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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

WSU professor explores use of missionaries and religious leaders as spies in World War II

WSU history professor, Matthew Sutton poses for a photo in his office on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in Pullman, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

If the name John Birch sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the John Birch Society, a far-right group founded more than a decade after his death in 1945. Less has been written about the man himself: a missionary-turned-spy who built a formidable intelligence network in China during World War II.

An ardent Baptist from an early age, Birch traveled to Japanese-occupied China to serve as a missionary in 1940. Two years later, he assisted a U.S. Army flight crew that had bailed from a plane while returning to the mainland from a raid on Tokyo. The Army made him an intelligence officer, and he later worked for the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA.

“He actually flew with the bombers so he could visually point out where to drop the bombs,” said Matthew Sutton, a history professor at Washington State University. “He hated the Japanese. They had destroyed the churches he had built. They were punishing the Chinese Christians. So he was doing everything he could to support the war.”

According to Sutton, Birch was one in “a small army” of Christian missionaries who were aggressively recruited to conduct clandestine operations during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. This little-known practice, Sutton said, “made Americans aware of the importance of religion” in gathering intelligence.

The professor recently won a $50,000 federal grant to research and write a book on the topic, tentatively titled “(Un)Holy Spies: Religion and Espionage in World War II.”

Right for the job

Sutton, who has written several books about the relationship between religion and U.S. politics, said missionaries were prime recruits because of their experience in foreign countries.

They “develop these certain gifts that they think they’re using to do good – to make Christians,” Sutton said. “They learn languages, they learn cultures, they sort of learn how to immerse themselves in these foreign groups. Suddenly, it’s those skills that are most coveted by the (Office of Strategic Services).”

Missionaries also had vested interests in the regions where they worked and wanted to defend against “godless Communism,” Sutton said.

“They believe in the war,” he said. “And they need to win the war, or else much of their missionary work is going to be wiped out. If Japan takes over China, there’s a hundred years of work that’s been done to lay Protestant foundations in China. If Hitler takes over Europe, that’s going to put most Protestants at risk.”

But participation in the war also presented a moral dilemma for these men of God.

“They have to become liars and cheaters and thieves,” Sutton said. “Most of my (characters) are directly or indirectly responsible for taking the lives of others, whether it’s Nazis or Italians or others. That wasn’t what they thought they would be doing with their lives.”

He added, “That’s the fun part of this story: thinking about the humans who are wrestling with this stuff.”

Giving orders

On Aug. 25, 1945, John Birch was leading a party of American, Chinese and Korean troops when they confronted a group of Chinese communists. He refused to hand over his revolver and was killed, even though the war had formally ended a week and a half earlier.

Birch was one of few missionaries who participated directly in the fighting.

“Most of them were giving orders,” Sutton said.

Another of his characters is Stephen Penrose Jr. – the son of the third president of Whitman College in Walla Walla. “He graduated from Walla Walla, wanted to go to grad school but didn’t know what to do, and decided to go on an adventure,” Sutton said.

So Penrose took up teaching at the American University of Beirut and became an expert on the Arab world. During a stint at Columbia University, a classmate introduced Penrose to an OSS official, who connected him to high-ranking intelligence jobs in Cairo, Europe and Washington, D.C., Sutton said.

Penrose, who later served as American University’s president, is also featured in Hugh Wilford’s 2013 book “America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East.”

Wilford wrote that missionaries “were a potential reservoir of field agents. While still based in Washington, Penrose had leveraged his contacts on several American missionary boards for intelligence purposes, obtaining street maps of Kuwait, for example, and grooming a young evangelist about to depart for Iran to gather ‘whatever information’ he could.”

To build a cohesive story, Sutton said he’s juxtaposing recently declassified government documents with letters held by families and private museums.

“I can see that they’re running this particular operation behind Japanese lines in China, and at the same time they’re writing their families: ‘You won’t be hearing from me for a couple months. I can’t tell you what I’m doing. But I’m really worried.’ ”

Lessons for the future

So did all these missionaries steer the war in the Americans’ favor?

“Probably not,” Sutton said. “The U.S. won the war because it had more and bigger and better guns.”

But, he said, the missionaries’ work taught future administrations to consider and take advantage of religious views when gathering intelligence. That lesson has played a role in every war since the 1940s, particularly those in the Middle East, he said.

“The missionaries weren’t just fighting for the government,” Sutton said. “They also believed they were fighting for God.”