When Georgetown Ruled

October 27, 2014 Topic: History Region: United States

When Georgetown Ruled

During the Cold War, Georgetown functioned as an unusual hybrid of court society and literary commune. Gregg Herken’s The Georgetown Set explores its old-school WASP manners and aspirations for postwar America.

Gregg Herken, The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 512 pp., $30.00.


“I REALLY hate this city,” wrote Joseph Alsop, the legendary newspaper columnist and Washington bon vivant, in the spring of 1974. And with good reason: the capital in which Alsop and his brother and coauthor, Stewart, had for twenty-five years exercised outsized influence—as hosts to, and confidants of, the nation’s elite politicians, generals, spymasters and fellow journalists—had quietly vanished.

In its heyday, the Alsops’ world was a cloistered place, not untouched by rancor or partisanship but still governed by old-school WASP manners and aspirations for postwar America that were broadly shared across the ideological spectrum. It functioned as an unusual hybrid of court society and literary commune, its denizens given to elegant Sunday-night dinners, decades-long debates about international affairs and democratic values, and petty personal feuds resolved by the penning of heartfelt letters of apology, mailed to recipients who might have lived all of six blocks away.

This is the bygone kingdom, as fabled and dead as Atlantis, to which Gregg Herken returns us in The Georgetown Set. A gifted historian, Herken is the author of several well-regarded books about the politics and science of the atomic age. His progression to this terrain seems natural, if not inevitable. Surely no one is better suited to the material; the source notes include entries like “Author interview with Paul Nitze, July 12, 1984.”


In assaying the chummy crowd of accomplished and vainglorious Washingtonians who consorted with the Alsops inside their Dumbarton Street maisonettes, and who in turn fed the brothers’ hawkish columns, Herken conjures with skill and style those fretful years when America’s nuclear standoff with the Soviet Union lurched from containment to confrontation, and the heightened stakes overseas plunged the nation’s political classes into paranoia at home. Authoritative and reverential, The Georgetown Set joins the ranks of other accomplished “group portraits” of the Cold War, a genre distinguished by Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson’s The Wise Men, Burton Hersh’s The Old Boys and Thomas’s The Very Best Men.

The fact that so much of this ground has been covered before—in histories of the Cold War and the CIA, and in biographies like Robert W. Merry’s definitive study of the Alsops, Taking on the World, and John Lewis Gaddis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning George F. Kennan: An American Life—is not the principal flaw of this volume. Rather, it is in the “group” construct itself, which, at least in these pages, leads to a scattered approach: a narrative only loosely held together by lines of friendship so tangled and overlapping that they confuse rather than clarify. Indeed, The Georgetown Set is probably the best-researched and best-written Bad Read I’ve ever read. The gang’s all here, to an extent that some paragraphs induce vertigo:

Tom Braden, former Jedburgh and Stewart Alsop’s close friend and co-author, had joined the agency in 1950 as a patriotic response to the Korean war. Braden was made head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division, which secretly funneled money to trade unions and freedom committees overseas. Another Jed veteran, and Frank Wisner’s former law partner, was Tracy Barnes. Wisner put Barnes in charge of psychological and paramilitary warfare. Shortly after Korea, the ex-marine Phil Geyelin also joined Wisner in OPC’s sweltering “tempos” on the Mall. (Geyelin lasted less than a year, however, before embarking on a journalism career that took him to The Wall Street Journal and eventually The Washington Post.) Another recruit, Desmond FitzGerald, was the divorced husband of Susan Mary’s longtime friend and correspondent, Marietta Peabody. FitzGerald’s Harvard roommate, Paul Nitze, had introduced Desie to Frank Wisner. An army veteran with wartime experience in China and Burma, FitzGerald was put in charge of the Far East division of the Plans Directorate.

Compounding this problem is the author’s abdication of a signal responsibility of the portraitist: to provide compelling physical descriptions of the characters. Seldom do we get a good idea of what anyone looks like, and how an individual’s appearance would have affected his comportment and treatment by peers. In the chapter, for example, that introduces us to Frank Wisner, the Office of Strategic Services veteran and Wall Street lawyer who helped build the modern CIA, fifteen pages pass before Herken makes hurried reference, seemingly as an afterthought, to “the growing-portly, rapidly balding Wisner.” And this is only for the purpose of contrasting Wisner’s appearance with that of Richard Helms, the career CIA man who would lead the agency from 1966 to 1973, said here to have been “tall, handsome [and] debonair”—a description that still gives the unknowing reader scant ability to conjure Helms’s face.

