"The Devil’s Chessboard’’

An Interview with Allen Dulles-Biographer David Talbot

Few people have influenced the history of the 20th century more profoundly than Wall-Street-solicitor and CIA-director Allen Dulles. Even in retirement, the mighty puppet master continued to wield more influence than the US vice presidents actually in power. Although Dulles's schemes are vital to an understanding not only of US-espionage, but also of the 40s, 50s and 60s, most historians prefer to avoid a topic, which is uncomfortable in several ways.

Allen Dulles. Bild: US Governement

Now Westend has published a German translation of the impressive biography The Devil’s Chessboard - Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government, that spares neither Dulles's enmeshment with the Nazis nor his central role in the death of JFK. David Talbot, the author of this book, founded Salon.com and was editor of Mother Jones magazine. In "The Devil’s Chessboard", he solves all the riddles around the assassinations he addressed in his 2008 Kennedy-biography, the best-selling "Brothers".

Allen Dulles influenced the course of World War II, prepared the Cold War during the hot one and gave West Germany with the Organisation Gehlen an obscure intelligence agency. Are you surprised that Dulles who was an important figure in German history is virtually unknown in this country?

David Talbot: Yes! "The past is never dead", as William Faulkner has told us. "It’s not even past.’’ This is very true in the case of Dulles, who, as you say, not only helped create the Gehlen Organization, but also West Germany’s intelligence establishment. The deeply paranoid view of Russia that was embedded in men like Allen Dulles and Reinhard Gehlen is once again asserting itself on the world’s stage now. And many of the security techniques that provoke heated debate today - including kidnapping, torture, assassination, "black site" detention centers and mass surveillance of citizens - have their origins in the Dulles era. The past is never dead, indeed.

In Germany, very few publications even mention Allen Dulles. When he is mentioned, e.g. in connection with Fritz Kolbe, he is celebrated as a "master spy". Do you agree with that depiction of Dulles?

David Talbot: No. Dulles was a disaster as the top American spy in continental Europe during World War II. He used his spy post in Bern, Switzerland to pursue his own policies - namely to seek a separate peace deal with Nazi emissaries, in direct defiance of the Allied policy of "unconditional surrender." In many ways, Dulles was more aligned with the Nazi regime than with his own commander-in-chief, President Franklin Roosevelt. After all, the Wall Street law firm that he and his brother, John Foster Dulles, directed had done business with members of the Nazi corporate state for many years, and Allen continued to keep these channels open during the war. The Dulles brothers believed that the Soviet Union was the principal enemy of the West - a view shared by many of their German counterparts.

During the Cold War, Dulles’s ideological views continued to undermine his intelligence assessments, up until the disastrous 1961 CIA invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, which Dulles assured President Kennedy would be a quiet and easy operation. In reality, Dulles knew that the CIA-backed brigade of Cuban exiles was no match for Fidel Castro’s military - but he thought that, in the heat of battle, the young American president would be forced to send in the full power of the U.S. Air Force and Marines. This time, Dulles’s gambit did not work. Kennedy did not cave in under pressure, and Dulles’s career was over - at least officially.

How did the US public react to the fact that Dulles hid the Holocaust from Roosevelt and had engaged in disreputable business activities with Nazi Germany?

David Talbot: The American people were generally kept in the dark about this during the war. But the Dulles brothers and their like-minded associates in Republican and Wall Street circles were viewed as traitors within the Roosevelt administration. If FDR had not died in the final weeks of the war, there is evidence that the Roosevelt administration would have prosecuted the Dulles brothers and their associates for treason.

In 1956, BND-director Gehlen made a deal with his mentor Allen Dulles: If the Socialist Party were to win the general election in Germany, Gehlen would have instigated a coup d’état from the right - Similar to what happened in the Greek military dictatorship in 1967 and in several countries in Africa, Central and South America and Indonesia. Do you think the US would have really considered such an option?

