Wednesday, November 5, 2014
How the Cold War made Georgetown hot
How the Cold War made Georgetown hot.
BY LOUIS MENAND New Yorker
Washington, D.C., is a two-industry town. In theory, the people in government work their side of the street, passing laws and implementing policies that reflect the will of the electorate, and the people in the press work their side, reporting and opinionating on the laws and policies and the folks who make them. Down on the ground, the two groups are naturally enmeshed. The people in government want the stories in the press to be told their way, and the people in the press want stories to tell.
When conditions are cozy enough, the line between punditry and policymaking begins to blur, and the press and the politicians imagine that, together, they are calling the tunes to which the world waltzes. Something like this happened in the early years of the Cold War. It was a symptom of a striking feature of that period: the relative homogeneity of the people who ran America’s foreign policy, headed its foundations and cultural institutions, and published its leading newspapers, and the relative unity of their beliefs.
This coziness is the subject of Gregg Herken’s “The Georgetown Set” (Knopf), a look at the official and semi-official culture of Cold War liberalism. His sample is a circle of journalists, policymakers, and spymasters who lived and socialized in Georgetown after 1945. The grand Washington funeral, last week, of Ben Bradlee marked the passing of one of the last survivors of that era.
There were a few fixtures in the Georgetown scene: Joseph Alsop, the columnist; Phil and Katharine Graham, the publishers of the Washington Post and Newsweek; Frank Wisner, of the C.I.A., and his wife, Polly; Robert Joyce, also with the agency, and his wife, Jane. They tended to be the hosts on the occasions when members of the set ate and drank together.
But many players have smaller parts in the story Herken tells, including George Kennan, the author of the policy of containment and, briefly, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union; Chip Bohlen, Kennan’s friend and his successor as Ambassador; the C.I.A.’s Richard Bissell, who was the brains behind the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the failed invasion of Castro’s Cuba, in 1961; and Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s foreign-policy guru and a Washington player par excellence.
The relationship chart can get complicated. Bradlee, the Grahams’ editor, first at Newsweek and then at the Post, became part of the Georgetown set. His second wife, Tony Pinchot, was the sister of Mary Pinchot, the wife of Cord Meyer, who ran covert operations for the C.I.A. And Mary Pinchot was one of John F. Kennedy’s lovers when Kennedy was in the White House. (She and Cord had by then divorced.) Mary was murdered, on a towpath, in 1964, in mysterious circumstances; some conspiracy theorists have speculated that her death had something to do with Kennedy’s assassination.
For twenty years, these people, in and out of government—and their peers in the foundation world and in leading cultural institutions—were in ideological synch. They were anti-Communists, with the same view of the nature of the Soviet Union and the same conviction about the United States’ leading role in world affairs. There were sectarian fissures within this establishment, disagreements about how far the United States should go in fighting Communism, but it took two decades for the fissures to deepen and the establishment to implode. In American politics, twenty years is a long time.
Herken’s protagonist is Joseph Alsop, a self-conscious élitist who reached, through his journalism, a broad segment of the American middle class. Alsop’s story has been told before, by Robert Merry, in “Taking on the World,” and Edwin Yoder, in “Joe Alsop’s Cold War.” With his brother Stewart, Joe wrote a syndicated newspaper column, “Matter of Fact,” which, at its peak, in the mid-nineteen-fifties, appeared in almost two hundred newspapers, with a total circulation of twenty-five million. He and Stewart also regularly contributed to a weekly, The Saturday Evening Post, which was famous for its Norman Rockwell covers and had a circulation of six million.
“Matter of Fact” was usually a reported column, not what journalists sometimes call a thumbsucker, and it was dedicated to breaking news. The Alsops were the first to reveal the existence of the Long Telegram, George Kennan’s classified dispatch from Moscow that became the template for American policy toward the Soviets. And they broke the story of the development of the hydrogen bomb. They had sources in government and they were skilled at using them.
