Author David Talbot

The bestselling author and founder of talks about his new biography on former C.I.A. Director Allen Dulles, titled The Devil’s Chessboard.

Hailed by The New York Times as an online journalism pioneer, David Talbot is founder-CEO of the award-winning web magazine, Salon. He previously worked as a freelance writer for several print publications, including Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, and as a San Francisco Examiner editor. In 2008, he and his siblings launched a media company, named after their late father's theater troupe, which produces books, documentaries and films. Talbot is also a best-selling author of several books, including his latest, The Devil's Chessboard, profiling controversial CIA director Allen Dulles.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome David Talbot back to this program. He’s a bestselling author and the founder of the online magazine, Talbot has written an eye-opening new biography profiling Allen Dulles, the first civilian director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The book draws from revelatory new materials, including recently discovered government documents, intelligence sources, and personal journals. The text is called “The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government”.

And before you ask, yes, that Dulles or that Dulles family whose name is on the airport that many of us fly into in Washington, Washington Dulles. So we’ll see what David thinks about that name being on the airport, given what he’s discovered in this book about the Dulles family. So stay tuned for his answer to that in just a second here. First of all, good to see you, my friend.

David Talbot: Good to be here.

Tavis: We can’t start the conversation tonight on this Monday without talking about, of course, what’s happened in France. The parallels between this book, which is to say the parallels between issues of national security, France is now in a state of emergency, which means that for the next three months, the police can do whatever they want essentially with no warrants for arrest.

They basically have, you know, carte blanche for the next three months while they try to sort this out. That’s their decision, of course, and they’re entitled to that. But there are questions to be asked in the coming days and weeks about civil liberties, etc., etc. What are the parallels you see between the text and what’s happening today?

Talbot: Well, there’s a direct parallel. You know, the question immediately keeps asking, once again, is why do they hate us? This is the back story, Tavis, for why they hate us. Years of torture, of assassination, of overthrowing democratically elected governments in the Middle East like Mosaddegh’s government in Iran, there’s deep roots to this hatred and this bitterness.

As I say, it didn’t begin after 9/11. Torture, extraordinary rendition, CIA black sites, mass surveillance of citizens, assassinations, this began not just after 9/11, but during the Cold War, during the Allen Dulles regime. So, yeah, there are deep roots here.

Tavis: That doesn’t–and I know you and I both agree–it doesn’t excuse what happened in France. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll learn more about who did what and why they did it, what their motivations were, the mastermind, we’re told, still at large at least.

As we sit for this conversation, things are changing by the minute and they’re dynamic and fluid. But we’ll see what the story turns up in the days to come. But at the end of the day, you’re right about the fact that people keep asking this question of why they hate us.

The thing that disturbs me beyond that question, which is so over-simplistic, what disturbs me also is this notion that they hate us for our western values. That notion is being advanced by Barack Obama on down that, you know, it’s our western values they don’t like. How do you read people when they make the statement that they don’t like us because of our values?

Talbot: Well, historically, it’s our western values, if those call those values democratic values, that they were embracing. You know, I found a letter that was written by Mosaddegh. Mohammad Mosaddegh, of course, was the democratically elected leader of Iran, and he was trying to overcome years of British colonialism, trying to establish a sovereignty in his country, control over the oil resources.

But those oil resources were controlled by the British, by the Americans, and he writes this very plaintive, very touching letter to President Eisenhower soon after Eisenhower’s elected, saying “I know that you stand for justice and freedom and democracy. Please support my efforts to establish democracy in this country and to push out the interference of the British interests.”

We didn’t. We, of course, the CIA, went in and overthrew that government and that laid, I think, the seeds of bitterness that we’re still dealing with throughout much of that region. You know, there’s an arrogance that is deeply rooted, I think, in American policy and American history that we’re paying the price for to this day. And, of course, yes, we don’t excuse terrorism violence of any sort.

But now we’re in this unending cycle of violence and more surveillance and reprisals and more and more bloodshed. And at some point, the American people have to understand what is the broader context for this? We need more understanding. We need more of a sense of history to get out of this cycle.

Tavis: How ironic is it to you that, at the same time people are asking why do they hate us and making the notion that they hate us for our western values, that the Republicans in Congress have made it even more difficult for Barack Obama to not keep his campaign promise to close Guantanamo? How ironic is that?

Talbot: Well, exactly. Again, this is another humiliation. It’s a source of great bitterness and anger in the world, throughout the Islamic world. You can’t go about treating people this way, imprisoning them without due process, torturing them, assassinating them through extra legal methods.

I mean, Barack Obama, for all his good intentions, has actually expanded greatly, of course, the drone assassination program. You can’t do that kind of violence without expecting some blowback at some point.

So the American people have to, you know, make a decision. Do we want to live in this endless cycle of violence or not? And I think they have to begin by understanding our history because those who would control the future would control the past. Our history has been hidden from us too often and that’s what my book is attempting to do.

Tavis: One last question about the future and then we’ll go back to the past in your history text. So Hillary Clinton, in the debate the other night, suggested–this is pretty close to a quote that when it comes to ISIS or ISIL that this kind of threat ,this existential threat, cannot be contained. It must be defeated. How do you defeat terrorism when people are willing to strap bombs on themselves? How do you defeat that?

Talbot: Well, exactly. It’s a philosophy. It’s a desperation, exactly. When a young person straps a bomb to themselves and denies themselves their own life, that’s speaking to a deep depression, a desperation, and the only way to deal with that is through more understanding, through diplomacy, and to basically dealing with the root causes of that anger.

