Review: “The Devil’s Chessboard” By David Talbot

January 8, 2017

There are books about the Nazis, books about spies, and books about the Kennedy assassination. David Talbot has managed to link all three in a pretty damned good history lesson about the dirty deals made at the end of World War 2 and beyond.

Talbot’s book, “The Devil’s Chessboard – Allen Dulles, The CIA and the Rise of America’s Secret Government”, has mostly been lumped in with and compared to other recent Kennedy assassination books. This is somewhat of an oversight, as the book is more directly about the relationship between powerful Wall Street banks, law firms and defense contractors that cut deals with the Nazis before, during and after the war.

John Foster and Allen Dulles were at the epicenter of U.S. corporate collaboration with the Nazis. Their law firm, Sullivan and Cromwell managed huge U.S. investments in German industry, the massive I.G. Farben chemical conglomerate and Krupp Steel, for example. Talbot writes that John Foster Dulles represented Nazi interests to the point that he insisted his Berlin office sign all correspondence with “Heil Hitler”.

Roosevelt had his suspicions about Allen Dulles, and had him under surveillance even though Dulles had been recruited by the precursor to the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Dulles was closely tied to Thomas Mckittrick, head of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), which actually handled all financial transactions between various nations, even those openly at war with each other.
War is just about business, after all.

Dulles was behind the effort to keep members of the Nazi elite in power after the war – to “ensure that Germany would be a strong bulwark against The Soviet Union”. Talbot writes: “Thus began Allen Dulles’s reign of treason as America’s top spy in occupied Europe”.
Dulles was not alone in this ideology; Talbot suggests other officials like George Kennan were against punishing the Nazis. It is a well known fact that thousands of Nazis went to work for U.S. intelligence, defense and aerospace contractors, while others were installed as U.S. agents in Latin America, the middle east and anywhere American corporate influence needed henchmen. There is also evidence that these “rehabilitated” Nazis were pursuing their own agenda as well, the Reich has survived.

One clear takeaway from “The Devil’s Chessboard” is that Allen Dulles was a sociopath, virtually unable to consider the feelings or well-being of others. His wife Clover had to share “The Shark” with Allen’s mistress Mary Bancroft, an unusual arrangement that drove the two women to become close friends. His own son, disabled from a war injury, was ignored and finally subjected to the perilous MK-Ultra mind control experiments that Dulles was involved with. It didn’t turn out well.

What exactly was emerging in this new era of intelligence? Talbot provides this stunning quote from journalist David Halberstam, that Dulles’s policy was:

“Part of something larger going on in Washington – the transition from an isolationist America to imperial colossus. A true democracy had no need for a vast, secret security apparatus, but an imperial country did… what was evolving was a closed state within an open state”.
(p. 203)

David Talbot reserves the last 1/3 of the book to describe the elements in motion surrounding the Kennedy assassination and the events leading up to it. He suggests that The Bay of Pigs debacle was “…not simply doomed to fail, it was meant to fail”. The intention was to trigger an all-out military invasion of Cuba. Kennedy refused to take the bait, fired Allen Dulles and threatened to “Tear the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the wind”.

Talbot covers Dulles’s involvement with the CIA mind-control programs, CIA linkage to the assassination attempts on French President de Gaulle, and introduces the reader to spook E. Howard Hunt as a ghostwriter for Allen Dulles’s books (among other scandalous events). In a controversial interview, in his last days Hunt labeled the Kennedy assassination “The Big Event”, and he merely served “as a bench warmer”.
If Hunt can be believed, he named the key players in the hit as Bill Harvey, David Morales, David Atlee Phillips and Cord Meyer, all CIA. Hunt also suggested Corsican Mafia shooters were involved, a statement that would be difficult to prove.

Regarding Lee Harvey Oswald, Talbot treats him with sympathy; Oswald was “one of those bright, lost fatherless boys whom society finds inventive ways of abusing”. His profile of Oswald is familiar to those with knowledge of the case – Civil Air Patrol with David Ferrie, the supposed defection to Russia, coming back to the U.S. with a State Department loan, and his troubled life with his Russian bride Marina.
The book takes a lengthy spin into the relationship between Oswald and the dashing George de Mohrenschildt (a likely handler of Oswald), notes the connection between Allen Dulles and Ruth Paine, who kept a close leash on Marina Oswald. Included are the usual suspects David Phillips, Bill Harvey, Guy Bannister and scores of other shadowy figures.

Dulles actually admitted being in Dallas a mere three weeks before the assassination, and even though he had been fired from the CIA he monitored the events of the assassination from a secure CIA facility called “The Farm”… a very interesting twist.

And of course, Allen Dulles was installed on the Warren Commission to make sure that – much like with The Bay of Pigs, The Warren Commission “was not just doomed to fail, it was meant to fail”

Exactly one month after the assassination, President Truman, who had created the CIA, penned an editorial stating that the CIA should be reigned in, calling it “A symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue”. French President de Gaulle believed the same forces that killed Kennedy had tried to kill him also. De Gaulle survived numerous assassination attempts, some believed to be linked to the CIA.