David Talbot: I think there is a very good chance this indeed would have happened. Remember, the Dulles brothers dominated foreign policy under President Eisenhower, with John Foster serving as secretary of state and Allen as CIA director. West Germany was seen as the front line in the Cold War and the Dulles brothers repeatedly demonstrated how far they would go to protect U.S. interests, even if it meant aggressively interfering with the sovereignty of a foreign ally. As I also write in "The Devil’s Chessboard,’’ a few years later, in 1961, President Charles de Gaulle of France became convinced that Dulles’s CIA was behind a French military coup that tried to overthrow his presidency - another dramatic moment in European history, during which French democracy only survived because of the overwhelming display of popular support for de Gaulle in the streets of Paris.

The military intelligence official Fletcher L. Prouty hinted, that the U2-incident was possibly accelerated by Allen Dulles to prevent a premature end of the Cold War. Plausible?

David Talbot: Again, yes. Prouty - as the liaison between the U.S. Air Force and the CIA - was in a good position to observe this. He worked closely with Dulles and knew what he was capable of. The Dulles brothers were determined to keep relentless pressure on Moscow and saw any diplomatic effort towards detente as a sign of weakness. As he neared the end of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower was eager to take steps toward peace with the Khrushchev regime and he looked forward to the Geneva Summit with the Soviets in 1960 as his last opportunity.

But the downing of the U-2 spy plane by the Russians on the eve of the summit ruined the final hopes for peace. Eisenhower was furious with Dulles, who had urged the president to authorize the flight, despite the president’s concerns, assuring Eisenhower that the high-flying plane would be safely out of range of Soviet missiles. Prouty suspected the aircraft was tampered with to make it more vulnerable. In any case, the plane crash ruined the summit meeting and Eisenhower later bitterly complained that Dulles had left him "a legacy of ashes".

Why did none of the mighty Dulles brothers ever stand for an election?

David Talbot: Actually, they both did, with disastrous results. Allen was badly beaten when he ran for Congress from his Manhattan district in 1938, by an opponent who told voters that Dulles was in the pocket of Wall Street interests. His brother John Foster lost his own race for the U.S. Senate in 1949. With their patrician and entitled sensibilities, the brothers clearly lacked a flair for the popular, rough-and-tumble of democratic politics.

Why did the Dulles brothers, who normally support their millionaire friends, promote Richard M. Nixon, who had a very humble origin?

David Talbot: Nixon proved to be a useful tool for the Dulles brothers, a ruthlessly ambitious and cunning politician, who was all too willing to serve as their hatchet man against the surviving members of Roosevelt’s New Deal order. Nixon became a leading Cold War inquisitor, branding political enemies of the Dulleses as Communist traitors and driving them out of public life.

John Foster Dulles won NATO chief Dwight D. Eisenhower for the nomination with a promise to nuke the Eastern bloc. Even military leaders such as Curtis LeMay and Lyman Louis Lemnitzer wanted to start World War III, when the CIA realized the missing second strike capability of the Soviets. Did the Pentagon need Dulles to eliminate the Kennedys, who were not cooperative in that regard?

David Talbot: The arrogance of the Cold War elite was truly frightening by the time John F. Kennedy became president, and many high-ranking Pentagon and CIA officials were confident that the U.S. could "win" a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The prospect of such a war terrified JFK and he was determined to find a way to make peace with Khrushchev, particularly after the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. Kennedy’s determination to seek detente with Khrushchev was seen as weakness by U.S. national security hardliners.

In fact, there was a broad consensus, not just in these Washington circles, but in Wall Street business circles, that Kennedy was a weak president who was putting the nation at risk. I believe that Allen Dulles - who was seen as the "enforcer" for America’s power elite - was given the job of organizing Kennedy’s forceful removal from office. Afterwards, Dulles took the lead in arranging the cover-up of the crime, from his convenient position on the Warren Commission, the official investigative panel.

Before his assassination in Dallas, John F. Kennedy visited Italy where he "gave his blessings" to a coalition between the Socialists and the Christian Democrats, and thereby counteracted Dulles's policy. Did the Kennedys not know that the CIA manipulated the Italian Christian Democrats by financing and protecting their party?

