Review of David Talbot’s Devils Chessboard

I just finished reading David Talbot’s Devil’s Chessboard, which is a history of Allen Dulles, the head of the CIA under Eisenhower. I already knew some of the sordid details such as the CIA plots to overthrow the governments of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran in 1953 and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 and murder Patrice Lumumba in the DRC in 1960, but Talbot put these despicable acts in a fuller context. Talbot shows how an elite clique of men in government and the business world operated to carry out these operations.

He also added many details which aren’t well known. According to Talbot, Dulles actively tried to undermine FDR’s war policy in Europe and he protected many of the Nazi intelligence officials from being prosecuted after WWII, so they could be reused in European intelligence. Talbot shows how the OSS/CIA carried out actions against the wishes of FDR, Truman and JFK and essentially made its own foreign policy. According to Talbot the CIA illegally directed funds toward the 1960 Nixon campaign for president. He also posits that the groups that tried to assassinate Charles de Gaulle probably had received CIA funding.

The book concludes by alleging that Allen Dulles masterminded the murder of JFK. When I first picked up the book, I thought the book must be the work of a crackpot, but Talbot lays out a plausible theory and adduces quite a bit of indirect evidence to support his theory. It is hard for me to judge whether Talbot is right in his theory, but he shows a clear pattern of behavior in the CIA that is deeply disturbing for anyone who believes in democracy.

Even if Talbot is wrong in his theory about who colluded to assassinate JFK, he digs up so much information about Dulles and the deep state that his book is still worth reading. As a student of Latin American history, I knew how deeply the US had meddled in the politics of its southern neighbors, but I never realized that the US was just as deeply enmeshed in European politics. The manipulation of the 1948 Italian elections to keep the Communists out of power is well known, but I didn’t realize that the US was still financing the Italian Christian Democrats in the 1960s and the US kept the Italian Socialists out of the ruling coalition of the Italian government for decades. The US looks utterly hypocritical to criticize Russia for meddling in its elections, when examining its own history of meddling in foreign elections.

The inescapable conclusion after reading the book is that the CIA was fundamentally a threat to democracy, which worked to undermined the policies of several US presidents. The other conclusion that I draw is that Truman and JFK were weakened by their anti-Communism, which opened the doors for the CIA to carry out their own secret agenda. They could have reined in the CIA, but they were too worried about being red-baited by the right-wing and short-term political considerations were more important for them than controlling the CIA.

In Talbot’s account, JFK comes off as a heroic figure who wanted to reorient the intransigent cold war stance of Eisenhower’s administration, but he couldn’t control the deep state. This is a portrayal of JFK that I have never read before, and I find it intriguing, but it isn’t the full story in my opinion. JFK engaged in his own cold warrior rhetoric at times and his sending troops to Vietnam doesn’t fit the image that Talbot paints of him as the peacemaker. The conclusion I draw is that JFK was trying to walk a middle course, that fundamentally weakened his position and led him to half measures like sending troops to Vietnam to appease the deep state and appointing Republicans to key positions to head off criticism from the right. I don’t think JFK is as much of a Liberal hero as Talbot portrays him, but it is startling how much more backbone he had compared to the today’s weak Democratic leaders.

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