The Alsops could also claim credit for coining much of the political vocabulary of the Cold War era: hawks and doves, eggheads (used to characterize Adlai Stevenson supporters), the missile gap, the domino theory, and the phrase—used first wishfully and then sarcastically about the war in Vietnam—“the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Joe was a master of the Sunday-night dinner. This was a Georgetown ritual, the venue where journalists and policy-makers, spies and diplomats, along with visiting intelligentsia (the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin became an intimate of Joe’s and a close friend of Kennan’s), mixed. When the dinner was at Joe’s place, a servant circulated with Martinis on a salver, guests debated politics at the table, the men and the women separated after the dessert, and everyone was out the door by eleven. Alsop’s specialty was homemade turtle soup. Either the Martinis or the conversation must have been really good.
The Alsops descended from an old New England family. Theodore Roosevelt was their great-uncle. Stewart went to Groton and Yale, and Joe to Groton and Harvard, where he was in the Porcellian, a Harvard club that his fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, was not admitted to. (F.D.R. is supposed to have said, before he became President, that not getting tapped for the Porcellian was the greatest disappointment of his life.)
Through a family connection, Joe Alsop got a job after college, in 1932, as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. His grandmother (who was Teddy Roosevelt’s sister) knew the owners. Alsop wrote for the paper until it folded, in 1966. When he showed up for work at the Herald Tribune, in the middle of the Depression, he was wearing, Herken says, “a bespoke suit, silk shirt, and hand-sewn shoes from Peal in London.” He was also, though Herken barely mentions this, fat. He was self-conscious about his weight—it had been a social problem in school—and he eventually undertook a serious weight-loss regimen, with, judging from photographs, impressive results.
An ostentatious air of upper-class refinement became part of Joe Alsop’s manner. (Stewart was less showy.) He liked to say that he belonged to “the WASP Ascendancy,” which he defined in his memoir as “an inner group that was, on average, substantially richer and enjoyed substantially more leverage than other Americans.” This group, he said, “had long supplied the role models followed by other Americans, whether WASP or non-WASP, who were on their way up in the world.” Joe Alsop did not check his privilege.
Alsop was also a closeted gay man, who, in company, referred to homosexuals as fairies. His social role was that of what used to be called a confirmed bachelor, an apparently asexual gentleman—in his case, one who liked to schmooze with both sexes, and put on displays of old-fashioned snobbishness that his friends, since none of them had to live with it, found charming. Alsop didn’t give up the practice of banishing women after dessert until the late nineteen-sixties, when Katharine Graham finally told him she had had enough. Herken says that he refused to eat in Paris restaurants whose cellars were close to the Métro, because the vibrations might have disturbed the sediment in the wine bottles. He did not own a television set. That kind of thing.
In 1961, at the age of fifty, Alsop contracted a platonic marriage with Susan Mary (Soozle) Patten, the widow of a Harvard classmate. They had been close friends, and she thought that she could “convert” him, but he bullied her, and, in 1973, they separated. In his will, he left most of his estate to his male relatives—to help preserve the family name, he said.
Herken’s book is solidly researched and solidly written. It is a little less biographically enterprising (a little less gossipy) than the subject might seem to invite. Herken doesn’t tell us much about Alsop’s sex life, and not much is known. Alsop appears to have been either unusually abstemious or unusually discreet, although he was once hauled in by the San Francisco police for loitering in a gay pickup area. (Stewart was able to keep the incident hushed up; he was worried about the reputation of the column.) Joe seems to have had at least one sustained relationship, in the nineteen-forties, with a sailor named Frank Merlo, who later became Tennessee Williams’s lover.
Herken doesn’t mention the San Francisco arrest or the Merlo affair, and Alsop’s sexual preferences wouldn’t matter much, except that they got him into a famous Cold War honey trap. Herken does tell this story.
In 1957, Alsop visited the Soviet Union for the first time. He spent three weeks travelling in Siberia (he gave low marks to the food), and obtained an interview with the premier, Nikita Khrushchev. A couple of days later, at a party with U.S. Embassy officials, he was approached by a reporter from TASS, the Soviet news agency. The reporter was accompanied by a good-looking blond man, who introduced himself as Boris. Joe and Boris chatted, in French, and scheduled a rendezvous the following day in Boris’s hotel room. As soon as they had consummated their assignation, the door opened and several officials entered, including two men from the K.G.B. They explained that they had taken some photographs.
