Did CIA Director Allen Dulles Order the Hit on JFK?

In a blistering but painstaking profile of the Cold War CIA chief, David Talbot’s damning accusations include the allegation that Dulles was behind the Kennedy assassination.


An affable scion of the Northeastern establishment, a committed interventionist in foreign affairs, and fervent disciple of American exceptionalism, Allen Welsh Dulles served as director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1953 to 1961. International affairs were the Dulles family business. Allen’s maternal grandfather, John W. Foster, was secretary of state under Benjamin Harrison. His uncle, Robert Lansing, held the same office under Woodrow Wilson. John Foster Dulles, his elder brother, served as secretary of state in the Eisenhower administration, and Allen reputedly wanted the job for himself. Yet, when Allen ran the CIA and his brother was ensconced as head of State, there was little of the usual friction between the two agencies of government. The brothers worked together like a well-oiled team. Critics have argued ever since that the country and the world would have been better off had this not been the case.

After graduating from Princeton Phi Beta Kappa, Dulles joined the Foreign Service, where he served with distinction from 1916 to 1926, and developed a taste for intelligence work that lasted all his life. He then went on to join his brother’s Wall Street law firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, with a view to making real money. The firm represented some of the most powerful corporations in the world, and Dulles succeeded in his objective, but he sorely missed the excitement of cloak-and-dagger work.

Then came World War II. Recruited by Wild Bill Donovan to run the OSS office in Bern, Switzerland, he developed invaluable connections with the German resistance movement against Hitler, and established a reputation as a superb spy with a flair for running networks of agents and planning covert operations. By the time of his ascent to the directorship of the CIA, the Cold War had blossomed from a conflict centered on Europe into a truly global contest waged by proxy armies and secret agents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It was above all else a complex, multifaceted conflict with diplomatic, military, and propaganda components. The West had already suffered a number of serious reverses—the compromise of most of its agents behind the Iron Curtain as a result of Kim Philby’s defection, the “loss” of China, and the shocking invasion of South Korea by Communist North Korea, widely (and incorrectly) believed to have been ordered by Stalin, to name but a few.

Like his more dour and grumpy older brother, Allen Dulles had a deep aversion to Communism, and viewed the Cold War as struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, between liberty and “enslavement.” Dulles threw himself into his work, writes intelligence historian Thomas Powers, “with a patriot’s devotion, an appetite for combat, and an elastic sense of the permissible … The fears and alarms of the Cold War seem melodramatic and overdrawn now, but the Dulles who ran the CIA during the Eisenhower years was fired by a steely resolve to carry the fight to the enemy, and prevail.”

Together, the Dulles brothers impressed upon Ike the need to check the expansion of Soviet influence wherever it appeared—and in some cases, it must be said, where the faint shadows of a Communist presence on the margins of political life in a foreign locale could provide cover for paramilitary intervention on behalf of American corporate interests that the Dulles brothers conflated with the national interest. Allen Dulles was a staunch advocate and leading orchestrator of the successful CIA-led coups in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, where the agency proclaimed local Communist provocateurs were laying the foundations for direct Soviet intervention, thereby threatening Western oil supplies, the Suez and Panama canals … and, of course, the financial interests of a host of British and American oil companies (in Iran) and the United Fruit Company (in Guatemala), an important Sullivan & Cromwell client.

Many other interventions and anti-communist campaigns of varying levels of success and subtlety were carried out by Dulles and his recruits from the “old boy” network of Ivy League-OSS-Wall Street establishment types, including the agency’s almost single-handed creation of the Republic of South Vietnam to challenge the ascendancy of the visionary Communist-Nationalist Ho Chi Minh.

Neutrality was a dirty word in the Dulles lexicon. When President Sukarno declared Indonesia neutral in the East-West conflict, Eisenhower authorized “all feasible covert means” to force the Indonesian strong man in a Westerly direction. The CIA went to considerable expense to spark a coup, but it had poor intelligence on the ground and the operation was badly botched.

You couldn’t win them all, but the Dulles brothers could be counted on to keep trying.

On Dulles’s watch, the CIA did a very good job of keeping track of what the Soviets did to forward their agenda around the globe. It formed a reasonably accurate picture of Soviet military and nuclear capababilities and its fundamental foreign policy objectives. This painstaking, laborious work was hardly the stuff of James Bond novels, but it laid the foundation for American defense and foreign policy during the height of the Cold War, and thus must be given a fair amount of credit for the prevention of nuclear holocaust. We do not and cannot know the full extent of either Allen Dulles’s or the CIA’s contribution to the West’s victory in the Cold War, but an educated guess is that it was considerable on both counts.

