As we’ve seen in books like James W. Douglass’ JFK and the Unspeakable and Russ K. Baker’s Family of Secrets, there is a fairly good circumstantial case to be made that John F. Kennedy was killed, not by the “lone nut” Lee Harvey Oswald, but by the “deep state,” the unelected class of Wall Street bankers, lawyers, Pentagon warlords, chief executives, and intelligence officers who manipulate American politics from behind the scenes. There will probably never be a “smoking gun.” The people who operate the deep state are far too clever to leave their fingerprints at the scene of such an enormous crime, and it’s unlikely that the corporate media, which at its highest levels is also part of the deep state, will ever seriously examine the evidence that was gathered by the House Select Committee on Assassinations back in the 1970s. So the debate has passed on from the courts, the politicians, and the newspapers, over to the historians. In his massive history of the Central Intelligence Agency, The Devil’s Chessboard, journalist, and now historian, David Talbot argues that the main villain behind the Kennedy assassination is Allen Dulles.
Allen Dulles, the first civilian Director of the CIA, would still have plenty of blood on his hands, even if he had nothing to do with what took place in Dallas on November 22, 1963. In 1945, while working for the Office of Strategic Services, he helped to set up Operation Sunrise, a back door peace process with Nazi Germany. Since Franklin Roosevelt had already called for “unconditional surrender” from the Germans, anybody else would have been charged with treason, but Dulles, who had powerful friends on Wall Street, not only got away with it, he eventually hammered it into something resembling the unofficial diplomatic policy of the American government. Once the Cold War got under way, high ranking Nazis were far too valuable to leave dangling at the end of a rope at Nuremberg. Washington didn’t de-Nazify Western Europe so much as chop off the head and take over the body. Reinhard Gehlen, for example, Hitler’s chief intelligence officer on the Eastern Front, also wound up serving as the head of West German intelligence from 1956 to 1968. An even more notorious war criminal, Waffen SS General Karl Wolff, who Dulles helped rescue from the Italian Resistance, was probably on the CIA payroll until 1962, when the Eichmann Trial uncovered his role in the “Final Solution.”
In 1952, after Dwight Eisenhower became President, and Allen Dulles’ brother, the Wall Street lawyer and hard-line anti-communist John Foster Dulles, became Secretary of State, Allen Dulles became the chief enforcer for the power elite in Washington DC, Wall Street’s muscle inside an already pro-business, already right-wing American government. Under his control, the Central Intelligence Agency expanded its mission from that of an information gathering service to a foreign policy establishment within the foreign policy establishment, an army not subject to congressional oversight and specializing in coups and assassinations. We live with its consequences, even today. In 1953 in Iran, for example, Dulles helped to overthrow the secular, democratic government of Mohammad Mosaddegh for the benefit of British Petroleum. British Petroleum made plenty of money. The Iranian people got the Shah, then the mullahs. The rest of us got decades of blow back, and anti-American extremism. In 1954, in Guatemala, in an even more blatantly anti-democratic conspiracy, the CIA mounted a coup that took out Jacobo Árbenz and replaced his government with the brutal dictatorship of Carlos Castillo Armas. Today, after decades of oligarchic rule, and a genocide against the indigenous in the 1980s, Guatemala, and the rest of Central America, remains one of the most violent places on earth.
It was the coup in Guatemala, however, that eventually led to Allen Dulles’ downfall. At least it led to his public downfall. By 1960, when John F. Kennedy became the President, Allen Dulles and the CIA had grown arrogantly out of touch with reality. The left in Latin America, by contrast, had learned from Arbenz’s mistakes. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara wouldn’t depend on the democratic process to keep power in Cuba. They would fight fire with fire. They would meet Dulles, the CIA, and their ragtag army of counter revolutionaries on the beach at the Bahía de Cochinos, not with diplomacy, but with Soviet made tanks and aircraft. Allen Dulles, who wasn’t stupid, and who had already sized up Che and Castro as formidable enemies, knew the half-hearted invasion would fail. It was all part of the plan, but if he correctly estimated how Che and Castro would react, he thoroughly underestimated. John F. Kennedy. Kennedy not only refused to mount an air strike or send in the Marines, he realized that keeping Allen Dulles and other Eisenhower retreads like Admiral Arleigh Burke and General Lyman Lemnitzer, had been a grave mistake. So he dismissed all three and vowed to break the CIA into 1000 pieces.
