REVIEW: The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, by David Talbot

the devil chessboard

In The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, David Talbot, the journalist who founded Salon.com in 1995 and wrote a great book on the lives of John and Robert Kennedy, Brothers (2007), has produced another page-turner that unearths mountains of new evidence about the seamier side of the rise of the United States’ Cold War national security state.

Talbot has achieved something rare in our scholarly discourse these days on the origins of the Central Intelligence Agency and the men who were responsible for shaping the Cold War ethos that for decades dominated American foreign policy in the 20th Century. By presenting the contours of Allen Dulles’s life and his everlasting imprint on the nature of the CIA in a cogent and highly readable way, Talbot offers us a new and sophisticated analysis of America’s secret Cold War history.

The Devil’s Chessboard is quite simply the best single volume I’ve come across that details the morally bankrupt and cynical rise of an activist intelligence apparatus in this country that was not only capable of intervening clandestinely in the internal affairs of other nations but domestically too.

Talbot’s exhaustive research, lively prose, strong moral conviction, and the ability to convey history’s relevance to our contemporary politics make The Devil’s Chessboard an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the institutional transformation that took place in this country at a time when rabid anti-communism dominated the thinking of foreign policy elites.

Some passages of The Devil’s Chessboard have a plaintive tone, a kind of lament about the irreparable harm the fanaticism of fighting the Cold War against Soviet Russia (and its alleged proxies all over the world) had on shaping a set of unaccountable secret institutions that have both distorted our politics and undermined the “democratic” principles for which the U.S. supposedly stands.

Exceedingly rare among baby boomer journalists and public intellectuals, Talbot does not shy away from pointing to the uncomfortable facts surrounding Allen Dulles’s life’s work. He chronicles Dulles’s secret activities just after World War Two as a young intelligence agent in Europe helping to establish “ratlines” so Nazis considered useful to the United States in the new Cold War against the Soviet Union could escape prosecution. Talbot also unpacks Dulles’s foundational role, first as a deputy director and then climbing to become director, in setting the course for the newly-formed CIA after President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act of 1947.

What followed under Dulles’s leadership were many unaccountable CIA projects that had to remain secret or spun with propaganda to suit the widely-held Cold War fantasies of the period lest they be shown to be so contrary to America’s self image they might generate opposition.

Secret CIA activities in the 1950s under Dulles’s watch included horrifying experiments in “de-patterning” and “mind control” involving LSD and hypnosis (often on unwitting subjects) to try to develop the means to “turn” Soviet agents (MKULTRA). Subsequently, Dulles led the CIA in its first experiments in “regime change” with the coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. It was Dulles’s CIA that played a key role in killing the nationalist leader Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1960, and setting up the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961.

At times The Devil’s Chessboard reads like an engaging spy novel proving yet again that fact is stranger than fiction. The book is full of intrigue and revelations that should make any fair-minded reader cringe at what the CIA has done in our name over the years.

Talbot’s social analysis of the period includes an excellent summation of the work of the great American sociologist C. Wright Mills (who died in 1962) whose book, The Power Elite (1956), cuts through the rabid Cold War ideology of the time to grapple with the darker side of the “American Century.”

Dulles, who was by far the most influential director the CIA ever had, Talbot shows, was for decades at the center of a secret American foreign policy. The author clearly understands power and he knows the extremes to which America’s “intelligence community” was willing to go to “save” the country from the communist hordes.

While serving as a young Office of Strategic Services (OSS) operative in Europe, Dulles participated in “Operation Sunshine” whereby any former Nazi who was either deemed a “gentleman” (meaning wealthy) or had any information or skills that might be useful to U.S. intelligence in the new Cold War against its former ally, the Soviet Union, could by whisked to safety far away from those pesky Nuremberg trials.

A German personality who Talbot calls “Allen Dulles’s kind of Nazi” is illustrative of the whole “Operation Sunrise” endeavor. Karl Wolff, who came from a rich family and passed through the highest echelons of respectable society during Hitler’s reign, according to Talbot, possessed “the right sort of pedigree” and was “the type of trustworthy fellow” with whom Dulles “could do business.” “It was Wolff who was put in charge of [Heinrich] Himmler’s important ‘circle of friends,'” Talbot writes, “a select group of some three dozen German industrialists and bankers who supplied the SS with a stream of slush money.” (p. 82)

It turns out that Dulles ignored Wolff’s affinity to the Nazi project and helped him escape from being held accountable at Nuremberg. Demonstrating that Karl Wolff might not be the kind of guy the U.S. should help, Talbot quotes a disturbingly technocratic note Wolff wrote to the Nazi transportation minister during the war:

“I was especially pleased to receive information that, for that last 14 days, a train has been leaving daily for Treblinka with 5,000 members of the chosen people, and that in this way we are in a position to carry out this population movement at an accelerated tempo.” (Quoted on p. 84)

Thus begins the history of the United States’ secret government with Allen Dulles present at its creation (and soon at the helm) showing that in the name of fighting communism the end would always justify the means, even to the point of forging alliances with those who assisted Hitler’s madness.

