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The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot covers some of the crafty activities of the spymaster from his time at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during WWII and onwards. Some of the material is based on, directly or indirectly, the experiences and insights of those who had some relationship with Dulles.

The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot

The following are merely a few examples. During WWII, Dulles focused on strategy for manipulating the post-war landscape rather than saving Jews who were in danger when the news of that reached him. He secretly negotiated deals with some Nazi officials in return for protection from prosecution or mitigated sentences.

Dulles became president of the Council of Foreign Relations in late 1945. He was a member of the Rockefeller Foundation, using that to fund CIA activities.

Dulles deliberately spread rumors of a spy network and operation in eastern Europe in order to destabilize the Soviet regime, even though that meant triggering a purge where Stalin had hundreds of thousands arrested, with some tortured and executed.

The CIA sponsored the 1954 coup in Guatemala, overthrowing President Juan Jacobo Árbenz who actually tried to help the people and therefore was against those who controlled finance and industry. The CIA also assassinated Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Dulles kept this from JFK, the president finding out a month later from UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson [hence the famous photograph taken by Jacques Lowe].

In 1953, Dulles authorized the mind-control program MKUltra. Even before that, Dulles ran Operation Artichoke which interrogated soviet prisoners, double agents and the like by experimenting with drugs and hypnosis. Ex-Nazi doctors were amongst the researchers.

Dulles organized the designed-to-fail Bay of Pigs invasion, hoping that JFK would fall into the trap of initiating a real one to rescue the effort. However, JFK refused to play along. The CIA also attempted but failed to oust French President Charles de Gaulle. Eventually, Dulles would be ousted from the CIA in late 1961 but JFK had failed to remove those loyal to Dulles within the CIA world.

The author covers some of the circumstances surrounding the assassination of JFK, including some interesting details about the CIA and Dulles himself that hint their involvement even though Dulles was “retired”. He eventually joined the Warren Commission which “investigated” the assassination.

In short, the man was basically a prick whose sole interest was obtaining and maintaining control for its own sake—in short, building his own empire—with little or no regard for the desires of his superiors, policy, the suffering inflicted on others or even the long-term good of the country.

Talbot writes plainly and matter-of-factly, not unlike an able journalist writing a long article, occasionally quoting people and documents. The author does not do this heavily with citations and gritty details about the sources but references are provided as endnotes. Given the nature of the subject, more detailed discussions of sources would be helpful at times. As expected, there are gaps in the story and there is some conjecture and the author clearly does not pretend otherwise. On balance, the work is well-written and worth the read.


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