Inside Allan Dulles' Reign as CIA Director, from '54 Guatemala Coup to Plotting Castro's Overthrow

October 19, 2015


David Talbot

author of the new book The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. He is the founder and former CEO and editor-in-chief of Salon. He is also author of the best-seller, Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.

Voters go to the polls in Guatemala on Sunday to elect a new president after a popular uprising led to President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation and jailing. We speak with journalist and historian David Talbot, author of "The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government," about the role Allen Dulles and his brother, then-Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, played in the CIA’s 1954 coup in the country, the ramifications of which are still being felt. "The CIA and Allen Dulles told Eisenhower after the Guatemala coup, 'Oh, it was a clean coup. You know, hardly anyone died,'" Talbot said. "But the fact is, tens of thousands of people died in the killing fields of Guatemala as a result of that coup, and that violence continues today."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Part 2 of my conversation with the author of The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. The new book is written by journalist and historian David Talbot, the founder of former CEO and editor-in-chief of Salon. The book examines the life and legacy of Alan Dulles, the longest-serving CIA director. He held the position from 1953 to '61, but his influence is still felt at the agency. Under his watch, the CIA overthrew the governments of Iran and Guatemala in 1953 and 1954, invaded Cuba, and was tied to the killing of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first democratically elected leader.

During Part 1 of our conversation, I asked David Talbot about the 1953 coup in Iran and the '61 murder of Patrice Lumumba. Part 2 of our interview begins with Guatemala. The ramifications of the CIA's 1954 coup are still being felt in Guatemala, where voters will go to the polls next Sunday to elect a new president. Last month, President Otto Pérez Molina resigned and was jailed following a popular uprising. I asked David Talbot to talk about the ’54 coup and the role played by Allen Dulles and his brother, John Foster Dulles, who was secretary of state at the time.

DAVID TALBOT: Well, of course, their original power goes back to Sullivan & Cromwell, this very powerful Wall Street law firm that John Foster Dulles ran and where Allen Dulles worked. And among their clients was United Fruit. United Fruit, of course, was this colossus, this corporate colossus, that ruled much of Latin America, owned, you know, vast acreage in Guatemala and many other countries. They weren’t just a banana company. They were a multinational real estate company. They owned often the utilities. And they owned the local political elites in those countries.

In the early '50s, Jacobo Árbenz, this young military officer, a reform officer, starts to emerge as a potential leader. He runs for president and is elected by his people on a reform campaign. And one of the first things he does, of course, in this country that's basically a medieval country ruled by land barons, is to begin to nationalize some of the land, that’s not being even used by United [Fruit], and give it to the people themselves, the farmers, to work. And this provokes a major backlash from United Fruit, from the local political elites, the oligarchs, and from the CIA. Allen Dulles, working for Eisenhower as CIA director, portrays Jacobo Árbenz as a dangerous communist—he wasn’t—and prepares to overthrow him in a military coup, which does occur.

What I tell the story of, mostly I focus on, is the tragic aftermath of that coup, because not only for the Árbenz family, which, in some ways, were the Kennedys of Guatemala—glamorous, young couple, Jacobo and María Árbenz, their children, very good-looking, wealthy, but very committed to uplifting the poor in that country. And after the coup, they’re sent into a terrible exile. No country will touch them, because CIA pressure. The CIA and the State Department pressure every country, from Mexico throughout Latin America, not to take the Árbenz family in. They’re finally forced to go behind the Iron Curtain to Czechoslovakia to seek exile. They’re not happy there. They finally end up back in Mexico, but they’re under tight supervision. The family is haunted. It’s stalked wherever it goes. One of his daughters commits suicide. And Jacobo Árbenz himself ends up dead under mysterious circumstances—scalded to death in a bathtub in a Mexico City hotel. His family today believes that he was assassinated. And given the fact that the CIA had a death list of left-wing figures, journalists, political leaders, after the coup that were to be eliminated, that, you know, is a distinct possibility.

So, these ripples of tragedy, after these coups, go on and on. You know, the CIA and Allen Dulles told Eisenhower after the Guatemala coup, "Oh, it was a clean coup. You know, hardly anyone died." But the fact is, tens of thousands of people died in the killing fields of Guatemala as a result of that coup, and that violence continues today.

AMY GOODMAN: And wasn’t it also a precursor to what happened with the Bay of Pigs? Move forward like, what, six years, and explain what happened.

