Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Devil's Chessboard

San Francisco journalist David Talbot recently wrote a long, popular history entitled The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government, which deserves to become an instant classic. The 700-page, deeply researched book detailing the machinations of Allen Dulles and the CIA from World War Two through the JFK assassination is written in a breezy, episodic style jammed with character studies, and possesses the compulsive readability of a good thriller. Unfortunately, the book is non-fiction, and its disturbing history of a U.S. "deep state" answerable only to itself reverberates uneasily today.

Allen Dulles and his older brother John Foster Dulles above were pillars of the Northeastern WASP establishment, spending much of their careers as lawyers for the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell, which has been the legal representative for every leading plutocrat from J. Pierpont Morgan to the Rockerfeller family since the firm's founding in 1879. In the 1950s, John Foster became Eisenhower's Secretary of State and Allen became the fifth director of the recently created CIA, a position he held until being fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba in 1961. They were both stalwart anti-communists during the Cold War who believed any means justified the ends of protecting capitalism. By the end of Talbot's book, it becomes clear that Allen at least was a complete and utter psychopath.

The first third of the book details Allen's career in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which was the World War Two predecessor to the CIA. Wild Bill Donovan, the head of the OSS, wanted Allen posted to London to keep in touch with his rich international clients, but Dulles managed to get himself posted to Bern, Switzerland where he forged alliances with a host of Nazi security agents who he eventually helped to avoid the Nuremberg trials, setting up escape routes to Latin America, the United States, and the eventual Western German security apparatus. Anybody familiar with Robert Ludlum's early thrillers knows that most of their plots centered on former Nazis joining up with CIA agents and international industrialists forming vast conspiracies to rule the world. Reading Talbot's book, I had to keep pinching myself, "You mean this was all true?"

The second section of the book recounts Dulles' career as the head of the CIA. He had already sent a Czech girlfriend to her certain death in World War One while playing spy during that conflict, and his ruthlessness only increased over the years. Both his wife and his mistress in Switzerland privately called him "The Shark" between themselves, and after reading this succession of horrifying stories from his tenure at the CIA, the nickname seems apt. Dulles was an enthusiastic sponsor of the MKULTRA program, where brainwashing experiments using massive doses of LSD and other psychotropic drugs were given to unwitting individuals. Victims included his own son who had returned from the Korean War with mental difficulties from a brain injured with metal shrapnel. Allen Dulles sent his son to various CIA neurological experimenters at Columbia University in New York and McLean University in Montreal until the young man escaped to a Jungian sanitarium on a Swiss lake where he stayed until the paternal monster died in 1969. The son somehow managed to survive, and now lives with his sister in Santa Fe.

Dulles' stint at the CIA was highlighted by the routine use of assassination and coups against foreign leaders not sufficiently compliant with American business interests. These included the CIA engineered coup in 1953 against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran where he was replaced by the Shah, the disposal of democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo √Ārbenz in 1954 to be replaced by decades' worth of military dictators, and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of the Congo, in 1960. Incidentally, if you wanted information about any of this history while it was happening, the best sources were oddly enough in popular culture rather than in journals of record such as The New York Times or The Washington Post, which Talbot convincingly demonstrates were willing mouthpieces for whatever propaganda the CIA wanted to broadcast.

While reading The Devil's Chessboard, I stumbled across a pair of 1960s films on TMC directed by the legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff (The Red Shoes, The African Queen). The Liquidator from 1965 is a Bond spoof, complete with Shirley Bassey title song, but its politics are odd as you watch old white farts like Wilfred Hyde-White and Trevor Howard blithely sending Rod Taylor on one amoral assassination mission after another. Even more disturbing is the 1968 Dark of the Sun with Rod Taylor as a mercenary in the Congo soon after the country disintegrates following Lumumba's assassination.