Talbot may not have gotten everything quite correct in his analysis, but nobody else has yet either. For instance, some researchers have doubted that CIA agent William Harvey had flown from Italy to Dallas as described in the book. But for the most part, Talbot lays out what he found in research and personal interviews and lets the reader draw the conclusions. The value of “The Devil’s Chessboard” is in the reach and scope of the history it provides.

Talbot hits the mark explaining the Nazi-CIA connections, a dark alliance that few Kennedy books touch on – and he successfully threads that connection from the end of the war to the assassination – a military coup that ushered in a uniquely American fascism.

“The Devil’s Chessboard” is a great read, an epic spy story every bit as frightening and disgusting as it is real. Add it to your collection, or use it as a historical primer for people who doubt the lengths intelligence agencies will go in their quest for power.


The Washington Post
December 22, 1963 – page A11

Harry Truman Writes:
Limit CIA Role
To Intelligence

By Harry S Truman
Copyright, 1963, by Harry S Truman


INDEPENDENCE, MO., Dec. 21 — I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and operations of our Central Intelligence Agency—CIA. At least, I would like to submit here the original reason why I thought it necessary to organize this Agency during my Administration, what I expected it to do and how it was to operate as an arm of the President.

I think it is fairly obvious that by and large a President’s performance in office is as effective as the information he has and the information he gets. That is to say, that assuming the President himself possesses a knowledge of our history, a sensitive understanding of our institutions, and an insight into the needs and aspirations of the people, he needs to have available to him the most accurate and up-to-the-minute information on what is going on everywhere in the world, and particularly of the trends and developments in all the danger spots in the contest between East and West. This is an immense task and requires a special kind of an intelligence facility.

Of course, every President has available to him all the information gathered by the many intelligence agencies already in existence. The Departments of State, Defense, Commerce, Interior and others are constantly engaged in extensive information gathering and have done excellent work.
But their collective information reached the President all too frequently in conflicting conclusions. At times, the intelligence reports tended to be slanted to conform to established positions of a given department. This becomes confusing and what’s worse, such intelligence is of little use to a President in reaching the right decisions.

Therefore, I decided to set up a special organization charged with the collection of all intelligence reports from every available source, and to have those reports reach me as President without department “treatment” or interpretations.

I wanted and needed the information in its “natural raw” state and in as comprehensive a volume as it was practical for me to make full use of it. But the most important thing about this move was to guard against the chance of intelligence being used to influence or to lead the President into unwise decisions—and I thought it was necessary that the President do his own thinking and evaluating.
Since the responsibility for decision making was his—then he had to be sure that no information is kept from him for whatever reason at the discretion of any one department or agency, or that unpleasant facts be kept from him. There are always those who would want to shield a President from bad news or misjudgments to spare him from being “upset.”

For some time I have been disturbed by the way CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas.

I never had any thought that when I set up the CIA that it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations. Some of the complications and embarrassment I think we have experienced are in part attributable to the fact that this quiet intelligence arm of the President has been so removed from its intended role that it is being interpreted as a symbol of sinister and mysterious foreign intrigue—and a subject for cold war enemy propaganda.

With all the nonsense put out by Communist propaganda about “Yankee imperialism,” “exploitive capitalism,” “war-mongering,” “monopolists,” in their name-calling assault on the West, the last thing we needed was for the CIA to be seized upon as something akin to a subverting influence in the affairs of other people.

I well knew the first temporary director of the CIA, Adm. Souers, and the later permanent directors of the CIA, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg and Allen Dulles. These were men of the highest character, patriotism and integrity—and I assume this is true of all those who continue in charge.

But there are now some searching questions that need to be answered. I, therefore, would like to see the CIA be restored to its original assignment as the intelligence arm of the President, and that whatever else it can properly perform in that special field—and that its operational duties be terminated or properly used elsewhere.

We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.

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2 Responses to Review: “The Devil’s Chessboard” By David Talbot

  1. Fayez Abedaziz on February 16, 2017 at 4:09 am

    Good points here about some of the evolution of the spook agency and old Dulles.
    Having read numerous books on these subjects, I see good coverage here and I will look into the book. Also I found quite interesting the other strange character, our old friend James Jesus Angleton. Now there was a piece of work.
    He, of course, headed counterintelligence for 20 years at the CIA.
    This guy was involved in a hell of a lot of weird events, such as:
    What the hell was he doing, breaking in, then taking murdered Mary Myers diary from her workshop, her private property? She was ‘double tapped’ with 2 bullets soon after JFK’s murder. She was a good friend of Kennedy.
    The spying went on and on in the 60’s in the U.S. against Americans, who were expressing their views on the war in Vietnam, the use of LSD in ‘research’ and other operations.

  2. Fayez Abedaziz on February 16, 2017 at 4:18 am

    Sorry, I should have explained that Mary Meyers was taking a regular walk near the Potomac when she was shot. The term ‘double tap’ means 2 bullets to the head or chest as a quick assassination method. Thank you

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