The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, David Talbot’s sprawling and ambitious new book, is at one and the same time a damning biography of the CIA’s longest standing director, and an exposé of American politics, foreign and domestic, from the earliest rumblings of the Cold War up through the assassination of JFK. The overarching argument put forward in this disturbing, compulsively readable book is that an ominous “counterreformation” in American politics took place during this time, and that our civil liberties, our politics, and our moral standing in the world has suffered grievously as a result to this very day.

As Talbot sees it, New Deal liberalism, which stands as the apotheosis of 20th century American democracy, was gradually eclipsed by men highly placed in government who saw democracy “as an impediment to the smooth functioning of the corporate state”:

Washington was gradually taken over by business executives, Wall Street Lawyers, and investment bankers … During the Eisenhower administration, the Dulles brothers would finally be given full license to exercise their power in the global arena. In the name of defending the free world from Communist tyranny, they would impose an American reign on the world enforced by nuclear terror and cloak-and-dagger brutality … The Dulles brothers would prove masters at exploiting the anxious state of permanent vigilance that accompanied the Cold War.

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The rise of Dulles’s CIA, “the most potent agency of the Eisenhower era,” further undermined an American democracy “already seriously compromised by growing corporate power.”

This is by no means a new thesis. In fact, it has been around since the mid-’60s and recapitulated, with varying degrees of subtlety and sophistication, by many journalists and historians. In The Devil’s Chessboard, Talbot, the founder and first editor-in-chief of the online magazine Salon, builds on the work of others, deepening and complicating the basic storyline with the help of newly released classified documents, fresh interviews with participants, and recent additions to the secondary literature.

Talbot brings an encyclopedic knowledge of the sources, passionate curiosity, and the literary tool kit of a superb espionage novelist to his retelling of the tale. And what a tale it is! No doubt about it, The Devil’s Chessboard contains a bucketful of sensational allegations. What follows is a small, but representative sampling:

• Allen Dulles “undermined or betrayed every president he served.” In the waning days of World War II, the future CIA director tried to strike “a realpolitik deal … between Germany and the United States that would take Hitler out of the equation but leave the Reich largely intact.”

• Claims of Soviet/Communist subversion that served to justify the CIA-led coups d’état in Iran and Guatemala were for all intents and purposes fabricated. Threats to U.S. corporate interests were what really spurred these “successful” covert operations by the CIA.

• Allen Dulles oversaw a CIA program that conducted extremely dangerous experiments on the human brain. He was interested in finding out whether “LSD could be used to program zombielike saboteurs or assassins.”

• “Extraordinary rendition,” the CIA’s notorious War on Terror practice of kidnapping suspected enemies and turning them over to “the merciless security machinery” of U.S. allies in undisclosed locations, actually began in 1956, when a Columbia University academic hostile to Dominican strongman Raphael Trujillo was flown to the Dominican Republic, tortured, boiled to death, and fed to the sharks.

• “Over the final months of the JFK presidency, a clear consensus” emerged within Dulles’s sinister network of financial, intelligence, and military associates: “Kennedy was a national security threat. For the good of the country, he must be removed. And Dulles was the only man with the stature, connections and decisive will to make something of this enormity happen.” And so he did. (Gulp!)

Does Talbot make a convincing case for such allegations, and for the argument that unites them?

That Allen Dulles exercised enormous power and abused that power in myriad ways; that he ordered assassinations of undesirables abroad; that his CIA destabilized foreign governments in the Third World based on grossly exaggerated assessments of Soviet subversion; that he integrated high-level Nazi intelligence agents into CIA and West German intelligence networks—all these allegations are clearly borne out by the facts presented here, and confirmed by the work of many other investigators.

The evidence that Dulles was the ringleader of a network of hardline, Cold War national security types that constituted a secret government, and that that “government” assassinated a president, is brilliantly and alluringly presented—so well presented, in fact, that one could almost believe it. But not quite.

For one thing, Talbot’s defense of these allegations rests far too heavily on hypothetical scenarios and intricately stitched together reconstructions of clandestine schemes, most of which are too heavily larded with innuendo, gossip, and hearsay to be credible. Too often, we are asked to accept that person X was engaged in some nefarious undertaking because person Y said they were, and person Z weighs in with some vague confirmation, along the lines of, “Oh, yes, that probably happened. It would have been just like X to do that …”

Then, too, one has the distinct sense time and again in the narrative that we are simply not being told the whole story, that evidence that conflicts with Talbot’s reconstruction of a given series of events has been left out, which engenders a certain skepticism about the author’s version of history. Much of the real political context in which Dulles and the CIA operated has been left out of the story. It’s troubling in a book so tightly focused on American Cold War strategy and initiatives that Soviet machinations are either buried deep in the background or absent altogether.

