William R. Polk, Historian and Middle East Envoy, Dies at 91

William R. Polk, a longtime historian, diplomat and noted Middle East scholar who helped negotiate resolutions to conflicts, including the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, died on Monday at his home in Vence, in southeast France, near the Mediterranean Sea. He was 91.

His daughter Milbry Polk said the cause was leukemia.

Over six decades, Mr. Polk delved into multiple careers, working in and out of government, writing, co-writing or editing more than two -dozen books and traveling the globe, often to hot spots.

His academic background was in Middle East studies. In the late 1950s, he started writing articles in The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs and other publications detailing what he saw as the failures of American policy in the region. In 1961 President John F. Kennedy put him in charge of planning policy for most of the Islamic world.

He also served on Kennedy’s three-man “crisis management committee” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

President Lyndon B. Johnson called him back to the White House during the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War to write a draft of a peace treaty. He also helped bring about a resolution to the Algerian War and in 1970 negotiated a cease-fire in the Suez Canal.

One of his best-known books was one of his last, “Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War Between the Muslim World and the Global North” (2018).

“This is history as Herodotus imagined it,” Chas Freeman, the former American ambassador to Saudi Arabia, wrote in a blurb. “A brilliant and very readable retelling of the past to explain the present.”


Another highly praised work was “Out of Iraq: A Practical Plan for Withdrawal Now” (2006), which he wrote with former Senator George McGovern.

Mr. Polk’s interest in geopolitics was fueled in part by his older brother, George, a CBS radio correspondent based in Greece. George, who was 17 years older than William, was murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war. The next year, Long Island University established the George Polk Awards for investigative reporting; the prizes remain among the most coveted in journalism.

William Polk devoted much of his life to figuring out what had happened to George, including examining the historical context of his death. The death has been a mystery for decades, with the Greek government accusing the Communists of killing him, and the Communists accusing the government. Milbry Polk said that her father had recently completed a book about him (not yet published) titled “The First Casualty.”

“For my final book,” Mr. Polk wrote in an unpublished collection of letters to family and friends, “I have turned back to a task I have been putting off for nearly half a century — a sort of biography of my brother George, the unmasking of his killers and the transformation of the world on which George was reporting.”

Though he was a historian, William Polk was no armchair academic. In 1971 he spent a month crossing, by camel, the shifting red sands of the great Nefud Desert in the Arabian Peninsula to capture the vanishing way of life of the Bedouin and to better understand an ancient poem, the “Golden Ode,” by Labid Ibn Rabiah, a pre-Islamic Arab poet. His small caravan traveled from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Amman, Jordan, an arduous 1,200-mile excursion that had not been done by camel in more than 50 years.

Mr. Polk wrote about the journey in his book “Passing Brave” (1971), and he published his translation of the poem, with his commentary, in “The Golden Ode” (1974). Both books featured photographs by William J. Mares, who had accompanied him.

“He was a classical Arabist,” his daughter said. “He wanted to experience the poet’s words himself rather than sit in a university and translate them.”

William Roe Polk was born on March 7, 1929, in Fort Worth, where he grew up. His father, George Washington Polk, was a lawyer and rancher. His mother, Adelaide Elizabeth (Roe) Polk, was a librarian.

One of five children, Mr. Polk was descended from James K. Polk, the Tennessee Democrat who became the 11th president of the United States, from 1845 to 1849. Years later, Mr. Polk wrote “Polk’s Folly: An American Family History” (2000), in which he traced his forebears’ saga since their arrival in Maryland in 1680 and showed how it had paralleled the growth of the nation.

His ancestors served in every one of the country’s wars, including on both sides of the Civil War — a pedigree that inspired him to go to high school at the New Mexico Military Institute, where he trained in the cavalry.

He graduated in 1945, but before going on to college he studied Spanish in Mexico and Chile. He joined his brother George, then in Cairo, for a time, and worked briefly as a reporter for The Rome Daily American.

He then immersed himself in a decade of academics, starting at Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history in 1951. From there he went to Oxford, where he earned another bachelor’s degree, this one in Arabic and Old Turkish. He went back to Harvard for his Ph.D. in history, which he received in 1958, then back to Oxford for his master’s in Arabic and Old Turkish in 1959.

From 1955 to 1961, he was an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies at Harvard, before joining the State Department under Kennedy.

He began teaching history in 1965 at the University of Chicago, where he established the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Two years later he became the founding director of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs, an independent center for political studies that was later absorbed by the University of Chicago.

He founded a consulting company that advised major corporate clients on projects in the Middle East. He also lectured at universities, wrote for numerous publications and appeared frequently on television discussing developments in the Middle East.

Mr. Polk’s first marriage, to Joan Cooledge, in 1950 ended in divorce in 1960. His second marriage, in 1962, to Ann Cross, ended in divorce in 1975. He married Baroness Elisabeth von Oppenheimer in 1981.

She survives him. In addition to his daughter Milbry, he is survived by his daughters Alison E. Polk and Eliza F. Polk; a son, George W. Polk; and eight grandchildren.

Mr. Polk spent his last months steeped in research and writing, leaving behind several manuscripts that he had hoped to complete.

“There was always more to learn, more truth to be ferreted out from among the facts,” his son, George, said in an email. “As he wrote, ‘I end with curiosity still racing merrily ahead as my occasional answers limp slowly behind.’”

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