David Talbot: Yes, I believe Kennedy’s circle knew about the CIA’s covert activities in Italy. Kennedy advisor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was particularly knowledgeable about the Italian political scene, and he was primarily responsible for convincing JFK to support the so-called "opening to the left" that was supposed to bring together the Socialist Party and Christian Democrats in a left-center unity party - a plan, as you say, that was bitterly opposed by Dulles’s CIA network.

JFK was trying to counterbalance the CIA payments to the Christian Democrats by arranging to have U.S. financial support for the Socialist Party, from liberal sources such as the United Auto Workers Union. Kennedy’s goal was to strengthen the non-Communist Left in Italy - but even this was seen as a threat by the Dulles crowd.

Among the most incredible aspects of the Kennedy assassination is the fact that Dulles and his friends were called to investigate in the Warren Commission (1963), as well as Rockefeller Commission (1975). Was Dulles correct in his assessment, that the American people do not read?

David Talbot: No, Dulles proved to be wrong in his patronizing attitude toward the American people. Much to his dismay, the Warren Report was greeted with growing skepticism by the public, and early Kennedy conspiracy books such as Mark Lane’s "Rush to Judgment" and Edward Jay Epstein’s "Inquest" became big bestsellers. As I write in my book, Dulles tried hard to manipulate media coverage of the assassination and to discredit critics of the Warren Report, such as Lane and New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.

AIdentification Card of Allen W. Dulles. Bild: CIA

But for the rest of Dulles’s life, the public controversy around the Warren Report, and its "lone gunman" theory, only continued to grow. Near the end of his life, as I write, Dulles was confronted face-to-face by a UCLA engineering graduate student who had studied the Kennedy case very closely. The questions put to Dulles by the student at a public forum, and the photographic evidence he thrust before his eyes, left the older man deeply shaken. The student, David Lifton (who went on to write his own bestselling book about the assassination, "Best Evidence"), told me that he felt he was "in the presence of evil" during his encounter with Dulles.

In 1975, the Church committee interrogated William King Harvey, the head of the CIA assassination team, who did not hide the fact, that the Kennedys were his mortal enemies. There is reason to believe that Harvey had prepared the attack in Texas. Why was Harvey allowed to walk unscathed?

David Talbot: Harvey was indeed a key suspect in the Kennedy case - a gun-loving Kennedy-hater whom Dulles put in charge of the assassination operation against Fidel Castro. Harvey had access to weapons, to professional killers, and he had a motive to murder JFK, whom he viewed as a weak and cowardly leader who had betrayed the anti-Castro rebels at the Bay of Pigs. But, as he truthfully testified before the Church Commission, Harvey was the type of man who followed orders - he would not have organized a "rogue" plot to kill the president unless he felt that his superior officers, including men like Dulles, had authorized it. This is why congressional investigators did not go all the way in their probe of men like Harvey -- the political figures who ran the Church Committee and, later, the House Select Committee on Assassinations, sensed that if they probed much deeper, their investigations would lead all the way to the top of the CIA and likely beyond. This was very explosive territory.

In any case, Harvey died in 1976 from a heart attack, sparing the CIA of any concern that he might begin talking more freely under further interrogation. In fact, a number of key witnesses in the Kennedy case conveniently died during this period, when government investigators were starting to finally shed light on the assassination.

The Australian historian Greg Poulgrain connects the murders of Dag Hammarskjold and John F. Kennedy et al with Dulles’ friend and client Rockefeller, who was interested in securing mineral resources in Indonesia. What do you think of the thesis?