Coups and Rigged Elections

One disturbing revelation in The Devil’s Chessboard is Dulles’s willingness to use his expertise in spy craft and his intelligence connections (including hidden sources of money) to influence U.S. domestic politics as early as the 1952 elections. Back in 1948, unbeknownst to the Italian (and American) people, the CIA used laundered cash and secret intelligence assets in Italy to block electoral gains by communist and socialist candidates. This rigging of the 1948 Italian elections was seen as an intelligence triumph at the time and emboldened the CIA to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations. Dulles, as deputy CIA director, couldn’t restrain himself from using similar techniques at home:

“During the 1952 presidential race, Dulles proved his loyalty to the Eisenhower-Nixon campaign by channeling funds to the Republican ticket through CIA front groups and by leaking embarrassing intelligence reports to the media about the Truman administration’s handling of the Korean War – flagrant violations of the CIA charter that forbids agency involvement in domestic politics.” (p. 203)

Moreover, Dulles “had no qualms about advocating the assassination of foreign leaders,” and even presented a plan to Walter Bedell Smith “in early 1952 to kill Stalin at a Paris summit meeting,” which Smith “firmly rejected.” (p. 203)

After President Eisenhower appointed Dulles Director of Central Intelligence in 1953, “the CIA would grow more powerful and less accountable with each passing year of Dulles’s reign.” (p. 223) Talbot sheds new light on Dulles’s role in the CIA-engineered coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. These were watershed events in the history of the CIA since the Agency had never before engaged in fomenting “regime change” and, according to President Harry Truman, was never intended to function as an operational arm of U.S. policy in that way.

The CIA threw a lot of laundered money around and bribed Iranian officials (as it had done with the Italian elections in ’48), but added new tricks to its repertoire such as extortion, radio jamming, false flag operations, espionage, hit lists, kidnapping, and arming pro-Shah street gangs to achieve its aims in “Operation Ajax.” The coup d’état in Iran in August 1953 that toppled the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mossedegh and installed Shah Reza Pahlavi (who ruled until 1979) was heralded as a bold and daring U.S. triumph in the Cold War. (Today, given the antagonism between Iran and the U.S. it can be seen as a sort of “original sin” of failed U.S. policies in the Middle East.)

Talbot contextualizes Dulles’s actions as CIA director showing that he was operating in an atmosphere of intense anti-communism and xenophobia that permeated the entire American political discourse, especially foreign policy elites. A confidential report, cited by Talbot, that the retired Air Force general James H. Doolittle sent to President Eisenhower in July 1954 exemplifies the dominant Cold War mindset that Dulles embodied: “It is now clear that we are facing an implacable enemy whose avowed objective is world domination by whatever means and at whatever cost. There are no rules in such a game. Hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.” (p. 249)

The CIA’s role in the coup in Guatemala in 1954 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz (who Talbot likens to John F. Kennedy) also reveals the new operational capabilities of the CIA in manipulating the press:

“The agency’s disinformation campaign began immediately after Arbenz’s downfall,” Talbot writes, “with a stream of stories planted in the press – particularly in Latin America – alleging that he was a pawn of Moscow, that he was guilty of the wholesale butchery of political foes, that he had raided his impoverished country’s treasury, that he was sexually captivated by the man who was the leader of the Guatemalan Communist Party. None of it was true.” (p. 253)

Talbot’s retelling of many of the now well-known facts about the CIA’s role in the coups in Iran and Guatemala is cogent and alarming since many of the CIA’s assets and operatives who participated in “Operation Success” (the coup in Guatemala) resurfaced later as persons of interest in the Kennedy assassination: E. Howard Hunt, David Atlee Phillips, and David Morales. (p. 261) The CIA had a “disposal list” of fifty-eight key Guatemalan leaders at the time of the coup marked for assassination and even wrote a manual describing in detail how to go about doing it (which was made public in 1997). (p. 263)

Patrice Lumumba and John F. Kennedy

Among the many disturbing revelations in The Devil’s Chessboard is the fact that Dulles, after being kept on as CIA Director by then President-Elect John F. Kennedy, failed to inform the incoming Chief Executive during multiple briefings that the CIA had already participated in “neutralizing” the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba.

The CIA under Dulles never bothered to tell President Kennedy about Lumumba’s murder (even though Dulles briefed the new president on January 26, 1961 about the situation in the Congo). President Kennedy had to hear the news second hand from his United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. (p. 387) Hence, from the start of the Kennedy Administration Dulles kept secrets from his new boss.

