The Great Days of Joe Alsop

Walter Bennett/Life Picture Collection/Getty Images
Joseph Alsop, Washington, D.C., 1969

Here is an example of how things once worked in Washington. On July 30, 1958, Joseph Alsop, a leading pundit of the day whose column appeared in The Washington Post and the New York Herald Tribune, published an alarming commentary on the missile “gap” he said was about to open up between the Soviet Union and the United States. By the early 1960s, Alsop wrote, “the American government will flaccidly permit the Kremlin to gain an almost unchallengeable superiority in the nuclear striking power that was once our specialty.” Alsop cited statistics on Soviet missile production leaked to him by sources who were disclosing classified information.

Alsop’s friend John F. Kennedy, a fellow resident of the hamlet of Georgetown in Washington and an ambitious senator from Massachusetts, put Alsop’s column into the Congressional Record. Alsop then urged Kennedy to give a speech on the subject, which the senator did on August 14. When the Soviets have achieved clear superiority in intercontinental missiles, Kennedy told the Senate, “the balance of power will gradually shift against us…. [The Soviets’] missile power will be the shield from behind which they will slowly, but surely, advance….”

Then Alsop published two columns in praise of the speech he had promoted. The first, on August 17, described Kennedy as “Massachusetts’ hard-hitting young Senator,” and called his address “one of the most remarkable speeches on American defense and national strategy that this country has heard since the end of the last war.” Alsop wrote that the ominous statistics on future Soviet missile superiority that Kennedy cited—the statistics he took from Alsop’s original column—coincided with information known to senators Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) and Henry M. Jackson (D-Wash.) of the Armed Services Committee that they could not reveal because it was “classified information.” “The voice that faced facts”—Kennedy’s—was “the authentic voice of America,” Alsop wrote.

A second column published the next day closely echoed the first. In case anyone had missed the implication of the first one about the identity of Alsop’s own sources, he spelled it out. There were senators on the floor when Kennedy spoke who knew the classified estimates of future Soviet missile production, Alsop noted, including Jackson and Symington, and none challenged Kennedy’s (really Alsop’s) numbers. “Instead, a whole series of [senators], led by…Symington…and Jackson…, rose to praise Kennedy. They affirmed that he had spoken no more than the truth….”

According to the statistics Alsop cited, by 1964 the Soviet Union would have two thousand intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the US would have 130. These numbers did appear in intelligence estimates—made public years later—that had recently been disclosed to President Eisenhower and a few members of Congress. Alsop had a great scoop. Kennedy, then contemplating a run for the White House, had a great supporter.

But here is another example of how things work…

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