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American Journalism Review
A Columnist With Clout  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Books
From AJR,   June 1995

A Columnist With Clout   

Joe Alsop's Cold War
by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
University of North Carolina Press

Book review by James E. Casto
James E. Casto is associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.     

Joe Alsop's Cold War
by Edwin M. Yoder Jr.
University of North Carolina Press
220 pages; $24.95

One evening in the mid-1960s, at a Washington party where they had just met for the first time, columnist Joseph Alsop and London newspaperman Peter Jay fell to talking about Vietnam. Alsop argued forcefully that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, other neighboring nations would follow.

"You sound as if you believe in the domino effect," Jay said to Alsop. "Dear boy," the columnist replied, "I invented it." Alsop may have been stretching the truth — something he apparently was not above doing — but there's no disputing that, as one of the most influential columnists of his day, he did much to popularize the domino theory as part of his uncompromising worldview.

ýriting in the National Review shortly after Alsop's death in 1989, Edwin M. Yoder Jr. lamented: "More than any other journalist I ever knew, Joe Alsop..deserved a Boswell. But there was none; the Boswellian version of Alsop will have to be patchwork effýrt by his friends." Now Yoder, himself a syndicated columnist, a professor at Washington and Lee University — and a friend of Alsop during the columnist's retirement years — has written a book that, while not Boswellian by any means, gives readers an insightful look at Alsop and the era in which he held sway.

Today, with a 24-hour-a-day electronic pipeline to both news and opinion via CNN, C-SPAN and the Internet, it's difficult to grasp the enormous clout once exercised by a handful of powerful Washington columnists. Even the most popular and respected of today's columnists are no match for the likes of Alsop, who for decades was as much a part of the D.C. landscape as the Capitol.

An aristocrat by birth and an intellectual by nature, Alsop was educated at Groton and Harvard, then did something unthinkable for most aristocrats and intellectuals — he went into newspapering. He went to work as a reporter in 1932 and became a columnist in 1937. In the post-war years, from 1946 until 1958, he teamed up with his younger brother Stewart to write a column called "Matter of Fact" for the old New York Herald Tribune, which eventually syndicated it to hundreds of other papers. When their rema*kable partnership ended, Stewart turned to magazine work and Joe carried on the column in the Washington Post until his retirement in 1974.

As Yoder notes, the years immediately after World War II "were a golden age for the Washington column. Not only did newspapers then retain their commanding position in politics and journalism, since television, as a mass medium, was in its infancy; but a vast accretion of power and influence had suddenly made Washington the capital of the world." Once television took root, newspapers would fight back by opening their news pages to all manner of commentary. But in the 1950s, the nation's editorial pages held a virtual monopoly on interpreting the news. It was a situation made to order for Alsop, whose columns became required reading for those who shaped U.S. policy.

In less sympathetic hands than Yoder's, one chapter of Alsop's life easily could provide grist for TV talk shows. As many of his friends knew, Alsop was a homosexual. While visiting Moscow in 1957 he was seduced by a male KGB agent and urged to become a Soviet agent. Alsop reported the incident to the CIA. Eventually, photographs of the encounter landed in the infamous files of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, who delightedly passed them around town. But the matter never became public during his lifetime.

Today, Alsop is best remembered for his strident anti-communist jeremiads and his staunch support of the Vietnam War. A hawk to the end, he eventually refused to discuss the subject, even with his closest friends. How one wishes Alsop were still with us, to see if the recent tear-stained confessional by former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara would cause him to break that silence.

Given the anti-communist rallying cries that issued from their busy typewriters, it's easy to forget that Joe and Stewart Alsop were among the first to speak out against the red-baiting tactics of Joe McCarthy and were vigorous in their defense of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Henry A. Wallace and other victims of that era's hysteria.

The interplay of these apparently contradictory strands of thought — a strong hand abroad and fair play at home — provides the central theme for Yoder's book, one he sums up thusly, "These two strands were only conflict. For the most part they were mutually sustaining and complementary, equally indispensable if the United States was to play a strong and honorable role in a dangerous world. There could be no honor in a brute strength that vitiated by violence to tolerance and liberty at home, and little security in a world where the strong were left to prey with impunity on the weak. So the causes they espoused were equally important; and in the end, the paradox was no paradox at all."



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