even funded a group attempting to shape American domestic opinion about the Arab-Israeli conflict called the American Friends of the Middle East. I try to explain why this Arabist tendency eventually lost out to other impulses in U.S. foreign policy.”

Wilford plans to donate the award’s accompanying $25,000 prize to a variety of causes. “I wasn’t expecting this prize money at all and there are several charitable organizations that would benefit a great deal from it,” he said.

As well as positive reviews, America’s Great Game has attracted media interest, including inquiries about a planned TV series from Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim whose 2013 documentary “The Square” was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards.

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PHOTO COURTESY OF HUGH WILFORD
Hugh Wilford

“I paint a surprising moment in U.S.-Arab relations when things were better,” Wilford said. “There was a history of American missionaries visiting the Mideast before World War II and a strong element of Arab-American friendship. That flowed into the CIA because a lot of the people who set up the Middle East division in the CIA were the sons of missionaries. They knew and understood the region through personal experience. I worked hard to write a book that would tell this story.”

Wilford was surprised and moved to be contacted by the families of some of the personalities he explores in “America’s Great Game.” “A lot of people whose parents were in the CIA have been in touch since the book’s publication,” he said. “I recall one woman in particular was the daughter of the CIA’s station chief in Cairo during this period. She’d been wondering just what it was her father did.”

Wilford is also the author of The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America, The U.S. Government, Citizen Groups and the Cold War: The State-Private Network, The CIA, the British Left, and the Cold War: Calling the Tune?, and The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution. He earned his B.A. in History from the UK’s Bristol University and his Ph.D. in American Studies from the UK’s Exeter University.

Wilford encourages potential readers to take a chance on America’s Great Game. “If you want to understand current U.S.-Middle East relations and the CIA’s role in those relations, this book details the moment it all began,” he said. “It was the first time the U.S. government had taken any kind of role in the Middle East. The consequences of a lot of choices made in this period are still with us today.”