Joseph Alsop

Joseph Alsop

Joseph Alsop, the son of Joseph Wright Alsop (1876–1953) and his wife Corinne Douglas Robinson (1886–1971), was born in Avon, Connecticut, on 11th October, 1910. He attended Groton School and after graduating from Harvard University in 1932 he joined the New York Herald Tribune as a staff reporter.

Alsop began a political column in 1937 under the title “The Capital Parade”. It was later renamed “Matter of Fact.” In 1945 his brother, Stewart Alsop, helped him with the column. Stewart concentrated on domestic politics, whereas his brother traveled the world to cover foreign affairs. Arthur Schlesinger has compared their work to Walter Lippmann and James Reston: "In the age of the column, an era long since passed, Joe Alsop and his brother Stewart ranked in style and influence with Walter Lippmann and James Reston."

Alsop lived in Washington where he associated with a group of journalists, politicians and government officials that became known as the Georgetown Set. This group included Frank Wisner, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Richard Bissell, Desmond FitzGerald, Stewart Alsop, Tracy Barnes, Thomas Braden, Philip Graham, David Bruce, Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow, Eugene Rostow, Chip Bohlen, Cord Meyer, James Angleton, William Averill Harriman, John McCloy, Felix Frankfurter, John Sherman Cooper, James Reston, Allen W. Dulles and Paul Nitze.

Frances Stonor Saunders, the author of Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War? (1999) has pointed out: "In long exchanges, heated by intellectual passion and alcohol, their vision of a new world order began to take shape. Internationalist, abrasive, competitive, these men had an unshakeable belief in their value system, and in their duty to offer it to others. They were the patricians of the modern age, the paladins of democracy, and saw no contradiction in that. This was the elite which ran American foreign policy and shaped legislation at home. Through think-tanks to foundations, directorates to membership of gentlemen's clubs, these mandarins were interlocked by their institutional affiliations and by a shared belief in their own superiority."

Alsop worked closely with the CIA. According to Carl Bernstein: "In 1953, Joseph Alsop, then one of America’s leading syndicated columnists, went to the Philippines to cover an election. He did not go because he was asked to do so by his syndicate. He did not go because he was asked to do so by the newspapers that printed his column. He went at the request of the CIA. Alsop is one of more than 400 American journalists who in the past twenty-five years have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents on file at CIA headquarters."

Evan Thomas, the author of The Very Best Men: The Early Years of the CIA (1995), argues that the Alsop brothers worked very closely with Frank Wisner, the director of the Office of Policy Coordination (OPC), the espionage and counter-intelligence branch of the CIA. He points out that he "considered his friends Joe and Stewart Alsop to be reliable purveyors of the company line in their columns". In 1953 the brothers helped out Edward Lansdale and the CIA in the Philippines: "Wisner actively courted the Alsops, along with a few other newsmen he regarded as suitable outlets. When Lansdale was manipulating electoral politics in the Philippines in 1953, Wisner asked Joe Alsop to write some columns warning the Filipinos not to steal the election from Magsaysay. Alsop was happy to comply, though he doubted his columns would have much impact on the Huks. After the West German counterintelligence chief, Otto John, defected to the Soviet Union in 1954, Wisner fed Alsop a story that the West German spymaster had been kidnapped by the KGB. Alsop dutifully printed the story, which may or may not have been true."

Joseph and Stewart Alsop's articles appeared in over 300 newspapers. Both were Cold War warriors but were critics of Joseph McCarthy. It has been argued by Arthur Schlesinger: "That paradox is the alleged contradiction between Joe's hatred of communism in the world and his hatred of McCarthyism at home, as shown by his brave and undaunted defense of dissenters with many of whose policy recommendations he vigorously disagreed. But did not his passionate advocacy of the Cold War sow the seeds from which McCarthyism sprang?"

Robert W. Merry, the author of Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop: Guardians of the American Century (1996), has pointed out that they viewed McCarthy as "a heartland populist stirring up passions against the country's foreign policy elite... They also viewed his attack on the State Department as an attack on the internationalist philosophy that had guided American foreign policy since the end of the war. Nobody was saying it explicitly, but it seemed clear to the brothers that if McCarthy succeeded in bringing down the Department's internationalists, the result would be a new wave of isolationism".

