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The Devil's Chessboard
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, The CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government
by David Talbot
(Harper, an imprint of Harper-Collins Publishing, 2015)
David Talbot is a noted journalist, the founder of independent news source Salon.com, and that author of "Brothers", an insightful biography of John and Robert Kennedy. "The Devil's Chessboard" is a crowning achievement, a dark and troubling history of America's post-World War II subtle and insidious turn away from Democracy and the concept of one man/one vote to a secretive and deadly environment of manipulations and assassinations that became the Cold War, and perhaps even more.
"The Devil's Chessboard" is basically a biography of Allen Dulles. With his brother, John Foster, the Dulles brothers achieved positions of great responsibility in the post-World War II government, and were instrumental in directing the focus of America's foreign policy away from any and all peaceful pursuits. The brothers began their rise to power prior to WWII, running a legal firm that helped American companies deal with the growing Fascist movements in Germany and Italy, and vice versa. When the war broke out, Allen actually opened an office in Switzerland and the brothers enjoyed huge financial and political rewards for laundering assets seized by the Nazis, and discreetly finding buyers for the vast treasures seized by the Axis forces. As the war wound down, Allen was particularly effective in helping a number of his contacts, Nazi officials responsible for the Holocaust and many other atrocities, to escape prosecution and find post-war employment in positions of responsibility throughout Europe and yes, in the US. Had FDR lived to see the end of the war, it is highly likely that Allen Dulles would have been charged with treason as he worked to shield his Nazi friends from prosecution.
President Truman realized he was in over his head as the Soviet Union and China emerged from WWII as world powers, and he allowed the Dulles brothers, along with a number of other anti-Communist ideologues, to orchestrate a great East vs. West struggle that would become the Cold War. It was their life's work to eradicate Communism and to fight it to the death wherever it might be suspected, much less found. John Foster Dulles became President Eisenhower's Secretary of State, and Allen became head of the new Central Intelligence Agency soon after President Truman created it from the old OSS.
Allen Dulles delighted in mixing with the rich and powerful, dressing extravagantly, playing with the ladies, and conducting the risky undercover business of international espionage. He was highly respected for his clandestine abilities and daring, but he was also feared. He seemed to find mortal enemies everywhere under the category of Communism, but he swore no real allegiance to any country, political party, or government. Dulles was a technician, a zealot focused on international destruction of an ideology he abhorred, and his attentions changed regularly. He organized the overthrow of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, and the youthful and charismatic Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala, and he played a key part in organizing an unsuccessful coup attempt by the French military against their President Charles DeGaulle. The CIA was deeply involved in the overthrow and assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, a campaign that was directly opposed to the wishes of President Kennedy. Dulles recognized no limits to his mission to safeguard America's national security. He allowed the CIA to create a vast scientific study into "deprogramming" and "mind control" that might be used to extract information from supposed Soviet agents, but the experiments were performed upon unwitting American GI's and prisoners, with no accountability for the results.
Left to his own devices, Allen Dulles built the CIA into an all-powerful, super-secret foreign policy band of rogue agents who created and administered America's foreign policy with scant regard for the official business portrayed in the evening news. He maintained surveillance upon every member of the government, and employed any and all tactics to intimidate them into leaving our country's foreign relations to his lawless gang. When Fidel Castro's rebel army took over Cuba from the corrupt Batista regime, they nationalized a number of American companies and closed a chain of very successful casinos and resorts run by the American mafia. Allen Dulles quickly recruited the mob to help with his plans to remove Castro, and President Eisenhower allowed him to form, train and equip a small army of Cuban refugees to invade Cuba and remove the pro-Communist presence from the Caribbean. When President Kennedy was elected, he allowed the CIA and Joint Chiefs of Staff to continue planning the invasion, but refused to allow any American air cover or boots-on-the-ground military involvement. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a disaster, and Kennedy soon recognized that the CIA's bold strategy had been intended to force him to yield and allow air support when things began to go bad. No one had expected Kennedy to resist, and Dulles and many of his cohorts labelled the new President a Communist. JFK resisted their urgent pleas to nuke Havana, then Laos, Berlin, Peking, and even Moscow. Ultimately, the President fired Allen Dulles and his top lieutenants from the CIA, but Dulles maintained a powerful group of associates, friends, and dedicated anti-Communists. Things were heating up in Southeast Asia, especially as the CIA became involved in refining and transporting opium and heroin to the world's markets.
Soon after Kennedy broke with all Cold War precedents and announced that the US would seek to avoid nuclear war with the Soviet Union by undertaking a new peaceful policy aimed at disarmament and cooperation at a key speech at American University, he was assassinated. Like many other historians and scholars, author David Talbot feels strongly that Allen Dulles was uniquely positioned and experienced to orchestrate that tragedy, and also the later assassination of the President's brother Bobby.
"The Devil's Chessboard" is a frightening and amazing book, extremely well-written and accessible. The reader comes away feeling shocked that so much evil, manipulation, disinformation, ideological murder and mayhem, international intrigue, and raw treachery could be done by an insider working within the US government, in fact bringing us to the very brink of nuclear war. How did the CIA seize so much power and control, defy the elected structure of that government, or avoid prosecution for unimaginable crimes? And, assuming just a portion of the stories in this well-documented book are true, what does that say about the true nature of our Democracy? Clearly, America's prestige has been severely damaged by the history of our foreign policies since World War II, and clearly some of the most terrifying architects of those policies are influencing the current election-year debates that have America divided and Americans feeling desperate. "The Devil's Chessboard" is well-written, entertaining, a disturbing but most informative book, and highly recommended.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of ...and a hard rain fell: A G.I.'s True Story of the War in Vietnam. First published by Macmillan in 1985, it is still available at most bookstores.