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If history is given to a lazy person, it is simply a compilation of facts, sometimes in sequence. These are the bestThis was how it all began ThatThe result was ThoseAs told in a vacuum. It’s why so many American students know World War I began when a nihilist secret society assassinated the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne—and anything much beyond that is a gray blob of battles, military inventions, and diplomatic treaties that serve as a pretext to World War II.
Stories and arguments matter in history, and for most Americans, it’s why many a U.S. history teacher can spend weeks on World War II, part of the mythology that this newsroom’s founder, Henry Luce, dubbed “The American Century” in a 1941 The Best of Life Editor. Students often find that U.S. history is not able to make it past the Korean War or into Vietnam. These stories require a more complex narrative.
The author’s new book “The New Book of” James KirchickThese patterns are broken and he tells a strong and meaningful story about his hometown. Secret City: Gay Washington’s Hidden HistoryIt is a comprehensive tour through Washington DC, from the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration until the Bill Clinton years. This book, which is smartly written, has a flexible aperture that captures the grand picture in a moment while focusing on the most important details. The original source documents are drawn from memoirs, archives and other sources. This isn’t so much a Gay history of D.C. as it is a history of Washington as experienced by its gay power players—figures who were working alongside their straight colleagues to put the country on a post-World War II footing, address the rising Civil Rights Movement, and contend with a Cold War that left everyone paranoid. (Spoiler alert: It’s mostly white men, regardless of their sexual partners.)
On Tuesday of Pride Month, the book will be published. Lightly edited, the interview is now available.
Elliott: Although I admit that I wasn’t convinced by the idea of gay people being more dangerous than communists during the Cold War period, you persuaded me. Is that how you came to the realization?
Kirchick: Let me cite the Whittaker Chambers Case, in which we see this man come out as either a communist/ex-communist.
Elliott: Reformed, even.
Kirchick: Reformed communist. It is possible. Ex-communists were some of the prominent people in early American conservative movements. The notion of ‘conversion therapy’ had not taken hold yet. That’s an evangelical thing that happens in the ‘70s. That was just one example.
People who were labelled communists would be publicly identified and would defend their identity. During the Lavender Scare’s early years, there was no such thing.
Frank Kameny was also there. He was the first to be out. During his time, many gay men lost their jobs and then disappeared into invisibility.
Elliott: The tragic results were devastating.
Kirchick: I’m sure there were some people who were accused of communism that led to suicide and whatnot, but I would expect it was much higher among gay people.
ElliottThe adjacents of the accused are also included. There are many examples where being in the same orbit can cost people their livelihoods and lives.
Kirchick: Being a homosexual also implied, at this point in history, that you were a communist, whereas it wasn’t necessarily the reverse.
Elliott: I don’t know if you did this on purpose, but you really emphasized the puritanical roots of this country. Was that something you sought to illustrate, or is that just a bankshot that I’m picking up by accident?
Kirchick: The moral panic was the same as the Salem Witch Trials. It was that, which was most well-knownly used by Arthur Miller. The Crucible. There were not witches at Salem. Although there were many communists within the U.S. Government, it was not the number Joe McCarthy claimed. The witch hunt was real with homosexuals. No gay person was ever branded a traitor, or turned over any information after being blackmailed.
ElliottIt was still a large number. Ninety one is the first public accounting that shows how many people were dismissed for being homosexual.
Kirchick: In 1950, John Peurifoy, Deputy Undersecretary to State made the first admission that homosexuals were fired. This admission, which was made by no one who knew about the problem, was what sparked the Lavender Scare. There isn’t a true figure, though. There are estimates ranging from 5,000 to 15,000. It’s impossible to know because a lot of them quit before they could be found out, pressured to quit, or never applied. Many records were destroyed.
Elliott: This project is very broad because you have brought up all the records. What was the best way to find out what you were looking for? What about the non-published diaries? How did they get there?
Kirchick: I made a timeline, and then I read the literature about the topic. I was able to identify FDR as the Sumner Welles story. Yeah. It was obvious that David Walsh’s story had to be included. Whittaker Chambers would be the story, I was aware. I knew about the gay OSS. [Office of Strategic Services, an early iteration of the CIA] thing because there’s a chapter on it in a book about the early years of the OSS, and there’s a chapter about Donald Downes that kind of refers to him as being gay. The guy who wrote that book doesn’t dwell on it that much.
