Reviewed by J. R. Bullington, Editor
FDR’s 12 Apostles: The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa. By Hal Vaughn (The Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 2006. 311 pp. $24.95)
Sixty-five years ago, in November 1942, U.S. and British forces landed in French North Africa to launch Operation Torch, the first major Allied offensive of World War II. But since late 1940, well before America’s entry into the war, a senior U.S. Foreign Service Officer and a dozen newly-minted vice consuls had been working to prepare the way for this invasion and assure its success.
This book tells their story, a complex tale of intrigue, daring, skill, bravery, and blunders.
Robert Murphy began his diplomatic career in 1917 as a 23-year-old code clerk in Bern, where one of his colleagues at the legation was future CIA Director Allen Dulles. By the outbreak of World War II, he was serving as political counselor in Paris, and he became chargé when the embassy relocated to Vichy in 1940 following the French surrender.
Murphy’s reports from Paris and Vichy were noted by President Roosevelt, who in September 1940 called him to Washington for a personal meeting. FDR sent Murphy to French North Africa as his personal representative, instructing him to report directly to the White House, bypassing the State Department and Secretary Cordell Hull.
On reaching Algiers, Murphy quickly negotiated an agreement with the Vichy French leader, General Maxime Weygand, for the delivery of much-needed American consumer goods to North Africa, with the deliveries to be monitored by a dozen U.S. vice consuls serving under Murphy’s direction.
This was the first step in planning Operation Torch.
It was decided that the career Foreign Service could not supply these new officers, whose primary duty was to be gathering intelligence. Instead, the War and Navy Departments were tasked to recruit them. This was done, and by June 1941 all 12 of the new vice consuls were assembled in Algiers and Casablanca under Murphy’s command. They were upper-class, Ivy League gentry, mostly with service in World War I, the French Foreign Legion, or the American Field Service (ambulance drivers), and they were “itching to be involved in a war America had yet to join.” The staff of the U.S. diplomatic and consular posts in North Africa were not informed of their real mission, and tended to resent their presence.
Murphy and the 12 vice consuls immediately began collecting political, economic, and military intelligence. Soon, after U.S. entry into the war, they also took on a more operational role, seeking to arrange French support, or at least acquiescence, for the North Africa invasion.
This was exciting, dangerous, and important work among a confusing mix of Arabs, Berbers, Gestapo agents, British spies, and Frenchmen whose loyalties were divided among Marshal Pétain, General de Gaulle, and others. Although they were untrained amateurs at this sort of work and made many mistakes, Murphy and the “12 apostles” were instrumental in assuring that General Eisenhower and his Operation Torch staff “knew the disposition of the French…forces in every corner of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. They had an estimate of what resistance might be expected from the French, German, and Italian forces; and they knew something about the capabilities of the pro-American resistance forces…”
As the author concludes, even if he sometimes bet on the wrong French leaders, “nothing can take away from Murphy’s bravery, dedication, and dogged perseverance under unbearable pressure.”
Murphy went on to a distinguished Foreign Service career, eventually becoming Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. I recall being inspired, as a young FSO, by his memoir, Diplomat Among Warriors, published in 1964. Two of the 12 “apostles” will also be familiar to many American Diplomacy readers: Ridgeway Brewster Knight, who remained in the Foreign Service and later became Ambassador to Syria, Belgium, and Portugal; and Carleton S. Coon, who became a noted anthropologist and prolific author.
FDR’s 12 Apostles is a good read, and has useful lessons for those who today operate at the intersection of diplomacy, intelligence, and military operations during wartime.
Hal Vaughn, the author, has served as a Foreign Service Officer and journalist in Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. He currently resides in Paris.
J.R. Bullington is currently editor of American Diplomacy and a senior fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College. He is a retired Foreign Service Officer and U.S. Ambassador, with extensive service in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. From 2000-2006, he was director of the Peace Corps program in Niger. He currently lives in Williamsburg, VA.