No episode better illustrates Dulles’s separate agenda than his agency’s planning and execution of the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961, which ultimately cost him his job after President Kennedy sacked him (and Richard Bissell and General Charles Cabell).

Talbot’s take on this well-known story about the CIA’s ill-fated attempt to topple Castro is fresh and engaging. He uncovers convincing evidence that Dulles and his top aides set up the Bay of Pigs to fail in order to force the young president’s hand in bombing the island and sending in the Marines. Surprising Dulles and other national security holdovers from the Eisenhower Administration was President Kennedy’s resolve to stand by his earlier warnings to them that there would be no direct U.S. air strikes and no Marines landing in Cuba. “They were sure I’d give into them,” Kennedy later told Dave Powers. “They couldn’t believe that a new president like me wouldn’t panic and try to save his own face. Well they had me figured all wrong.” (Quoted on p. 402)

Indeed, they had “figured” JFK wrong because the President then fired Dulles, Bissell, and Cabell after their botching of the Bay of Pigs, which they had assured him would unfold in a similar fashion as the successful Guatemalan coup of 1954. But as Talbot points out later in the book, President Kennedy’s purge of the top echelon of the CIA had not gone far enough. He cites a letter to President Kennedy from W. Averell Harriman (who had been FDR’s Ambassador to Moscow and a veteran of Washington infighting), which refers to the CIA’s undermining Kennedy’s neutrality policies in Laos and Vietnam:

General [George] Marshall once told me that, when you change a policy, you must change the men too. [The] CIA has the same men – on the desk and in the field – who were responsible for the disasters of the past, and naturally they do things to prove they were right. Every big thing the CIA has tried in the Far East has been catastrophic . . . and the men responsible for these catastrophes are still there. (Quoted on p. 442)

On the subject of the Kennedy assassination Talbot offers one of the most comprehensive and thoughtful discussions of any book to date. In fact, if one reads carefully The Devil’s Chessboard along with James Douglass’s superb book, JFK and the Unspeakable (2008), the reader will come away with a deeper understanding of the “crime of the century” that synthesizes the most relevant details that fifty years of scholarship and investigation have provided.

Dulles’s role in the official government whitewash of the Kennedy assassination cannot be overstated. He was so important in directing the aims and outcomes of the Warren Commission’s “investigation” into the killing of John F. Kennedy that it should be more correctly called the “Dulles Commission.”

Since President Kennedy’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself murdered in the basement of the Dallas police building on November 24, 1963, there would be no trial. In its stead the nation was given a non-adversarial process of a presidential commission that runs counter to the norms of American jurisprudence, and which clearly had drawn the preordained conclusion that Oswald had “acted alone” before the first witness was ever called.

One of the many questions that Talbot answers in this book is the curious phenomenon of a right-wing Republican, Allen Dulles, whose professional and personal connections exclusively consisted of wealthy Wall Street bankers and lawyers, spies and spooks (like James Jesus Angleton), and foreign policy elites tied to the Rockefellers and the white shoe law firm Sullivan and Cromwell — who President Kennedy fired after he sensed Dulles lied to him and could not be trusted — would find himself heading the commission charged with “investigating” the murder of a president that Dulles neither liked nor respected.

There were no Kennedy allies on the Warren Commission. Only Republicans and Southern Democrats. J. Edgar Hoover controlled the physical evidence in the case and Dulles was in the pivotal spot to guide the inquiries or witnesses away from any fingerprints of intelligence agencies in concocting Oswald’s “legend” or in the events in Dallas. Serious students of the Kennedy assassination, regardless of their views of the Warren Commission’s “findings,” must read The Devil’s Chessboard if for no other reason than to flesh out Allen Dulles’s role in guiding the public’s perception of the crime of the century.

Talbot cites a little known French publication from 2002 where Charles De Gaulle, who himself faced an assassination attempt in 1962 that involved a team of snipers, expressed his view of the Kennedy assassination. Referring to Oswald, De Gaulle said:

The guy ran away, because he probably became suspicious. They wanted to kill him on the spot before he could be grabbed by the judicial system. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen exactly the way they probably planned it would… But a trial, you realize, is just terrible. People would have talked. They would have dug up so much! They would have unearthed everything. Then security forces went looking for [a clean-up man] they totally controlled, and who couldn’t refuse their offer, and that guy sacrificed himself to kill the fake assassin – supposedly in defense of Kennedy’s memory!

Baloney! Security forces all over the world are the same when they do this kind of dirty work. As soon as they succeed in wiping out the false assassin, they declare that the justice system no longer need be concerned, that no further public action was needed now that the guilty perpetrator was dead. Better to assassinate an innocent man than to let a civil war break out. Better injustice than disorder. (Quoted on p. 567)

You’ll just have to read The Devil’s Chessboard to learn about the layers of the onionskin Talbot expertly unravels regarding the killing of John F. Kennedy.

