MAY 29, 1996
David Gergen, editor at large of "U.S. News & World Report," engages Robert Merry, executive editor of the "Congressional Quarterly," author of Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Guardians of the American Century.
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Joe Alsop and Stewart Alsop, brothers, journalists, legends, they're part of a time and a class that now seems long ago and far away, and yet, there's a great deal of nostalgia for that time. Tell us first who the Alsops were and why they're significant.
ROBERT MERRY, Author, Taking on the World: Well, the Alsop Brothers were journalists, gentlemen journalists of the Washington genre and from--for about 40 years, David, from 1935 to 1975, they were at the center of events, both as journalists and as combatants during World War II, and they managed during that period to get themselves to the center of events, No. 1, and No. 2, to express themselves in very strong and very opinionated ways so that people knew who they were and where they were coming from, and they were, they personified an era of, of Washington. It was the--what I call the New Deal Cold War era.
MR. GERGEN: And they were very much shaping opinion about, especially about American foreign policy and supported active American leadership around the world, from not only the Second World War but thereafter in Korea, Vietnam, and the like, and they were right there at the center, pushing as these internationalists, as liberal internationalists.
ROBERT MERRY: Well, they were the cheerleaders really, the journalistic cheerleaders of the old anglo-saxon elite that emerged at the end of World War II to take America into the world. My book is called Taking on the World. And they took on the world and they wanted their country to take on the world. And, and so as the, as the Harrimans and the Nitzas and the Bolans and the Kennans all emerged to, to take America into a major world role, they were there to lead the cheers journalistically for that role for America.
MR. GERGEN: And to tell them what to do.
ROBERT MERRY: Often. Often, and sometimes they would actually listen. But they got a lot of good stories from those people because those were people who were their friends. They grew up with them. They were part of the old elite, themselves, and they grew up with them, they went to Groton and Harvard and Yale with them. Their families were interconnected in Connecticut and other parts of New England, and so they were right there at the center of things.
MR. GERGEN: It appears to me that like Walter Lipman they had far more influence than leading journalists do today. Why is that true?
ROBERT MERRY: Oh, I think journalism has totally changed today, and in those days, uh, print was really the, the aristocracy of journalism and the columnists, the major columnists were the monarchy, and--
MR. GERGEN: And these two fellows were both columnists.
ROBERT MERRY: They were columnists with a huge reach. They were in 200 newspapers with a combined circulation of 25 million, and they wrote insistently for the "Saturday Evening Post," which was a major magazine at the time with six million subscribers and twenty million readers. So they had an immense reach in a country that had 170 million people, maybe 180 million people. So combined with that reach and their journalistic acumen and the fact that they stood for something, they, they managed to cut a pretty wide swathe.
MR. GERGEN: I think a lot of people that you talk to today, who knew the Alsop Brothers were impressed by their courage, not only their physical courage, as they volunteered in World War II and went on to cover Korea and Vietnam actually out on the field with the troops, but the kind of courage which Joe Alsop showed that day in Russia.
ROBERT MERRY: It was an amazing time. He was--it was the only time he ever went to the Soviet Union. He was in Moscow. He had traveled all throughout Siberia, but he got back to Moscow and was waiting for an interview with, with Kruschev. Uh, Joe was a homosexual. He lived in the closet of a secret life, and, umm, on his trips, he frequently would seek out homosexual companionship. On this particular occasion in his hotel room, he did just that, not a very wise or prudent thing to do in Moscow, especially given the fact that he was a stone-cold warrior, and the Soviets didn't care for him very much. Well, they had his room rigged. It was all set up, and they captured him on film. A day or so later--
MR. GERGEN: In a homosexual relationship.
ROBERT MERRY: That's correct. In, in the midst of it. And we're improvising here a little bit, but I think we have a pretty much clear sense of what happened. The KGB--KGB forerunners, then KBD operatives came to his room. They spread out these photographs, very incriminating, on his bed, umm, and they tried to blackmail him, turn him into an agent of influence so that they could control him. Uh, he realized immediately that he had gotten himself into a very embarrassing and unfortunate situation and his only way out was the good, old-fashioned Alsop arrogance. He, uh, totally dismissed these people. He said that if they thought that he was going to turn on his country and become a traitor, they had the wrong man. He sarcastically inquired as to whether he could get some, some extra copies for his private collection, and he stormed out and went immediately to the U.S. embassy, where, not surprisingly, the ambassador who was his old friend, Chip Bolan, and between Chip Bolan and some of his friends in the CIA, they worked rather assiduously to convince the Soviets that this wasn't going to pay off for them and that they might as just well let it go, but they got him out of the country rather rapidly, and, of course, he had to be seriously de-briefed by the CIA.
