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Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington

Written by Gregg HerkenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Gregg Herken

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On Sale: October 28, 2014
Pages: 512 | ISBN: 978-0-385-35304-5
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

A fascinating, behind-the-scenes history of postwar Washington—a rich and colorful portrait of the close-knit group of journalists, spies, and government officials who waged the Cold War over cocktails and dinner.

In the years after World War II, Georgetown’s leafy streets were home to an unlikely group of Cold Warriors: a coterie of affluent, well-educated, and connected civilians who helped steer American strategy from the Marshall Plan through McCarthyism, Watergate, and the endgame of Vietnam. The Georgetown set included Phil and Kay Graham, husband-and-wife publishers of The Washington Post; Joe and Stewart Alsop, odd-couple brothers who were among the country’s premier political pundits; Frank Wisner, a driven, manic-depressive lawyer in charge of CIA covert operations; and a host of other diplomats, spies, and scholars responsible for crafting America’s response to the Soviet Union from Truman to Reagan.

This was a smaller, cozier Washington—utterly unlike today’s capital—where presidents made foreign policy in consultation with reporters and professors over martinis and hors d’oeuvres, and columnists like the Alsops promoted those policies in the next day’s newspapers.  Together, they navigated the perilous years of the Cold War, yielding triumphs—and tragedies—with very real consequences for present-day America and the world.

Gregg Herken captures their successes and failures and gives us intimate portraits of these dedicated and talented, if deeply flawed, individuals. Throughout, he illuminates the drama of those years, bringing this remarkable roster of men and women and their world not only out into the open but vividly to life.

Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

A Political Village

The war was over, and those who had been away for so long finally began to come home.

A thirty-four-year-old journalist, Joseph Alsop, was one of the first to arrive back in Washington. Joe returned in September 1945 to the small brick town house on Georgetowns Dumbarton Avenue where he had lived before the war. A U.S. Navy lieutenant, Alsop had been in Hong Kong when Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. Sent to an internment camp, he was repatriated to the States in a June 1942 prisoner exchange. But Alsop had quickly gone back to China, becoming an aide and adviser to General Claire Chennault, commander of the American Volunteer Groupthe famed Flying Tigers. There, Joe had deliberately inserted himself into the labyrinthine complexities of Sino-American affairs. He was literate, excitable and persuasive with just enough superficial acquaintance with the situation to be opinionated and to appear knowledgeable, the historian Barbara Tuchman, a noted China expert and Alsop critic, later wrote.

Joe had sided with Chennault in the latters protracted feud with the U.S. Army general Joseph Vinegar Joe Stilwell over Americas strategy in China. Chennault trusted in air power and in Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek, a U.S. ally, to defeat the Japanese. Stilwell believed Chiangwhom he derisively called the Peanutto be hopelessly corrupt, and planned to beat the enemy in a traditional ground offensive, using Chinese troops bolstered by American lend-lease aid. Alsops lobbying on behalf of Chennault ultimately played a role in President Franklin D. Roosevelts 1944 decision to recall Stilwell. Alsop returned from the war in Asia with a strong anti-Communist bias, an enduring belief that it was Americas duty to stand up for the underdog, and an impressive collection of Ming dynasty ceramics.

On his way home from China, Alsop had stopped off in Paris to visit his longtime friend and Harvard classmate Bill Patten. Bills wife, Susan Mary, recalled that Joes luggage contained lots of emeralds...and rare old Chinese bronzes for the Alsop collection.

The emeralds were for the wife of Joes younger brother Stewart, who had been kept out of the U.S. Army after Pearl Harbor by asthma and high blood pressure. Stew had instead joined Britains Kings Royal Rifle Corps, transferring in 1944 to Americas Office of Strategic Services, where he became a member of the legendary OSS Jedburghs, three-man commando teams who had parachuted into Nazi-occupied France to aid the Resistance. At wars end, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the French government for his work with the partisans. Stewart was preparing for similar Jedburgh missions in Thailand when Japan surrendered.

Uninterested in the prospect of returning to his prewar desk job as an editor at Doubleday after his derring-do with the OSS, Stew had filled out an application for the Foreign Service before deciding to throw in his lot with Joe, as co-author of a syndicated political column for the New York Herald Tribune. The man who would be described as the kinder, gentler Alsop, and a more human version of his older brother, added a needed perspective and more moderate temperament to the column they dubbed Matter of Fact. Their four-times-a-week column, Stewart boasted, would be essential reading for those who want, not only the news-behind-the news but the news-before-the news. Both Alsops would also write longer pieces for The Saturday Evening Post, with which Joe had a long-standing relationship.