Richard Bissell, the head of the Directorate for Plans (DPP), was also a close friend of the Alsops. He later recalled: "The Alsops were fairly discreet in what they asked, but I was not as discreet as I should have been. They could usually guess." Bissell admitted to Jonathan Lewis, who was helping him with his memoirs, that the Alsops were the only journalists who he provided with secret information. In 1955 the Alsops reported details of what had taken place in a National Security Council meeting. Allen W. Dulles was so angry that he ordered Wisner to cancel a meeting with the Alsop brothers that weekend at his farm in Maryland. On another occasion, Paul Nitze was so upset that they published the contents of a sensitive cable, that he told them, "You're not the Alsop brothers! You're the Hiss brothers!"

In 1957, during his first and only visit to the Soviet Union, Joe was entrapped by the KGB in a Moscow hotel room. According to Evan Thomas: "Alsop foolishly allowed himself to be caught in a honey trap by the KGB on a trip to Moscow in 1957. The Russians took photos of Alsop in the midst of a homosexual act with a KGB agent and tried to blackmail him into becoming an agent." Edwin Yoder has argued in his book, Joe Alsop's Cold War: A Study of Journalistic Influence and Intrigue (1995), that the existence of these photographs did not stop Alsop from continuing to denounce the Soviet Union. However, twelve years later Alsop discovered that the photographs had come into the possession of J. Edgar Hoover.

Alsop held liberal views on domestic issues and became a supporter of John Kennedy. According to Katharine Graham, Alsop told her in 1958 that he had the potential to become president. When she stated: "Joe, surely you're not serious." He replied, "Darling, I think he will certainly be nominated and quite probably be elected." In 1960 Kennedy did win the Democratic Party nomination. Alsop now joined forces with Philip Graham to persuade Kennedy to make Lyndon Johnson, instead of Stuart Symington, his running-mate. It is claimed that Alsop commented to Kennedy: "We've come to talk to you about the vice-presidency. Something may happen to you, and Symington is far too shallow a puddle for the United States to dive into. Furthermore, what are you going to do about Lyndon Johnson? He's much too big a man to leave up in the Senate." Graham then added that not having Johnson on the ticket would certainly be trouble.

In her autobiography, Personal History (1997) Katharine Graham revealed that her husband and Alsop lobbied for President John Kennedy to appoint their friend, Douglas Dillon, as Secretary of the Treasury. Arthur Schlesinger points out in A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House (1965) that the Kennedy team "were distressed by (Graham and Alsop) impassioned insistence that Douglas Dillon should and would-be made Secretary of the Treasury. Without knowing Dillon, we mistrusted him on principle as a presumed exponent of Republican economic policies."

Alsop was conservative on foreign issues and supported the war against Vietnam. This brought him into conflict with Noam Chomsky who he accused of being pro-Soviet. Chomsky replied in the New York Review of Books: "If he were to turn to the written word, rather than indulge in private fancy, he could also discover my actual views regarding Russian totalitarianism and its roots in Bolshevik ideology, a matter that I have discussed more than once, in some detail... Alsop knows that I condemn the criminal violence in Vietnam of which he has long been a leading advocate, and he therefore concludes, with a weird but characteristic logic, that I must be tolerant of Russian tyranny. The facts are otherwise, as I have made clear many times. But Alsop is not one to be troubled by mere fact. I mention these facts not to enlighten Joseph Alsop, who has long since passed beyond the reach of fact or reason, but for the benefit of those who may still believe that when they read an Alsop column they are being given a glimpse of the real world."

Frances Stonor Saunders, the author of Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War? (1999) has argued that a high-level CIA official told her that Stewart Alsop was a "CIA agent". Saunders discussed this issue with Joseph Alsop. He dismissed this claim as "absolute nonsense" but admitted that both men were very close to the agency: "I was closer to the Agency than Stew was, though Stew was very close... I dare say he did perform some tasks - he did the correct thing as an American... The Founding Fathers of the CIA were close personal friends of ours... It was a social thing. I have never received a dollar, I never signed a secrecy agreement. I didn't have to... I've done things for them when I thought they were the right thing to do. I call it doing my duty as a citizen... The CIA did not open itself at all to people it did not trust... Stew and I were trusted, and I'm proud of it."

