GGeorgetown-Set-Friends-Washington/dp/0307271188">eorgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, by Gregg Herken, is about the social and political elites who crafted U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War over their dinner parties and cocktails in the historic, tony neighborhood of Washington, D.C. But it’s also, if unconsciously, about the apex and decline of America’s WASP aristocracy, whose wisdom laid the groundwork for survival and victory against the Soviet Union. The story concludes with by then aging columnist Joseph Alsop resignedly admitting that the class that his own New England family embodied had become irrelevant.
Alsop, whose famed dinner parties for Washington policy makers were center stage for Cold War social and political life, is Georgetown Set’s central character. A grand nephew to Teddy Roosevelt and cousin to First Lady Eleanor, Alsop authored for decades a nationally syndicated column focused on foreign policy that was robustly anti-Communist and often apocalyptic in its pessimism about American survival. His dinner parties, always begun with terrapin soup, often erupted into shouting matches over U.S. policies, with Alsop denouncing any hint of softness towards the Soviets. Apology notes were typically exchanged the next day, and the cycle of dining and dispute among the Georgetown Set would resume.
That Set included across the years diplomats Dean Acheson, John Foster Dulles (with his spy master brother Allen), Averell Harrimon, George Kennan, and Paul Nitze, plus Washington Post owners Phil and Katharine Graham, and John and Jackie Kennedy, to whom Alsop became fanatically devoted. Although of course Catholic, the Kennedys, by virtue of their wealth, education, and charm, became virtual WASPs who gained the enthusiastic loyalty of most of the Georgetown Set. Katharine’s father, who had purchased the Post, was Jewish, but she likewise was inducted into WASPdom for similar reasons, solidified by her Protestant mother and husband.
The Georgetown Set dwelt within blocks of each other in similar brick 18th and 19th century row houses decorated in the “Episcopal style” of books, Oriental rugs, hunt scenes and paintings of illustrious WASP ancestors. Alsop rebelled against the “fakery” of the “charming but somewhat insipid Federal architecture” by building his own shockingly aberrant yellow, stuccoed cinder bloc house with steel casement windows. Old time Georgetowners protested what Alsop joked was his home’s “Garage Palladian” style, but it was there that he routinely hosted the Set, including the night of JFK’s inauguration, when JFK himself arrived, without Jackie, to decompress after an evening of galas.
Educated at New England boarding schools and Ivy League colleges, the children of bankers, clergy and statesmen, veterans of WWII or even WWI, often including the OSS and later the CIA, the Georgetown Set debated but largely harmonized on the broad outline of American leadership during the Cold War, starting with Kennan’s containment policy. They were not themselves very devout Protestants, and certainly as proper Episcopalians and Presbyterians they largely omitted religion from their otherwise wide-ranging and erudite conversations in Alsop’s dining room.
But they shared a common ethos rooted in the Mainline Protestant assumption of the moral and pragmatic superiority of American democracy over all global alternatives. It was their ancestors, shaped by Protestant churches, who had founded and led that democracy and its antecedents across four centuries. Their schools were the original seminaries and academies of American Protestantism. Their commitment to democracy was premised on Protestant-inspired civil religion. And their foreign policy and conception of America’s global role was often rooted in Protestant missionary impulses.
Outwardly confident, the Georgetown Set crumbled with time, as did the fabled WASP ascendency in America. Two of its most charismatic and influential members, CIA senior operative Frank Wisner and Post owner Phil Graham, suffered nervous collapses and committed suicide at their respective country estates. The Vietnam War turned the Georgetown Set against each other, with Alsop furiously defending the war until the very end, while others peeled away, especially after Nixon’s election, although the Set had been at best ambivalent about LBJ. During the 1968 riots, LBJ only half-jokingly expressed joy that an incendiary mob was en route to Georgetown.
After his brother and frequent journalistic collaborator Stewart died of cancer in 1974, Alsop retired from column writing, depressed over the loss in Vietnam, no longer the dean of American columnists, and aware that the Set’s influence was fading if not over. He also sold his notorious house for a smaller Georgetown home in the predictable Federal mode. A closeted homosexual whom the Soviets unsuccessfully tried to blackmail, Alsop divorced his wife Mary Susan, an elegant WASP socialite descended from John Jay and herself an accomplished writer.
In a 1984 C-SPAN interview with Brian Lamb, Alsop good-naturedly smokes through half a pack of cigarettes while admitting the WASP ascendancy is over, perhaps for the best. In his final days before dying in 1989 he repeatedly asked listeners if God exists. His funeral at a historic Episcopal D.C. church concluded with a hymn that had always concluded his family reunions in his youth, “God Be with You till We Meet Again.”
Alsop’s religious doubts were evidently common among the Georgetown Set. Phil Graham, during his ongoing collapse, had sought spiritual solace from New York Times columnist James Reston, mistakenly believing him to be devout. Reston could not help. The Set, along with the larger WASP elite, lost their confidence and prominence partly because they had lost their own faith, only periodically celebrating rites at tasteful Protestant sanctuaries. Alsop’s stepson, after his own spiritual crisis, became a Unitarian Universalist minister.
But the WASP elite and its representatives in the Georgetown Set had sufficient accumulated confidence and moral discernment to navigate America through the decisive early decades of the Cold War. When advised to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, Secretary of State Dulles, the son of a Presbyterian minister, icily responded that “he had long felt that no men should arrogate the power to decide that the future of mankind would benefit by an action entailing the killing of tens of millions of people, and he believed the President agreed with him.” The Georgetown Set helped ensure the Cold War ended victoriously and peacefully.