Personality: Dr. Edwin M. Wright
Washington Report, October 7, 1985
Thirty years ago, in Washington, D.C., Dr. Edwin M. Wright opened a lecture at the Department of State's Foreign Service Institute with a question: When did the Arab-Israeli dispute begin? His audience of American diplomats responded with such answers as "with the Balfour Declaration in 1917" or "at the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland in 1897." Dr. Wright agreed with them all, but suggested they also include 1700 B.C., the time of Abraham, considered their patriarch by both Arabs and Jews. Forty-two years ago Russian military officers in Tehran were conferring with U.S. Army Major Wright about expediting American military supplies for the Soviet Army at Stalingrad. Nearly 90 years ago Edwin Wright was born of missionary parents at Tabriz, Iran.
The length and depth of Dr. Wright's involvement in the Middle East are suggested by such dates and circumstances. His impact on U.S. relations with the countries of the Middle East goes considerably beyond his own personal involvement, however. He is a teacher considered by Americans who have specialized in the Middle East as perhaps the greatest living U.S. expert on the area as a whole. He would modestly disclaim any such credit for himself. Rather he likens the ideas in his lectures and writings to balloons set loose. One never knows where they may land, but there is always hope that some seeker will find them.
A walking encyclopedia on Middle East history, culture, languages, Biblical scholarship, and religious and political movements, Dr. Wright hacks with obvious joy at the forest of myths about Israel and the Arabs that passes for reality in the American media. His authoritative lectures in the 1950s and 1960s at the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department's own university, constantly landed him in hot water with Israel-right-or-wrong fanatics. So comprehensive was his knowledge and so disarming his gentle humor, however, that no statement he made was ever successfully challenged. For years, partisans of Israel tried instead to intimidate him, by complaining to Congressmen or high-level officials in the Department of State and even the White House. He never failed to stand his ground courageously. He has, therefore, come to be revered by literally thousands of U.S. civilian and military officials who have heard his lectures.
Edwin Wright, who now makes his home in Wooster, Ohio, is another scion of those great church-oriented American families who started teaching and healing in the Middle East 150 years ago. Some went to Turkey and Iraq, others to Lebanon/Syria, where they founded the American University of Beirut and a network of supporting schools, while still others went to Iran. Together they built an enviable reputation for the United States which has been sadly diminished in recent decades by our pursuit of obviously unworkable policies in the Middle East, against the advice of virtually every American with firsthand experience there. Dr. Wright himself trained as a teacher and a minister, earning an AB degree at the College of Wooster (1918) and a BD degree from McCormick Theological Seminary (1921). He spent the next three years on post-World War I refugee rehabilitation in Iraq, following which he served as educator and school headmaster in Iran for 13 years. He then returned to the U.S. to earn an MA degree at Columbia University in 1938.
For the next quarter of a century, beginning in 1941, Edwin Wright had a distinguished career in the United States government. During World War II he served with the Office of Strategic Services and U.S. Army Intelligence, achieving the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In 1946 he became a Middle East expert with the Department of State, organizing the first Turkish, Persian and Arabic language broadcasts on the Voice of America. He helped found and then served as Assistant Dean of the Foreign Service Institute, where his brilliant lectures earned him the State Department's Superior Honor Award and the Defense Department's Legion of Merit.
He has also conducted courses at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, the U.S. Military and Naval Academies, the Defense Institute of Security Assistance Management, and the University of South Carolina. To this day he lectures regularly before military, university and church groups, particularly those near his Ohio home.
He now has the satisfaction of knowing that two generations of Foreign Service officers have been profoundly influenced by his "balloons." If the positive relationships between Americans and all of the peoples of the Middle East which prevailed for the century preceding World War II are ever restored, it will in some measure be thanks to this dedicated American whose scholarship, eloquence and personal example have truly made a difference in each of the two contrasting worlds to which he has devoted such a productive lifetime.
Andrew I. Killgore, a former US Ambassador to the State of Qatar, was counselor for Political Affairs in the US Embassy in Tehran.