Joseph Alsop died in Washington on 28th August, 1989. His autobiography, I've Seen the Best of It, was published posthumously in 1992.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Katharine Graham, Personal History (1997)

Senator Kennedy was one of the people we knew much better than we normally would have because of Joe Alsop, who had decided very rapidly that he was all for Kennedy. Phil and I had seen the Kennedys at big parties, looking glamorous and handsome, but I never took him seriously. I remember exclaiming to Joe when he said - sometime around 1958 that he thought Kennedy would be president one day, "Joe, surely you're not serious. You don't really think Kennedy could be president, do you?" Joe said, "Darling, I think he will certainly be nominated and quite probably be elected."

(2) Carl Bernstein, CIA and the Media, Rolling Stone Magazine (20th October, 1977)

In 1953, Joseph Alsop, then one of America’s leading syndicated columnists, went to the Philippines to cover an election. He did not go because he was asked to do so by his syndicate. He did not go because he was asked to do so by the newspapers that printed his column. He went at the request of the CIA.

Alsop is one of more than 400 American journalists who in the past twenty-five years have secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency, according to documents on file at CIA headquarters. Some of these journalists’ relationships with the Agency were tacit; some were explicit. There was cooperation, accommodation and overlap. Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services - from simple intelligence­gathering to serving as go-betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs. Some of the journalists were Pulitzer Prize winners, distinguished reporters who considered themselves ambassadors-without-portfolio for their country. Most were less exalted: foreign correspondents who found that their association with the Agency helped their work; stringers and freelancers who were as interested it the derring-do of the spy business as in filing articles, and, the smallest category, full-time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad. In many instances, CIA documents show, journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements America’s leading news organizations.

(3) Katharine Graham, Personal History (1997)

Phil and I flew to California early, five days before the Democratic Convention was to open on July 11. I was already committed to Kennedy. Phil remained loyal to Johnson until he lost the bid for the nomination, but he was entirely realistic, and he, too, admired JFK...

Phil called on Bobby Kennedy and got from him confidential figures on his brother's strength, numbers that showed JFK very close to the number of votes needed to win the nomination close enough so that the Pennsylvania delegation, or a big chunk of it, could put him over. On Monday, Pennsylvania caucused and announced that the state delegation would give sixty-four of its eighty-one votes to Kennedy, which made Phil and the Post reporters write that it would be Kennedy on the first ballot.

At that point, Phil got together with Joe Alsop to discuss the merits of Lyndon Johnson as Kennedy's running mate. Joe persuaded Phil to accompany him to urge Kennedy to offer the vice-presidency to Johnson. Joe had all the secret passwords, and the two men got through to Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's secretary, in a room next to his dreary double bedroom and living room. They took a seat on one of the beds and nervously talked out who would say what, while they observed what Joe termed "the antechambers of history." Joe decided he would introduce the subject and Phil should make the pitch.

When they were then taken to the living room to see JFK, Joe opened with, "We've come to talk to you about the vice-presidency. Something may happen to you, and Symington is far too shallow a puddle for the United States to dive into. Furthermore, what are you going to do about Lyndon Johnson? He's much too big a man to leave up in the Senate." Then Phil spoke "shrewdly and eloquently," according to Joe - pointing out all the obvious things that Johnson could add to the ticket and noting that not having Johnson on the ticket would certainly be trouble.

Kennedy immediately agreed, "so immediately as to leave me doubting the easy triumph," Phil noted in a memo afterwards. "So I restated the matter urging him not to count on Johnson's turning it down, but to offer the VPship so persuasively as to win Johnson over." Kennedy was decisive in saying that was his intention, pointing out that Johnson could help not only in the South but elsewhere in the country.

Phil told the Post's reporters they could write that "the word in L.A. is that Kennedy will offer the Vice-Presidency to Lyndon Johnson."

(4) Noam Chomsky, letter to New York Review of Books (21st August, 1969)

In his column of July 16, Joseph Alsop announces his discovery that there is a severe repression underway in the Soviet Union. Further, he explains that Academician Sakharov has been "viciously disciplined" and may face prison, while American draft resisters, free from any danger of imprisonment, are probably studying theology in the Yale Divinity School. He wonders whether I will have the integrity to ponder these matters, and also lets loose a blast against the New York Review.

If Mr. Alsop were actually to read the journals he attacks he would have learned about the Soviet repression long ago, for example, in an article of mine in the New York Review of January 2, where he would have found these sentences: "In the grim atmosphere of the Soviet Union, resistance can barely be contemplated. All the more, then, must we honor those who do make their voices heard: Pavel Litvinov, Mrs. Larisa Daniel, and the others of the "Moscow Five," or ex-general Pyotr Gigorenko who has publicly denounced the "totalitarianism that hides behind the mask of so-called Soviet democracy" and called upon his fellow-citizens to fight "the damned machine," and who has had the courage to stand up and say that "Freedom will come! Democracy will come." If he were to turn to the written word, rather than indulge in private fancy, he could also discover my actual views regarding Russian totalitarianism and its roots in Bolshevik ideology, a matter that I have discussed more than once, in some detail. As to the many hundreds of draft resisters in American prisons, and the thousands in exile, they will no doubt be relieved to hear that Alsop has granted them amnesty.

It is easy to trace Alsop's muddle to its source. In the strange world he inhabits, it is inconceivable that a person can consistently oppose all forms of tyranny and repression. Therefore, even if he were to open the pages of the New York Review, he would be unable to comprehend what I meant, in the same article, when I wrote that "those who resist the war here are fighting the same battle as Larisa Daniel and Pyotr Gigorenko. And they are fighting a common enemy: the militarists and managers of repression on both sides of the iron curtain." Alsop knows that I condemn the criminal violence in Vietnam of which he has long been a leading advocate, and he therefore concludes, with a weird but characteristic logic, that I must be tolerant of Russian tyranny. The facts are otherwise, as I have made clear many times. But Alsop is not one to be troubled by mere fact.

I mention these facts not to enlighten Joseph Alsop, who has long since passed beyond the reach of fact or reason, but for the benefit of those who may still believe that when they read an Alsop column they are being given a glimpse of the real world.

(5) Arthur Schlesinger, book review of Joe Alsop's Cold War: A Study of Journalistic Influence and Intrigue by Edwin Yoder in The Washington Monthly (May, 1995)

This intelligent and engaging book is more a sketch of a memorable personality than a full account of Joseph Alsop and the Cold War. Perhaps, given the short attention span of Americans today, it is necessary to recall who Joe Alsop was. In the age of the column, an era long since passed, Joe Alsop and his brother Stewart ranked in style and influence with Walter Lippmann and James Reston. Today, I fear, Joe is largely remembered, if at all, as a voice thundering on about captured-enemy documents in Vietnam. He was much more than that, as Edwin Yoder's book makes at least partially clear.

But by making Alsop and the Cold War his subject, Yoder cannot do full justice to Alsop's role as a young and decidedly liberal reporter in New Deal Washington. And by bringing the narrative to an end at around 1960, he omits Alsop's stentorian support of the Vietnam War and the more frenetic and apocalyptic - "doomed is what we are" - chapters in Alsop's war against communism. Still, Yoder evokes Joe and the Washington of Joe's day with skill and affection. He defines and explores the apparent paradox in Joe's Cold War journalism with fine judgment.

That paradox is the alleged contradiction between Joe's hatred of communism in the world and his hatred of McCarthyism at home, as shown by his brave and undaunted defense of dissenters with many of whose policy recommendations he vigorously disagreed. But did not his passionate advocacy of the Cold War sow the seeds from which McCarthyism sprang? Were not the Alsops, Yoder asks, "fighting a fire that they themselves had helped to set"?

While Yoder agrees that the Alsops, and more especially Joe, much exaggerated the Soviet threat, he rightly calls the argument that Alsopian hyperbole contributed to McCarthyism "not persuasive." The Alsops regarded communism as a danger to America but not as a danger in America. There was no great inconsistency in being against both Joe Stalin and Joe McCarthy. And, of the Joes, Stalin was far more responsible for McCarthy than was Alsop.

Yoder also writes about the long-held secrecy of Joe's homosexuality and his entrapment by a KGB provocateur in Moscow. If this episode proves anything, it disproves the old canard that homosexuals are peculiarly susceptible to blackmail. The KGB photographs did not deter Joe in the slightest; indeed, he became thereafter even more hyperbolic in his denunciations of the Soviet Union. Nor, oddly, does the KGB appear to have tried to use the evidence against him, except for a puzzling and ineffectual dissemination of the photographs in Washington a dozen years later.

(6) Evan Thomas, The Very Best Men: The Early Years of the CIA (1995)

It was not all frivolity, of course. Friendship did mix with policymaking; serious issues were discussed passionately, and the men who sat at the Georgetown dinner parties sometimes made use of the information they gleaned there. The subtle interplay, a mixture of trust, patriotism, and mutual manipulation, can be seen in the relationship of the CIA men to the Alsop brothers, Joe and Stewart.

The Alsops wrote a well-informed, very influential, sometimes strident column that appeared in the New York Herald Tribune as well as several hundred papers around the country. Stewart was witty and urbane, a "gent," though perhaps more complicated than he appeared. Joe made no effort to hide his opinions or strong tastes.

Joe Alsop was a kind of keeper of the gate in Georgetown. It was he who decided who should be let in - who set the standards, made the rules, and broke them when he felt like it. For a man schooled in the social graces, Alsop could be unpleasantly argumentative, and he did not disguise his arbiter's power. But Alsop had a great capacity for friendship; he made it his occupation, and his friends learned to forgive his occasional cruelties. His dinners were undeniably entertaining, though perhaps not to the meek. "They would seem relaxed," said Susan Mary Alsop, who was married to Alsop for a time in the 1960s, "the guests would be talking from right to left, but Joe hated it. He knew it had to be done, but he wanted general conversation. Halfway through dinner, after a lot of wine, Joe would scream down the table, "Wisner! Frank! What are they saying about this new movement in Cairo?" The table would silence. The women were trained for it. They would stop talking about the trouble with the new kitchen maid. Joe would go on, "That's what you think, Wisner," and he would turn to another guest, "But what about you? You were in Moscow last week. What about you?" More wine would be poured. Fights would break out. Chip would stalk out. "I'm not staying in this room another minute! Come on, Avis, we're going home. The next day, Joe would write a note to Avis, "looking forward to seeing you next Thursday." Some people were put off by Joe's outbursts, but it was really rather thrilling, if you see what I mean."

The dinners were "planned," said Mrs. Alsop. "He'd look for a subject. It was taken for granted that it was all off the record. He was careful; the information was to inform his judgment." His guests sometimes accused him of revealing more than opinion in the column he wrote with his brother Stewart. Angered that Alsop had printed the contents of a sensitive cable, Paul Nitze exploded, "You're not the Alsop brothers! You're the Hiss brothers!" This allusion to alleged treason got Nitze thrown out of Alsop's house, to be readmitted soon thereafter."

The Alsops knew not to inquire too hard, but they were clever, and by using public sources and their intuition, they could use their CIA friends to guide them toward scoops. "The Alsops were fairly discreet in what they asked," said Richard Bissell, "but I was not as discreet as I should have been. They could usually guess." On one famous occasion in 1955, Stewart Alsop guessed correctly that the CIA was worried about the possibility of a Soviet satellite. As it happened, a National Security Council meeting had been discussing the Soviet space threat the day before Alsop's column appeared. The White House was furious. Allen Dulles had to take the unusual step of forbidding Frank Wisner and Bissell to spend the weekend with the Alsop brothers at Wisner's farm in Maryland. Joe Alsop caused a big scene in Dulles's office, pounding on the table about freedom of the press. "It was pretty funny," said Bissell. "A tempest in a teapot." Bissell regarded the Alsops as somehow different from ordinary journalists. At the end of his life, Bissell told Jonathan Lewis, who was helping arrange his memoirs, that he disapproved of leaking to the press and never did. Lewis asked, But what about your friend Joe Alsop? "Oh well," Bissell replied, "I did talk to Joe."

