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The Plucky Little King’

In response to:

Fishing in the Dead Sea from the November 20, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

Colin Thubron’s article “Fishing in the Dead Sea” [NYR, November 20] summarizes the life of a complicated man. Yet two new biographies of King Hussein of Jordan, one from an Israeli, the other from an Englishman, appear to present two different men: one consumed by the Palestine problem, the other chiefly concerned with his Hashemite legacy. Thubron himself hurries past a formative aspect of Hussein’s life, the crisis era from 1956, the Suez Crisis and the dismissal of British General Glubb, to the overthrow and murder of his cousins in Baghdad in July 1958. This was a time of testing and maximum danger for an untested king in his early twenties with little to sustain him beyond his native shrewdness, a few much-older advisers, family loyalty, and minimum support from a doubtful populace.

Struggling to save himself, Hussein shed the trappings of British rule, took up revolutionary Arab nationalism, and finally allied Jordan with the United States. The American connection saved him and sustained Jordan for decades by enabling Hussein to pay the Arab Legion, secure the Jordanian dinar, and foster substantial and unexpected economic growth. This arrangement, unique among US ties to the developing world of the time, was the bedrock of his survival and his emergence as an Arab statesman. No account of his life should overlook it, certainly not an American one.

In this short period Hussein gained his reputation for courage, and was dubbed in the British Foreign Service, per Nigel Ashton, “the Plucky Little King.” At this time, too, Hussein gained an earlier, and very American, title in Washington when, over the phone from a golf course in Georgia, President Eisenhower agreed with Secretary of State Dulles that something needed to be done “to help the Brave Young King,” a name that stuck for years among foreign service officers in the Office of Near Eastern Affairs and a score of US embassies in the Arab world. In early 1957 Hussein got his first annual tranche of $20 million and proudly we had our “BYK.”

I write this as I complete a manuscript of a novel about lives and events in that time when I was briefly King Hussein’s friend as well as second secretary of our embassy in Amman. Needless to say, its title is Saving the BYK.

John E. Merriam

Former Foreign Service Officer Second Secretary of the American Embassy Amman, Jordan (1957–1958)

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