Joe Alsop and America's Forgotten Code

How one journalist’s predicament illustrates a paradoxical aspect of Washington’s relationship to tolerance

John Rous / AP

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.

But in 1957, America, and thus Alsop, was still riding high in the world. Described by Pravda as “atom-happy brothers,” the Alsops, and Joe in particular, were known as two of the fiercest foreign-policy hawks in Washington. Joe later popularized the “missile gap,” the perceived (and greatly exaggerated, if not entirely fictional) superiority in ballistic missiles maintained by the Soviet Union over the United States, a concept seized upon by John F. Kennedy in his winning 1960 presidential campaign over Richard Nixon. (The 35th president supped terrapin soup at Alsop’s Georgetown table the evening of his Inauguration).

On the night of February 17, after a long interview with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, Alsop attended a dinner at Moscow’s Grand Hotel. There, he met “an athletic blonde, pleasant-faced, pleasant-mannered fellow” as he would later describe him, who gave his name as “Boris Nikolaievich.” The two men slept together, and the next day Alsop was confronted by KGB officers brandishing photos of the encounter. The Russians proceeded to interrogate Alsop for hours in hopes of turning the staunch anti-communist into a Soviet spy. “They thought, ‘If we can nail him, he'll be useful to us and tell us what's going on in Washington,’” former CIA director Richard Helms told The Washington Post decades later. But as Robert W. Merry recounts in his Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop—Guardians of the Twentieth Century, Alsop was defiant, sarcastically asking if he could obtain extra copies of the photos for himself.

A man with friends in high places, Alsop contacted his old chum, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Chip Bohlen, and explained the situation. According to Edwin Yoder, author of Joe Alsop’s Cold War, though he had initially shown courage in the face of Russian threats to blackmail him, Alsop was “crushed and distraught” and contemplated suicide. Bohlen spirited him to Paris, where the CIA debriefed the columnist and made him write a nine-page sexual history that included his Moscow encounter. The file inevitably found its way to the FBI and the hands of its director, J. Edgar Hoover, who promptly informed President Eisenhower of Alsop’s escapades.

Alsop’s entrapment occurred within a frightening context for gay men and women working in the nation’s capital. A “lavender scare,” the Cold War-era persecution of homosexuals, had been launched earlier in the decade Led by Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska, an ally of arch anti-communist Joe McCarthy, it tallied up far more victims than the better-known “red” one. One such casualty of this crusade was Arthur H. Vandenberg Jr., son of the distinguished senator, who was forced to resign a top job in the Eisenhower administration for “health reasons” after Hoover threatened to reveal his homosexuality.

Alsop, facing the threat of ruinous exposure, might have chosen to temper his Cold Warrior rhetoric upon returning to America. He had already been denounced personally by the Soviet Young Communist League, and was a major irritant to the Soviet Embassy in Washington. But if anything, he became even more hawkish, emerging as one of the most outspoken voices calling for greater American military involvement in Vietnam. “Walter Lippmann would read [Alsop’s] columns with a sick feeling and tell friends that if Johnson went to war in Vietnam, at least 50 percent of the responsibility would be Alsop's,” wrote David Halberstam in The Best and the Brightest, his book about the Vietnam War.

Nor was it just foreign enemies Alsop had to fear. Seven years before Joe’s ill-starred Moscow rendezvous, in a column for the Saturday Evening Post, the brothers criticized the “vulgar folly” of McCarthy and his allies “to elevate the subject of homosexuality to the level of a serious political issue,” one that had created a “miasma of fear” across Washington. In a letter to the editor, McCarthy fumed, “I know some your editorial staff and frankly I can’t believe Senator Wherry’s attempt to accomplish the long overdue task of removing perverts from our government would be considered either ‘vulgar’ or “nauseating’ to them. I can understand, of course,” McCarthy added, with little subtlety, “why it would be considered ‘vulgar’ or ‘nauseating’ by Joe Alsop.”

In 1959, an item in National Review reported that “a prominent American journalist is a target of Soviet blackmail for homosexuality. The U.S. authorities know it. His syndicate doesn’t—yet.” Later that year, as Gregg Herken reports in The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, Attorney General William Rogers called Hoover to report his amazement that Neil McElroy, the Secretary of Defense, was not aware of “Alsop’s propensities.” The columnist had angered the White House with a column castigating the Eisenhower administration for “accept[ing] inferiority to the Soviets in ballistic missiles” – the so-called “missle gap” – and Rogers, according to Hoover’s memorandum of the conversation, advocated that he and the FBI director “get together what we have on Alsop as he believed very few people knew of this.” Eisenhower’s press secretary, according to a 1995 Washington Post story, bragged to a reporter, “We’re going to lift Alsop’s White House pass. The guy’s a pansy. The FBI knows all about it.”

Though Hoover and Rogers spread the news about Alsop liberally around Washington, it “had no discernable effect on his reporting,” Herken writes. When John F. Kennedy became president two years later, the powerful FBI director notified both him and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, about their friend’s grave secret. Yet despite the damage a revelation of homosexuality could do to Alsop’s career, an elite Washington consensus gradually cohered—as it did on much else at the time—that Alsop should ultimately be protected. When a KGB defector warned the CIA in 1962 that the Soviets had compromised Alsop, (claiming “there is a sword over his head”), the agency apparently cut this portion from the tape it presented to President Kennedy.