Stewart and his British-born wife, Patricia HankeyTishtemporarily moved in with relatives but later bought a house on Dumbarton, just down the block from Joe. The first installment of the brothers newspaper column would appear on the last day of 195.

like stewart alsop, the attorney Frank Gardiner Wisner, thirty-six, had spent the war overseas in the OSS and had just as little interest in returning to his prewar job. Enlisting in the navy six months before Pearl Harbor, Wisner had transferred into the countrys fledgling intelligence service shortly after fighting began. Stationed first in Egypt, then in Turkey, he later became the OSS station chief in Bucharest, Romania. In 1944, Wisners official task had been to help rescue downed American fliers. But his first priority was keeping tabs on the Soviets in the Romanian capital, as the Red Army pushed the German Wehrmacht out of Eastern Europe.

Wisners apprehensions about Soviet intentions had grown in step with the Russian advance. The final shock had come in early winter 1945, when Frank watched helplessly as the Russians filled more than two dozen unheated boxcars with thousands of ethnic Germansmen, women, and childrenand shipped the families to an uncertain fate as slave laborers in the east. (Like a modern-day Paul Revere, Wisner had driven frantically around the Romanian capital in his jeep, trying to warn the Volksdeutschebut he was too late.) Until then, Wisner wrote in his final OSS report from Bucharest, the Soviets had been fairly careful to avoid giving the appearance of taking over the country. Frank finished out the war in U.S.-occupied Germany, keeping an eye on the Russians just across the border. With characteristic impatience, Wisner secretly sent three OSS operatives through Soviet lines to recruit new agents for a postwar spy network; the ink had barely dried on the German surrender document when Frank had his first report on life in Russian-occupied Berlin.

Temporarily at a loss as to what to do in a world at peace, Wisner reluctantly went back to his prewar job at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard in early 1946. But he had recently told his wife, Polly, that he was bored with being an attorney and tired of living in New York City. Wisner had discovered that his time as a wartime spy chiefquartered in the requisitioned thirty-room mansion of a Bucharest beer magnate, with a fleet of captured Mercedes in the courtyard and a young Romanian princess serving as his self-described hostessstill held a siren-like appeal. Anticipating a move to Washington in the near future, Frank purchased a three-hundred-acre farm in rural Maryland.

thirty-year-old Philip Graham returned to a Washington very much changed by the war. The parochial town said to have a reputation for northern charm and southern efficiency had suddenly become the capital of the Free World. A magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law, class of 1939, Graham had clerked for the Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter following law school. But the brilliant political career that most assumed lay ahead of Phil was first postponed, and then forgotten, after he married his future bosss daughter, Katharine Meyer, in 1940.

As only his wife and close friends at the time knew, Grahams confident and charming demeanor masked a carefully hidden secret. Beginning with his undergraduate years at the University of Florida, Phil had shown signs of the sudden and radical mood swings that would characterize his later life: periods of almost-maniacal and incandescent energy alternated with bouts of deep, incapacitating depression.

Shortly before Pearl Harbor, Phil had joined the Office of Emergency Management, which was readying the country for the coming conflict. In 1942, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces as a private, ending the war as a major on the AAF intelligence staff in the Philippines. He had originally signed up with the more prestigious OSS but after two weeks decided that he had had enough of what he called the white-shoe boys and requested reassignment to a bombardment squadron, or similar duties.

By April 1945, Katharine GrahamKayhad given birth to the couples second child and moved the family into a new home at Georgetowns Thirty-Third and O Streets. A dozen years earlier, Kays father, Eugene Meyer, had bought a struggling newspaper, The Washington Post, at a bankruptcy sale. Meyer had extracted a promise from Phil that the son-in-law would take over the paper when he returned from the war.

Having previously worked as a reporter on a San Francisco newspaper, Kay gave up her job on the Washington Post circulation desk to devote her full time to the children and Phil, who became the new associate publisher of the paper on January 1, 1946. Along with the Herald Tribune, the Post was one of the major urban dailies subscribing to the syndicate that would publish Matter of Fact. The previous day, in small type at the bottom of the front page, the Post had announced, Joseph Alsop and his brother Stewart begin their new column today on page 9.

For the Alsops, the Wisners, and the Grahams, it was the beginning of a long, tumultuous, and consequential friendship.
Gregg Herken|Author Q&A

About Gregg Herken

Gregg Herken - The Georgetown Set

Photo © Jim MacKenzie

Gregg Herken is professor emeritus of modern American diplomatic history at the University of California and the author of Brotherhood of the Bomb, Cardinal Choices, Counsels of War, and The Winning Weapon. He and his family live in Santa Cruz, California.