This construct mandates that we repeatedly check in with multiple players whose paths never really converge in a climactic way—as they might, say, in a spy novel. The result is that the narrative often feels digressive. The introduction of George Kennan leads to a miniature history of the Policy Planning Staff, the State Department’s in-house think tank; the recurring focus on Wisner produces long passages on the birth of the Office of Policy Coordination, the CIA’s earliest clandestine branch, and a long-forgotten operation in Albania. Georgetown itself, the supposed epicenter of the characters’ thoughts and actions, disappears for tens of pages at a time.


NOR DO we ever really penetrate the sanctum sanctorum of the Georgetown set: the cocktail parties and dinners said to have been so grand, so lively and so influential. The book begins with a quote from Henry Kissinger, the one figure of the Nixon administration who enjoyed entrée to capital society, and perhaps the last individual over whom the Georgetown set, in its waning days, saw fit to fawn. “The hand that mixes the Georgetown martini,” said Kissinger, “is time and again the hand that guides the destiny of the Western world.” But by failing to escort the reader into such gaieties, The Georgetown Set is never really present at the creation—of either the martini or the destiny.

Combing the extant literature—the histories, memoirs, articles, letters, diaries and his own interviews—Herken has diligently unearthed, and woven into the narrative, every known reference to this or that gathering, held at this or that home on Q or 34th Street, where Subject A or B was discussed, and Set Member C or D famously clashed with Arthur Schlesinger or Kay Graham over policy X or Y. Never, however, do we experience one of these Georgetown salons with intimacy. No specific gathering, epic or routine, is examined in detail from start to finish, nor is there any sustained attention to physical layout, decor, cuisine, table settings, the progression of the courses, clothing or manners of speech.

These are the kinds of status details that Tom Wolfe, for example, delivered so brilliantly in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, when he took the reader inside Leonard Bernstein’s penthouse duplex for an infamous, and thoroughly absurd, fundraiser for the Black Panthers. Wolfe, of course, having crashed the Bernstein party, was practicing eyewitness journalism, whereas Herken is saddled, decades after the fact, with the rather more difficult task of historical re-creation. But the wealth of private and public literature produced by the members of the Georgetown set, and Herken’s probing interviews with their children, should have made it feasible—had it been the author’s objective—to give the reader a sensory perception of one such party, or their feel in general: of what it was like, back in the day, to enter one of these splendid Georgetown homes; to have your coat taken by a butler; to receive your drink; to repair to an anteroom for banter before dinner; to converge on the dining-room table; and so on.

And because Herken’s raw material is so fragmented—a reference to parties or discussions here or there, but no sustained set pieces—the author’s segues from one subject to the next can feel forced. Consider this passage, in which Herken seeks to transition from McCarthyism, one of the topics broached during a gathering at the O Street home of Jane and Bob Joyce in July 1950, to Kennan’s brief exile to Princeton University:

Preparing to leave for Princeton’s institute, Kennan was in the process of saying good-bye to his Georgetown friends. Yet the dinner conversation that night was not about Kennan’s impending departure but about McCarthy’s rising star. Stewart let Kennan know that he intended to use parts of the latter’s Milwaukee speech in his forthcoming essay—confessing surprise “that the Post had consented to take an article so strongly anti-McCarthy.”

The conversation then turned to another topic: Kennan’s legacy as he left Washington.

Kennan had recently met with Frank Wisner to discuss a report the two men had just received from Joyce. It concerned Operation Rusty, the CIA’s project to encourage Red Army defections, which had used Gustav Hilger as a consultant. Joyce based his report on the interrogation of ten Russian soldiers who had recently escaped to the West after listening to a VOA broadcast promising that defectors would not be returned to Soviet authorities. Kennan wrote in his diary of how he had been cheered by the news.

This passage encapsulates so much of what ails The Georgetown Set. Five lines after we are told that “the dinner conversation that night was not about Kennan’s impending departure,” we hear that the attendees discussed “Kennan’s legacy as he left Washington.” So was Kennan’s departure from the capital a topic during dinner that night—or not? Moreover, the fulcrum for the transition (“the conversation then turned to another topic”) hardly inspires confidence, precisely because, more than one hundred pages into the book, the reader hasn’t once yet been treated to a detailed account of a given evening. Did the conversation immediately turn to Kennan’s legacy—or was it two or three topics later, or two hours later? Indeed, while we are told that “the conversation” then turned to Kennan’s legacy, that alleged conversation is never referenced again; instead, we are again immersed in the stew of faceless names—Kennan, Wisner, Joyce, Gustav Hilger, the Red Army—and the next source cited is Kennan’s diary. Was that where the conversation occurred? I thought it was at the Joyces’.

