David Talbot has written an important book that is destined to become a classic, because it helps us confront the darker aspects of our nation’s history. As American citizens we vote in elections and our television news keeps us up to speed with what is happening in politics. But much of what is decided for us is done so in private and deep inside what is best described as a national-security state. The recent book National Security and Double Government, by Michael Glennon, describes this as a network of “several hundred managers of the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement agencies who are responsible for protecting the nation and who have come to operate largely immune from constitutional and electoral restraints.”
In recent years the revelations of Edward Snowden exposed secret surveillance activities that fit with what Glennon describes. Decisions made to monitor, record, and track all electronic communications of all American citizens without any public debate and without much of the knowledge of many of the members of Congress of the extent of these activities are the most visible example of acts made in secret by the national-security state outside of the public eye and even outside constitutional processes. Today we have secret courts with secret rulings and secret budgets.
The national-security state came into being after World War II during the time of the Truman administration, years that saw the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. In the years that followed, the CIA engaged in secret operations that resulted in the overthrow of governments in Iran, Guatemala, Laos, and elsewhere. In the 1960s Army Intelligence, the FBI, and the CIA also surveilled members of the anti-war and civil-rights movements, who were viewed as disloyal to American foreign policy. It also engaged in assassination plots against foreign leaders. All of that was secret and kept hidden from the American people until Congress launched a series of investigations into the activities of the American intelligence community in the 1970s.
What David Talbot has done in his newest book, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, is trace the origins of this system of “secret government” through a biography of one of its architects. The Devil’s Chessboard seeks to shine a torch down the well of “deep politics” as Peter Dale Scott — an important scholar of American power — has termed this underworld of unaccountable authority. “Until we have a full reckoning of the Dulles era and its high crimes, the country cannot find its way forward,” writes Talbot.
No ordinary boy
Allen Dulles was a strange and unusual child. One summer as a teenager he, along with his older sister, was given the job of looking after his five-year-old sister Nataline. They were playing near a lake when Nataline fell into it. She got carried away by the water and then suddenly went underwater with only her pink dress remaining above it. The older sister screamed for help, but young Allen Dulles just sat there and watched. Only after a few moments, which seemed like an eternity, did he start to yell for help. Finally their mother came and jumped in the water to save the little girl. What was odd was that Allen was a good swimmer. But he simply seemed too fascinated to bother to act. He was no ordinary boy.
Allen Dulles and his brother, John Foster Dulles, became public figures when they served together as director of the CIA and secretary of state during the Eisenhower administration. But they played key roles behind the scenes before that. During World War I their uncle was Secretary of State Robert Lansing and both of them served as aides during the peace negotiations in Paris after the war. Then they both worked at the powerhouse Wall Street law firm of Sullivan and Cromwell, which had as its clients many of the largest corporations in the United States. In the 1920s, it had huge dealings with American corporations that had investments in Germany during the rise of Hitler.
During World War II, Allen Dulles went to Geneva, Switzerland, as an agent of the American Office of Secret Services (OSS), ostensibly to be one of the top American spies in Europe. He protected the interests of Sullivan and Cromwell clients and engaged in conversations with people on all sides of the conflict, including members of the Nazi SS. Towards the end of the war he negotiated with Karl Wolff, an assistant to SS chief Heinrich Himmler, for German forces to surrender in Italy before the Nazis’ total surrender. That policy, though, went against Roosevelt’s demand for unconditional surrender and later became a bone of contention with Joseph Stalin. Dulles, though, would do what he thought was best in his own mind.
During the war Dulles received information about the Nazi concentration camps, but passed almost none of it on to his superiors. He sent 300 memos back to his bosses and not a single one of them had any sense of urgency about the Final Solution. When he referred to those camps, he blandly referred to them as “conscription” of the populace.
Most of his interest was taken up in psychological warfare tricks and planning out grand postwar strategies for Europe. As the war came to an end, he and other OSS men close to him, such as James Jesus Angleton, helped some Nazi intelligence officials and war criminals escape capture. They worked with Gen. Reinhard Gehlen, who had been Hitler’s head of intelligence against the Soviet Union, to build a new Cold War spy agency for the new West German government.
Allen Dulles formally retired from the government, but played a critical role in creating the postwar intelligence community in the early months of the Cold War. The OSS was disbanded, but a group of OSS men, including Dulles, and men who would later become key figures in the CIA, such as Richard Helms, Tracy Barnes, and Frank Wisner, met and plotted out a new intelligence agency. Dulles placed himself at the center of this issue and helped to write and lobby for the creation of something called the Office of Policy Coordination. It operated officially as a part of the State Department, but under the leadership of Frank Wisner it engaged in covert action against the Soviet Union, including the funding of political parties in Italy and Greece. Its operations eventually got rolled up into the CIA in 1948. So Allen Dulles was a central figure in creating the structures that grew into the national-security state.
Meanwhile his brother, John Foster Dulles, became a key foreign-policy advisor to presidential candidate Thomas Dewey. Both Dulles brothers hitched themselves to Dewey and the Republican Party. Dewey lost, but when Dwight Eisenhower became president he gave them key positions in his administration.
John Foster Dulles was famous for a policy of nuclear brinksmanship. Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons to deter enemies and allowed Allen Dulles to unleash the CIA on Third World nations that he labeled as enemies of the United States as a way to wage war on the cheap and in secret. Without public knowledge or congressional debate, Allen Dulles and his CIA overthrew the governments of Iran and Guatemala and waged a secret war that failed to do the same in Indonesia. The CIA also created an assassination program called ZR/RIFLE that targeted Patrice Lumumba, prime minister of the Congo. The team then focused its efforts on trying to kill Fidel Castro with the assistance of the Mafia.