John F. Kennedy died, probably because he took a shot at the “deep state” but didn’t kill it, vowed to break up the CIA, but settled with merely decapitating it, with firing Dulles and replacing him with John McCone, yet another right-wing, Eisenhower retread. Charles de Gaulle, by contrast, after an attempted coup in 1961 by Maurice Challe and a group of right-wing army officers — an attempted coup by French generals who probably had the tacit approval of Dulles and the CIA — not only called French citizens into the streets to suppress the attempted putsch. He had many of Challe’s mid-level supporters killed. De Gaulle, who always believed that the CIA had been behind Kennedy’s assassination, and who dismissed the Warren Commission Report as as a whitewash, knew that when you’re fighting gangsters like Allen Dulles, you take off the white gloves, and fight fire with fire. It’s no accident that tough guys like Fidel Castro and Charles de Gaulle lived, while nice guys like Arbenz, Allende, and John F. Kennedy all died. The deep state rarely if ever respects quaint little niceties like “don’t assassinate the democratically elected heads of state, even if they happen to be American allies, or even Americans.”
David Talbot’s argument that Allen Dulles and the CIA were behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy is compelling circumstantial case without a smoking gun, but it’s a very compelling circumstantial case. Lee Harvey Oswald simply had too many ties to the CIA to be dismissed as a “lone nut.” That his murder live on national TV is just another strange detail in a very strange historical event defies credibility. Whoever ordered his execution not only thought it was more important to get him out of the way than to avoid raising suspicions, they had enough confidence that the media wouldn’t point out the obvious. There were too many mid-level CIA operatives, William Harvey, E. Howard Hunt, David Morales, who were on the ground in Dallas that day, for there not to have been a formal, judicial inquest. At least there should have been a thorough investigation by the media into the idea that the assassination might have been payback for Kennedy’s not ordering air strikes during the Bay of Pigs. Above all, Allen Dulles’ presence on the Warren Commission raises a million red flags. Any objective examination of his relationship to the Kennedy administration would have identified him as a prime suspect, not the man appointed to run the investigation. In the end, Talbot doesn’t prove his case beyond a reasonable shadow of a doubt, but he does manage to hold up the history of the United States to the same standards as the history of the rest of the world. If the CIA was behind the coup in Iran and Guatemala, if they were behind an attempted coup in France, is it really so hard to believe they wouldn’t mount a coup in the United States, especially when the stakes for the American establishment were so much higher?
The most interesting parts of The Devil’s Chessboard don’t necessarily involve the familiar territory of the Kennedy assassination, but the dark little corners of recent American history we’ve all heard about but haven’t thoroughly examined. That the CIA kidnapped Columbia professor Jesús Galíndez and turned him over to the Trujillo government in the Dominican Republic, where he was boiled alive and fed to the sharks, is news to me. I had always known the CIA was complicit in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first civilian President of the Republican of Congo. I had no idea that Dwight Eisenhower ordered it outright, or just what a horrifying spectacle it really was, how long it played out in public in front of the entire world. David Talbot is an occasionally long-winded writer. But his anger at Lumumba’s murder, and the eloquence with which he expresses himself, are so powerful they had shouting out loud in rage. The attempt of the US government to prevent Fidel Castro from finding lodging in New York during his visit to the United Nations, and the propaganda coup he managed to pull of when Malcolm X arranged for him to stay at the Theresa Hotel in Harlem sheds new light on the relationship between the American Civil Rights movement and the Cold War. I’ve always known the Kennedy and Johnson administrations wanted to end Jim Crow in the South partly to prevent the Soviet Union from gaining a foothold in Africa. David Talbot rams the idea home.
Above all, however, whether or not he proves that Allen Dulles and the CIA were behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, David Talbot does succeed in raising the possibility that American democracy is mostly an illusion, that we are ruled by an elite we don’t entirely understand.