* * *

Alsop would enjoy a respite from fears that his secret might be revealed until 1970, when, just after writing a column denouncing the Soviet ambassador’s “black lies,” photographs of his Moscow peccadilloes were sent to prominent personalities across Washington. Accompanying the pictures was an unsigned letter meant to make the reader believe that it was Israel which had attempted to blackmail Alsop. Citing a 1957 trip Alsop made to the Middle East (the same year as his inauspicious visit to Moscow), the letter reported that the columnist “Came in contact with Israelis, some of whom showed a very peculiar interest in him. It soon became evident that this interest was directed not so much to Mr. Alsop as such but to certain vices which ordinarily evoke disgust among normal people.” Alongside the photographs of “Boris” and Joe in bed together, the letter alleged that “Mr. Alsop’s cowardice prompted him to agree to work for the Israeli intelligence service.” With this sensitive information in hand, the anonymous author implored, “I am sure you will agree that it is high time measures be taken to protect decent people from this filthy person.”

Packages were sent to both Alsop’s friends and enemies. Prominent among the latter was Art Buchwald, the legendary Washington Post humor columnist and Alsop’s most committed public tormentor. That very year, Buchwald had written a Broadway play, “Sheep on the Runway,” about a columnist named “Joe Mayflower” (described by The New York Times’ Clive Barnes as a “poisonously stupid and arrogant” “master of pretensions” and “mad fool unleashed on the unwitting world”) who invents a war in a faraway Asian land just to write about it. But even Buchwald’s strong personal and ideological aversion to Alsop did not persuade him to out the famous newspaper columnist. “It scared the hell out of me,” Buchwald later said of the suspicious package. “I'm not comfortable with getting photographs of people in compromising positions in the mail.”

It’s a sentiment that might sound quaint to today’s political journalists, many of whom wouldn’t hesitate to publish such information. Buchwald tore up the photos. When word of this latest smear attempt reached Alsop, he told his friend, CIA Director Richard Helms, that he might come out of the closet just to put an end to the whole ordeal. Helms dissuaded him and offered to warn the Russians against any further threats. “Our man told the KGB that unless it stopped attempting to peddle this sordid story, the Agency would respond in kind, and with enough data to compromise several KGB officers,” Helms recounts in his memoir.

Alsop’s predicament illustrates a paradoxical aspect of Washington’s attitude to homosexuality. Though the federal civil service prohibited homosexual employment until 1975 (and the ban on gays receiving security clearances would be lifted by President Bill Clinton 20 years later), a bipartisan “code” used to exist protecting gay people of a certain status from embarrassing, career-ending revelations. Sumner Welles, a high-ranking State Department official and close friend of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was an earlier beneficiary of this dispensation. He made a drunken pass at an African-American railway porter in 1940 which forced his resignation three years later, but it was not publicly disclosed until 1956. There has seemed to exist an inverse relationship between Washington elite social discretion—namely, its protection of powerful homosexuals—and public approval of homosexuality. The need to conceal Alsop’s sexuality was predicated upon a fear of popular reaction. If Alsop’s Moscow tryst were exposed, the status he enjoyed as king of the “Georgetown Set” would have ended abruptly. Alsop was safe, as long as his secret remained as such.

Yet as Washington (and the country) grew more accepting of gays, it also became more politically partisan. Today, if a closeted conservative columnist like Alsop were similarly entrapped, with photographs of him in flagrante delicto mailed across the capital, it would only be a matter of which news outlet or Twitter personality broadcast the pictures first. So while America has become more accepting of homosexuality  there’s something to be missed about an unofficial pact that, while applicable only to powerful individuals like Joe Alsop, nonetheless bound the establishment together in the face of a hostile foreign power’s homophobic blackmail. Fortunately for Alsop, what Henry James famously called “the city of conversation” kept quiet.

And the capital remained quiet about Joe Alsop’s secret until after his death from cancer in 1989. Though, in his later years, Alsop gradually came out to a small circle of friends, he never publicly broached the Moscow incident. Not until 1992 did the story finally find its way into print in Molehunt, a book about the CIA, which mentioned it in passing. David Satter, a protégé of Alsop’s in the 1970’s who went onto become a Moscow correspondent in his own right and author of several books on Russia, recalls that, “Years later, people asked me if there was a homoerotic element in the relationship, but during those years when I was 19 to 28 years old, I was totally unaware of any. In fact,” Satter said, “I assumed that Joe was homophobic because he frequently ridiculed gays in private conversation. It was only later that I understood that that was his way of concealing his orientation and warning people off any attempt to hint at it.” (Satter, incidentally, wrote what was perhaps the most perceptive analysis of Trump’s supposed Kremlin-lain Moscow honey trap, arguing that allegations of sexual depravity are most likely an FSB “provocation” meant to divert “attention from the real goal of Russian activities, which was to undermine American institutions.”)

In 1985, Satter penned a piece for the Wall Street Journal about Soviet manipulation of foreign correspondents posted to Moscow. Journalists who reported critically on the Soviet Union, Satter claimed, made themselves vulnerable to KGB “provocations,” unsubtle attempts to discredit them with rumor and false innuendo.  “He may not be confident that in the face of an accusation by the Soviet government of ‘hooliganism,’ ‘espionage’ or ‘homosexuality,’ his newspaper would be ready to believe him and not the Soviets,” Satter observed. “Being honest means taking a risk.”

When Satter published his piece in the Journal, he had not been in regular correspondence with Alsop for years. But the article elicited a letter from the long-retired columnist and mentor, who, having found himself decades earlier in just such a situation as Satter described, decided to stand by his political convictions, his country, and his journalistic integrity, and risk exposure at the hands of the KGB rather than be turned. “I remember reading it at the time and being convinced that I had said something that affected Joe very deeply,” Satter recalls. “I wasn't sure what it was. Now I know.”