Transcript: James Kirchick
My interview with the journalist and bestselling author
Washington is known to be a city of secrets. And, for many decades, one of the most dangerous secrets was that of homosexuality. Its spectre haunted the halls of power, and the true stories are only now coming to light.
My guest on this episode has written a sweeping history of gay involvement in government. And he has much to say about the past’s lessons for the present moment — for free speech, for open debate, and for a free press.
This is an edited, condensed transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: James, welcome to Lean Out.
JK: Thank you for having me.
TH: I’m really pleased to get to speak with you about this book today. The storytelling here is so strong. It is a dense read, but also an entertaining read. I know you have long been interested in history — Cold War history in particular. At Yale, you studied with John Lewis Gaddis, who taught a seminar on the art of biography. Tell me about the final project you did for that class, and how that set you on the path to write this book.
JK: John Gaddis is the dean of Cold War historians, and he was my academic advisor at Yale. He is also George Kennan’s biographer. George Kennan being the great Cold War strategist. And he, for many years, has been teaching a seminar at Yale on the art of biography. We would read a biography every week. And then the final assignment was to write our own biography of a figure — living or dead — whose papers were at Yale, in the Yale archives. I was fortunate in that a man named Larry Kramer had just donated his papers to Yale. Your listeners might know of Larry; he was a very important figure in gay history. He was a playwright, a novelist. He was the co-founder of ACT UP — the direct action AIDS group, but also, earlier than that, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which was really the first AIDS service organization.
He wrote a very famous play, several plays, about the gay American experience and AIDS in America. I got to know Larry and was using his papers. I wrote this biography of him, a 50-page term paper. Subconsciously, I think that’s where the book began, because it was a merging of my interest in Cold War history with gay history.
It wasn’t until a couple years later that it really congealed. I was living in Washington, DC, working as a journalist. And realizing that this is a city that runs on secrets, and secrecy is a form of power — particularly during this era of the Cold War. And that there was no greater secret, no more dramatic or destructive secret, than to be gay. It was worse than being a communist. A communist could become an ex-communist. In fact, some of the most important figures in the American conservative movement were ex-communists. A gay person could not do that. Once you were alleged to be gay, it was really the end of your political career. So I figured that this would be a fascinating way to write about this city and its characters, its power brokers. The presidents, the institutions, the events, the phenomena, all these episodes. This sweeping, panoramic view on this city and the way it works — through this prism of homosexuality. So that’s where the idea came from.
TH: There’s just so much here that I did not know before. One of the things that really struck me was this idea that World War II was a national coming out for gay Americans. Walk me through the significance of that historical moment.
JK: So, at the time, America was a much more rural society. People didn’t live in cities to the extent they do now. And if you were a gay person at this time, you were very lonely. Your existence, as a gay person, was very lonely. And then suddenly, we have this war effort. It’s a massive mobilization. Over 10 million men are brought together in military bases. They’re put on ships, they’re deployed overseas, they’re sent all over the place. And they’re coming into contact with lots of other people. Lots of people of different religions and economic backgrounds, but also sexual orientation. And they’re encountering other gay people for the first time. Ironically, World War II was when the US military formally banned homosexuality from military service. But very few gay people were actually prevented from serving — just because they needed every warm body to do something. So you have this massive mobilization and it becomes, like you say, a national coming out moment. It would also raise the visibility of gay people among themselves. And certainly would assist gay people in developing a group consciousness. But would also, as we can discuss later, heighten the societal fear of gay people as a kind of secret presence in American life.
TH: There’s a couple of stories that I want to focus on today that have stayed with me. Let’s start by talking about the moral panic over communism. Tell me about Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers.
JK: Alger Hiss was a former high-ranking State Department official in 1948. He was the president of the Carnegie Endowment, which is a very distinguished think tank. He’s very well connected, suave. And he is accused in the first live televised congressional hearing. It’s before a committee called the House Un-American Activities Committee in August, 1948. He is accused of being a communist by a man named Whittaker Chambers, who at the time was a very senior, respected journalist for Time Magazine. And Whittaker Chambers says that 10 years earlier, in the 1930s, he and Hiss were members of the same underground communist cell in Washington. That Chambers was a messenger, and he was taking secret documents and information that was given to him by Hiss, and passing it on the Soviet Union. So he’s accusing Hiss of being a spy, a traitor.
