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 Americas 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."