The final third of the book details the JFK administration and its relations with the national security establishment. Talbot points out that the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba seemed to be intentionally set up to fail by Dulles and his cohorts, as they figured JFK would have to send in the Marines to overthrow Castro when the mission failed. JFK did not send in the Marines, however, and was infuriated by the mess, eventually sacking Allen Dulles from his post. Dulles continued to run the CIA ex-officio, with frequent visits to his home from its top staff and operatives, and Talbot posits that he was one of the chief architects of the CIA/Mafia/Cuban exile conspiracy which murdered JFK in Dallas in 1963. Assassination under Dulles had become such a routine part of international statecraft within the CIA that murdering a U.S. president probably did not feel like that large a leap. The newly declassified reports Talbot cites of the CIA working with right-wing militarists in 1960s France in their multiple attempts to assassinate Charles De Gaulle are genuinely shocking.

A decade ago I read the 1,100-page Norman Mailer novel Harlot's Ghost about the CIA which takes place in roughly the same period as The Devil's Chessboard, and which includes many of the same nonfictional characters – Howard Hunt, William Harvey, and James Jesus Angleton, among them. At the time, I thought Mailer's stories were fanciful exaggerations based on reality, but again, the truth turns out to be even stranger and scarier than fiction. The final irony of the JFK assasination is that the Warren Commission, according to interviews with people who served on it, should have been called the Dulles Commission. Allen, fresh out of retirement, somehow got himself appointed to the investigative body by LBJ and he spent the most time working on it, making sure the official story substantiated the Lone Nut with Superhuman Marksmanship Theory.

David Talbot has had a long, distinguished career in journalism, was one of the founders of the online journal Salon, and has written a pair of popular histories about JFK and RFK (Brothers) and San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s (Season of the Witch). If he does nothing else, the hugely ambitious Devil's Chessboard detailing the shadow side of modern American history would be a major capstone. The power of the book comes not from new revelations, but how he has been able to calmly and entertainingly connect the dots. He doesn't even need to bother underlining that the unaccountable deep state regime continues unabated, with our actions in Vietnam, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile, Iraq and Afghanistan offering ample proof that the American empire is askew. What he does make clear is that the U.S. security state has been ignoring presidents and elected representatives from its inception, so the next time you wonder why Obama hasn't been able to close down the Guantanamo gulag after eight years in office, the answer just might be that somebody is not allowing him to do so.

The book has been rapturously received by readers, but The New York Times and The Washington Post have steadfastly refused to review The Devil's Chessboard even though it has shown up on their bestseller lists. Next time you read an article in those newspapers of record that sounds suspiciously like CIA misdirection and propaganda, the truth is that you are probably reading planted lies, artfully arranged. Their cheerleading for an invasion of Iraq during the Bush era is only the most egregious of recent examples. (A young Congressman Rumsfeld was one of Dulles' acolytes in the 1960s, which helps explain a lot.) Mr. Talbot deserves thanks for a disturbing map of our world and how we got here.


Hattie said...

I will read The Devil's Chessboard as soon as I finish Dark Money by Jane Mayer.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Hattie: Well, that should make for a very dark double bill. I was really impressed with Talbot's book for synthesizing such a mass of information and making it comprehensible and addictively readable.

nancy namaste said...

I am afraid that I would have another stroke reading about America's home grown Machiavellis' and all the destruction they created. I think that the Kingston Trio sang a song about how they hated "John Foster Dulles." Quite prescient as were many of the "folk" songs of the early 60's.

Mike Harvey said...

An excellent piece Michael. I thought I was reading an essay in The New Yorker or Salon for a minute. Great writing as always.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Mike: Thanks for the kind words. And your current starring stint as the Referee in the "Champion" opera is marvelous.

Eddie said...

Completely agree. A terrific work of investigative journalism. Likely will have an impact many years from now, after those with their hardened agendas are long gone. It's amazing how willing Americans are to devour conspiracy theories in popular entertainment like the X-Files, but how leery they are of connecting the dots in real life and accepting that power-hungry people will do anything to preserve and wield power.