Author Q&A

A conversation with Gregg Herken author of

THE GEORGETOWN SET: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington


Q: Your last book, Brotherhood of the Bomb, was about Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller, the scientists most responsible for the advent of weapons of mass destruction. What inspired you to begin writing THE GEORGETOWN SET?

A:
I’ve long wanted to write a history of the Cold War—a subject I taught for almost 40 years at the college level.  But I didn’t want to write a “policy history.”  Instead, my interest was to focus upon the people who were key to the Cold War story in Washington—in particular, the Alsops, the Wisners, and the Grahams. I had enjoyed writing a group biography of the atomic scientists in Brotherhood of the Bomb, and decided to take the same approach with THE GEORGETOWN SET.


Q: This Georgetown set included Phil and Kay Graham, husband-and-wife publishers of The Washington Post; Joe and Stewart Alsop, odd-couple brothers who were among the country’s premier political pundits; Frank Wisner, a manic-depressive lawyer in charge of CIA covert operations; and a host of diplomats, spies, and scholars. Who intrigues you most and why?

A:
Joe Alsop essentially steals the show in THE GEORGETOWN SET—as he did in real life.  Joe was such a fascinating and influential figure, although he is virtually forgotten today.  Friends described him as an “American aristocrat” and an “emotional hemophiliac.”  As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote, Joe and his brother Stewart were the “generous center of social life” in Cold War Washington.


Q: Tell us about Sunday suppers at Joe Alsop’s home on Dumbarton Avenue.

A:
Most guests found the Sunday night suppers at Joe’s house on Dumbarton Avenue either “exhilarating” or “terrifying”—and sometimes both together. Alcohol—usually gin martinis—were a vital ingredient in what Alsop called the “gen con,” the general conversation. Sitting at the head of the dining table, Joe dominated the discussions, which focused upon the political events of the day.  Controversy was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Joe used to say that it wasn’t considered an argument in the Alsop household until someone had left the table and stormed out of the dining room at least twice.


Q: The Georgetown set was made up of affluent, well-educated, and well-connected journalists, spies, and government officials. How has the dynamic between journalists and government changed over time? Are there any similarities in politics today?

A:
The Washington, D.C. of the Georgetown set has simply ceased to exist. Beyond the poisonous partisanship of the current-day capital, the formerly chummy relationship between journalists and government officials vanished when the two became antagonists and stopped trusting each other.

Investigative reporting, which replaced the so-called elite or “access” journalism of the Alsops, serves the public good when it brings to light political scandals like Watergate. But it has since devolved into a “gotcha” mentality that reflects poorly on both sides. And it seems almost impossible to keep a secret in Washington today.


Q: In 1958, Joe and Stewart Alsop wrote, “Being a newspaper columnist is a little like being a Greek chorus.” What did they mean by this?

A:
The purpose of the chorus in classical Greek drama, as I recall, was to warn the protagonist of approaching danger—and, often, of impending doom.  The Alsop brothers—and Joe especially—saw themselves as doing the same in their newspaper column, which warned incessantly against Soviet expansionism and the danger of nuclear war.  But they probably overdid it, prompting critics to dub them “the Brothers Cassandra” and “Doom and Gloom.”  Interestingly enough, the warnings of the Greek chorus were also typically ignored by the play’s hero—leading to the inevitable tragic ending.


Q: In your research, you drew upon recently declassified CIA and FBI documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and you had exclusive access to previously unavailable private papers. How did you go about your research, and what did you discover that most surprised you? What new information about this period do we learn in THE GEORGETOWN SET?

A:
Since The Georgetown Set is my fifth book, and my academic specialty is modern American diplomatic history, I’m pretty familiar with doing archival research.  The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the Freedom of Information Act in America have made available to researchers a treasure trove of previously-classified Cold War documents, many of which are now available online at websites like those of the National Security Archive and the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project.  Among the research findings that most surprised me was the extent to which the U.S. government was penetrated by Soviet spies during the Second World War and after.  But equally surprising was the Kennedy administration’s use of the CIA to secretly wiretap American journalists in Project Mockingbird—a top-secret program that plainly violated the agency’s charter, and only recently came to light with the declassification of the CIA’s so-called Family Jewels.  The Alsop papers at the Library of Congress and Joe’s private papers—which the Alsop family generously granted me access to—also made it possible to finally resolve a long-time mystery concerning the KGB’s attempts to blackmail Joe Alsop for a clandestine homosexual affair in Moscow back in 1957.


