Why Wasps are an endangered species in the US

Once the elite, tracing their lineage to the Pilgrim Fathers – America's white Anglo-Saxon Protestants' grip on power is weaker than ever

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If ever you reflect on the eclipse of Wasp (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant) America, consider Dulles International Airport outside Washington. Why "Dulles", you may wonder: does that refer to a nearby village or river in this particular neck of Northern Virginia, or some evicted Indian tribe, or local landed family?

In fact, our mighty regional transport hub was named after John Foster Dulles, former Secretary of State, who died in 1959, mourned at the time by his country as one of its most brilliant lost statesmen. And there were, in truth, not one but two Dulleses, the other being John Foster's younger brother Allen, who ran the CIA for President Eisenhower while his sibling ran State.

In retrospect, the Dulles duumvirate may have been the high-water mark of the Wasps, the caste, mostly from old families from the north-east, wealthy, Ivy League-educated, and often inter-connected, that once ran America – people like the Dulleses, Averell Harriman, Paul Nitze, and George Kennan, who glided between government, high finance, and top law firms, certain that all would be well in a world run by people like themselves.

This year, my favourite Christmas present has been Stephen Kinzer's fascinating and rather appalling book The Brothers that shows how ruthlessly and singlemindedly the Dulleses wielded American power. The 1953 CIA-led coup that underlies Iran's continuing resentment of the US; malign meddling in Central America; the Vietnam War; the sterile stand-off with Cuba; all these were the handiwork of the brothers and all have consequences that reverberate even today.

These days, however, the pair are virtually forgotten, consigned to the Cold War's cobwebbed attics. And as they have faded from the scene, so has the caste to which they belonged. In its purest form, the Wasp breed can be traced back to the Pilgrim Fathers, but its heyday was in the middle of the 20th century. Once it was an omnipresent Establishment, as potent (if not more so) as that of the Britain many of its prime specimens affected to imitate.

The US mocks Britain for its obsession with class. In reality, it is riddled with such distinctions of its own, as any examination of Wasp-ness quickly reveals. Take Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Indisputably, both are white, Protestant and of Anglo-Saxon origin. Clinton moreover had those Waspish perquisites of Rhodes scholarship and Yale Law School, while a Carter ancestor arrived in the New World in 1635. But neither could be counted Wasps. They were southern. They were of modest origins. In short, they could not be seen as "one of us".

In fact, the last certifiable Wasp president, by manners as well as CV, was George H W Bush – though he spent much of his political career trying to escape the Yankee gentleman persona, pretending to be a Texan. His son had a perfect CV too, but was a real Texan.

Of recent presidents, the most overtly Wasp-like was Kennedy. But all the charm, glamour and family money couldn't conceal the fact that he was of parvenu Irish Catholic stock, whose ancestors had absolutely nothing to do with the Mayflower. You must go back to Franklin Roosevelt for the last president who was a true Wasp and revelled in it.

No longer do Wasps occupy the commanding heights of Wall Street and the old "white-shoe" law firms that serviced Wall Street. In government it's the same. Heads of the CIA come and go at bewildering speed, but few of them lately have been Wasps. Or take John Foster Dulles's old fiefdom of State. Of the last four Secretaries, two have been women and two black.

The current one, John Kerry, may look the real Wasp deal. But while he's Boston Brahmin on his mother's side, his father was of Czech-Jewish ancestry, and Kerry himself is a Catholic. As for the Supreme Court, once another citadel of the caste, not a single current Justice is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, for the first time in its history.

And the same goes for the Presidency. In 2012, again for the first time, neither party ticket featured a Wasp, even of the looser Clinton/Carter variety. A black, two Catholics and a Mormon, yes, but not a white Protestant in sight. And a good thing too, most people would probably say; a sign that Wasp-ocracy, snobbish and prejudiced, has been finally replaced by meritocracy, where everyone has a shot.

But some still miss the old days. In The Wall Street Journal, the writer Joseph Epstein recently lamented a decline in standards, how "the Wasp elite had dignity and an impressive sense of social responsibility" – a code of noblesse oblige now sadly lacking. And, Epstein goes on, "under Wasp hegemony corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren't, as now, regular features of public life". Rather, the Wasps brought "stability, solidity, gravity, and … an aura of seriousness".

Well, up to a point Lord Copper. Leave aside a happily vanished public deference to power, and our modern habit of assuming that the past was better than our messy present. Happily too, our more questioning society no longer turns a blind eye to corruption, scandal, and incompetence. But, most important, was the Wasp record really so great?

Arguably, the caste's finest hour came immediately after the Second World War, with the containment of the Soviet Union, the Berlin airlift, and that supreme example of enlightened self-interest, the Marshall Plan. But under the Dulles brothers, American power was used less nobly, more nakedly. Nor did things greatly change during the John Kennedy "Camelot". Were not the "best and the brightest", who took the US into Vietnam, overwhelmingly Wasp? And was it Wasps who led the great battles of the 1950s and 1960s against racial segregation, discrimination and poverty?

So, Dulles Airport may have it right. Once, Kinzer tells us, a larger than life statue of John Foster greeted those arriving at the Eero Saarinen-designed terminal. Then the bust disappeared, but no one seemed to notice. Only after much trouble did the author track it down, in an obscure conference room alongside baggage carousel No3.

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