The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government
By David Talbot
Harpers. 686 pp. $29.99
By David M. Barrett
A key indicator of where David Talbot is going in his portrait of CIA Director Allen W. Dulles comes from his treatment of C. Wright Mills and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Mills was a Columbia University sociologist whose 1956 book, The Power Elite, caused a minor sensation in the seemingly placid ‘50s. Liberal and conservative scholars alike depicted the American political process as a balancing act among competing interests, which included big business, organized labor, farmers, and professional groups. But Mills, as Talbot notes approvingly, did not believe such a perspective was “adequate even as an approximate model of how the American system of power works.” Instead, Mills posited a Marxist-lite critique that presented governance in the United States as an elaborate conspiracy theory of unaccountable elites. He argued that corporate, military, and governmental leaders worked hand-in-glove solely to enrich and empower themselves and the institutions they headed, and cast doubt on the belief that the United States was some version of a democracy.
How did presidents—America’s nominal leaders—fit into this system of elite control? According to the Millisian analysis, Eisenhower’s prime directive was to preserve an elite that benefited from a “permanent war economy.” That would seem to be at odds with Ike’s famous parting shot, in which he warned Americans that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist . . . . Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Perhaps that portion of Eisenhower’s nationally-televised farewell address from January 1961 was a gaffe, which Michael Kinsley famously defined as a politician accidentally telling the truth.
Much more often, according to Talbot, President Eisenhower acted the role of an amiable dunce who followed the diktats of the power elite. Ike had been “a peace-loving warrior” during the great global conflict of the previous decade, but by the time he sought the presidency in 1952 he was an “aging general,” well-meaning perhaps but subject to manipulation and oftentimes just plain clueless. He obligingly took orders from the “Dulles-Dewey group” (a combination brain trust and bank consisting of future CIA Director Allen, his brother and future Secretary of State John Foster, and former GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey). These were the men, for example, who “tapped [Richard] Nixon for vice president.”
Unfortunately, as in so many episodes related in the book, the true story is at odds with Talbot’s invented version. After the GOP convention nominated Eisenhower, Herbert Brownell, Ike’s campaign manager (who would become attorney general), told Eisenhower the time had come to select a running mate. After ruminating for awhile, the nominee handed his short list to Brownell, who then consulted leading Republican pols, including Dewey, but not the Dulleses. How Nixon got picked is recounted in an exhaustively researched new book about Eisenhower and Nixon, The President and His Apprentice, by Irwin F. Gellman.
Talbot goes on to assert that during the eight-year Eisenhower presidency, no one in the administration—not even Ike himself—matched the Dulles brothers in power. In particular, the president is depicted as knowing shockingly little about what Allen Dulles and the CIA were up to, while lacking the intelligence and energy to insist on knowing. These portraits of Ike and the Dulleses are a graphic novel (comic book) rendering of the national and international politics of the 1950s, and not in a good way. The charge that Eisenhower was an amiable dunce is an old and political one, dating back to the time he was still in office. Eisenhower was so popular and scandal-free that Democrats had little choice but to claim he was more interested in playing golf than running the country. While researching The CIA and Congress, the majority of which dealt with the Eisenhower era, I saw some episodes of an out-of-touch Ike, especially during the last few years of his White House tenure, which were illness-plagued. But there was more frequent evidence of a shrewd political figure. It may be going a tad too far to claim that Eisenhower’s was a “hidden-hand” presidency, a revisionist argument political scientist Fred Greenstein first put forward in 1982. But the five-star general surely was not a cipher.
Talbot’s book, of course, really purports to be an expose about Allen Dulles’s directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. Here there are serious problems, rooted in a number of bad choices by the author. Among them: