The Georgetown Set: A book review by Bob Morris

Georgetown SetThe Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington
Gregg Herken
Alfred A. Knopf (2014)

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

As I began to work my way through this book, I was reminded of two others written by Neil Sheehy: A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon (2009) and A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1989). Many of the same people appear again in Gregg Herken’s lively account of “friends and rivals in Cold War Washington” during roughly the same period of time, from 1947 when President Truman announced a doctrine to contain Soviet expansion until — let’s say — 1991 when the USSR was declared officially dissolved on 25 December.

Throughout those years in Georgetown, prominent leaders in and out of uniform gathered on Sunday evening and the dinner parties hosted by Joe Alsop emerged as a combination of think tank, focus group, pulpit, court, and town meeting. He seems to have been the gravitational center, the self-appointed sociopolitical ringmaster, of a raucous and sometimes rancorous convergence of power brokers. They included — at various times — Phil and Kay Graham, Stewart Alsop, George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Frank George Wisner, Henry Kissinger, and Charles (Chip) Bohlen. Feuds and rivalries emerged, then subsided. Meanwhile, the Alsops co-authored a syndicated column (“Matter of Fact”) and were eagerly “taking on the world” (in Robert W. Merry’s words”) as “guardians of the American Century.”

Frankly, I am unqualified to suggest to what extent (if any) Herken shapes the historical material to accommodate his assumptions and prejudices about the Alsops and the world in which they achieved and then sustained so much prominence and influence. I defer to Merry and Edwin Yoder Jr. who have written brilliant accounts of various intrigues and machinations following World War Two during the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. In his review of The Georgetown Set for The New York Times (“Cold War Cockpit,” Sunday, November 30, 2014), Jeffrey Frank observes, “Both Alsops were brave if sometimes misguided reporters (and, it must be said, occasional CIA assets), and were capable of mortal outrage, notably in ‘We Accuse,’ their spirited 1954 defense of J. Robert Oppenheimer in Harper’s Magazine.”

I found this to be an especially entertaining as well as informative read. As does Sheehan, Greg Herken makes skillful use of the basic elements of a great story: an appealing setting, colorful characters, compelling conflicts, sometimes riveting plot developments, increasing tension, a plausible (perhaps inevitable) climax, and then a satisfying conclusion

As the book ends, the Alsop brothers have died, the Berlin Wall has fallen, the Soviet Union has imploded, a treasure trove of former secrets (the CIA’s so-called “Family Jewels”) has been declassified, and Katharine Graham was firmly in command of the Washington Post Company (including the newspaper), sharing with her friend Polly Wisner, the sense “that we have outlived our times.” Later, Joe Alsop’s widow observed, “We’re all so old or dead.” But what interesting times they had shared for so many years….

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