Chambers had also been — around the same time that he was living this underground communist life — he was living another secret life as a homosexual. And he confesses this to the FBI at the time. Because he’s concerned, rightly, that the Hiss forces will perhaps use this to discredit him. And they do, secretly. They don’t say it publicly. They start a whisper campaign that Chambers is a spurned homosexual, that he was lusting after Hiss and Hiss rejected him. And this is why he’s making up these crazy stories of Alger Hiss being a communist spy. So it’s in the ether, but it’s never openly talked about, because to actually make that accusation public would’ve been probably too dangerous for the Hiss forces. Because people might ask, “Well, if Chambers was a homosexual, then maybe that means Hiss was a homosexual too. Maybe that’s how they met. If the Hiss side is saying that this communist thing is all made up, and that Chambers is making up the fact that even he was a communist, maybe they met through this underground gay world.”
So they don’t make this public, they spread it secretly. But it becomes known among people in the know in Washington. The higher political echelons and media elites, they all hear this. And this is really when this cultural archetype of the traitorous communist, homosexual spy begins — in 1948, in the Hiss Chambers case. And there are several other events that will seem to cement this in the popular imagination.
TH: You did also see gay people being recruited into espionage, in the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. At what point did gay people become viewed as a national security threat?
JK: It begins with World War II, because that is when the notion of national security really becomes a notion. Before that there was no civilian intelligence agency. There’s a funny anecdote I tell in the book about FDR’s naval aid. Sometime in the late 1930s, before World War II, he’s walking down the street near the White House, and he sees a white paper just sort of flying through the air. He snatches it, and he looks at it, and it’s a State Department document stamped confidential. The State Department used to be in the building right next to the White House. So this is how secrets were treated in Washington right before World War II. You could literally have secret documents just flying out the window on a windy day. So, it begins around 1942.
But, yes, there are a number of prominent gay spies that I write about, in the OSS, which is the predecessor to the CIA. It’s the Office of Strategic Services. And they complete some missions. But in fact, there’s a proposal I came across in my research just a couple weeks after Pearl Harbor. Where a sex researcher, he sends a proposal to Washington where he says, “Because these Nazis are so full of homosexuals…” By the way, this was something that was believed at the time — that the Nazis were a prevalently gay group of men. “Because there’s so many homosexuals among the upper ranks of the Nazi command, perhaps we should recruit some patriotic homosexuals and send them undercover to infiltrate these Nazi gay circles.” This is something that was believed at the time.
During the Cold War is when this fear of gays is really cemented. The same year as the Chambers case was another important development — the Kinsey Report comes out. The Kinsey Report, it’s called Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male. And it reports that around 10 percent of men are homosexual. That number is probably exaggerated. I think it’s probably half that, if not less. But still, this shocks the country. And this happens just a couple months before the Hiss Chambers case in 1948. And then in 1950, you have Joe McCarthy. He makes these accusations that there are all these communists in the State Department. Just a couple weeks after he delivers that speech, it’s revealed on Capitol Hill through testimony that the State Department had fired 91 gay people in the three years prior.
And so, this is when homosexuality begins to become conflated with communism. Communists and homosexuals — they’re both living secret lives. They can easily disguise themselves. They are rebels against bourgeois society and bourgeois morality. And then, in 1951, there’s the famous case of Guy Burgess and Donald MaClean, the two British diplomats who have been working in Washington, and then they defect to the Soviet Union. Burgess was gay. Quite flamboyantly gay for his time. And this was widely known. And so this is yet another example of this supposed nexus between homosexuality, communism, and treason.
TH: There’s some really heartbreaking stories in the book. I’m thinking in particular about Bob Waldron, which you write about for the first time in this book. You got his un-redacted, thousand-page FBI file in the course of your research. And you include this incredibly powerful letter of his to the man who outed him. Give us the broad strokes of Bob Waldren’s story.