Herken hits rock bottom with the occasional turn of phrase so poorly conceived as to be cringe-worthy. The worst example: his treatment of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attempts to impugn Joe Alsop on the basis of his homosexuality, an effort that the author tells us engendered, on the part of the editor of the Saturday Evening Post at the time, only “a flaccid defense.”


ITS COMPOSITIONAL flaws notwithstanding, does The Georgetown Set contain insights on foreign policy of value to analysts and policy makers today? From where I sit, such latter-day utility should not be considered a prerequisite for a work of history focused on foreign affairs to be regarded as commendable, or even exceptional. In some cases, it should suffice simply that the historian has accurately and entertainingly related what happened, and thereby captured the essence of the time and place and central characters under scrutiny. In the case of Herken’s latest volume, it so happens that its relevance to today’s international stage is manifest but limited.

In the five-decade duel between Kennan and his more conservative successor at the Policy Planning Staff, Paul Nitze, the author sees “perhaps the longest continuous foreign policy debate in American history” over “whether it was Soviet capabilities or intentions that mattered more, and whether America’s moral example or martial power was what kept the Russian bear at bay.” Recently, President Obama has cautioned analysts not to view the Ukraine crisis as “some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.” Yet, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, National Security Adviser Susan Rice told reporters that her goal was to avert a situation in which the crisis could “escalate and devolve into hot conflict”—a remark that signaled that the Obama administration recognized, its public protestations aside, that it was indeed engaged in a “cold” conflict. Given as much, the old debates about containment and confrontation, moral and military supremacy, still apply today, to some extent, with an assertive Russia and—far more than in the Alsops’ time—an ascendant China and Iran.

For good or ill, however, the eyes of the world, as of this writing, are focused more narrowly on the jihadist army calling itself the Islamic State, whose malign presence in the Middle East the leader of the free world has just formed an international coalition to combat. With the grisly videos of beheadings it uploads to YouTube and its seizure of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq, including major oil-production complexes and central banks, the Islamic State has emerged as the richest and, by many metrics, the most successful terrorist group of modern times. Accordingly, it poses an unmistakable threat to Western interests.

The nature of that threat is, however, as in the Cold War era, the subject of intense debate. This uncertainty may have contributed to President Obama’s halting and often-contradictory early statements about the Islamic State. In the course of a single news conference in Estonia in September, the commander in chief spoke alternately of aiming to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, of wanting to “roll them back” and of his aspiration to “shrink [the group’s] sphere of influence . . . to the point where it is a manageable problem.” To many, that performance served only to solidify the impression the president had conveyed the week before, during an appearance in the White House press briefing room, when he acknowledged: “We don’t have a strategy yet.”

Strategies mattered in the Cold War and they matter today. Yet it is far from clear that the debates of the Cold War era can neatly apply to the multinational effort to address malevolent nonstate actors using asymmetric means to erase borders between Middle Eastern and North African nations. What’s more, the confluence of factors most directly contributing to twenty-first-century jihadism—globalization, technology and a cohort of one hundred million people in the Middle East under the age of thirty, hungry for work but not able to find it easily—is unprecedented. These facts are what Secretary of State John Kerry alluded to when he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing in January 2013:

Today’s world is more complicated than anything we have experienced—from the emergence of China, to the Arab Awakening; inextricably linked economic, health, environmental and demographic issues, proliferation, poverty, pandemic disease, refugees, conflict ongoing in Afghanistan, entire populations and faiths struggling with the demands of modernity, and the accelerating pace of technological innovation invading all of that, shifting power from nation-states to individuals.

Americans surely grasp this chaotic and scary state of affairs—and correspondingly regard with some incredulity attempts by President Obama to persuade them to the contrary. At a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee in August, Obama argued that it is the dissolution of “an old order” in the Middle East “that had been in place for 50 years, 60 years, 100 years,” and the uncertain formation of its successor, that make the world seem “pretty frightening.” Then the president harkened back to a more familiar time and order—the era of the Georgetown set—by way of providing some measure of reassurance. “The world has always been messy,” he said. “I promise you things are much less dangerous now than they were 20 years ago, 25 years ago or 30 years ago.” Today’s Middle East, he continued, is “not something that is comparable to the challenges we faced during the Cold War. . . . when we had an entire block of Communist countries that were trying to do us in.”

Even those persuaded by such arguments might nonetheless yearn for what seems to have been, in retrospect, a simpler time, when the world was at least neatly divided into two easily differentiated camps, and successive presidents could benefit from the considered advice of a small coterie of journalists, pundits and intellectuals. Today’s inhabitants of the Oval Office could be forgiven for not knowing where to find such advisers—perhaps because, in today’s media environment, they are everywhere, and there is no getting away from them.


James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate (Doubleday, 2008).


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