Book: The Devil's Chessboard - Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government

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Dulles's decade as the director of the CIA was a dark period in American politics. The spymaster saw himself as above the nation's laws and elected leaders, manipulating and subverting American presidents in the pursuit of his personal interests and those of the wealthy elite he counted as his friends and clients—colluding with Nazi war criminals and Mafiosi in the process. Talbot charges that Dulles utilized the same ruthless tactics he employed abroad—targeting foreign leaders for assassination and overthrowing nationalist governments not in line with his political aims—to further his goals at home, and offers shocking new evidence regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
An exposé of American power that is as disturbing as it is timely, The Devil's Chessboard is a provocative and gripping story of the rise of the national security state—and the battle for America's soul.

One of the most revealing moments about Allen Dulles was when he was ten years old and spending time at the family's lake home in upstate New York. After his five-year-old sister fell into the lake and was drifting away from him, Allen stood stock still, "strangely impassive. The boy just stood on the dock and watched as his little sister drifted away." (p. 19) Fortunately, the child was rescued by the mother. The behavior of young Allen is representative of a lifelong predilection for observing the imponderables of life as an insider while looking to others to "risk their skins." For this little boy, the world was already forming into a chessboard with pawns to manipulate for his self-serving needs. Talbot describes Dulles' rogue actions in allowing Nazi war criminals to avoid prosecution at the Nuremberg Trials in these chilling words: "Even in the life-and-death throes of wartime espionage, Dulles seemed untouched by the intense human drama swirling around him." (p. 120)
In one of the most riveting moments of the book, Talbot describes an interchange between Dulles and researcher David Lifton at a colloquium on the JFK assassination at the campus of UCLA in 1965. Lifton came prepared to challenge Dulles on major deficiencies of the Warren Report. By the end of the evening, the students attending the session were more interested in Lifton's findings than Dulles' unsuccessful attempts to deflect the tough questions. In retrospect, Lifton apparently claimed that he "was in the presence of 'evil' that night." (p. 591)
A heretofore unanswered question about the JFK assassination is what was Allen Dulles was doing between the time he was fired by JFK as Director of the CIA in 1961 until the moment of the assassination on November 22, 1963. A related question is how was it conceivable for Dulles to have been appointed to the Warren Commission that eventually produced the conclusions that are still accepted by mainstream historians and the media? Talbot’s intensive research helps to shed on light on those questions by tracing the arc of development of the career of Allen Dulles as a high-powered attorney at the center of the elitist East Coast establishment, his shocking collaboration with the Nazis while working in the OSS, and his career in clandestine activities at the CIA.
Talbot's research probes not merely the activities of Dulles as Director of the CIA, but explores the broader context of his function over three decades as a power broker, whose "efforts were directed not against hostile governments but against his own." (p. 3) Talbot cites revelations from the Columbia University sociology professor C. Wright Mills about the secret government of Allen Dulles, which was comprised of a "power elite" and based on the anti-Constitutional premise of "organized irresponsibility."
In many ways, "The Devil's Chessboard" is a companion volume to Talbot's essential study "Brothers," which focuses on the relationship of John and Robert Kennedy, the assassination of JFK, and the aftereffects on RFK. But the more recent book on Dulles covers the broader scope of how the American government was transformed into the national security state in the years following World War II. Talbot's goal in preparing this book is to demonstrate the urgency of coming to terms with our past and how "it is essential that we continue to fight for the right to own our history." (p. xii) An excellent place to begin that quest is to own this book." – James Norwood, Amazon.com customer review

• Salon.com co-founder David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard paints a riveting but unflattering picture of longtime CIA chief Allen Dulles (and of his Secretary of State brother, John Foster Dulles) in a nonfiction account covering decades of espionage, questionable tactics, and outright conspiracy. Heaping detail after detail into a dense but fast-flowing account, Talbot has written a book that reads like part Cold War history and part Tom Clancy novel. Both brothers protected the rich and powerful. Both felt they could act outside the rules. Both feared the Soviets and would do seemingly anything to oppose them. Readers will be glad these men are gone, even as they drink up every word written about them. And some will wonder if others have quietly taken their place. –Chris Schluep

• “This year’s best spy thriller isn’t fiction — it’s history…. By the time ‘The Devil’s Chessboard’ eventually climaxes with the events that unfolded in Dallas in 1963, Talbot’s argument that Dulles had both the power and temperament to execute such a plot is more than believable.” (Salon)

• “A Cold War villain of realpolitik whose successes and blunders were unrivaled. As framed by Talbot, Dulles’s extra-legal interventions, coups, slush funds, and ex-Nazi collaborations were as much pro-corporate as anti-Communist, more Cheneyish than Nixonian.... He’d fit right into our globalized, subcontracted, and hypersurveilled era.” (New York Magazine)

• “A frightening biography of power, manipulation, and outright treason…The story of Allen Dulles and the power elite that ran Washington, D.C., following World War II is the stuff of spy fiction…All engaged American citizens should read this book and have their eyes opened.” (Kirkus, starred review)

• “A damning biography—of the CIA’s longest standing director—and an exposé of American politics…. One would be hard pressed to find a book that is better at evoking the strange and apocalyptic atmospherics of the early Cold War years in America.... Neither le Carré nor Graham Greene could do any better.” (Daily Beast)

• “Offers a portrait of a black-and-white Cold War-era world full of spy games and nuclear brinkmanship.” (Mother Jones)

• “This aptly titled book portrays Allen Dulles as the dark prince of the Cold War who manipulated the media, deceived presidents, helped stir up coups... [and might] have been involved in Kennedy’s assassination. Readers who enjoy espionage’s dark history will have a tough time putting this book down.” (Library Journal)

• "To read this magnificent book by David Talbot is to understand how the JFK assassination occurred and how the truth was concealed by officialdom in the Warren Report. Unlike his brother, John Foster Dulles, the younger Allen Welsh Dulles rarely makes it into American history textbooks. In this extremely detailed study, the singular importance of Allen Dulles is demonstrated as being central to a watershed period in the American Century.

First and foremost, "The Devil's Chessboard" is a beautifully written and meticulously researched volume. Talbot drew upon archives at Princeton University, where the Allen Dulles papers are housed. He also conducted research in other archives across the country. The documentary work is buttressed and amplified by interviews with the surviving daughter of Dulles, as well as interviews with the children of Dulles' colleagues and over 150 officials from the Kennedy administration. Nearly forty pages of notes serve to document the author's sources.