David Talbot: I’m aware of these allegations, but I haven’t done my own research into them, so I cannot comment. I can say, however, that central Africa, where Hammarskjöld died in a suspicious plane crash in 1961, was fraught with espionage intrigue. The UN secretary tried to intervene on behalf of Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic nationalist leader of Congo, who was challenging the control of his young nation by powerful Western mining interests, including companies like American Metal Climax (now AMAX) that were represented by the Dulles brothers’ law firm. The CIA arranged the capture and execution of Lumumba in January 1961, making sure his murder would be carried out before John F. Kennedy could be inaugurated as president, because, like Hammarskjöld, JFK was trying to protect the Congolese leader from his ultimate fate. After arranging Lumumba’s brutal execution, Dulles kept the news of his death from Kennedy for several weeks.

I will also comment that the Rockefeller brothers - namely, banker David Rockefeller, and politician Nelson Rockefeller - were closely aligned with the Dulles brothers. And the Rockefellers shared Allen’s strong distaste for JFK. (John Foster was dead by the time Kennedy was elected president.) I believe that by 1963 there was growing consensus in the corporate and security circles dominated by the Rockefellers and Dulleses that Kennedy was a problem that had to be solved.

Up until today, the influential magazine Der Spiegel, which was controlled by the German security service Bundesnachrichtendienst in its early years, ridicules doubts about the official version of the Kennedy assassination. Has Dulles won?

David Talbot: Yes, if success is measured by the corporate media’s continued faith in the Warren Report - against all mounting evidence - then Dulles has indeed won. The 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, in November 2013, was an appalling display of media conformity and cowardice. With very few exceptions, the media simply used the occasion to repeat decades-old lies and fabrications about "lone gunman" Lee Harvey Oswald. Lost in this avalanche of disinformation was any mention of the work done by the Church Committee or the House Select Committee on Assassinations, even though the HSCA concluded that Kennedy died as the result of a conspiracy -- let alone the work of hundreds of highly respected journalists and scholars who have poked gaping holes in the official version.

You wrote that Dulles dined several times a week with influential newspaper publishers, radio hosts and prominent journalists to ensure a friendly coverage of the CIA by US media. How did the media react to your book, especially as it puts forward inconvenient truths in regard to its industry?

David Talbot: Yes, Dulles was a master at manipulating his friends in the press, particularly the families that owned such leading media institutions as the New York Times, Washington Post, Time-Life and CBS. The corporate media continues to be highly deferential to the national security establishment, as evidenced by the near-blackout of my book in the press, despite glowing reviews from the publishing industry press and independent media. I’m delighted to say, however, that despite the way my book was ignored by the New York Times, it nonetheless became a New York Times bestseller. Fortunately, the word about books like mine can be spread these days through social media and progressive outlets in the U.S. like the "Democracy Now" TV program, Salon and Pacifica Radio.

Dulles biographer Peter Grose mentioned two aspects in Dulles life, which can be rated positively: Dulles contributed to the unmasking of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" as fake and demonstrated some moral conduct in regard to the murder case of the Mississippi civil rights workers. Why did you not mention either?

David Talbot: I disagree with Grose’s interpretation of these incidents. As a young diplomat stationed in Turkey after World War I, Dulles actually played a reprehensible role in promulgating "The Protocols" sending a copy of the scurrilous tract that he had come across in a bookstall to Washington, as if it were an important intelligence document that revealed a dark Jewish conspiracy. If not an outright anti-Semite, Dulles certainly shared the fashionable prejudices of his WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) caste. He had no strong sympathies for the plight of the Jews during World War II, and as America’s top spy in Switzerland, he sat on essential reports that shed light on the growing Holocaust - reports that could have moved the Roosevelt administration to take stronger action against the death camps and trains.

In the case of the murdered civil rights workers, again I see no great humanitarian impulse here. Dulles was simply agreeing to take on a task that was asked of him by President Johnson - a largely ceremonial task that was meant to reassure the public that the top men in Washington took these shocking murders seriously. And don’t forget that Dulles owed a debt to Johnson, who played a key role in the coverup of the Kennedy assassination by appointing men like Dulles to the Warren Commission.

Von Markus Kompa aktuell im Westendverlag erschienen: Der Politthriller Das Netzwerk. (Markus Kompa)

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