Alsop, Joseph Wright, V

views updated

ALSOP, Joseph Wright, V

(b. 10 October 1910 in Avon, Connecticut; d. 28 August 1989 in Washington, D.C.), journalist, author, and syndicated columnist whose conservative, anti-Communist writings during the Vietnam War cemented his reputation as an erudite political reporter.

Alsop was one of two sons of Joseph Wright Alsop, IV, an insurance executive, "gentlemen farmer," and member of the Connecticut General Assembly, and Corinne Douglas (Robinson) Alsop, who also served in the Connecticut General Assembly. He graduated from the Groton School in 1928 and from Harvard University with a B.A. in English literature in 1932. That same year Alsop obtained a job with the New York Herald Tribune. Three years later his coverage of the murder trial of the alleged kidnapper and killer of the infant son of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh earned him a promotion to Washington, D.C., to cover national news stories.

In Washington, Alsop was assigned to Capitol Hill, where he reported on the 1935 Nye Committee hearings, in which the committee investigated charges that the United States had been drawn into World War I by international arms merchants who stood to gain from increased weapons sales. He also covered the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration's 1937 "court-packing scheme" and wrote a book about the crisis, The 168 Days (1938), with Turner Catledge. Alsop left the Tribune in 1937 and, with Robert Kintner as his collaborator, wrote a syndicated column called "Capital Parade" for the North American Newspaper Alliance until 1940. In 1941 Alsop suspended his column to join the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant junior grade. He became an intelligence officer and was sent to Bombay, India, as a naval observer. Disappointed by what promised to be an unexciting and war-length tour of duty, Alsop arranged a transfer to China, where he joined the Flying Tigers, a volunteer air force led by Colonel (later General) Claire L. Chennault, as a "lend-lease administrator." Alsop served as a captain in the Fourteenth Air Force in China under Chennault from 1943 to 1945.

Alsop left China in August 1945; returned to the United States; and teamed up with his brother, Stewart, to revive his column for the New York Herald Tribune from 1946 to 1958. The title of the column, "Matter of Fact," was not chosen idly but rather reflected Alsop's belief, recounted in his autobiography I've Seen the Best of It, that he was a "reporter first and foremost" and was therefore determined "never to write about overseas problems" unless he had "at least gone overseas myself for long enough to smell the weather in the streets." Consistent with this conviction, Alsop journeyed abroad regularly until he retired in 1974. From 1958 to 1974 Alsop worked for the Los Angeles Times syndicate. In 1950, for instance, he spent four months from July to October in Korea traveling with combat units. At various times over the next decade he reported from England, Taiwan, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, and the Soviet Union. He also went to Vietnam in 1953 and 1954, when the Viet Minh, a politico-military organization of nationalists and Communists aimed at liberating Vietnam, challenged French control. These two trips were his introduction to the Vietnam crisis that was to consume him for the next two decades.

Although he was a New Deal Democrat domestically, Alsop took an increasingly more conservative, anti-Communist stance abroad. He was an early advocate of using American troops to prevent a French defeat in Vietnam. After the French withdrawal from Vietnam in 1954, Alsop supported the employment of American forces to resist a Communist takeover in Southeast Asia. By the time President John F. Kennedy came into office in January 1961, the threat from the Vietcong, the Communist guerrilla forces of North Vietnam, was such that in Alsop's calculations, the prospect of America's "fighting a full scale" war in Vietnam "was by no means unthinkable."

Alsop's view of what was at stake in Southeast Asia was rooted in both ideology and geopolitics. In ideological terms, he envisioned the conflict in the region as one between totalitarian Communism and the democratic system of the West. From a geopolitical perspective, he favored a heightened U.S. presence in Vietnam to preserve America's place as a Pacific power. Alsop predicted that the Pacific was "due to become another great world lake on a par with the Atlantic." Given such deeply held assumptions, Alsop never wavered in his near-obsession that not only must America resist surrender in Vietnam, but it also must provide its fighting forces with the adequate military and popular support to assure at least a stalemate. In arguing thus, Alsop, like other pundits, underestimated the resilience and perseverance of the North Vietnamese in their pursuit of national unity.

