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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 289

James Kirchick — Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington

Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (book cover)

Shermer and Kirchick discuss: archives and secret sources of secret histories • the cause of homophobia, and how and why homosexuality was thought of as a “contagious sexual aberrancy” • why there is no lesbian history of Washington • J. Edgar Hoover, Clyde Tolson and gay mythmaking • FDR and Sumner Welles • why at the height of the Cold War, it was safer to be a Communist than a homosexual • Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss • the McCarthy hearings and how the Lavender Menace became inextricably linked with the Red Menace • astronomer Franklin Kameny and the Mattachine Society • JFK and his tolerance of homosexuality • Richard Nixon’s notorious homophobia • Ronald Reagan’s conflicting attitudes toward homosexuality • George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and real progress in acceptance of homosexuality • the trans movement and its homophobic consequences.

James Kirchick has written about human rights, politics, and culture from around the world. A columnist for Tablet magazine, a writer at large for Air Mail, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, he is the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age. Kirchick’s work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Review of Books, and the Times Literary Supplement. A graduate of Yale with degrees in history and political science, he resides in Washington, DC.

About the Book

For decades, the specter of homosexuality haunted Washington. The mere suggestion that a person might be gay destroyed reputations, ended careers, and ruined lives. At the height of the Cold War, fear of homosexuality became intertwined with the growing threat of international communism, leading to a purge of gay men and lesbians from the federal government. In the fevered atmosphere of political Washington, the secret “too loathsome to mention” held enormous, terrifying power.

Utilizing thousands of pages of declassified documents, interviews with over one hundred people, and material unearthed from presidential libraries and archives around the country, Secret City is a chronicle of American politics like no other. Beginning with the tragic story of Sumner Welles, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s brilliant diplomatic advisor and the man at the center of “the greatest national scandal since the existence of the United States,” James Kirchick illuminates how homosexuality shaped each successive presidential administration through the end of the twentieth century. Cultural and political anxiety over gay people sparked a decades-long witch hunt, impacting everything from the rivalry between the CIA and the FBI to the ascent of Joseph McCarthy, the struggle for Black civil rights, and the rise of the conservative movement. Among other revelations, Kirchick tells of the World War II–era gay spymaster who pioneered seduction as a tool of American espionage, the devoted aide whom Lyndon Johnson treated as a son yet abandoned once his homosexuality was discovered, and how allegations of a “homosexual ring” controlling Ronald Reagan nearly derailed his 1980 election victory.

Magisterial in scope and intimate in detail, Secret City will forever transform our understanding of American history.

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This episode is sponsored by Wren and Wondrium:

Wren (sponsor)
Wondrium (sponsor)

This episode was released on July 26, 2022.

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