In 2012, The Columnist, a play based on the life of Joseph Alsop, opened on Broadway. In their reviews, critics felt compelled to explain to readers who the main character was. One described him as “a once-feared political pundit,” another as “the most powerful journalist that everyone’s forgotten.”
Readers who followed Alsop’s trenchant, fact-fueled journalism at any point from the 1930s to 1974 might have been taken aback by this steep fall into obscurity. In his distinguished, decades-spanning career, Alsop didn’t only report on American policy; he helped steer it. Furthermore, he was not alone. In The Georgetown Set, Gregg Herken reveals how, after World War II, that exclusive Washington enclave was home to a coterie of wealthy, well-educated, and well-connected diplomats, reporters, and spies who “inspired, promoted, and—in some cases—personally executed America’s winning Cold War strategy.” High-level discussions and resolutions took place at riotous cocktail parties and dinners. At one soirée, a prominent member of the set, Washington Post and Newsweek publisher Philip Graham, toasted his neighbors and made clear that “more political decisions get made at Georgetown suppers than anywhere else in the nation’s capital, including the Oval Office.”
Herken’s book takes us through the Cold War and charts how this close-knit community contributed to winning it. From 1945, Joseph Alsop and his brother Stewart began writing their thrice-weekly column, “Matter of Fact,” for the New York Herald Tribune; as early as their third column, they were warning readers about the dangers posed by former ally Russia and the atomic bomb. Herken argues that the Alsop brothers’ early advocacy of the Marshall Plan, with the aim of a rebuilt Europe acting as a buffer against Soviet aggression, put them way ahead of their journalist rivals.
Enter “cranky and controversial” Soviet expert George Kennan, who arrived at the State Department and became a regular at Alsop’s Sunday night “zoo parties.” Increasingly, though, Kennan found his host at logger-heads with him over his policy of containment. Then there was Frank Wisner, head of the CIA’s Office of Policy Coordination, and his fellow spymaster and “Republican-in-exile” Allen Dulles, both of whom sought to stymie Russian expansionism with a covert war of propaganda, subversion, and a raft of dirtier tricks.
Those who were less discreet with their broadsides incurred Soviet wrath: In 1948, the vociferously outspoken Alsops were branded “warmongers and militarists” by Pravda. Four years later, after likening his Moscow diplomatic posting to his wartime internment in Nazi Germany, Ambassador Kennan was declared persona non grata by the Kremlin. Wisner escaped censure from the Soviet Union but discovered enemies on his own side.
There was further mudslinging when Alsop and Graham joined forces to unseat Senator Joseph McCarthy, with Alsop comparing him to Joseph Goebbels and Graham worrying that McCarthy’s popularity might give rise to “something like a native fascist party.” McCarthyism prospered, and as more milestones follow (the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, Watergate), we note that, despite Herken’s attempt to present all this as an ensemble piece—right down to a map indicating where his dramatis personae once dwelled—it is really Joe Alsop who is the star of the show. His type of elite journalism was, Herken writes, “almost wholly dependent on news leaks and privileged entrée to Washington policy makers,” and, as a result, Herken’s highlights center upon Alsop hobnobbing and copy-gathering. Indeed, Alsop was privy to so much insider information that J. Edgar Hoover kept a close watch on him.
Although Herken shows Alsop reporting from the fighting fronts in Korea and Vietnam, we get a more illuminating portrait when we witness him at play. He was the sort of person who refused to eat in certain Parisian restaurants for fear that the vibrations from the nearby Métro might impair the sediment of his vintage wine. In Moscow, his naïveté and recklessness led to his ensnarement in a KGB honeytrap. Only once do we catch a glimpse of him stunned, his unflappable guard down: With the Cuban missile crisis mounting in the background, he smokes postprandial cigars under his loggia with John F. Kennedy, only for the president to casually drop into the conversation that the chances of a nuclear conflagration within the next decade are 50-50.