Book Write-Up: The Devil’s Chessboard, by David Talbot

David Talbot. The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. HarperCollins, 2015. See here to purchase the book.

David Talbot founded and edited Salon, and he was also senior editor for the left-wing Mother Jones.

Allen Dulles was the long-time director of the Central Intelligence Agency, particularly during the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations. I wanted to read this book after I watched Talbot’s speech on C-Span. Talbot talked about Dulles’s possible role in the JFK assassination, and I have some interest in JFK conspiracy theories.

In this review, I will compare what Talbot says with three things. First, I will compare it John Bircher narratives, since Talbot talks about the same characters who appear in those, albeit from a different perspective. Second, I will compare Talbot with Oliver Stone’s JFK movie. Third, I will compare what Talbot says about Fidel Castro with the work of Cuban-American writer Servando Gonzales, who argues that Castro was a CIA mole.

A. John Birchers believe there is a conspiracy to create a socialistic one-world government, and that Allen Dulles, and especially the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in which he was prominent, pushed for that goal. Talbot, however, depicts Dulles as a staunch anti-Communist. Dulles held many of the same views on foreign policy as Birchers: a desire to keep Eastern Europe from falling to Communism after World War II (and Dulles actually worked with Nazis in pursuit of that goal), opposition to unilateral disarmament, and vigorous opposition to such leaders as Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. Whereas Birchers characterize leaders like Lumumba as Communists, Talbot argues that they were non-Communists, populists, and nationalists, who undermined U.S. economic interests in their countries. The CFR and David Rockefeller, according to Talbot, were against countries falling to Communism because that would undermine Western economic activity in those countries. Birchers regard the mainstream media as left-wing, but Talbot treats it as largely right-wing and as beholden to the CIA. The Hearst and Luce publishing empires were conservative, and American newspapers accepted and promulgated the CIA-crafted narrative that leftist foreign leaders were unpopular Communist dictators. Birchers believe that Communist infiltration in the U.S. government during the 1930’s-1950’s was a real and serious threat, but Talbot argues that the people accused of being Communist or Communist sympathizers were Communists when the U.S. was on the Soviet Union’s side during World War II, or (in the case of Harry Dexter White) merely engaged in informal diplomacy. One area in which Birchers and Talbot overlap is that, in both narratives, Dulles challenged and ultimately took down Senator Joseph McCarthy. For Talbot, Dulles did so because McCarthy was getting out of hand, threatening to investigate people in Dulles’s CIA.

B. Overall, Talbot’s narrative about the JFK assassination resembles that of Oliver Stone’s JFK. Oliver Stone depicts Kennedy as the victim of the American intelligence community, which considered him soft on Communism. Allen Dulles, moreover, resented that President Kennedy fired him from the CIA while threatening to split the CIA into a thousand pieces. Talbot essentially depicts Kennedy as a progressive leader, one who disliked war on account of his own experiences in World War II and pursued peace with the Soviet Union. Kennedy also made controversial moves against American business interests, such as increased taxes on the wealthy, banning the wealthy from taking their wealth overseas, and stopping price hikes by American steel companies. Talbot offers more documentation (especially primary source documentation) and details for his claims. For instance, he speculates that Corsican gangsters were the shooters of JFK, since “they were harder to trace back to the CIA than Italian or American Mafia hit men” (page 501). Talbot offers possible reasons that Lyndon Johnson may have wanted JFK to go, such as JFK planning to drop Johnson from the ticket. Talbot also diverges from Stone’s narrative, in some areas. Stone depicts the Paines (under pseudonyms), who housed Marina Oswald, as CIA agents, whereas Talbot does not go that far, though he does note their connections with the Dulles circle. Discerning Talbot’s view on Lee Harvey Oswald’s precise role in the conspiracy was difficult, for Talbot contends that Oswald did things for the CIA yet takes at face value that Oswald had genuine left-wing beliefs; Dulles sometimes did use leftists for his ends, Talbot narrates, particularly Quakers. Hypnotism and mind-control, of the sort that occurs in the Manchurian Candidate, is a theme that recurs throughout Talbot’s book, for Talbot suggests that Oswald and even Sirhan-Sirhan (in the case of the RFK assassination) may have been victims of that, at the hands of the CIA. A weakness to this book is that Talbot fails to engage the argument that Kennedy sought to escalate American involvement in Vietnam.

C. Servando Gonzales argues that Fidel Castro was a CIA mole. According to Gonzales, the U.S. government was enthusiastic about Castro when he was rising to power. CIA attempts to overthrow Castro were a mere ruse, designed to fail and intended to obliterate the anti-Castro opposition in Cuba. Khrushchev was suspicious of Castro because Castro initiated contact with him rather than vice versa, Castro was opposed by the Communist Party in Cuba, and Castro was unaccounted for during a significant period of time; according to Gonzales, Khrushchev actually attempted to overthrow Castro, at one point. Castro also protected American business interests when he sent troops to Angola. Some of what Talbot says overlaps with this. Talbot agrees that the U.S. government was initially positive about Castro, but, unlike Gonzales, Talbot accepts at face value that it turned on him, since Castro threatened American business interests in Cuba. Talbot also presents the Bay of Pigs as a bit of a ruse, as if the CIA was setting it up to fail. But, in contrast with Gonzales, Talbot holds that Dulles was hoping this would encourage President Kennedy to take a tough stand at the last minute.

This is an interesting book to read. It gets into the personalities of the people and their conflicting interests. It also offers some gossipy, behind-the-scenes stories (i.e., Ike’s racial slurs, Clare Booth Luce was not the good girl she depicted herself as, Joe McCarthy’s homosexual dalliances, Dulles’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s dirt on each other, etc.).

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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