The K.G.B. offered Alsop a deal: to keep the matter quiet, all he had to do was talk to them from time to time so that the K.G.B. could “get advice that would assist the cause of peace.” Alsop played along, but he informed the U.S. Ambassador, his Georgetown friend Chip Bohlen, and then talked his way onto a plane headed home. (He told the K.G.B. that his mother was dying.) Bohlen notified the C.I.A., which debriefed Alsop on his return, and, through confidential channels, a report of the incident eventually reached President Eisenhower.
Alsop seems to have been mostly undeterred by the threat of blackmail, but it shadowed him for the rest of his life. In 1970, people around Washington began getting letters containing photographs of Joe and Boris in the nude—evidently a Soviet response to attacks Alsop had made, in his column, on the Soviet Ambassador. With the help of the C.I.A. director, Richard Helms, a back-channel deal was brokered: the photographs stopped appearing, and Alsop ceased attacking.
Probably the most powerful of the Georgetown insiders was Frank Wisner, chief of covert operations for the C.I.A., and one of the most zealous of the anti-Communist crusaders who turned the agency into an enormous, squid-like meddler in global affairs. Wisner’s story is a slightly scary one, though quite a few C.I.A. operatives had scary sides. It has been told before, too, notably by Evan Thomas, in “The Very Best Men,” about the early years of the C.I.A., and Hugh Wilford, in his valuable study “The Mighty Wurlitzer.” Wisner liked to compare his covert manipulations to pulling the stops on a big organ.
Wisner was from a wealthy Mississippi family; the Wisners were in lumber and banking, and owned most of the town of Laurel. He became a track star at the University of Virginia, and served with the Office of Strategic Services during the war. His political passions were apparently aroused in Bucharest, where he was the O.S.S. station chief. After the Red Army liberated Romania from the Germans, Wisner was appalled by the brutality with which Soviet troops rounded up ethnic Germans and transported them to Soviet labor camps. (He evidently didn’t grasp the savage nature of Russian-German enmity: the Germans had butchered millions of Russians during the war.)
Wisner decided that the Soviet Union, then our ally, represented an evil that had to be confronted. When he returned from Europe, he took a job at a Wall Street law firm, but he missed the action. In 1947, he accepted a position in the State Department, and he and his wife bought a three-hundred-acre farm in Maryland and a four-story house on P Street, in Georgetown. Tim Weiner, in his history of the C.I.A., “Legacy of Ashes,” says that it was the Wisners who started the Sunday-dinner tradition.
In 1948, Wisner became the director of the Office of Policy Coördination, nominally within the State Department (the office was later brought into the C.I.A.), and that is where Cold War covert operations began. The palette of covert activities was broad. They included secretly funding a wide range of associations, from the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Radio Free Europe to the National Council of Churches and the American Newspaper Guild. The C.I.A.’s aim was to create new groups, or assist existing ones, to compete against international organizations that were Communist fronts. The Cold War was a looking-glass war. Half a century later, the C.I.A.’s bones keep getting unearthed, and in some unlikely places. The scholar Eric Bennett recently discovered that the agency gave money to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
The C.I.A. also developed friendly relations with major news organizations, including Time, the New York Times, and CBS. The agency would sometimes debrief reporters, or ask to see unused footage of a television segment. And sometimes the organizations provided cover jobs overseas for its agents.
The C.I.A. carried out black ops all over the world, dropping agents behind the Iron Curtain into countries like Albania and Poland to foster insurgencies. It orchestrated coups and political assassinations—in Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Vietnam, and Brazil—and plotted more. It’s likely that for much of the nineteen-fifties, the C.I.A. devoted more resources to covert operations than to intelligence gathering, though the agency’s detailed budgets, past and present, are classified. Most of these operations, which Wisner ran for ten years, and which were continued by his successor, Cord Meyer, were completely contrary to the announced American policy and its philosophical underpinnings, the doctrine of containment.
