The headline of the Washington Decoded review, Who Needs Soviet Propaganda? gives fair warning to the faint-hearted reader that a polemical bog lies ahead. Beyond this billboard, you will find a review enshrouded with disdain, intent on score-settling, and (per the headline) determined to wage Cold War. This is ancient turf haunted by huffy men, Proceed with caution.[But first, buy “The Devil’s Chessboard,” by David Talbot.]
Reviewer David Barrett is perturbed that David Talbot’s new book, “The Devil’s Chessboard,” portrays CIA director Allen Dulles as a freewheeling power broker, devil-may-care administrator, ruthless philanderer, occasional liar, and amoral covert operator whose actions destroyed lives and democracies.
Stepping lightly over these last two truths, Barrett rushes to accuse Talbot of exaggeration and dubious sourcing. He concludes by saying the book is “fiction,” and belongs on a shelf with novels. It is a point less clever than silly, with the no doubt unintended effect of undermining every point the critic has made. If ‘The Devil’s Chessboard’ is fiction, why does Barrett take such care to fact-check it?
The answer is, of course, because he is concerned not about its fictional qualities, but about its factuality.
As perhaps he should be. One strength of Talbot’s book is that it synthesizes historians’ increasingly subtle depictions of Dwight Eisenhower. In ‘The Devil’s Chessboard,” Ike emerges as a cagey general in a plutocratic government. He worries about the military-industrial complex over which he presides, and gives a free-hand to Dulles and the CIA as a way of keeping U.S. soldiers out of land wars while expanding American markets, profits, and power.
This realistically depicted portrait is a big improvement over long-reigning academic stereotypes of Eisenhower as amiable dunce and Dulles as dashing knight of anti-communism. In his review Barrett urges unsuspecting readers to purchase another Dulles biography, Gentleman Spy, rather than Talbot’s. In that book, Dulles is knightly and dull. Talbot’s Dulles is neither.
The question of sources
I agree with Barrett on one point. I think the evidence supports the notion that Robert Kennedy did want Allen Dulles to serve on the Warren Commission investigating his brother’s murder in Dallas. Talbot says RFK mistrusted Dulles and presents evidence showing that Dulles obtained the position by lobbying for it hard with colleagues.
Talbot’s interpretation may be wrong-headed but its not imagined. I suspect that Dulles wanted to serve on the Commission to protect the CIA’s secrets (especially the very sensitive issue of what the Directorate of Plans knew of Oswald‘s travels and politics).
RFK didn’t object to the idea of Dulles on the Commission because he liked Dulles personally and trusted him implicitly, perhaps unwisely.[Buy “The Devil’s Chessboard,” by David Talbot.]