Joe Alsop was the dean of Washington’s foreign-policy columnists, a committed Cold Warrior, the doyen of Georgetown society, close confidante to presidents, senators, secretaries of state—and secretly gay. On one fateful, February 1957 Moscow evening, all these identities collided.
On a reporting tour of the Soviet Union, Alsop was lured into a sexually compromising situation at a Moscow hotel room—a “honey trap” in espionage parlance—that could have destroyed his career, his reputation and forced him into spying for America’s Cold War adversary. Fast forward almost exactly 60 years later, when, weeks before Donald Trump swore the oath of office, an unverified dossier emerged alleging Russian intelligence services had done much the same to the then-president-elect on a 2013 visit to Moscow. The gathering of such material—known in Russian as kompromat—or sometimes, the circulation of rumors that it exists, is intended to gain leverage over an individual and influence their behavior. The drastically different ways in which Washington dealt with both incidents illustrates how, while Americans have become far more relaxed about diverse sexualities, they’re now far less tolerant of each other’s political differences.
Alsop, a product of Groton and Harvard and a relative of the Roosevelts, had been writing a nationally syndicated column for 20 years at the time of his Moscow trip (and in collaboration with his younger brother Stewart since 1945). He was a charter member of the “Georgetown set,” the group of D.C. power-brokers including Phil and Katharine Graham, CIA spook Frank Wisner, and diplomat Averell Harriman. Living within blocks of one another in Washington’s toniest neighborhood and embodying the capital city’s Cold War consensus, the set’s fortunes rose with the New Deal and collapsed with the Vietnam War.