Look, who gets empowered by these things? It’s always the hardliners in society, and the hardliners in both the Islamic world and our own society. And that’s not, I think, what we want.

You know, President Kennedy years ago when we were in the middle of another cycle of violence and terror and fear, the Cold War, he had the bravery and the courage to get up at an American university in June of 1963 speaking about our enemies, the people that we’d been also taught to fear who had nuclear missiles pointed at us, the Soviet Union.

And he said we all cherish our children, we all breath the same air, we are all mortal, and we all inhabit the same earth. That’s the kind of understanding I think we have to have if we ever hope to get out of this cycle of bloodshed.

Tavis: So to the text, aside from the fact that I’ve hated for years having to ride that PeopleMover when I go to Washington Dulles, thankfully they got a train system now. The PeopleMover isn’t as prevalent as it once was. I’ve always hated Washington Dulles Airport because of the PeopleMover.

Talbot: I agree [laugh].

Tavis: But now you’re making me rethink flying into Dulles because I now know more about Allen Dulles and his brother, John Foster Dulles. Tell me about why he’s such a scary figure.

Talbot: Well, yeah, and the Black Lives Matter movement has made all of America rethink what we name our institutions, what we name our statues, the flags we fly, and our history in general. And I do think there’s a real reason to reevaluate putting the name Dulles on this airport where so many people from around the world enter the country. John Foster Dulles was the Secretary of State under Eisenhower, the older brother, but they were kind of a one-two punch, he and his brother.

John Foster Dulles advocated policies of nuclear terror throughout much of his time in office. He held the whole world in a kind of breathless tension. You grew up at the time during the Cold War, I did, when we did duck and cover exercises in the schoolroom. We didn’t know when the missiles were going to start to fly.

John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State, I think exploited that fear. Again and again, he’d threaten to use nuclear missiles in different hot spots around the world. His younger brother, Allen, meanwhile was our top spy master at the CIA.

And while John Foster Dulles was threatening the use of nuclear weapons, Allen Dulles was overthrowing democratically elected governments. He was putting together an assassination team that took out leaders around the world that we objected to.

He was enforcing U.S. corporate interests because, don’t forget, the Dulles brothers’ original platform of power was Wall Street. They come up through Sullivan & Cromwell, which was the largest law firm on Wall Street.

And many of the countries where they went about overthrowing governments had heavy corporate interests, corporate stakes, that related to this law firm and the clients that they represented, the oil industry in Iran, United Fruit, the large agribusiness company in Guatemala, the mining interests in the Congo where Patrice Lumumba was overthrown and assassinated.

So again and again, in the name of U.S. national security interests, the Dulles brothers were actually enforcing the interests of their corporate clients.

Tavis: How’d they get away with this?

Talbot: Well, in a case of Eisenhower, Eisenhower was, you know, a kind of corporate guy himself. He liked to play golf with wealthy men. He felt that the American interest was best served by this aggressive kind of foreign policy.

He didn’t want a shooting war again like World War II. He was a man of peace to that extent. But he had no problem with us going about the world in a covert way and enforcing our power that way, and also by using nuclear weapons as a threat. So they were empowered by President Eisenhower.

The first time a president really stood up to them directly was JFK. By then, Foster is gone. he has died during the Eisenhower presidency, but JFK made the decision to keep Allen Dulles on as a CIA director. I think that was a fatal mistake and the two of them clashed very quickly.

Tavis: Why did he feel the need to keep him on?

Talbot: I think, you know, JFK’s a young president. He’s been elected by a razor-thin margin over Richard Nixon. His father and other people whose counsel he took told him, look, you need to project a sense of continuity, political stability in Washington.

So he, fatally, I think, keeps J. Edgar Hoover as head of the FBI. He keeps Allen Dulles as head of the CIA, and several other Republican figures. It was a mistake and Dulles and Kennedy quickly clash over Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. JFK goes along with the CIA plan to invade Cuba there.

It quickly begins to fall apart, the invasion, and I feel–and I make this case in the book–that the intention all along of Allen Dulles and the CIA was then to basically sandbag Kennedy into launching an all-out U.S. military invasion. And when Kennedy refuses to do that, that’s the beginning, I think, of this very bitter split between JFK and his national security people.

Tavis: I’ve only scratched the surface in what is a very dense text here that gives a lot of history that I didn’t know and I think you’ll appreciate knowing. But let me close by asking a question that connects to where we began tonight’s conversation, which is this.

The flag in South Carolina, the Confederate flag, is no longer flying over the statehouse. For that matter, Bill Cosby’s name’s been taken off of any number of previous honors in this country. Should the name Dulles come off of Washington Dulles Airport?

Talbot: Absolutely, and be replaced by name, I think, of Martin Luther King, Jr. who’s a symbol of compassion, of vision, of tolerance, and that’s what America needs to be projecting to the world to this point. Not a man who stood for violence and arrogance and overthrowing democracy around the world. And that’s what the Dulles brothers both stood for.

So, yes, I think America needs to grapple with its history and come to terms with some of the evil things that we’ve done around the world and why we’re suffering the blowback from that now.

Tavis: The book is called “The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government”, written by New York Times bestselling author, David Talbot. David, congrats on the book. Good to have you on the program.

Talbot: Great, Tavis. Thank you.

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Last modified: November 17, 2015 at 2:33 pm