MR. GERGEN: But he put it behind him. It was a gutsy move, and it was a patriotic move, I might say.
ROBERT MERRY: It was a very gutsy move, and it could have destroyed him, umm, and he was prepared to have that happen.
MR. GERGEN: Yeah. What--let's go back to the establishment, itself. These people were so representative of it, and you write about this in some detail. It's so striking that what distinguished them was not just their schooling, not just the Groton, Harvard, Yale kind of background, not just the country squire kind of background, but a belief system that, that many of the folks who belong to this group, you know, were anglophiles, and Groton, one took four years of English history, no years of--no years of Britain--American history.
ROBERT MERRY: What Stewart wrote, yeah, it's amazing.
MR. GERGEN: Unbelievable, isn't it?
ROBERT MERRY: Yes, it is.
MR. GERGEN: And they saw--but they saw America as picking up the leadership that Britain lost at the middle of the century, that America became the guardian of Western Civilization, in effect.
ROBERT MERRY: Absolutely. I posit the view in the book that the Alsop Brothers and their class viewed themselves as an adjunct essentially of the old British empire, and at the end of World War II, their hope had been that there could be this wonderful anglo-American alliance, partnership. In fact, Winston Churchill--he mentions in the book that Winston Churchill even suggested at one point that maybe we could have dual citizenship at which point Joe said, if we ever had that, Winston would probably run for President. In any case, they viewed themselves as part and parcel of the old British empire. And it's not really surprising, because that's what--that's what they had been conditioned to think. Umm, when, when that partnership after the war didn't work out, and--because Britain couldn't hold up its end of the bargain and then fell apart totally with Suez in 1956, it was, as, as British Prime Minister McMillan said to his old friend, Eisenhower in a very short telegraph, over to you, it was over to us. We had to pick up, umm, that, that challenge, and the challenge essentially was to establish and maintain stability and peace in the world, and preserve, umm, Western--not hegemony exactly but the Western interests, wherever they might be.
MR. GERGEN: You say that that anglo-saxon establishment from the East sort of held sway from essentially the Second World War on to Vietnam.
ROBERT MERRY: The turning point for the country was a turning point for the old elite. It was a turning point for Joe Alsop's career. Uh, the anglo-saxon elite had pretty much run the country and certainly its foreign policy since the beginning, and it was only natural that they would emerge then to take America into the world and become the, the primary architects, if you will, of, of the structure of world stability. But with Vietnam, all that fell apart, which was one of the reasons why Joe Alsop was such an unreconstructed and rabid hawk because he knew that if Vietnam didn't work, this whole structure was going to come crumbling down, and it was the structure that he believed in, that he revered, and that he loved, and he couldn't bear to think that that could happen.
MR. GERGEN: Yeah. Now, Bob, you write at the end of your book that Joe Alsop wrote actually in a very positive way about changing of the guard the fall of one elite, the rise of another, and yet, Stewart looked back upon the loss, the decline of the Waspish elite with some regret. I got the impression reading between the lines that you look back on that loss of that elite with some regret as well.
ROBERT MERRY: I happen to believe that just about everything that happens in history, um, American history no exception, happens for both good and ill. There's no white hats or black hats really. I think that we lose something when we lose an elite that has a sense of where to take the country and an elite that the country looks to for that sense of where to take the country. Right now, umm, whereas the elite was stuffy and it was self-preserving, it could be arrogant at times, it could miss a lot of significant currents in American politics, but, nevertheless, it brought a certain coherence to the nation. I think that we've lost that coherence. I think that something is going to replace the old elite because something will have to, but in the meantime, the country is much more adrift. There's a lot more internal animosities and internal, um, fights and frictions than there was during that earlier time. So as I say, it's all a trade-off. I think everything in politics and history is trade-off.
MR. GERGEN: Well, if the Alsops had lived, they could have certainly though have celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. That would have been their culmination.
ROBERT MERRY: They would have loved that.
MR. GERGEN: Thanks very much.
ROBERT MERRY: Thank you, David.
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