The Devil's Chessboard by David Talbot, review by Todd Robins

When David Talbot’s new book unexpectedly turned up in the bookstore a few weeks ago, it quickly moved to the top of my stack. The interest level derived from having read his excellent 2007 work, “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” Talbot brought that world of political and moral quandary alive with a singular point-of-view. His new book, “The Devil’s Chessboard,” offers the same level of Dantesque inquiry, this time shining a light on American espionage agents in a dark wood of Cold War tensions, “the right way blurred and lost.”

To be sure, these tensions were front-and-center in “Brothers,” notably JFK’s struggle to come to terms with his own foreign policy perspective, as well as his growing conflict with those arguing on behalf of hegemony at any price. Kennedy was increasingly at odds with Pentagon leadership, along with players in the CIA. Allen Dulles, who headed the clandestine agency starting with the Eisenhower administration, was put out in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, though Talbot contends in “The Devil’s Chessboard” that Dulles simply went on running his operations from his Georgetown home. The spymaster had developed a loyal following in the ranks, and these men continued to visit his house, with new boss McCone out of the loop on major agency business.

“The Devil’s Chessboard” picks up with Allen Dulles early in his espionage career, follows through Kennedy’s assassination, and wraps up with Warren Report fallout. As Talbot makes clear, JFK was not the first president that Dulles ignored in pursuit of his own foreign policy objectives.

The spymaster got started in the 1930s while he and his brother, eventual Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, led an influential Wall Street law firm. The Dulles brothers represented clients that did business with Nazi interests and frankly saw no need to cease and desist as Hitler and Co. failed to show signs of being good for humanity. Allen Dulles nevertheless took an OSS post in World War II Europe, though Franklin Roosevelt had reservations. These proved to be valid when Dulles proceeded to selectively disregard Roosevelt’s policy that Nazi criminals would be tried at Nuremburg. Dulles had other plans for the Nazis, notably using loot that they had stolen from Jews to finance pending operations against the Soviets. In addition, Dulles plugged a few of these criminals into his West German spy apparatus.

The spymaster bided his time as Roosevelt died and Truman defeated Dewey in 1948. Dulles used these years to build on connections among what Talbot refers to as the “power elite,” captains of industry, Wall Street lawyers, and “a closely aligned warrior caste that emerged into public prominence during World War II.” When Eisenhower took office, Talbot writes that “the Dulles brothers would finally be given full license to exercise their power in the global arena. In the name of defending the free world from Communist tyranny, they would impose an American reign on the world enforced by nuclear terror and cloak-and-dagger brutality. Elevated to the pinnacle of Washington power, they continued to forcefully represent the interests of their corporate caste, conflating them with the national interest.”

The Eisenhower years were apparently quite a ride at CIA. Dulles got off to a smashing start by reinstating the shah of Iran—thereby securing British Petroleum’s interests and perhaps opening the door for longtime Dulles client Standard Oil—and moved on to mind control experiments that appear to have afforded espionage personnel carte blanche to engage in promoting the use of mind-altering substances even though other branches of the very same U. S. government have generally been aggressive about prosecuting everyone else for participating in those activities. Among the presumably unintended consequences was the curious 1953 case of an Army biochemist named Frank Olson, who, while working with the CIA, fell to his death from a hotel window in New York City. It was subsequently revealed that Olson had been drugged with LSD days before his death. Suicide was the initial verdict, though Olson’s family later alleged foul play.

The case of Jesus de Galindez, a lecturer in Spanish and government at Columbia University, is particularly troubling as described by Talbot. The author tells us that during the Spanish Civil War, Galindez fought in a Basque brigade against Franco’s forces. When Franco prevailed, Galindez went to the Dominican Republic, where strongman Rafael Trujillo had promised sanctuary to Spanish exiles.

Trujillo, as it turned out, was yet another of those 20th century princes of humanity, openly engaging in larceny so as to keep the citizenry on a short leash. But Talbot writes that Trujillo “further ensured his control of the presidential palace by assiduously courting the powerful giant to the north, pledging his nation’s allegiance to the United States during World War II and the Cold War, and showering money on Washington politicians and lobbying firms.” This plan of attack paid off, as Trujillo “reaped $25 million a year in foreign aid from Washington, much of which ended up in his personal overseas bank accounts.”

Trujillo oppressed dissent in the Dominican Republic, but got worried about Galindez in 1956, concerned that the lecturer threatened Trujillo’s world image. Galindez had completed “a damning, 750-page dissertation on the dictator’s odious rule, The Era of Trujillo, and submitted it for a PhD degree at Columbia.” Trujillo knew that Galindez had inside information about the savagery of his regime.

Did the CIA come through on behalf of the dictator? What’s known is that Galindez was abducted, flown to Trujillo’s camp, and fed to the sharks. The American pilot for that mission drank a bit and talked—he disappeared as well. According to Talbot, CIA cutouts handled the abductions.

These are among the stories that the author lays in to prepare us for what awaits: John Kennedy’s presidency, the Bay of Pigs, the firing of Dulles, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the president’s “Peace Speech” at American University, leading up to the fateful day in Dallas. Prior to sketching in his scenario for what went down, Talbot points out Dulles’s brigade of CIA operatives were prepared to back French generals in a coup d’état of Charles de Gaulle until the French citizenry kicked up enough of a fuss to call the whole thing off. De Gaulle’s “enemies in Paris and Washington were convinced that the French president’s awkward steps toward granting Algerian independence threatened to create a Soviet base in strategic, oil-rich North Africa.” It should be noted that de Gaulle and his wife were subsequently fired on by assassins, narrowly escaping, a year or so before Kennedy went to Dallas.

The long and short of it is that Talbot is in the camp that suspects Oswald had a few helpers of the covert variety. The author has constructed part of his case from work that was done by Gaeton Fonzi in the late 70s. Fonzi served as an investigator for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, the very existence of which says multitudes.

This section of the book, while harder for the author to prove, is riveting narrative to rival the best spy fiction. It’s tempting to reveal what Talbot has uncovered and constructed, but part of the pleasure of reading a book is in coming upon the details in due course. “The Devil’s Chessboard” is a work that makes you think. Does Talbot have it right about Kennedy? His readers will likely close the book, sit back, and wonder.

Staff Pick Logo
The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062276162
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Harper - October 13th, 2015