The Legacy Today

In an era where it’s given that Wall Street is untouchable, the President can use drones to kill anybody anytime anywhere, and the country has apparently accepted the “new normal” of warrantless mass surveillance by the NSA, we need to know about this history.

Saying that the secret agencies that emerged after World War Two to fight the Cold War have put our democracy “at risk” is now quaint; a hard look at the history Talbot uncovers shows that democracy isn’t “at risk,” it has been undone. He calls out his contemporaries who cannot bring themselves to contradict the Dulles Commission’s premature closing of the JFK murder case:

Those resolute voices in American public life that continue to deny the existence of a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy argue that ‘someone would have talked.’ This line of reasoning if often used by journalists who have made no effort themselves to closely inspect the growing body of evidence and have not undertaken any of their own investigative reporting. The argument betrays a touchingly naïve media bias – a belief that the American press establishment itself, that great slumbering watchdog, could be counted on to solve such a monumental crime, one that sprung from the very system of governance of which corporate media is an essential part. The official version of the Kennedy assassination – despite its myriad improbabilities, which have only grown more inconceivable with time – remains firmly embedded in the media consciousness, as unquestioned as the law of gravity.(p. 494)

The good news is that compared to the baby boomer historians, commentators, journalists, and other opinion makers who are too bought into the status quo to even dream of questioning the Dulles Commission’s bogus methods and conclusions regarding the JFK assassination, the young people today are far less kowtowed by the threat of being thrust into the “tin foil hat” conspiracy crowd.

After Watergate, Vietnam, the Church Committee, Iran-Contra, WMD in Iraq, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the fact that J. Edgar Hoover (of COINTELPRO fame) controlled the evidence the Warren Commission used for its preconceived “verdict” of guilty for Oswald, and that Allen Dulles was anywhere near an official investigative body looking into the Kennedy assassination, takes on new importance and requires a radical reevaluation of the whole sordid case. The Dallas police and the FBI couldn’t even handle something as routine as documenting the chain of custody for the two (or three?) 6.5 mm hulls found near the “sniper’s nest” on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. (See Barry Krusch, Impossible: The Case Against Lee Harvey Oswald, (2012), pp. 228-311)

To young people the Kennedy assassination isn’t a primordial childhood event that shaped their worldview like it is for the boomers. It’s far more remote, like Lincoln’s assassination, something that happened long ago with little direct relevance to their lives. Hence, young people today don’t see what the big deal is in contemplating the idea that elements that arose out of the same corrupt and morally bankrupt secret government that helped Nazis escape prosecution, brought down foreign democracies, or experimented with mind altering drugs on unwitting subjects, might not see any clear limits to their crusade to save the world from what they believed was an existential threat by turning their violent capabilities inward.

In today’s parlance we call it “blowback,” and one doesn’t need to wear a tin foil hat to grasp the potential consequences of allowing unaccountable power to fester. People entering college today were born in the early 1990s and have no direct life experience with the histrionics of the Cold War.

When I was in college President Ronald Reagan was still scaring the hell out of the country with lurid tales of communists attacking the United States from their safe havens in Cuba, Nicaragua, or even from the rural areas of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The Nicaraguan “contras,” along with the Afghan mujahideen, Reagan called “freedom fighters.” Reagan’s Defense Department officials, such as T.K. Jones, spoke loosely about surviving an all-out nuclear war with the Russians. And Reagan authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to prepare a host of new “civil defense” measures. With respect to elite attitudes toward nuclear war, the 1980s weren’t all that different from the 1950s: “Duck and Cover!”

What made Reagan’s first term all the more frightening was his administration’s thinking out loud about the “unthinkable” at a time when the United States was deploying Pershing II nuclear missiles and nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to West Germany, bulking up and modernizing its B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers, and launching new intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) systems, such as the M-X “Peace Keeper” missiles, the new D-9 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and a high-tech space-based anti-ballistic missile system (called the Strategic Defense Initiative).

Those days of nuclear brinkmanship and alarmism against the Soviets and the widely disseminated propaganda that farm workers from El Salvador were going to spread communism into south Texas are as remote to today’s college students as Prohibition was to the baby boomers.

Thankfully, students today don’t possess the knee-jerk attitude of their parents and grandparents toward looking at the guilt or innocence of Lee Harvey Oswald. “Millennials” have no problem contextualizing the Kennedy assassination inside the rabid anti-communism of a by-gone era. They can also Google in a minute more information than I could acquire in a week when I was an undergraduate concerning the history of the unchecked power of the CIA and the national security state.

Perhaps at some point, maybe when the last baby boomer apologist for the Warren Commission passes from this good earth, the country will finally be able to get the realistic understanding of the events of November 22, 1963 it deserves. David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard lights the way forward for those who still cling to the belief that history and truth matter.