Sunday, December 15, 2019

Q&A with Matthew Avery Sutton

Matthew Avery Sutton is the author of the new book Double Crossed: The Missionaries Who Spied for the United States During the Second World War. His other books include American Apocalypse. He is the Edward R. Meyer Distinguished Professor of History at Washington State University, and he lives in Pullman, Washington.

Q: Why did you decide to focus your new book on missionaries who spied for the U.S. during World War II?

A: I am a historian of American religion and politics. I stumbled across the story of some missionaries who had worked for the CIA during the Cold War. I was curious about the origins of this history, and what I discovered was that the U.S. government began recruiting missionaries as spies during World War II.

So from there I embarked on a long research process, which essentially entailed finding needles in haystacks. But once I started finding a few elusive missionary-spies, I got really excited about what I was learning, about the role they played during the war, and about what they tell us about the role of religion in American foreign policy, American culture, and American intelligence.

Q: You look at the careers of four men. Why did you choose these four, and what is the relationship between John Birch, one of the four, and the John Birch Society?

A: I had a few goals in mind as I selected the main characters.

First, I wanted to tell the story of the war in all of its major theaters. So one of my characters is based in Western Europe, one is based in North Africa, one is based in the Middle East, and one is based in China. Through their lives I'm actually telling the story of the entire war as it unfolded between 1939 and 1945.

My second goal was to make sure I could tell the complete stories of these individuals' lives. So I began with the histories of many missionary agents, whose records were buried in the National Archives.

But those records only told half the story. For each of these characters, I also found the personal memoirs, diaries, and/or wartime letters to their families. In these personal sources, they explained what they were thinking and feeling during the war.

Of course in their letters and diaries they don't talk about their clandestine operations, but everything is dated, so I was able to triangulate between the government documents that laid out their operations with the letters or diary entries in which they reflected on what was happening in their lives.

Between the two kinds of sources, I was able to tell the full story of what the war meant to them, their contributions, and how the conflict affected them and their families.

John Birch was long gone by the time the John Birch Society was formed. To answer this question would require me to give away a little bit of the end of the book, and I don't really want to do that.

But the founder of the John Birch Society believed that John Birch was a hero in the line of the biblical and early church martyrs, so he named his group the John Birch Society to honor the legacy of John Birch.

Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, "Sutton rescues a crucially important story that raises profound questions regarding the relationship between God and country." How do you think these four people saw that relationship?

A: This was one of the most interesting parts of the research. Every one of my main characters really wrestled with the moral and theological and ethical dilemmas of what they believed they were called by God to do.

They had all developed very particular, very specific, very valuable skill sets for the purposes of spreading the Christian gospel around the globe. But they found that those very skills also made them excellent intelligence agents.

Despite their doubts about what the government was asking them to do--the lying, manipulating, deceiving, and killing--they all believed that in serving the United States, they were serving God.

Generations of missionary work in Asia and Europe were at risk, and they wanted to do everything they could to stop the empire of Japan and the Nazi regime.

Q: How did you research this book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I spent a lot of time in the National Archives working through recently declassified documents. I also traveled all over the country tracking down the personal papers of the various spies who I focused on. That led me to libraries and archives all over the country.

I also tracked down some of the family members of my main characters.

Finally, I also had a file a few freedom of information act requests.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm just getting started on a new book that will take a few years to write. It explores the role of Christianity in American life from colonial times to the present.

I want to understand how Christianity has shaped the United States--it culture, its politics, its global role--and how Americans have so significantly reshaped Christianity.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: This was a very fun book for me to write, and I hope and trust that my readers will enjoy immersing themselves in these amazing lives. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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