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The CIA's first grandmaster

Kanika Datta 

Allen Dulles, the CIA and the Rise of America's Secret Government
David Talbot

686 pages; Rs 899

A biography of Allen Dulles 47 years after his death would have struggled for context but for the US presidential primaries. Republican frontrunner Donald Trump's swashbuckling assertions on US intervention in West Asia, a crude amplification of the "neocon" agenda, may dismay even conservative right wingers. But this substantial book on the Central Intelligence Agency's longest serving director (1953-1961) shows why braggadocio-as-foreign-policy retains a certain popularity in America 26 years after the Cold War.

The Devil's Chessboard aims to show how Dulles, in partnership with his brother John Foster, Secretary of State under President Eisenhower, shaped and projected America's global power in a way that found ready successors in Lyndon B Johnson, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush and the disasters and scandals of Vietnam, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

The book covers mostly familiar ground but still makes for a compelling read. Mr Talbot, a founder and former editor-in -chief of Salon, tells the story with light-handed skill that masks a prodigious amount of research. He scours recently discovered US documents and personal journals (including of Dulles' wife and mistress), interviews intelligence sources across the Atlantic and children of CIA officials (including Dulles' daughter) to build a rivetting portrait of one of the most unfathomable men in American public life.

The Dulles brothers' role in Iran, where they engineered the overthrow of the popularly elected Mohammad Mossadegh to reinstate the egregious Shah Reza Pahlavi, and Guatemala, where they drove out Jacobo Arbenz, and the U2 scandal, which embarrassed Eisenhower on the eve of peace talks with the Soviet Union, are well documented here as elsewhere. Mr Talbot, however, does well to remind us of the tragic fate of Patrice Lumumba and the Congo, also a Dulles operation, days before the Kennedy administration took charge.

The shrill anti-Communism of the Joseph McCarthy era legitimated all these interventions but the real purposes were linked - then as now - inexorably with American business. For the Dulles brothers, those interests were personal, in Sullivan and Cromwell, the law firm in which both had been partners and whose clients these coups served (the similarity with the Dick Cheney-Haliburton-Iraqi invasion link is hard to miss).

Big Oil and the Iranian debacle, United Fruit Company and the Guatemalan coup, these are well remembered, but Mr Talbot has also written in fascinating detail about the brothers' less-known wartime activities. John, the older, was still a partner in Sullivan and Cromwell, and Allen was an officer with the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA's predecessor, in Switzerland, by then well established as the haven for financing the Nazi war machine. The chapter titled "The Double Agent" traces how the brothers leveraged the secrecy of the Swiss banking system to parley massive US investments in the firm's German clients like IG Farben and Krupp, integral cogs in Hitler's military-industrial complex.

Mr Talbot also documents Dulles' post-war role in rescuing several of the Nazi regime's most notorious officials - among them SS General Karl Wolff, Heinrich Himmler's chief of staff and commander of Nazi security forces in Italy, his deputy Eugen Dollman and Reinhard Gehlen, Hiltler's intelligence chief on the Eastern Front. He has probably exaggerated Dulles' influence in the infamous "Ratline" policy that prompted the Allies to soften towards "useful Nazis" in their new rivalry against the Soviet Union. But he does create a persuasive picture of the rank amorality, developed in the first flush of victory, that informed the American post-war political establishment, which threw up politicians like McCarthy and Richard Nixon and provided ample scope for men of Dulles' sinister talents.

Dulles' leadership of the CIA created a twisted legacy in which thought experiments - to which he even subjected his son who suffered the effects of a head wound in the Korean War - and covert operations were given official sanction. Establishing this is one part of Mr Talbot's intention in writing this book. The Devil's Chessboard takes the Dulles story a step further to raise the old suspicion that he was connected with the plot to assassinate John F Kennedy, the president who dismissed him after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Sacked and discredited after that ill-fated operation to oust Fidel Castro, Dulles nursed deep grievances against the young president. His refusal to provide air cover for Dulles' operation was the immediate reason for this disgruntlement, but the old spy, who retained links with CIA dissidents and old Cuba hands after he stepped down, was also dismayed by Kennedy's softer foreign policy stance. His membership of the famous Warren Commission investigation into Kennedy's assassination was odd enough but the ludicrous conclusion of a lone, deranged gun man was a patent cover-up, acknowledged even then. Eventually, writes Mr Talbot, even Dulles' loyal mistress and long-time confidante believes he is implicated in the whitewash.

Though the book is kinder to Kennedy than warranted, Mr Talbot raises questions and hypotheses that point the needle of suspicion inexorably in Dulles' direction, clarifying issues that were raised even then (hinted at in Oliver Stone's gripping Kevin Costner-starrer JKF ). The careful investigation provides convincing evidence but stops short of the expose we're promised. With many key documents destroyed or yet to be declassified, we'll probably never know. But as a portrait of power without accountability, this biography of Allen Dulles is well-timed in the current political milieu.

First Published: Thu, April 14 2016. 21:30 IST