Share this article

print logo

Once upon a time, Washington was ruled by ‘government by invitation’

NONFICTION

The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington

By Gregg Herken

Knopf

494 pages $30

By Michael D. Langan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

“The hand that mixes the Georgetown martini is time and again the hand that guides the destiny of the Western world.” – Henry Kissinger

The premise of this book may surprise you: “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.”

Gregg Herken, savvy author of “Brotherhood of the Bomb” and professor emeritus of modern American diplomatic history at the University of California, explores the friendly and occasionally fractious relationships that these ‘Cold Warriors’ had with our elected leaders during the period 1945-1975. He does so with scholarship and verve in “The Georgetown Set.”

At the forefront of the group were Phil and Kay Graham, husband-and-wife publishers of the Washington Post; Joe and Stewart Alsop, political shape-shifting brother writers; Frank Wisner, a lawyer, possibly bipolar, in charge of CIA covert operations, and other diplomats, spies and scholars “who crafted America’s response to the Soviet Union from Truman to Reagan.”

Here is an example of these Cold Warriors’ help. On a Sunday evening in June 1961, President John F. Kennedy needed help. He had to shoulder the blame for the CIA-led fiasco in Cuba and was warned by Khrushchev in Vienna more recently about a showdown over the future of Berlin. Kennedy decided not to back down on the Soviet-American confrontation, our author explains. Kennedy wondered if the American people would give their support if he didn’t waver.

He summoned in secret those whose backing he needed to build the success of his plan. They included Charles “Chip” Bohlen, former U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R., Phil Graham of the Washington Post, and Joe Alsop, who wrote for more than 200 papers around the country. Reader, you get the picture.

For those older, this book will be a refresher course in things they thought they already knew. Younger travelers who’ve been to Georgetown may find some fascination in the “awesome” (as teenagers say) map of Cold War Georgetown (1945–1975). It has physical notations of where Dean and Alice Acheson lived; the addresses of the Alsops; and where Chip and Avis Bohlen; Ben and Tony Bradlee; Felix and Marion Frankfurter; John and Jacqueline Kennedy; and others, all lived at one time during those years.

But first, more particulars.

The author uses a word in his introduction to describe the power that the Georgetown set wielded in Washington: “salonisma.” This term referred to high policy made between cocktails and dinner in what was a ritual and an institution in Washington, the Sunday night supper. “It was,” observed one of the set, “a form of government by invitation.”

Herken gives us “intimate portraits of these dedicated and talented, if deeply flawed, individuals.”

Joe Alsop, for example, had been entrapped and filmed by the KGB in Moscow in a homosexual affair, our author notes. This episode was later used by Alsop’s enemies at home in a failed attempt to silence him.

Like Gaul, the book has three parts. You can figure out what the first two mean, I think.

Part I, called the “Wasp Ascendency” included men from the best schools in the east. They were variously called “the best and the brightest,” “the old boys,” “the imperial brotherhood,” and “the wise men.” Later they were derided as the “eastern establishment” who were responsible “for the miscalculations and disasters of that era…a run-away nuclear race; reckless and clandestine adventures overseas’ complacency in the face of political reaction at home; and, not least of all, the protracted debacle of Vietnam.”

Part II, entitled “Bold Easterners”, is a phrase of Stewart Alsop’s, when he wrote about the Dulles-Wisner-Bissell period of the CIA. He said it was ”was dominated by men who came, for the most part, from the East; had gone to private schools in the East and to Ivy League colleges; had some money of their own; and brought to their jobs with the agency a certain spirit of derring-do, a willingness to take risks.”

I challenge you to tell me what Part III, Dégringolade means – unless you’re just back from Paris. Again, Stewart Alsop defines it in a Newsweek piece of April 1, 1974, when he writes: “The French have a fine word for collapse: Dégringolade. It is impossible to translate precisely – it suggests a kind of slithery, sudden coming apart. It can be argued that the Dégringolade of the United States is now occurring.”

Well this is an interesting insight. But if you’ve lived a certain length of years, the decline of the United States seems hardly slithery or sudden.

Here are some personal asides about Georgetown – verification beyond the Georgetown set – about how friendships in Washington lead to work getting done. I confess to attending more than one gathering in Georgetown after hours, beginning in 1985.

One memorable night a tobacco company sponsored a political event in a huge private home on a leafy street. There, Thomas Philip “Tip” O’Neill (1912 – 1994), the Speaker of the House, introduced the Northern Ireland leader, John Hume (b. 1937) after drinks and conversation. Hume talked about the glacial progress of a peace accord in Northern Ireland. With his help, and many others, including Senator George Mitchell, it came to pass. Hume was a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.

I was invited to the event because a colleague in the office of Representative John J. LaFalce, for whom I worked, knew Tip O’Neill. Congressman LaFalce, by the way, was known as one of the brightest and hard-working people in Congress.

So I showed up: an older Irish face in the crowd for the visiting Irish politician. I was glad to be there, even though I had no influence to contribute. I knew the Georgetown territory.

Another time, after playing a game of squash with Senator Arlen Specter, I dropped him off at his apartment in Georgetown near the river. Specter loved to explore all sides of a political or moral issue. Sometimes we’d spend more time talking on the court than playing the game.

All of this is simply to note that at least in earlier years, things got done off the clock. The Senator asked me to work for him, although I was not a Republican. There was less partisanship in those years.

This is all in the past. Regrettably, few Americans have faith in Washington today. It is steeped in controversy and increasingly out of synch with the rest of the country. I feel bad about this because in my experience, there were many people in the federal government who worked hard, were honest and effective.

Few in the Congress pay much attention to former Speaker of the House Texan Sam Rayburn’s advice anymore: “If you want to get along, you have to go along.”

Lyndon Johnson, Rayburn’s protégé, did. He knew how to get people to “go along.” When he said “federal government” it came out “feral” government, which is what it was to him when he needed something. It has now become the “feral” Congress. (We owned an apartment in the same building where Johnson lived when he came to Washington.)

These earlier Georgetown excursions, where things got done are spread out over time. Their mention is meant to give a sense of place, interconnections, and an opportunity to work together.

So if the majority of these names of friends and rivals in Cold War Washington are vaguely familiar to you and you’d like to know more about those inseparable twins, American history and politics, read “The Georgetown Set.”

Michael D. Langan lived and worked in Washington, D.C., on and off for almost 20 years.