Monday, May 20, 2013

Donald Wilber - Spy/Archaeologist

A topic that has recently been gaining more attention in recent years has been the role of archaeologists and academics in intelligence work (read spying). One of the prominent members of the 1930s' expeditions of the Committee for the Excavation of Antioch was Donald Wilber. He has been mentioned in this blog chiefly for his role in drawing what is commonly used as the definitive map of Ancient Antioch (though we are quite partial to the versions of Poccardi and Uggeri). What other skills Wilber brought to the expedition we do not know, but he was definitely attached for many years to Princeton University which long had a history of providing intelligence personnel to the US government. As anyone who has seen the film, "The English Patient" knows archaeologists that can draw maps have other uses in tense international situations. 

Where exactly did Wilber fit in? Well it should be remembered that while the US did not receive a "piece" on Turkey in the initial carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, it was very involved in the process and had almost ended up as the most favoured party to block out European powers. Moreover, the Alexandretta Mandate that the French held remained one of the most unstable parts of the region, as Turkey gradually consolidated and the French and British entrenched themselves in Syria/Lebanon and Irak respectively. Thus the issue is whether the US would be interested in having someone on the ground taking notes. Such interest was proved useful when eventually Turkish agitation resulted in the "plebiscite" of 1938 by which the Mandate (with its Alawite majority) was passed from France to Turkey. This was the last diplomatic coup for Ataturk on the eve of his death.

Donald Newton Wilber was born on November 14, 1907 in Wisconsin and died on February 2, 1997 in Princeton, New Jersey.  Wilber's specialties were the ancient and modern Middle East. He received his A.B. (1929), M.F.A., and Ph.D. (1949) from Princeton University, where he was the first student to receive a doctorate in architectural history. Wilber wrote histories, travelogues and commentaries on Iran, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. 

His book Iran Past and Present, was published in nine editions. Wilber also collected oriental rugs, and was president of the Princeton Rug Society for many years.  His book on Timurid architecture is regarded a major work. Wilber was a founder of the Princeton Rug Society. Wilber had a long association with and a financial interest in Oriental Rug Review.  

Meanwhile pursuing these academic interests, Wilber served as a United States intelligence officer with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and was an active participant in the power struggles of nations, especially during the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union in Iran after World War II. He is best known as the architect of the CIA project "Operation Ajax", a successful plot to overthrow the government of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. The plot replaced Iran's first democratically elected leader with the monarchy of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

His memoir, which partially recounts his role in the coup, is titled: Adventures in the Middle East and Iran, Past and Present and Iran Past
As the principle planner of Operation Ajax, Wilber deeply resented the way he was treated in Kim (well really, Kermit) Roosevelt's book, Counter Coup: The Struggle for the Control of IranIn 1957, Wilber founded Middle East Research Associates, meant to be a vehicle for Don to cash in on his knowledge of the oil region. This was not known to be a CIA front. However, the venture was never a great success (which probably proves it wasn't a CIA front!). 

Don Wilber was definitely a renaissance man, combining author, scholar, adventurer and spy.  It is interesting to contrast this type of deep knowledge of the "target" location with the slipshod way that intelligence is conducted these days with technology expected to mask real knowledge of the location in which the spy operates. This is only recently evidenced again by the US diplomat with the "bad wig" incident that caused another ruction in Moscow. 

While Wilber's later role in Iran is well documented it would be very interesting to know more about what exactly he was doing in Antakya between the wars. 

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