Wisner actively courted the Alsops, along with a few other newsmen he regarded as suitable outlets. When Lansdale was manipulating electoral politics in the Philippines in 1953, Wisner asked Joe Alsop to write some columns warning the Filipinos not to steal the election from Magsaysay. Alsop was happy to comply, though he doubted his columns would have much impact on the Huks. After the West German counterintelligence chief, Otto John, defected to the Soviet Union in 1954, Wisner fed Alsop a story that the West German spymaster had been kidnapped by the KGB. Alsop dutifully printed the story, which may or may not have been true.

Alsop had no qualms about being used in this way: he was a believer - in the work of the agency and its anti-communist cause. To cooperate with the CIA from time to time was not cozy but rather patriotic. Alsop knew many of the station chiefs around the world; they informed and improved his reporting. Wisner was not able to help, however, when Alsop foolishly allowed himself to be caught in a honey trap by the KGB on a trip to Moscow in 1957. The Russians took photos of Alsop in the midst of a homosexual act with a KGB agent and tried to blackmail him into becoming an agent. Indomitable, Alsop refused and continued to write his anticommunist screeds, though he was haunted by the incident, especially when J. Edgar Hoover learned of it and added it to his secret FBI files.

Alsop was not the only journalist in Washington to play along with the CIA. Jean Friendly's husband, Washington Post managing editor Alfred Friendly, "never told secrets," she said. The CIA "trusted him." James Reston, the all-powerful Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, kept some distance from the Georgetown cocktail circuit, but he spent hours talking to Wisner, and his next-door neighbor, with whom he talked through a hole in the fence, was Paul Nitze. When the occasional journalist dared to cross the national security establishment, he was cut off. Drew Pearson, a muckraking columnist, was struck from the guest list of the Bankruptcy Ball because he had written something critical about Paul Nitze. Many reporters, like the Alsops, knew about CIA plots to overthrow the governments of Iran and Guatemala, but they did not print a word. It is no wonder that men like Richard Bissell believed they could try ever-more ambitious operations without fear of damaging leaks.

(7) Katharine Graham, Personal History (1997)

Right after the election, he started talking to and writing the president-elect about appointments to the new administration. Both Phil and Joe Alsop thought Kennedy ought to appoint our friend Douglas Dillon as secretary of the Treasury. Dillon was a liberal Republican who had served as undersecretary of state in the Eisenhower administration and had contributed to the Nixon campaign, so this didn't seem like a strong possibility. Arthur Schlesinger and Ken Galbraith had dinner with us one evening, and, as Arthur noted in his book A Thousand Days, "we were distressed by (Phil's) impassioned insistence that Douglas Dillon should and would-be made Secretary of the Treasury. Without knowing Dillon, we mistrusted him on principle as a presumed exponent of Republican economic policies." But as Arthur also wrote, "When I mentioned this to the President-elect in Washington on December, he remarked of Dillon, "Oh, I don't care about those things. All I want to know is: is he able and will he go along with the program?'"

What a refreshing thought - if only more presidents felt that way! In fact, the president-elect called. Joe about the liberals wanting Albert Gore (father of the Clinton administration vice-president, Al Gore) for the position, but he told Joe that he wanted Dillon. Joe recalls Kennedy saying, "They say that if I take Doug Dillon he won't be loyal because he's a Republican." Joe responded that it would be very hard to imagine a man less likely to be disloyal than Dillon. He also added, "And if you take Albert Gore you know perfectly well, a) he's incompetent; b) you'll never be able to hear yourself think, he talks so much; c) when he isn't talking your ear off, he'll be telling the New York Times all." I'm sure this whole conversation with Kennedy was recalled in Alsopian terms, but I'm also sure that some such conversation did indeed take place.