The Columnist, a new play about Joseph Alsop, whose observations on public affairs were a staple of op-ed pages for forty years, has attracted a lot of attention and praise for its devastating portrait of Alsop’s malign influence on American foreign policy in Vietnam. I did not get to know Alsop until a decade or so later, but his arrogance was still obvious. So that and everything I heard about him from friends during the Kennedy-Johnson era combines to confirm that his portrayal in the play is accurate.
There was a time, however, when Alsop was not wrong. During the years 1940 and 1941, when the Republican presidential nominee Wendell Wilkie and Franklin Roosevelt joined in the effort to save Britain and prepare this country for World War II, no other American was more influential in the success of that effort than Joseph Alsop. Though his activities may have been questionable for a journalist, they were sublimely right for a citizen. He organized and manipulated behind the scenes and, in his column, tirelessly propagandized for the cause, consistently finding the right buttons to push to move the country in the direction it had to go to first stop and then defeat Adolf Hitler.