I’d then dig deeper, read the newspaper articles, then look for the primary source, the archives. Then, some things just happened at the end, like Robert Waldron’s story about a LBJ aide, who escaped Robert Caro. There’s one mention of him in Caro—not having anything to do with being gay.
Walter Jenkins papers were among the documents that were found in the LBJ Library. There was also a confession that he signed from his hospital room for the FBI. Robert Waldron was also named as potential homosexual. If Walter Jenkins was naming him J. Edgar Hoover, I knew he needed an FBI file. The FOIA process can be lengthy so I submitted a FOIA request.
Lucky me. The Wall Street published an article that I wrote. JournalThe chief archivist for the United States, who had just celebrated the Stonewall 50th Anniversary of Stonewall, read my reply and sent me a lovely email in which he suggested I make use of the archives. I answered. I need your help, Mr. Chief Archivist.Two months later I received a 1000-page FBI file, completely declassified and unredacted, for Robert Waldron. Now, I was the one who came up with this story.
I was going through Ben Bradlee’s papers one day at the University of Texas. The folder I found was entitled Ronald Reagan. Allegations 1980. This investigation uncovered all the details about this bizarre story that he was being controlled and held hostage by homosexuals.
Elliott: What was the duration of your work on this project?
Kirchick: I came up with the idea in 2009 but I didn’t get the contract until 2014. I didn’t really begin intensive work on this book until 2018.
Elliott: This article also reflects the theme of keeping secrets as a means of survival during Washington’s 20th century. Do you think that is still true?
Kirchick: No. But, how long will the secret remain secret in this small town? Look at Trump Administration. All of them could never keep a secret.
Someone like Joe Alsop could be protected because people would keep secrets—even his worst enemies. Art Buchwald was sent photos showing him naked and with a man. Jim Acosta might have sent Tucker Carlson incriminating photographs. Would he be able to protect Tucker Carlson from that? No.
ElliottThese are talented individuals who were expelled by the federal security sector. How much did the United States pay for this?
Kirchick: Many people believed that gay people were security risks. It was actually a disease, which made them uncompatible with government services. We’ll never know the full cost. Sumner Welles was an example of a Cabinet member who supported the taking of Jewish refugees in World War II. He was fired. Perhaps he could have made history more favorable on that issue. Maybe.
ElliottIt’s almost as if before the Deep State existed, there were deep states of homosexuals.
Kirchick: It was fearful of a deep-rooted state of homosexuals. This conspiratorial rhetoric sounds very similar to the Homintern’s fears, a secret underground network that plots to undermine the country.
ElliottThe answer is:
Kirchick: This required that gay people come out of their closets. They did not use the word homosexual in the David Walsh case. All those series in New York PostIn articles they do not mention homosexuality. Your question regarding why homosexuality is worse than communism has been answered. It was a common topic of conversation. You couldn’t talk about homosexuality.
Elliott: It’s the difference between an ideology and an identity.
Kirchick says: Your ideology is yours. A person’s identity is inextricable from their character.
Elliott: I’m curious about your treatment of Roy Cohn as a more complex figure than I had realized.
Kirchick: Most people don’t know Roy Cohn based upon the books he wrote or having watched him on television. Because Pacino played him in “The Last of the Mob,” they know him. Angels in America. Roy Cohn is a horrible person. But I believe that all those who behaved poorly under the specter homosexuality are the true villain. If there’s a villain in this book, it is the societal fear that our country had of gay people.
Elliott: Is this the future of gay politics?
Kirchick: To be honest, I really don’t envision much of the gay politics in the future. My belief is that gayness in America will become a normal part of everyday life. I think you’ll see the percentage of gays who vote Republican versus Democrat will resemble that of the country at large. It won’t be associated with the left and the way it has been since the 1980s. I think it’s just an increasingly outdated concept.
Elliott:This book is heavy on the gay men. What about the lesbians, though?
Kirchick: This can be explained by the fact that this is a book about Washington political power. From 1933 through 1995, almost all of the political power in this area was held by white men. That’s why the Lavender Scare didn’t really impact lesbians because women were not in a position to hold security clearances. They were not monitored and policed for their sexuality. There aren’t that many lesbians in the book, not through my own choosing, just because of the subject matter.
Elliott: Many thanks. It was a lot of fun.
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