Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Devil's Chessboard

The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, The CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government, by David Talbot, HarperCollins, 2015.

I'm having trouble with this book – I'm just over halfway through it. I suggested this as reading for my great, great book club, Norm's Bookies, and then earlier this week I sent them a mea culpa note, regretting that I had done so. Here's what I said:

Gentlemen, I am embarrassed.  I've read almost half the Talbot book by now, I guess.  While there is a lot of interesting stuff, very interesting, it's far too long, not well edited, not terribly well written, and worst of all, the persistent lefty cant is really irritating.  I fear that as the part about the Kennedy assassination comes up, it will be even more irritating.  My favorite rendition of the assassination remains Steven King's.

But now I'm not so sure about my warning and apology. It's true that the style and organization of the book aren't great. It's overwritten at times, with attempts at grand phraseology that fall short. It certainly is filled with moral outrage of a type that I start to resent, because it feels like he is trying to make me feel outrage, and I'd rather come to that conclusion on my own. I've just had it up to here with people who demand that I think and feel the way they do. (And my good friend Bob didn't like Talbot's older book Brothers, which I did like, about how JFK challenged the military/secret government establishment and how there could have been an assassination plot, in fact, there probably was one. I liked it, but I respect Bob's opinion.)

But that doesn't make them wrong. I think that I have trouble with this because of me. I grew up in the fifties and I remember them as far from halcyon days. My parents had been Lefties and lived in fear of suffering for it, as many had. I even knew someone who occupies a couple of pages in the book, a man named Nathan Silvermaster, who I remembered was called Greg. Charged as a spy by Elizabeth Bentley, he was never convicted, and I knew him when he was a homebuilder on Long Beach Island, along with his business partner Lud Ullman, who lived with him and his (Silvermaster's) wife Helen, and built new ranch style homes on an island populated by Cape Cods. I remember his name in Time magazine. I told my 6th grade class at Friends' Central, who knows what the discussion was but I never held back much then or now, so I said that we know people who are accused of being spies and “they're the nicest people.” My parents heard of this somehow – how had they heard of it, from friends who were the parents of a fellow student who were also Lefties, and who said, “Buddy Shenkin said...?” My parents were kindly, and even smiled, and told me that I had better be a little more careful about what I said. I'm wondering now how they found their way to Ullman and Silvermaster. It does appear that they were spies. I liked the house they built us.

Anyway, in the fifties my Dad wondered what magazines we ought to get regularly. They settled on The Nation and Scientific American. They would come in the mail and be put up on the hutch and I would come in from high school and look at them, the Nation with big Lefty headlines. Later on in the 60's in med school I would see my classmate Mona Bleiberg, from New Jersey, with her I. F. Stone Newsletter. My friend Fred Gardner at Harvard and his friend Todd Gitlin always knew the truth, and I went with Fred to audit the class given by Robert Paul Wolff on Marxian theory. I would read about The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills, J. Fred Cook about Cuba and what was Castro really and how was he being played by the Establishment (which isn't the term they used then,) and we read Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders in English class at school, and somewhere in there Thorstein Veblen's thesis on conspicuous consumption. But at the same time I wanted to be a baseball player when I grew up, and a doctor because that's what my father was, and we got new cars with triple toned paint jobs and fins and I learned to drive and hankered after girls, a lot, and loved high school at Lower Merion (way before Kobe got there.) And at Harvard Frank Bardacke urged us to read Dissent and to go sit in at Woolworth's in 1960, and my father said, be careful, you want to be a doctor, or something like that. I was cautioned.

So, what I'm saying is, when I read this book, all that comes crashing down on me. I wanted to be upright and I wanted to fit in and I wanted to listen to my parents and I wanted to succeed and I wanted to be an educated individual and one of those days I wanted to get laid. Then later, after I was a doctor and worked in the Public Health Service I went to the Graduate School of Public Policy at Berkeley and was exposed to smart and more conservative academics and I exposed my Lefty-ism and they helped me reason through it and by then I was old enough and experienced enough to accept some of their reasoning. I'm still working on it.

When we read we bring ourselves to the book. Everything is interactional. If you believe in history, and I believe in history, and culture, then you believe that the past matters to the present. I think of budgeting – what's the first step in making a budget? Look at spending the year before, then adjust. Isn't that all of life? So, the fifties matter a lot.

It really is unconscionable what Dulles and the CIA did, and it lives today. Here's a Huffington Post review of the book that makes my recommendation more palatable:

I wonder if Talbot is truthful, I guess that's part of my problem. How has he learned all this, and how sure is the history? I guess I would feel a lot better about the book if I had a better sense of what he is sure of, and what opposition to his story says. Do they accept the facts, but cast them in a different light? Or do they rebut the facts?  But then I think, yes, what he says has the ring of truth.  It's just uncomfortable.

The past lives in our lives as a country, as well as my past lives in all the books I read.

Hey, book club guys – I now think the book is worth reading. From this mess came the revolt of the 60's, which spawned Reagan and the shadow of conservatism that we have lived our lives under, even as it appears the Republican party is set to lose an election, and we'll see what difference that makes. It does appear that Cuba is out from the cold. I guess.

Budd Shenkin

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