Raymond Hooper Close CIA veteran and anti-war activist

Raymond Hooper Close

CIA veteran and anti-war activist

Raymond Hooper Close was a CIA officer, Middle East consultant, devoted alumnus of Deerfield Academy and Princeton University, and the scion of a family deeply attached to the Levant since the 1850s. He died on All Saints’ Day in 2019 at the age of 89, in Princeton, where he was born in 1930 and where he met his future wife Martha Jane Weir (known as “Marty”) when he was 13 years old. On September 8, 1951, they were married at the Miller Chapel at the Princeton Theological Seminary, where their joint memorial service was held soon after what would have been their 68th wedding anniversary. They would spend some of their happiest years in Clarke County, which they had often visited since the early 1950s before they owned their own beloved farm near Millwood for 20 years. He died six months to the day after his wife.

Ray was the son of Harold Wilberforce Close, the long-time dean of arts and sciences and professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut, and of Dora Elizabeth Eddy, a teacher and former OSS employee who spoke German and Arabic fluently and whose grandparents began the family’s over 170 years of life and work in the Arab world, an association that continues to this day.

In the course of his long life, Ray’s store of experiences was rich indeed. On May 21, 1941, for example, almost a year after the fall of France to the Nazis, Ray and his parents joined a taxi caravan of Americans fleeing Beirut, then under the rule of Vichy France and about to be invaded by the British. Their journey by car and train and ship back to America would take five months. They would cross the Middle East, the Indian Ocean, and the South Pacific, stopping in Haifa, Jerusalem, Cairo, Suez, Sydney, Fiji and Samoa, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Chicago and finally back to Princeton.

Along the way, the war always loomed on the horizon. In the western desert while they waited in Cairo, the British Eighth Army and General Erwin Rommel were grappling for control of North Africa. When they boarded the RMS Aquitania at Suez, they were taken past the blackened wreck of a British ship destroyed by German dive bombers, still exhaling smoke through the funnels that remained above the water line. When they reached Honolulu on October 6, it was just two months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

As a boy of eleven, Ray was entranced by the marching New Zealanders and Australians heading for the western front. He watched the Italian prisoners of war en route to work in the tea plantations of Ceylon, constantly singing their favorite arias to celebrate their survival. He joined his fellow passengers in singing “God Save the King” when the news came that Hitler had invaded Russia rather than Britain, always the family lodestar. Throughout their journey he knew his mother was without her husband for the first time since their wedding in 1916, and that she now dreaded the fate of two of her remaining three sons, one an Army officer and the other a submariner, both of whom survived the war. Ray idolized his soldier and sailor brothers and also missed his father, whom he would not see throughout adolescence, Harold having returned to Beirut to help keep open the American University.

As he began his 26-year career in the CIA, Ray saw himself continuing the family missionary tradition, this time as a secular proselytizer for democracy. He was inspired by President Kennedy’s call to public service. Several of his colleagues over the years would be imprisoned or assassinated but he never considered any other line of work, until much later when his youthful idealism would collide with the reality of American imperialism.

During his tours of duty in Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria, Lahore and Islamabad, and finally Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where he was chief of station, Ray was a witness to much of mid-century history. In Beirut, he arrived not long after the surge into Lebanon of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. When he was transferred to Egypt, President Nassar was on the rise, an ardent Soviet ally. One run-in with the power of the dictatorship came when he was unknowingly observed on the roof of the family beach house at Agami. He was frantically adjusting his short-wave radio to hear the broadcast of a Princeton/Yale football game. The officers of the dreaded mubahith, the Egyptian secret police, who pounded on the door the next morning were unconvinced by his football story and told him they would be watching him even more closely now that they knew for a fact that he was an American spy.

When the family moved to the city of Lahore in 1966, it had been a mere 19 years since Partition and only one year after the 1965 war between Pakistan and India, with intense hostility still simmering along the border of a divided Punjab. In Saudi Arabia, he watched the kingdom’s oil revenue explode four-fold overnight and urged senior royals not to sully their pristine desert with industrial age pollution and turn it into what would likely soon become a version of America’s rust belt. During his tenure, the Great Mosque in Mecca was taken over by extremists, King Faisal was assassinated, the Shah of Iran was deposed, and Kissinger roamed the Middle East trying to broker a peace between Israel and the Arab states, with Ray as his conduit to the highest reaches of the Saudi royal court. One former colleague says that Ray was largely responsible for sustaining America’s relationship with its then essential ally, the House of Saud.

In 1977, Ray resigned from the CIA, disillusioned by what he saw as the increasing militarization of the Agency, descrying its transformation into what he called the president’s private army. In October of 2002, a year after 9/11, Ray gave a speech to the Old Guard of Princeton that epitomizes the philosophy he had developed since his early days as a Cold Warrior. “Ever since September eleventh,” he said, “the big question has been ‘Why do they hate us so much?’ It’s the right question to be asking ourselves at the start of the 21st century. I reject as dangerously false the notion, popular with so many Americans, including many former colleagues of mine at the CIA, that it’s really not important if ‘foreigners’ like us or not. The only thing that really matters is that they have a healthy respect for our power. That attitude is the iceberg that most gravely threatens the safety of our Titanic in this new century.”

After the so-called shock-and-awe attack on Baghdad in March of 2003, Ray was appointed to the Iraq Study Group, a bi-partisan commission set up by Congress to assess the Iraq war. He became a voice against the de facto occupation, accurately predicting that the disaster would unfold for decades. He joined the anti-war march on Washington and then organized a protest on the Princeton campus against the torture at Abu Ghraib prison, standing in the freezing winter wind with a small group of Princeton professors as the students rushed past with barely a glance.

In recognition of his activism against the war and for his extensive work with the Coalition for Peace Action, the organization chose him to receive The Patriot for Peace Award not long after 9/11. “He was the perfect person for the award,” says the Reverend Robert Moore, the executive director of the CFPA. “He was authentically patriotic, loyal to an America that stands as a beacon of democracy. He was a true public servant. We benefited greatly from his vast experience and from his devotion to what is right. I was honored to know him and to work with him so closely for so long.” At the ceremony at the Princeton Battle Monument, which commemorates George Washington’s victory on July 3, 1777, Ray described the award as the greatest honor of his life.

Ray was born into a house of mourning. He was the youngest of five sons, two of whom he never knew. His brothers Kenneth and Harold had died in quick succession before Ray’s birth. Despite the enlightened stoicism of his parents, this double tragedy haunted the family, reaching into the consciousness of succeeding generations as well. For Ray, it is likely that it accounts for two of his most indelible characteristics, his determined optimism tempered by his dread that disaster always hovers just ahead.

Ray did not die easily. He endured a harrowing array of conditions, from cancer to diabetes, from congestive heart disease to surgery and other invasive treatments. As long as his pain was under control, however, he would re-emerge from his agony as the raconteur, the student of history and politics, and, above all, the kind and generous uncomplaining gentle man he was until the very end.

In his last year, he found the person who would become one of the most treasured of all his many friends, Andra Parsons of Parsons Home Health Care. Mr. Parsons helped sustain Ray’s sense of humor and inspired in him even more resolve than Ray already possessed. They were an unlikely alliance, separated by decades in age and by differing experiences. Yet it was to Mr. Parsons that Ray spoke the most important of his final words: “Looking back on my life, I will leave without one single regret. The hours are long now. I am ready.”

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