The major social forum in official Washington today is the cocktail party, where federal staffers, journalists and lobbyists, often Democratic-friendly or Republican-friendly to the exclusion of the other, catch up over drinks. During the Cold War years, social lines and party lines were more mixed, and opposing political views were no obstacle to the dominant social event of the time, which was the dinner party.

“The major difference between then and now,” historian Gregg Herken says, “is that people back then did tend to talk to each other even if they disagreed politically.”

Herken is a professor emeritus at the University of California and former historian for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. In his new book, The Georgetown Set: The Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, Herken writes about the Cold War from the perspective of the policymakers and journalists whose relationships—trustworthy, collegial, social—would be unrecognizable in the more transactional present-day Washington. 

He spoke recently to Kirkus Reviews about his new book, Cold War espionage, and the trend in recent histories toward characters and stories.

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You started writing the book with a focus on Joe Alsop, Philip Graham and Frank Wisner, and then expanded out to some other people. Did you write the book you intended to write?

I wanted to write a book about the history of the Cold War. It’s a topic I have taught for almost 40 years. I didn’t want to write it as a policy book, so I took the same approach I had taken in Brotherhood of the Bomb, which is about atomic scientists. That’s a collective biography about rivalries and tensions, and that’s what I wanted to do with The Georgetown Set

Almost all of these people that I wanted to write about lived in a small enclave in Washington, D.C., and all got together on Sunday evenings. I really wanted to focus from the beginning on the Alsops, the Wisners and the Grahams, who got together and invited Supreme Court justices, congressmen, senators, foreign diplomats, rising young stars in the current administration, and that was a great, dramatic venue for the book.

You made use of some CIA records that had been declassified in 2007. Can you talk about how you used those records?

I used a fair number of declassified CIA documents and I FOIA’d others [i.e., requested through the Freedom of Information Act]. One of the documents that came out was Joe Alsop’s detailed personal account of the Moscow Incident, when he was snared by the KGB. He was seduced by a KGB agent at a hotel in Moscow, which was filmed, and then he was confronted with the films. The agents burst into his hotel room and told him he’d better go along with them or they’d ruin his career.

He stood up to them with the help of his Georgetown friends. He immediately contacted the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, which was his friend Chip Bohlen. Bohlen contacted Frank Wisner, another friend and neighbor who was head of the Plans Directorate at the CIA. Alsop had to write an account of this—a frank account—and send it to the FBI and CIA. That document remained classified from the time it was written in 1957 until sometime around 2007, when it was released through a FOIA. 

Joe Alsop, who was a political columnist in the 1950s, is not as well known today as he was then. What was his place in the media universe of that period?

Joe and his brother Stewart were syndicated in 200 daily newspapers four times a week and had a readership of something like 25 million people. They were among the premier political pundits of the Cold War.

Is there someone today who occupies the same space in national media? Someone like Tom Friedman, who writes about international and domestic issues?

That’s a good question. I’ve thought about that, and I can’t really come up with anybody equivalent. This may sound strange, but Stephen Colbert is somebody who has the same sort of appeal and the same sort of range. Joe Alsop was an advocacy journalist. He was not to writing about events; he wrote to affect events.

How important a figure was Katharine Graham in CThe Georgetown Set cover old War Washington?

In a totally unexpected manner, she took over [the Washington Post] from her husband, Philip Graham, after his suicide. The widespread assumption among people who knew Katherine pretty well was that she would sell the Post and Newsweek. Instead, she did exceptionally well and made the Post even a more prize-winning paper than it had been under Phil—with the Pentagon Papers and Watergate being the signal achievements.

She was writing a book about Washington when she died [Katharine Graham’s Washington] that was published posthumously, and she talks wistfully in it about the way Washington used to be. There was a group of people who would get together on a regular basis independent of political affiliation and talk openly about the events of the day. That seems so foreign to how Washington works today and, frankly, seemed a much better way of doing things.

Do you think histories that focus on several individuals are helpful to understanding a period of history in ways that biographies are not?

I think so. Rather than writing a biography of Joe Alsop, it was more interesting to me and more valuable to put Alsop in the context of a larger group. I tried to do that in The Georgetown Set and Brotherhood of the Bomb. I think it gives a deeper picture, a more realistic picture and isn’t restricted to what that one figure did and saw and thought.

History and biography have been blurring in some interesting ways over the past decade—group biographies, dual biographies, etc.—and with a lot of emphasis on story arcs.

The more I have written I have come to appreciate that you can write a story better, I think, if you focus on people more than documents. It’s more interesting to write and more interesting to read. I don’t make much of a distinction between history and biography. I think biography tends to be a lot more readable, attracts a larger audience, and has more impact because readers are interested in the people in the book, so I tried to make the book more accessible by focusing on the people.

Scott Porch is an attorney and contributing writer for Kirkus Reviews and The Daily Beast. He is writing a book about social upheaval in the 1960s and '70s.