Q: You write about Kennedy’s election, “the return of a Democrat to the White House marked not only the end of eight long years of political isolation for the likes of Joe Alsop but also a revival of the staid capital city’s social life.” And following his inaugural ball, Kennedy went to a party at Alsop’s home “for more than two hours, not returning to the Executive Mansion until 3:40AM.” What changed for the Georgetown set when Kennedy was elected?

A:
The Alsops present an interesting example of a traditionally Republican family that was also related to—and supportive of—Democratic presidents.  Joe’s influence in the White House peaked during the administration of John Kennedy—whom Alsop called the ‘perfect candidate” for the job.  The reasons for the attraction were obvious:  like Joe, Kennedy was from a prominent East coast family, had gone to Harvard, and took a hard line on defense and the Soviet Union.


Q: How did Watergate and Vietnam bring an end to the Georgetown set’s cozy world?

A:
Joe Alsop was right about McCarthy, wrong about the missile gap, and very wrong about Vietnam.   He was also late to recognize the significance of the Watergate scandal.  Part of the problem is that both Joe and Stewart were “Old School” journalists—they believed that the government had the right to keep at least some secrets.  But even more important was the fact that the brothers depended for news upon the very people they were reporting on—a fundamental flaw of their brand of  “access” journalism.  As New York Times reporter “Scotty” Reston observed, Joe Alsop was “professionally crippled” by his own sources.      


Q: Following Phil Graham’s suicide, Kay Graham became president of the Washington Post Company, and kept up the tradition of the Georgetown salons (at one dinner, she “had to hold her head back to keep the tears from falling”). Was this career move surprising? How did her choice affect gender dynamics among reporters?

A:
I don’t think anyone predicted that Katharine Graham would become the powerful and tough-minded publisher and newspaper owner that she became after Phil’s death. From a shrinking violet perpetually in the shadow of her domineering husband—in those days she was even too shy to fire an incompetent laundress—Kay would succeed brilliantly in what had traditionally been considered a man’s world. Later, she also played an important role in promoting the journalism careers of women at the Washington Post—making her friend and confidante Meg Greenfield editor of the Post’s editorial page, for example.


Q: You describe the Washington Post editorial pages in 1966: “On Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays, Alsop’s Matter of Fact column declared confidently that the war was being won and ‘standing fast is paying off.’ On Tuesday and Thursdays, Lippmann’s Today and Tomorrow urged the president to halt the bombing and seek a negotiated peace.” Finally, Lippmann denounced “cronyism,” quit the Washington Post, and moved to New York. How did Alsops’ stance quickly result in his being ostracized by reporters, and dropped by his friends?

A:
Joe Alsop seemed to have a particular knack for making enemies—even among those who had once been his friends.  Joe was notoriously unwilling to suffer fools, bores, or critics—and he did not hesitate to insult or attack those who were close to him if he felt they were wrong on an important issue. Things became much worse, of course, because of Vietnam—where, eventually, Joe was virtually alone among his journalist peers in his support for the war. But even then, it was not a personal enmity: although Joe and Walter Lippmann disagreed fundamentally on Vietnam, their letters show a certain mutual respect and even affection. Near the end of his life, Joe also tried to make amends among those he felt he had wronged during his career as a columnist.


Q: What are the most significant ways that the DC you describe in THE GEORGETOWN SET differs from DC today? How are the two similar?

A:
The big difference in Washington between then and now is that, today, the movers and shakers in both political parties rarely talk to one another, except to level accusations and score debating points in the media. What used to be just a partisan divide in the capital has become an ideological chasm—where elected officials are almost afraid to be seen in the same room as their opposite number, lest they be accused of “selling out” or “going soft” by their party’s extremists. The great thing about the Georgetown salons—and, in particular, Joe Alsop’s Sunday night suppers—was that they provided a venue for socializing independent of political affiliation.  That didn’t mean that harmony necessarily prevailed:  it was not unusual for Joe to throw a guest out of his house for some untoward remark.  But, almost invariably, Alsop would send that same guest a letter of abject apology the following day—and it was rare indeed for a feud to result in any lasting personal enmity.  Thus, Joe’s salons forced each side to confront the fact that the other was at least human, and not the embodiment of the Anti-Christ.  Notably, in an interview that Alsop gave to CNN in 1984—just five years before his death, and shortly after the re-election of Ronald Reagan—Joe decried the rise in Washington of those he called the “ideologists”:  “When I was young we didn’t have any ideologists, thank God.  I hate ideologists.  I hate extremists.”  And then he made a prediction that, I think, has relevance for today, with the midterm elections approaching:  “Either great American party that yields to its extreme group is doomed there and then.”  


Q: In THE GEORGETOWN SET, we learn a lot about reporting for the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, and many more publications still in circulation. Can you tell us about a few pivotal articles that ran in these publications?  What do you hope the media will take away from your book?

