August 31, 2016 at 5:13 pm EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
1950s documents highlight McCarthy-era anti-gay purges
Joseph Alsop, gay news, Washington Blade

Columnist Joseph Alsop was set up by KGB agents and photographed having sex with another man in Russia in 1957. (Screen capture via C-Span)

On July 14, 1950, the director of the then three-year-old U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter, told a closed congressional hearing why he believed homosexuals should be fired from and never hired for federal government jobs of any kind.

The transcript of the hearing by the Senate Investigations Subcommittee, which remained sealed for more than 50 years, includes more than two-dozen pages of testimony by Hillenkoetter that gay archives activist Charles Francis says helped set the stage for purges of gays and lesbians from the federal workforce for at least the next 20 years.

“I think it is of interest for this committee to know,” Hillenkoetter testified, “that the use of homosexuality for purposes of recruitment, blackmail, and control has been a frequent technique of the Soviet intelligence services.”

Repeatedly referring to homosexuals as perverts, Hillenkoetter said “homosexuality frequently is accompanied by other exploitable weaknesses such as psychopathic tendencies which affect the soundness of their judgment, physical cowardice, susceptibility to pressure, and general instability.”

As if that were not enough, he added, “They are often too stupid to realize it, or through inflation of their ego or through not letting themselves realize the truth, they are usually the center of gossip, rumor, derision, and so forth.”

Hillenkoetter made it clear about how he believed the federal government should address the issue of homosexuals in government service, which was the subject of the closed Senate hearing.

“Finally, I would like to say that, in our opinion, the moral pervert is a security risk of so serious a nature that he must be weeded out of government employment wherever he is found,” he said. “Failure to do this can only result in placing a weapon in the hands of our enemies and their intelligence service, and the point of that weapon would probably be aimed right at the heart of our national security.”

Gay historian David K. Johnson has been credited with first reporting on the then just declassified transcript of the closed Senate hearing in his 2004 book, “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.”

Francis, president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., which specializes in researching and pushing for the release of government documents chronicling the anti-gay persecution of the Cold War era, said Hillenkoetter’s anti-gay views haven’t received the attention they deserve since the Senate hearing transcript was unsealed.

Johnson is an associate professor of history at the University of South Florida. He points out in his book and subsequent lectures on the subject of the gay purges that there are no documented cases of a gay man or lesbian American citizen succumbing to blackmail by a foreign power.

According to Johnson, one of the best examples of how a gay person rejected a blackmail attempt was the case of the late syndicated newspaper columnist Joseph Alsop. Alsop, who died in 1989 at the age of 78, is credited with playing an important role in chronicling U.S. foreign policy from the 1940s to the early 1970s.

His biographers say he was a strong advocate of liberal domestic policies beginning with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs while at the same time pushing for conservative, anti-Communist views on foreign policy matters.

Although many friends and associates knew he was gay, Alsop never came out publicly, according to at least two biographies written after his death. These and other media reports published in recent years discuss a 1957 incident in which Soviet KGB operatives set a trap for Alsop during his first visit to the Soviet Union by arranging for him to have a sexual liaison in a Moscow hotel room with a young Russian man he met at a party.

After secretly photographing him having sex with the young man, the Russian operatives burst into the room and threatened to expose the nationally known columnist as a homosexual, various accounts have reported. The Russian operatives also threatened to arrest him unless he agreed to serve as an “agent of influence” for the Soviet Union when he returned to the U.S., a 2012 account by the Wall Street Journal says.

But a recently released FBI document, which includes a never before released nine-page memo that Alsop wrote to the FBI in which he came out as gay, provides a new, first-hand account of a situation that Alsop called “an act of very great folly” on his part.

Washington researcher and history buff Mark Allen said he obtained the FBI document and Alsop memo earlier this year from the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston after requesting that the library release the documents. He provided copies of the documents to the Washington Blade.

“It must begin with a personal confession,” Alsop wrote in his memo, dated Feb. 23, 1957. “I have been an incurable homosexual since boyhood. Very early, I sought medical advice, especially from Doctor Adolph Mayer at Johns Hopkins, but the doctors I consulted only confirmed my own diagnosis,” he wrote.

“It is a curious thing, but it is a fact, that the vast majority of homosexuals who have honestly faced the nature of their predicament, somehow end by accommodating themselves to it, shocking though that may seem,” he continued. “Most simply say, as I have said, ‘If I do no harm to anyone, if I am no trouble to anyone, I should not be too much troubled myself.’”