The brandishing of nuclear weapons by Eisenhower, though, created an atmosphere of anxiety and constant crisis. It “empowered the most militant voices in his administration, including the Dulles brothers and Pentagon hard-liners such as Admiral Arthur Radford and Air Force general Curtis Lemay, who, taking their commander in chief at his word, continually agitated for a cataclysmic confrontation with the Soviet Union.” “Eisenhower once said that he feared his own ‘boys’ in the military more than he did a sneak attack from the Soviets,” writes Talbot, because he “knew that the constant Pentagon pressure for bigger doomsday arsenals produced equally strong temptation to use the weapons — particularly while the United States still enjoyed a clear margin of nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union.”
Eisenhower famously issued a warning in his Farewell Address against the “military-industrial complex” that profited from the high tensions of the Cold War. When John Kennedy came into office those tensions took the world to the brink with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis passed, but during those years another confrontation also played out that was hidden from the American people.
This was a disagreement inside the government between the elected president and the national-security state. Kennedy inherited the CIA’s secret war against Cuba. He approved its invasion of Cuba, which turned into a disaster at the Bay of Pigs. He then fired Allen Dulles, but continued secret operations to destabilize Cuba’s government and eliminate its leader. After the Cuban Missile Crisis, though, Kennedy moved towards a détente in the Cold War. He signed a test-ban treaty with the Soviet Union and in the final months of his life looked forward to making more deals with it. He also sent feelers out to Fidel Castro to move towards a more normal relationship with Cuba. Those moves angered members of the national-security state who had helped to create the crisis atmosphere of the past few years and saw such policies as “appeasement,” in the words of General Lemay. The retired Allen Dulles denounced Kennedy’s policies.
New details about that history have been revealed thanks to a public outcry following the Oliver Stone movie JFK for the declassification of records relating to Kennedy’s assassination. Talbot’s book uses new materials and interviews with family members of Allen Dulles and other CIA personnel. He also makes the charge that Allen Dulles played a key role in the assassination of Kennedy.
This is a touchy subject. A few years ago political science professor Larry Sabato wrote a Kennedy book that was heavily promoted in the mainstream media and in multiple television appearances. He wrote in his book that the “establishment view, even today, in the halls of government and many media organizations” is “that it is irresponsible to question the ‘carefully considered’ conclusions of the Warren Commission report,” because “the widespread accusations that senior political, governmental, and military figures participated in the planning, execution, or cover-up of the assassination of President Kennedy have damaged the image of the United States around the globe, fueling anti-American sentiments by undermining the very basis of our democratic system.”
So even though Talbot’s book has hit the New York Times best-seller list, it has received backlash from some. One writer for the website Washington Decoded essentially called the book an act of treason against the state in a review he titled “Who Needs Soviet Propaganda?”
Polls show that few Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy by himself, and if you spend much time looking at the topic yourself it becomes difficult to believe that he even fired a shot at Kennedy. Some staff investigators for the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the 1970s, which probed the Kennedy assassination, suspected that several CIA officials were involved with either the assassination or the activities of Lee Harvey Oswald. Lyndon Johnson said in an interview in 1973 with a journalist, “I never believed that [Lee Harvey] Oswald acted alone, although I can accept that he pulled the trigger.” We “had been operating a damned Murder Inc. in the Caribbean,” he said.
Does Talbot prove that Allen Dulles was a key figure in the Kennedy assassination? His book shows that Allen Dulles did not simply go quietly into retirement. Instead he kept in contact with many of his old CIA deputies and figures in the military and the national-security state. He even met with some of the CIA officials who were overseeing the kill team that was targeting Castro, then some of the same people came under the suspicion of some of the House investigators in the 1970s. Records for those people still remain classified.
Of course this is all circumstantial evidence. There is no smoking gun and you will need to read Talbot’s book and judge for yourself, but it is a powerful effort to probe into what is hidden and must be explored in order to have a full understanding of our nation’s history and the ramifications of the national-security state that came into being after World War II. The state of crisis created by Cold Warriors such as the Dulles brothers continues today in the war on terror. Some defenders of the national-security state, such as those who disapprove of the Talbot book, treat attempts to explore its hidden history as an act of disloyalty. But that makes no sense unless being loyal means denying reality and upholding myths.
The national-security state justified a rule of secrecy in the name of plausible deniability to protect the president and its own officials from the rule of law and public opinion. Allen Dulles claimed he needed to do that to wage the Cold War. But when you create exceptions to the rule of law, you create an opening for corruption, violence, and political instability.
Talbot writes that after the Bay of Pigs invasion, former President Truman wrote that he regretted ever creating the CIA. “I think it was a mistake,” he told a friend, “and if I’d known what was going to happen, I never would have done it…. [Eisenhower] never paid any attention to it, and it got out of hand…. It’s become a government all of its own and all secret…. That’s a very dangerous thing in a democratic society.”
It seems that it took strange men like Allen Dulles to create and run the CIA. One of his deputies, James Angleton, told a reporter while on his deathbed that looking back on the early leaders of the CIA, “if you were in a room with them, you were in a room full of people that you had to believe would deservedly end up in hell. I guess I will see them there soon.” Perhaps.
The United States of America is not in hell, but the growth of the national security-state that Allen Dulles and his friends helped create, has caused an erosion of its constitutional processes of government. David Talbot’s book is a challenge to us to grapple with this reality and turn away from fear and endless war and back towards liberty.
This article was originally published in the March 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.