A:
The publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times and the Washington Post was one of the most significant moments in the history of the modern press, along with Watergate, and both are stories told in my book. In 1977, one of the heroes of the Watergate saga—Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein—wrote an article for Rolling Stone, “The CIA and the Media,” that has never received the attention I think it deserves.  When I interviewed Ben Bradlee at the Post, I told him that I hoped THE GEORGETOWN SET would reveal even more about the secret ties between the intelligence community and the press.  I remember that Ben smiled sardonically and said simply:  “Good luck.” 




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Praise

Praise

Praise for Gregg Herken’s The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington
 
“It’s the great gossip text and comedy of manners anatomizing the darkest of Cold War intrigue.  Noel Coward meets John le Carre and Graham Greene, cross-bred with Robert Ludlum.  A triumph!”
--James Ellroy

“Herken . . . goes into exacting detail in this excellent account, which focuses on the players themselves—their backgrounds, relationships, rivalries, scandals, and opinions on the policies and the events that defined the era . . . Herken covers, among a host of post-WWII milestones, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the founding of the CIA, McCarthyism, the Korean War, Vietnam, and Watergate. The skill with which he describes the players in Georgetown is not to be missed.”
--Publisher’s Weekly (starred)

"Herken takes a rather clever idea promising titillating gossip among neighbors Joseph Alsop, Phil Graham and John F. Kennedy during the 1950s and '60s and amplifies it into a spiraling delineation of the official American response to the perceived Soviet threat . . .  Herken helps guide readers through the intimate murk of espionage detail, moving from events in North Korea to Berlin to Cuba . . . An intricate study of the personalities that shaped U.S. Cold War policy."
--Kirkus
 
"Greg Herken has written the hidden history of our foreign policy under Truman, Eisenhower, and Nixon, at a time when those who made policy met those who wrote about policy in the living rooms of Georgetown. Herken had the patience to wait until the files were opened. His book is admirably researched and written."
--Ted Morgan, author of Reds: McCarthyism in Twentieth-Century America  

"The past really is another country. Gregg Herken's intriguing volume is a passport that enables us to visit the vanished country of Georgetown during the Cold War. There the braided political and social networks of a small cohort made, and reported, history."
--George F. Will
 
“Herken . . . draws on recently declassified materials to tell the story of the affluent and influential elites -- syndicated columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop; foreign service officers George Kennan and Paul Nitze; Phil and Katharine Graham, the publishers of The Washington Post; and Frank Wisner, the director of covert operations at the CIA - who lived there and influenced American foreign policy from the Cold War to the War in Vietnam . . . Fascinating.”
--Glenn Altschuler, The Oregonian 

"Gregg Herken has diligently brought the old Eastern Establishment back to life in his The Georgetown Set.  A whole host of luminaries - Joseph Alsop, Dean Acheson, Paul Nitze, Phil and Kay Graham among them - make grand appearances in this group biography.  Herken has connected the dots between these so-called ‘Wise Men of the 20th Century’ better than anybody else.  An absolutely wonderful read!"
--Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite.
 
"An absolutely fascinating look into a world that has long remained half-hidden but was at the center of America's post-war global supremacy. This book was waiting to be written, and Gregg Herken delivers with insight and panache." 
--Evan Thomas, author of The Very Best Men: The Early Years of the CIA and Ike's Bluff
 
"Highly entertaining and meticulously researched, The Georgetown Set tells the story of the Cold War through the eyes of closely-knit group of friends who formed America’s foreign policy elite.  Gregg Herken provides superb character studies of the brilliant, but occasionally, tortured politicians, journalists, diplomats and spies who populated the salons of Georgetown during the climactic years of the American Century.  He describes their triumphs and disasters, love affairs and petty jealousies, strengths and foibles, with great skill and empathy.  More than just a history book, this is the portrait of a vanished era."
--Michael Dobbs, author of One Minute to Midnight
 
"There was a time, now passing from memory, when a small group of men and women in a leafy neighborhood of Washington thought they ran the world. They weren’t far wrong. Gregg Herken astutely and entertainingly recreates their circle, with all its idiosyncrasies, ambition and influence. Read it and weep, modern Georgetown!" 
--HW Brands, author of The First American and The Man Who Saved the Union

"Gregg Herken has written a compelling  history of one of the big American stories of the last sixty years – how a WASP band of brothers led the United States to triumph in the Cold War and tragedy in Vietnam. They deserve, and in The Georgetown Set  they get, full credit for both."
--Thomas Powers, author of The Killing of Crazy Horse
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