March 2016

Justyn Dillingham


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

Allen Dulles did not look like a bad guy. With his ever-present pipe and air of benign detachment, the CIA's first civilian director resembled the stuffy old debutante's father in a '50s comic book more than the shrewd spymaster he was. He never found the fame or notoriety that seemed to come so easily to his FBI counterpart, J. Edgar Hoover. Even the airport that bears his name was actually christened in honor of his more famous brother, John Foster. One of the few memorials to the most powerful figure in the history of US intelligence is a small bas-relief sculpture in the CIA's central headquarters in Langley, Virginia; it bears a legend reading: "His monument is all around us."

Many readers are likely to shudder at the title of David Talbot's new book, The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government. The book implicitly argues that we live in the shadow of the "monument" that Dulles labored to build during his decade as the unchallenged king of America's intelligence world. It was Dulles who transformed the CIA from a mere intelligence-gathering body into the covert empire we know from Hollywood and TV, as comfortable with sabotage as spying, run by heroes who perpetually flirt with villainy.

Other books have covered this material, but Talbot delves further into the depths of Dulles's dark career than any other historian to date. Drawing on newly declassified material and new interviews, he assembles a case against his subject that is almost overwhelming in its breadth and detail. Obsessed by the specter of global communism, Dulles spent his career working to undermine left-wing movements around the world. His most daring exploit, the ousting of Iran's democratic prime minister, Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh, had unforeseen consequences that haunt the headlines to this day. Readers who think of the CIA's notorious string of failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro as a goofy caper will be chilled by the book's details of the very real assassinations the agency sponsored under Dulles, most notably the 1961 murder of Patrice Lumumba, the reformist hero of the Congo's brief experiment with democracy.

This is the sort of nonfiction book that, inevitably, gets likened to a fast-paced spy thriller. While the comparison isn't wrong, The Devil's Chessboard is also a chilling psychological depiction of a man who seemed to operate outside the moral cosmos that most people inhabit. Unlike the tormented spies in the movies, who tend to be conflicted about their dalliances with the dark side, Dulles was proudest of his worst deeds. He boasted that he was "the secretary of state for unfriendly countries," and the mirthless wit of that remark perfectly encapsulates the man who emerges from this icy, scathing portrait. To one colleague, he seemed as cold and remorseless as the Colorado River, slowly and stealthily eroding everything around him.

The Devil's Chessboard is not a conventional biography, and it skims over Dulles's formative years like an impatient reader eager to get to the juiciest material. Not all of the book's 620 pages feel necessary; Talbot spends a little too long describing familiar Cold War incidents in which Dulles played a minimal role, such as the oft-chronicled trial of accused spy Alger Hiss. The book whips from episode to episode like a roller coaster, and some readers may need to take a breather every hundred pages or so. Yet nothing here feels truly arbitrary, because the book is driven by the need to understand: not just what Allen Dulles did, but why he did it.

Talbot piles up more than enough evidence to demonstrate that Dulles firmly believed that America's business elites knew best, and that he sincerely believed he was doing everyone a favor by serving their interests. "Democracy works only if the so-called intelligent people make it work," he once declared. "You can't sit back and let democracy run itself." Dulles was unwise enough to voice these thoughts during his only run for elected office, in 1938; after suffering a humiliating defeat, he never sought out the approval of voters again.

Was there any more to it than that? Talbot has scrutinized the dream journals of Dulles's wife and interviewed his still-living daughter, in search of a key to unlock this baffling man's secrets. In a lifetime of talking about himself, Allen Dulles seems never to have voiced a single self-doubt or unburdened his soul to anyone. To his children, he seemed "a guest" at the kitchen table, uninterested in their lives. He left behind no secret confessions, no letters that reveal anything he did not wish to be revealed.

If there was nothing to Allen Dulles beneath the surface, it was a rough surface indeed. Talbot's Dulles is capable not only of rescuing Nazi war criminals from the hangman's noose for his own purposes, but of bragging about it. He stabs friends and acquaintances in the back with no visible regrets, and is so indiscrete about his affairs that his wife and mistress end up becoming good friends; the resigned observations they share about the unfathomable man they love are at once hilarious and heartbreaking. There is a miniature family drama hiding inside this tense political history, and some readers will find themselves wishing for more of it.

Other readers will plow through Talbot's book looking for echoes of our own day, and they will probably find them. Reading the book's account of how Dulles ensured his own power by stocking the State Department and the Pentagon with loyal allies, it's hard not to think of Dick Cheney pursuing the same strategy with equal success. The vast surveillance system so dramatically revealed to the world by Edward Snowden could never have come to pass without the culture of fanatical secrecy and habitual lawlessness handed down by Dulles and his loyal agents.

But Talbot's interest transcends politics: he seems genuinely fascinated by nearly everybody he writes about, describing their quirks with Dickensian relish. Allen's stuffy older brother, for example, is introduced this way: "With his long, dour face topped by his ever-present banker's homburg, the elder Dulles always seemed to be on the verge of foreclosing on all human hope and happiness." Most haunting, perhaps, is Talbot's poignant depiction of Guatemala's reform-minded first couple of the '50s, Jacobo and Maria Árbenz, in a chapter that reads like a miniature novel. In one of the most evocative of the book's many internal echoes, he calls the pair, destined to fall from power at the Dulles brothers' behest, "the Kennedys of Guatemala."

When President John F. Kennedy finally enters the book's narrative, he shakes it up. At last, the reader thinks, here is someone who is more than a match for the dreadful Dulles. Kennedy was, Talbot implies, the American equivalent of a Jacobo Árbenz or a Patrice Lumumba: feisty, smart, and sympathetic to the very anti-colonial revolutionary movements around the world that Dulles devoted his life to razing. The two could not last for long in the same government, and they didn't: within a year of Kennedy's election, the spy king had been shuttled off to retirement.

It is in the final chapters of The Devil's Chessboard that Talbot enters genuinely new and unsettling territory. He contends that Allen Dulles's career did not come to an end after he was dismissed from power. Instead, he argues, Dulles was still keeping busy, making mysterious trips and meeting with unscrupulous characters for ends that remain unexplained, right up to the last day of Kennedy's abbreviated presidency. What was he up to? Talbot does not spell out a definite scenario, but no careful reader can avoid recognizing what he implies.

Should the reader accept that suggestion, or flinch from it? Perhaps it is a sign of Talbot's accomplishment in The Devil's Chessboard that he makes us ask such questions at all, that he challenges our deepest convictions about the essential rationality of the world we live in, that he makes us peer all the harder into the darkness of Allen Dulles's career in search of answers that continue to elude us. As the critic Greil Marcus once put it, "Real mysteries cannot be solved, but they can be turned into better mysteries."

The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government by David Talbot
ISBN: 978-0062276162
704 pages