During the years after World War II, a group of ambitious, idealistic, affluent and well-connected young people settled in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Until at least 1975, their strong influence was felt, for good or ill, in virtually every aspect of government, especially foreign policy decisions, and in shaping public opinion on such issues as the founding of NATO, the military and covert actions of the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis and the war in Vietnam.
Historian Gregg Herken takes us inside this world in his meticulously researched and compellingly written The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington. At the center of the narrative is political and foreign affairs columnist Joseph Alsop, whose Sunday night supper parties became a Georgetown tradition. Vigorous discussions of issues dominated these gatherings. The guest list was nonpartisan and usually included members of Congress, foreign ambassadors, administration officials and, of course, Alsop’s well-connected friends and neighbors. These neighbors included Katharine and Phil Graham, publishers of The Washington Post; Frank Wisner and Allen Dulles, both deeply involved in covert activity; and diplomats Charles “Chip” Bohlen, David Bruce and Llewellyn Thompson. It was understood that any information from these gatherings could be used by Joe Alsop and his brother, Stewart, in their reporting. But it worked both ways: If a guest wished to leak information to the press, it was the perfect place to do so.
Senator John Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, were neighbors and occasional Alsop dinner guests. After the official events of JFK’s inauguration were over, the new president went to the Alsop home, without notifying the owner beforehand, where he stayed for two hours. When the Cuban missile crisis was developing, JFK went to a private party at the columnist’s home and stunned the host by confiding that there might be a nuclear war in the next five to 10 years. During the Watergate hearings, Alsop’s home became a kind of refuge for Henry Kissinger, who was having dinner there when President Nixon reached him by phone to give him advance word of his plans to resign. After Watergate, the Georgetown dinner party lost much of its drawing power.
Some of the people in this book have written their own memoirs or been the subjects of books by other writers. Herken works through this material to give us a balanced view of the mark they left on history. This compulsively readable group portrait of movers and shakers shows how major government decisions were influenced by an elite few during a dynamic period of national and world events.