Indeed, in the cloak-and-dagger world of intrigue so deftly conjured up in The Devil’s Chessboard, the Soviet threat to both American interests and democratic values around the world seems to be a chimera, not the very real and formidable challenge it appeared to be to American policymakers at the time. Without a reasonably detailed picture of what the Soviets were up to, it’s rather difficult to place the shenanigans of Dulles and his merry band of Wall Street and national security acolytes in proper perspective.

In reflecting back on this long and discursive account, it strikes me that a great deal of what passes for “secret government” in Talbot’s imagination would probably be described by a judicious national security historian as the day-to-day practice of the politics of espionage by an aggressive, but deeply flawed, master of the game.

Talbot’s reconstruction of the plot engineered by Dulles to assassinate JFK contains so many key and bit players, and is so packed with qualifications concerning their actions, whereabouts, and intentions, that it’s close to impossible to keep one’s bearings. Tantalizing coincidences, clues, and statements from investigators and participants accumulate, casting doubt on the lone gunman theory accepted by the Warren Commission, but no truly credible alternative explanation seems to emerge.

In the end, and with all due respect for Talbot’s dogged detective work, the case he makes for Dulles’s masterminding the assassination strikes me as far-fetched and highly speculative. Even if one grants the existence of a Dulles-led, malign, and anti-democratic network of “deep power” conspirators—a tall order in and of itself—it’s hard to see why they would see the need to liquidate Kennedy. Contrary to Talbot’s claims, JFK’s policies, foreign or domestic, simply did not pose a dire threat to “deep power” interests. As Columbia historian Alan Brinkley points out, the consensus among historians today is that JFK’s “differences with the hardliners … were mostly tactical not strategic.”

Finally, from a practical standpoint, is it at all plausible that John McCone, the Kennedy-appointed CIA director at the time of the assassination, stood by passively as the retired Dulles waltzed back into CIA headquarters two years after having been fired to spearhead the greatest conspiracy in U.S. history? And if Dulles was behind it all, one wonders why Robert Kennedy pleaded with President Johnson to ask the gentleman spy to serve on the commission to investigate the murder of his beloved brother. Was Bobby in on it, too?

Still, one would be hard pressed to find a book that is better at evoking the strange and apocalyptic atmospherics of the early Cold War years in America, and the cast of characters that made the era what it was. One of the singular pleasures of reading The Devil’s Chessboard are the wry, closely observed character sketches that punctuate the narrative. John Foster Dulles “brought the gloom of a doomsday obsessed vicar to his job, with frequent sermons on Communist perfidy and his constant threats of nuclear annihilation.” Richard Nixon “may have suffered from a tortured psyche, but it made him acutely sensitive to the nuances of power. He had a Machiavellian brilliance for reading the chessboard and calculating the next series of moves to his advantage.”

Neither le Carre nor Graham Greene could do any better at conjuring up Dulles’s counterintelligence chief, the chain-smoking aesthete James Jesus Angleton:

He was known as the “Gray Ghost” in intelligence circles—a tall, stooped, ashen faced figure, with a bony, clothes-rack frame, draped in elegant, European-tailored suits, and wreathed in rings of smoke … Angleton’s activities ranged from purloining documents at foreign embassies to opening the mail of American citizens (he once jocularly referred to himself as “the postmaster”) to wiretapping the bedrooms of CIA officials. It was his job to be suspicious of everybody, and he was, keeping a treasure trove of sensitive files and photos in the locked vault in his office. Each morning … Angleton would report to Dulles on the results of his “fishing expeditions,” as they called his electronic eavesdropping missions, which picked up everything from gossip on the Georgetown party circuit to Washington pillow talk … As Dulles was well aware, Angleton even tucked away explosive secrets about the CIA director himself. That is why Dulles had rewarded him with the most sensitive job in the agency, Angleton confided [to a journalist] near the end of his life. “You know how I got to be chief of counterintelligence? I agreed not to polygraph or require detailed background checks on Allen Dulles and 60 of his closest friends. They were afraid their own business dealings with Hitler’s pals would come out.”

Talbot’s main contribution with The Devil’s Chessboard has been to pull together a welter of sensational and controversial story lines in the history of American politics and espionage into one gripping but speculative narrative of betrayal, arrogance, and duplicity. As such, the book is bound to become an instant classic of political conspiracy literature, and to spur further debate about a number of important questions we are unlikely to answer definitively any time soon.