Throughout the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon, Alsop used his column to prod the chief executives to greater effort in Vietnam. In June 1964, for example, Walter Lippmann, a respected and widely read columnist, urged Johnson to withdraw from Vietnam and the entire Asian mainland as "part of some much larger and more elaborate diplomatic proposal and action." Alsop saw the situation very differently. The president, he argued, "had the means to avert defeat" but seemed unable to muster the necessary resolve. In Alsop's estimation, however, Johnson "had no way out any longer, except to try to deal with the war crisis first," leaving other matters for later consideration. He urged Johnson, who was enraged by Alsop's hard-line hectoring, to recognize that "all that the American interest demands—and demands imperatively—is avoidance of defeat in the war, and this simply means prevention of a Communist takeover." He then warned Johnson in a 23 December 1964 Herald article that "if strong measures are not taken … the U.S. is almost certainly doomed to suffer the greatest defeat in American history." He went on to say, "Pearl Harbor, after all, was a mere episode, whose ultimate sequel was victory around the world, but defeat here will be both shattering and final," and "its character and its consequences will make it a bitter new experience for the United States." He concluded, with gloomy censoriousness, "It will be his [Johnson's] defeat."

Nixon was also the recipient of Alsop's unsolicited advice. In an article entitled "The Viet Cong Is Losing Its Grip," in the December 1968 issue of Reader's Digest, Alsop, after a month-long survey of conditions throughout South Vietnam, informed the newly elected president that the Tet offensive had been "a disaster for Hanoi" and the "real turning point" of the war. (The Tet offensive was a massive assault undertaken in 1968 by the North Vietnamese against cities in the South. It proved to be a military triumph for the North.) The Vietcong's "days are numbered," Alsop concluded, "unless President Nixon is finally driven to throw in the sponge." Three years later, with criticism of the war mounting, Alsop's position stiffened. He wrote, bitterly, in the Washington Post (29 Aug. 1971) that critics of the war were "downright eager to be proved right by an American defeat." Alsop, however, was backing a losing cause. The last of America's troops exited Vietnam in March 1973, and by early 1975 Hanoi had extended its control over all of South Vietnam.

Ground down by the "tragic" defeat in Vietnam and depressed by his separation from Susan Mary Jay Patten, whom he had married on 16 February 1961, Alsop decided to close down his column in December 1974. Alsop was a homosexual, and his marriage was a platonic social partnership. Alsop and Patten, who had no children, separated in 1973 and divorced in 1978. In retirement he remained active, publishing The Rare Art Tradition (1982) and FDR1882–1945: A Centenary Remembrance (1982). An erudite and companionable host, he also continued to entertain friends, as he had for years, in his Washington, D.C., home. He died at home of complications from lung cancer, anemia, and emphysema.

Alsop's journalistic standing was compromised seriously by his intractable position on Vietnam—"the hinge," as David Marsh observed, "on which Alsop's reputation swung." Still, over the course of his full career, Alsop's accomplishments were impressive. In particular, as is pointed out in his Los Angeles Times obituary, "he helped to invent the political column in its modern form." He did so by conscientious "foot-leather" journalism; skillful writing; and, as another reminiscence observes, "standards of independence and courage that set him apart" from his peers (New Republic). One suspects, then, with the perspective purchased by time, that Alsop will find his place among the leading journalists of the twentieth century.

Alsop's papers are in the Library of Congress, and the Special Collections Library at Boston University holds the papers of his brother, Stewart Alsop. Joseph Alsop and Adam Platt, I've Seen the Best of It: Memoirs (1992), presents Alsop's account of his life and career. Revealingly, the book closes with the assassination of President Kennedy. Joseph and Stewart Alsop, The Reporter's Trade (1958), is a collection of Alsop's views on journalism and reprints of his articles from the previous twelve years. Biographical information is in Leann Grabavoy Almquist, Joseph Alsop and American Foreign Policy: Journalist as Advocate (1993), and Edwin Yoder, Joe Alsop's Cold War: A Study of Journalistic Influence and Intrigue (1995). Robert W. Merry, Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop—Guardians of the Twentieth Century (1996), is a dual biography of the brothers. Obituaries are in the Washington Post, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Los Angeles Times (all 29 Aug. 1989); the Boston Globe and Daily Telegraph (London) (both 30 Aug. 1989); and the New Republic (18 Sept. 1989).

Richard P. Harmond