Eric Alterman: Reveals that he had evidence Joe Alsop was blackmailed

Historians in the News

In his Times Select-only column, here, Frank Rich writes of David Halberstam: "He did so despite public ridicule from the dean of that era's Georgetown punditocracy, the now forgotten columnist (and Vietnam War cheerleader) Joseph Alsop. It was Alsop's spirit, not Halberstam's, that could be seen in C-Span's live broadcast of the correspondents' dinner last Saturday, two days before Halberstam's death in a car crash in California. This fete is a crystallization of the press's failures in the post-9/11 era: it illustrates how easily a propaganda-driven White House can enlist the Washington news media in its shows. Such is literally the case at the annual dinner, where journalists serve as a supporting cast, but it has been figuratively true year-round. The press has enabled stunts from the manufactured threat of imminent 'mushroom clouds' to 'Saving Private Lynch' to 'Mission Accomplished,' whose fourth anniversary arrives on Tuesday."

An aside about me n' Alsop. I don't think I ever met the man, but when I was researching my first book, Sound and Fury, I came across documents explained that during the Eisenhower presidency, the pundit had been arrested in a Moscow bathroom for having made a homosexual pass there. The Soviets agreed to hush up the incident once they discovered the writer's identity, but the CIA obtained its own confession. Allen Dulles, the agency's director, placed it inside his private safe and informed President Eisenhower of its existence. The document was shown to people in the military, Congress, and the national security bureaucracy. Eisenhower apparently went to the trouble to make certain that a copy be made for President-elect Kennedy as well. The threat that lay behind this type of blackmail need never be explicitly carried out to achieve its desired effect. When I wrote this, I had six separate documents that refer to the confession, all signed by Lewis L. Straus, then head of the Atomic Energy Commission, containing lengthy discussions of this document including the names of all parties involved along with its possible use as an instrument of blackmail. No one had ever broken the story in print.

I have a couple of second thoughts about the incident. One is that Alsop was incredibly brave in facing up to the threat of McCarthyism and defending those unfairly charged; this despite the threat hanging over his head. I find this impressive, though difficult to explain, given everything else.

Second, though I told this story in Sound and Fury, I decided to leave out Alsop's name. I did this for two reasons. One was that I didn't believe in outing people, even posthumously. (Alsop died while I was writing the book.) But also, it was my first book and hence, the beginning of the career, and I didn't want to be the one to blow the whistle on a guy whose memory was still treasured by many. This turned out to be a big mistake, however, because the book was trashed in The New York Times Book Review by a writer named Adam Platt, who, coincidentally, was not merely a longtime family friend of Alsop's but had even co-authored his memoir. Given that I had also reviewed that book for Columbia Journalism Review, it was dishonest of Platt to agree to review the book without informing the editors of his reasons for bias. (I don't recall ever seeing his name in the Review again.) But the review had the effect of killing the book's sales, which were soaring at the time, because I had been booked not only on All Things Considered, Fresh Air, Booknotes, Nightline, the Today show, and also -- those were the days -- on The Tonight Show (in the days when Letterman came on afterward, not opposite).

The lesson is an oldie but goodie: Tell the whole truth as best you know it and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.

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