Kennan’s argument for containment was that although no permanent rapprochement with the Soviet Union was possible, the United States needn’t go to war. Communism would collapse from its own inefficiency and paranoia. The United States had only to keep the Soviets inside their box. In places where Communism was already established (including Eastern Europe), the United States should be patient. Despite some rhetorical drumrolling, this was the policy that American Presidents followed for forty years.
But Wisner didn’t believe in containment. He believed in liberation—or, as it was called, rollback. His schemes for fostering insurgencies inside Soviet-dominated nations had no official backup in American policy. They all failed. The Soviets had agents within the C.I.A.’s recruiting networks, and the would-be insurgents were almost all caught and executed before they had begun to make trouble. But even if rebellion had got off the ground in Albania or Poland, the U.S. government had no desire to intervene. The doctrine of containment can be boiled down to: What happens behind the Iron Curtain stays behind the Iron Curtain.
Still, the Office of Policy Coördination had three hundred and two employees and a budget of five million dollars in 1949, Wisner’s first full year as its head. By 1952, it had more than twenty-eight hundred employees, along with more than three thousand foreign contractors; it sometimes ran dozens of operations inside a single country; and the budget was eighty million dollars, possibly higher. Wisner also skimmed an unknown amount of money off the Marshall Plan funds for European recovery. His budget was larger than that of the rest of the C.I.A.
This continued, in part, because Eisenhower liked propaganda and covert operations, for the same reason that he liked nuclear weapons: they were cheaper than maintaining a standing army. But what was the point, really? There were plenty of opportunities during the Cold War to intervene in insurgencies behind the Iron Curtain, and the United States did nothing. In 1956, thousands of Hungarians took to the streets in a revolt against the Soviet-backed Communist government. When the regime collapsed, the Red Army invaded. More than twenty-five thousand Hungarians were killed, tens of thousands were arrested, and two hundred thousand fled the country. The revolt was crushed. Its political leader, Imre Nagy, was executed.
The C.I.A. had known nothing about the revolution in advance; it had only one operative in the entire country. Still, Wisner was elated. Since Bucharest, he had been dreaming of a genuine anti-Soviet uprising. He was in Europe when the revolt broke out, and managed to get to the Austrian-Hungarian border, where he saw panicked refugees streaming across. But he could do nothing for them. He personally had to tell leaders of the rebellion that the United States would not come to their aid. Already in an agitated state, he had a serious breakdown. Although he eventually went back to work, he never really recovered. He suffered from bipolar disorder—a condition that was probably reflected in the fantastic and unrealizable schemes he cooked up—and, in 1965, he killed himself with a shotgun on his Maryland farm. He was fifty-six.
The Georgetown set finally broke up over the issue that split Cold War liberalism apart, Vietnam. Vietnam was a crisis for containment, which was a theory with two prongs. One held that anytime Communism threatened to get outside its box, the United States was obliged to push it back in. But the other held that the United States should be guided by its own national interests, not by idealistic principles like “the right to self-determination.” To anti-interventionists like Kennan, the United States had no national interest in the fate of South Vietnam. To the last, Joe Alsop remained an interventionist.
Alsop began sounding the alarm about Indochina in 1950, even before the French had been driven from their colony. He visited the area frequently; he became friendly with the American officials there; and he was still supporting the war after almost everyone else in Georgetown had turned against it. John Kenneth Galbraith called Alsop “the leading non-combatant casualty of Vietnam” after Lyndon Johnson.
It ended grotesquely, with Alsop becoming Richard Nixon’s favorite newsman. Alsop dismissed Watergate as a distraction from the important business of staving off Communism in Asia. (After Nixon resigned, Alsop apologized to Katharine Graham.)
By then, Georgetown had lost its centrality in Washington life. The salon was no longer the preferred form of downtime for State Department officials, intelligence analysts, and a certain class of journalist. Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, and the people they brought into power with them, were not susceptible to Ivy League notions of noblesse oblige that prevailed among the Georgetown set.
