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.

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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