DAVID TALBOT: Right. Well, emboldened by how easy it was to do a regime change in Guatemala, yes, when Fidel Castro comes to power in Cuba, he again antagonizes the same corporate interests that the Dulles brothers represent—oil companies, like the Rockefeller-owned Standard Oil, and others, agribusiness firms. So they believe that Fidel has to be eliminated, and they begin plotting, under the Eisenhower administration, with Eisenhower’s approval, to kill, to assassinate Fidel Castro. And, in fact, at one point, Fidel Castro, who was beloved in this country after the revolution—he had overthrown a thug, a Mafia-backed thug, Batista, a very corrupt and violent dictatorship. He was seen as the future, and very glamorous, he and Che Guevara and so on. They would come to New York and would be mobbed by people in the streets. When they came to New York for a U.N. meeting in 1960, though, the Eisenhower administration was already pushing back, and no hotel would take them. Finally, a hotel in Midtown did take them, but there was—they asked for so much money as security, they were basically blackmailing Fidel. He was outraged, and he ended up staying in a hotel in Harlem that took him in.

AMY GOODMAN: Hotel Theresa.

DAVID TALBOT: Hotel Theresa. And they stood up to this Washington pressure, the manager of that hotel, who was African-American. He had grown up in Jim Crow South. And he said, "You know, I know what it’s like to be denied a roof over your head. This Cuban delegation can stay here." So it was a very—

AMY GOODMAN: Did he meet Malcolm X there?

DAVID TALBOT: He did. It was a very dramatic moment. Malcolm X makes a visit to the Hotel Theresa. He squeezes into his suite, where there’s dozens of people crammed. They have a very interesting encounter, Fidel and Malcolm. And it really changed their lives and had a big impact on both of those men for years afterwards. In fact, Malcolm said he was one of the few white men that he learned to respect and appreciate. And, by the way, there was an FBI guy taking notes the whole time in that hotel room, so we know some of what happened there and the dialogue, because of the FBI report on this.

AMY GOODMAN: Who was it?

DAVID TALBOT: Well, his name was not revealed, but there was an agent surveilling him. But meanwhile, while Fidel is there, meeting with Khrushchev from the Soviet Union and Nasser from Egypt and the world leaders and embarrassing the Eisenhower administration, because here he’s gone to Harlem, and, you know, no one else would take him in, in Midtown Manhattan—meanwhile, the Mafia is meeting with CIA agents at the Plaza Hotel, just blocks away, plotting his assassination. So, a lot of intrigue in 1960 going on in New York. And then, to make it even more interesting, a young JFK, who’s campaigning for president, after Fidel has left, shows up at the Hotel Theresa and basically says, "This is revolutionary ground I’m standing on. And we should welcome the winds of change and the revolution, the future. We shouldn’t be afraid of it." So, very end—and begins to talk about the mortality rate of black infants in Harlem and many of the issues that are still current.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, look at what President Kennedy, then President Kennedy, did, when it came to Cuba—


AMY GOODMAN: —what happened under his reign, from the Bay of Pigs to the endless assassination attempts of Fidel Castro.

DAVID TALBOT: Kennedy did do a flip-flop, to an extent, after that. He came in as president. He was young. He was untested, under a lot of pressure from the national security people in his administration. He inherited the Bay of Pigs operation, the plans for that. He was basically told, "Look, if you pull the plug on this thing, it’s so far along now, there will be a major political backlash against you." So he was kind of sandbagged by the CIA. He did go through with it, but he had no intention of widening it into an all-out U.S. military assault on the island, on Cuba. But that’s what the CIA had in mind. They knew that this motley crew of Cuban exiles they put together to invade the island wasn’t sufficient to unseat Castro. But what they hoped and what they planned was that a young President Kennedy, as this invasion was bogged down on the beaches of the Bay of Pigs, would be forced then to send in the Marines and the U.S. Air Force to topple Castro.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, the Cuban missile crisis, the closest we ever came to a nuclear war.

DAVID TALBOT: Well, but Kennedy stood his ground, and he didn’t do that. And that was the beginning of his break, at the Bay of Pigs, between the CIA and Cuba—and President Kennedy. And then, yes, that became even more severe with the Cuban missile crisis the following year. Again, the military in this country and the CIA thought that we could take, you know, Castro out. During the Cuban missile crisis, they were prepared to go to a nuclear war to do that. President Kennedy thought people like Curtis LeMay, who was head of the Air Force, General Curtis LeMay, was half-mad. He said, "I don’t even see this man in my—you know, in my sight," because he was pushing for a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union. And even years later, Curtis LeMay, after years after Kennedy is dead, in an interview that I quote from in the book, bitterly complains that Kennedy didn’t take this opportunity to go nuclear over Cuba. So, President Kennedy basically, I think, saved my life—I was 12 years old at the time—saved a lot of our lives, because he did stand his ground. He took a hard line against the national security people and said, "No, we’re going to peacefully resolve the Cuban missile crisis."

AMY GOODMAN: And then President Kennedy, on November 22nd, 1963, was assassinated.

DAVID TALBOT: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: David Talbot on his new book, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. Back with him in a minute.

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