It mattered that the Alsops, the Meyers, the Grahams, the Wisners, and the Bradlees were all from wealthy backgrounds. Many of them went to the same small number of élite prep schools and colleges. What seems to have motivated them to move to Washington and become involved in public affairs was the experience of the Second World War. The war had pulled them out of the world of cotillions and charities and Wall Street law firms, and given them a dose of excitement. They had the power to change people’s lives—some of them had life-and-death power—and they became addicted.
The Second World War was a total war. It was war without rules. You didn’t have to run your ideas by Congress. That was the spirit that fuelled the O.S.S., which many well-heeled Ivy League graduates, including Stewart Alsop, joined. This sense of tactical carte blanche got carried over into the Cold War. The Georgetown set must have liked the idea that they were operating above the realm of public opinion, that they were beholden to no one, that they made the rules.
The Georgetowners believed in the unapologetic use of American power, because they believed in the cause for which it was used. “I have never known him to go to any area where blood could be spilled that he didn’t come back and say more blood,” Johnson’s national-security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, said of Alsop. “That is his posture toward the universe.” They were hawks, but they were liberal hawks. They disdained vulgar anti-Communism. The Grahams and the Alsops were enemies of Joseph McCarthy, even before it was politically safe to be, and Alsop was critical of the Truman Administration’s loyalty program, which was enacted in 1947 and subjected millions of federal employees to F.B.I. investigations into their political backgrounds.
How influential was the Georgetown set? The conceit of Herken’s book is, as he puts it, that “the policies and stratagems that ultimately brought down the Soviet Union, and helped bring about the world we live in today, began with a simple invitation to cocktails and dinner.” Herken is echoing a remark of Kissinger’s, which he uses as an epigraph: “The hand that mixes the Georgetown martini is time and again the hand that guides the destiny of the Western world.”
By the time the last drinks were poured, the guests at the Sunday soirées no doubt felt that they were in the cockpit of history. But the United States is a democracy, not a Wasp Ascendancy. Presidents have to get elected. For most of the postwar period, Georgetown was not popular with the White House. Harry Truman disliked Joe Alsop; Eisenhower loathed him. There is no evidence that either Administration was much influenced by policy prescriptions emanating from P Street.
The only President who belonged to that scene was John F. Kennedy. He was a wealthy, cosmopolitan Ivy Leaguer—Georgetown’s kind of Cold War liberal. On the night of his Inauguration, restless and needing to talk, Kennedy showed up on Joe Alsop’s doorstep. That must have given the columnist quite a kick. And Phil Graham and Kennedy were close friends. (Graham, too, was bipolar; he killed himself in 1963, three months before the President was shot.)
But Kennedy’s shrewdness was very deep. He had secrets himself, and he knew just how much of an illusion of intimacy was needed to keep journalists friendly. In fact, the whole Georgetown setup can be viewed as an information market. The press honchos were looking to buy the inside scoop; the government officials were willing to exchange some of it for the right kind of coverage.
The C.I.A. actively cultivated people in the press and the media. The agency could open doors and dish dirt; in exchange, it wanted a little information, or coverage that suited its interests, or, sometimes, to have a story ignored. The Alsops were plainly part of the information economy. Herken lists a number of occasions when they wrote stories reflecting the C.I.A.’s slant.
But none of these people thought they were selling out, because they all believed that they were in the game together. In 1977, when Carl Bernstein was writing a story about the C.I.A.’s manipulation of the press, he asked Joe Alsop whether he had been an agent for the C.I.A. “It was a social thing, my dear fellow,” Alsop replied. “I never received a dollar. I never signed a secrecy agreement. I didn’t have to. . . . I’ve done things for them when I thought they were the right thing to do. I call it doing my duty as a citizen.”
There was once an atmosphere of willingness that made a system of bribes and information exchanges seem, to the people involved, simply a way of working together for a common cause in a climate of public opinion that, unfortunately, required secrecy. No one got rich from the arrangement. People just lost track of what was inside their bubble and what was outside, as people tend to do. Vietnam was the reality check. “I’ve Seen the Best of It” was the title Alsop gave to his memoirs. Things hadn’t been the same since, he felt. He was right about that, and we should be thankful. ♦