THE GEORGETOWN SET

Friends and Rivals in
Cold War Washington

By Gregg Herken

Knopf. 494 pp. $30

What we have here is a very strange book. Its title and subtitle would lead you to believe that it is about the men and (a few) women who lived in privileged circumstances in Georgetown from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and were both incestuous and determined to influence the national government. To a small degree “The Georgetown Set” is indeed that, but to a much larger degree it is (A) a rehash of the history of the Cold War as experienced in certain Washington circles and (B) an almost obsessive recapitulation of the life and journalism of Joseph Alsop. Why Alsop exercises such fascination on Gregg Herken, a respected historian of the Cold War period, is a mystery, yet reader beware: No matter what the title and subtitle say, this is primarily a book about Joe Alsop.

‘The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington’ by Gregg Herken (Knopf)

I met Alsop once, at a small and informal gathering in the late 1960s of youngish journalists at which he was the invited speaker. He was a famous columnist published in and syndicated by the New York Herald Tribune, and we were eager to hear him, but we’d have done better to spend the evening drinking beer at any nearby tavern. He was utterly repellent: arrogant, patronizing, imperious, uninterested in anyone except himself. His “reporting” relied “mostly on official sources,” Herken writes, which was consistent with the attitude he brought to our little gathering: He hadn’t the time of day for us because we were ordinary as opposed to the glittering stars whom he sucked up to and bullied in the Washington he claimed to know so well.

If you’ve never heard of Alsop and don’t care a whit about him, fret not. After expending Lord knows how many words on him, Herken says at the end that he inhabited “a world unknown or largely forgotten today.” This is not unusual: Journalism is inherently ephemeral, and the names that Herken trots out alongside Alsop’s — his brother Stewart, Walter Lippmann, James Reston, Marquis Childs — are now as thoroughly forgotten as he is, no matter how distinguished their work may have been during its day. The same can be said of most of the non-journalists who were members of the “Georgetown Set,” among them Frank Wisner, a gung-ho type who dreamed up covert operations for the Central Intelligence Agency in its early years; Charles “Chip” Bohlen, an authority on the Soviet Union; and Philip Graham, publisher of The Washington Post from 1946 until his suicide in 1963.

To be sure, a few of those who moved in these circles are still remembered: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, for reasons that require no elaboration; Phil Graham’s widow, Katharine, perhaps less for her strong leadership of this newspaper after her husband’s death than for her remarkable memoir, “Personal History” (1997), a book that still finds readers more than a dozen years after her own death; Dean Acheson, who was older than most of the Georgetown Set but who circulated at its fringes and, as secretary of state under Harry Truman, was and remains a formidable figure in 20th-century history, as he would have been the first to tell you; Foster and Allen Dulles, the brothers from Upstate New York who served Dwight Eisenhower as, respectively, secretary of state and director of the CIA.

The Dulles brothers were very much on the outer circle of this gang, not merely because they do not seem to have been unduly chummy but also because they were Republicans. The Georgetowners were liberal Democrats, as the term was understood in those days, which meant that they supported liberal causes at home and a hard line against the Soviet Union abroad. This may seem anomalous, but it must be very hard for people who did not live through the ’50s and ’60s to understand how obsessed the American people were with the threat from Moscow, how worried (indeed almost panicked) they were by the first Russian test of an atomic bomb in August 1949 and the launch of the Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Democrats weren’t just putting on a macho posture with their policy toward Moscow; though there were disputes within the party between advocates of “containment” and those of aggressive anti-communist action, there was unanimity about the seriousness of the threat.

The rise of the intelligence community was part and parcel of this. Within that community, and then within the CIA after its formation in 1947, there was deep division between advocates of intelligence-gathering and those of covert operations. Frank Wisner was the mad genius behind the latter, drumming up schemes that seem merely comic-opera in retrospect: “replacing the toilet paper on trains leaving Vienna for Budapest with tissue bearing the visage of Hungary’s Communist leader,” assassinating Joseph Stalin, overthrowing Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia “using Communist Serbs dressed, bizarrely, in U.S. Air Force uniforms.” Yet for all the nuttiness of it, his Office of Policy Coordination within the CIA grew like Topsy:

“Wisner’s organization continued to grow virtually unconstrained. Between 1949 and 1952, OPC’s personnel roster increased almost tenfold, from 302 to 2,812, not counting more than 3,000 foreign contractors. During the same period, its annual budget ballooned from under $5 million to more than $80 million. Incredibly, Wisner’s request for covert operations in the coming fiscal year [of 1951] reportedly exceeded $400 million — three times the previous year’s budget for the entire CIA. Originally sent to seven countries, by the end of the Korean War, Frank’s agents would be operating out of forty-seven overseas stations in six geographical divisions scattered around the world.”

This is interesting and more than a little scary, but what it had to do with the self-confident if not unbearably arrogant people who gathered for martinis and terrapin soup at Alsop’s place is a little difficult to discern until you read what Phil Graham once said in a toast at a black-tie party in his own house: “Georgetown was an entity unto itself, home to the great, the near great and the once great in government and in journalism. . . . In other cities, people go to parties primarily to have fun. In Georgetown, people who have fun at parties probably aren’t getting much work done. That’s because parties in Georgetown aren’t really parties in the true sense of the word. They’re business after hours, a form of government by invitation. . . . It’s fair to say that more political decisions get made at Georgetown suppers than anywhere else in the nation’s capital, including the Oval Office.”

The mood of that gathering was “self-congratulatory,” as Herken puts it, and if anything that’s an understatement. If Graham’s words help explain why there really was a connection between Georgetown parties and Wisner’s antics, they also — albeit inadvertently — help explain why Washington is so roundly detested by so many people elsewhere in the country. The Georgetown Set may have vanished by the 1980s, thanks mainly to attrition, but the culture it represented still flourishes, one of people utterly isolated from the normal run of American life, politicians and policymakers and journalists who talk only to one another. To be sure, as Herken notes, there was an element of genuine bipartisanship in those days that for the moment at least has completely vanished, but the essential character of the culture is unchanged: It’s just different people talking about different things but in the same cozy atmosphere of influence and self-regard. The more things change, et cetera.

THE GEORGETOWN SET

Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington

By Gregg Herken

Knopf. 494 pp. $30