He then went on to explain how during his stay in Moscow he was cruised by young Russian men at least two or three times in unmistakable gestures in which they wanted him to know they were homosexual and were interested in him.

He said he spurned those overtures but foolishly succumbed to the courtship by a young “athletic blonde, pleasant-faced, pleasant-mannered fellow” introduced to him at a hotel dinner party organized by American diplomats and their Russian counterparts.

Shortly after the Russian KGB operatives accompanied by a hotel security officer entered the hotel room in the midst of his interaction with the young man, they arranged for the young man to be taken away and engaged Alsop in a polite but stern conversation that lasted nearly three hours, Alsop says in his memo.

“They got down to business without delay, saying I had of course committed a serious crime under the Russian code, that they did not want to make any trouble for me all the same…but that I must help them a little if they were going to help me,” Alsop wrote.

“Not knowing what course to take, I simply told my new friends at this first meeting what was in fact the truth – that in my situation, I had had to decide many years earlier what I would do if I found myself exposed to blackmail, that I had long ago decided I would much prefer any other course, however unpleasant, to paying blackmail, and that I might kill myself or end my writing career, but that I would never allow myself to be blackmailed in any way,” Alsop says in his memo.

“The older man, who led the conversation, merely laughed comfortably, repeated that he wanted to help me, and suggested that we move to pleasanter surroundings,” Alsop continued.

At that point Alsop said he told the Russians he had an appointment at the American Embassy in an hour and would be missed if he didn’t show up. “They replied that I was free to go, but that we three must meet again soon ‘to try to find a way out of your problem,’” Alsop recounted.

Upon returning to his hotel Alsop said he initially considered writing a note explaining everything that happened, slipping it under the door of the news reporters living at the hotel, and commit suicide.

“I finally concluded, before I went to bed, that suicide was a cowardly alternative, at least at that moment, and that I ought to play the game a bit further to see where it would lead,” he wrote. “I adopted the tentative plan, therefore, of pretending to be recruited by my two new friends in order to get out of the country and then, when I reached Paris, making a clean, public breast of the whole business, telling the story in detail to the whole world first as a warning and second as proof that I could not be blackmailed any longer.”

He added, “As I have said, I have always been troubled by the concealment that homosexuals must practice, and the fact that the course I meant to adopt would surely mean the end of my present career hardly weighed in the balance against the prospect of telling the honest truth and so ridding myself of the incubus of my folly.”

As it turned out, Alsop said then U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Charles E. Bohlen, learned of his predicament through an intermediary and made arrangements for him to leave the country on a flight bound for Paris. It was there that he met with FBI agents and handed over his memo.

“Bohlen notified the CIA, which debriefed Alsop on his return, and, through confidential channels, a report of the incident eventually reached President Eisenhower,” an article about the incident in the Nov. 10, 2014 issue of The New Yorker reports.

The New Yorker article and at least one biography of Alsop report that friendly U.S. diplomats, including those stationed at the American Embassy in Moscow, helped Alsop keep the incident out of the public view, enabling him to continue his career as a columnist.

But a close call surfaced in 1970, according to the New Yorker, when people in Washington who knew Alsop began receiving nude photos of him and the young Russian with whom he had sex in the Moscow hotel room in 1957. The New Yorker article reported the photos were believed to be in retaliation for a series of columns Alsop wrote that were critical of the Soviet ambassador to the U.S.

“With the help of the CIA director, Richard Helms, a back-channel deal was brokered: the photographs stopped appearing, and Alsop ceased attacking,” the New Yorker article reports.

None of the people who received the photos blew the whistle on Alsop, and he continued, as he did upon his return to the U.S. in 1957, to write columns condemning Russian Communism and later supporting the U.S. war in Vietnam.

“The lavender scare, which ruined the lives of so many gay men and lesbians, was premised on the notion that they were weak, psychologically disturbed individuals who were uniquely vulnerable to blackmail by foreign agents,” gay historian Johnson said when asked to comment on Alsop’s memo.

“The story of Joseph Alsop further exposes that as a lie,” Johnson said. “It’s a strong example of a gay person resisting blackmail, of which there were many examples in the fifties. In fact, there are no cases of a gay man or lesbian American citizen succumbing to blackmail by a foreign power – none,” said Johnson.

“I was struck by his initial plan to go public and tell ‘the whole world’ about his homosexuality,” Johnson said. “He seemed to relish the idea of finally telling the truth, of lifting his burden. It’s interesting to think what would have happened if he had ‘come out’ in 1957.”

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

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