Walter Lippmann Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111206366-Lippmann.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: In a career spanning six decades, Lippmann lucidly analyzed current events, advised statesmen, and was author of more than twenty books which perceptively examined the challenges confronting American democracy.

Early Life

Walter Lippmann was born on September 23, 1889, in New York City, the only child of Jacob Lippmann, a wealthy clothing manufacturer and real estate broker, and Daisy Baum Lippmann, a cultivated graduate of Hunter College. Both parents were American-born, of German-Jewish ancestry. Encouraged to develop an appreciation of the arts, young Lippmann was taken by his parents nearly every summer to Europe, where he frequented the great museums.

When he was six years old, Lippmann entered Dr. Julius Sachs’s School for Boys, where he excelled in history, geography, French, and the classics. He also attended Temple Emanu-El, a fashionable Reform Jewish congregation. He was confirmed in 1904, yet his religious training had been minimal; as an adult, he displayed little attachment to his Jewish heritage.

With ambitions of becoming an art critic, Lippmann enrolled at Harvard in 1906. The disastrous 1908 fire in nearby Chelsea awakened Lippmann’s social consciousness. He joined volunteers who aided the impoverished victims, and he sought out the political writings of Karl Marx and others. He became the Harvard Socialist Club’s first president and wrote articles for undergraduate publications. He also developed personal ties with such distinguished faculty as philosophers William James and George Santayana, as well as visiting lecturer Graham Wallas, a prominent British Socialist. Although dissimilar, each thinker would exercise a profound influence on Lippmann’s thought.

Completing his degree requirements in three years, in 1910 he abandoned his Harvard graduate philosophy studies to pursue a career in journalism under the patronage of muckraker Lincoln Steffens. He accepted a position on the Boston Common, a small reform weekly published by Ralph Albertson, a Congregationalist minister. (Several years later, in 1917, Lippmann would wed Albertson’s beautiful, vivacious daughter, Faye.) Bored by routine tasks, Lippmann persuaded Steffens, then associate editor of Everybody’s magazine, to engage him as a research assistant. Soon, Lippmann was writing his own articles and by 1911 had attained an editorial position.

Intensely ambitious and anxious for direct political involvement, Lippmann left his job in 1912 to serve as an aide to the Socialist mayor of Schenectady, New York, the Reverend Mr. George Lunn. Within four months, however, he was disenchanted by the pettiness of local politics and resigned. Nevertheless, Lippmann continued his association with the Socialist Party for another two years, although he never fully subscribed to Marxist theory.

Through Steffens, Lippmann became involved with Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Greenwich Village salon. There, he mingled with cultural and political radicals, including former Harvard classmate John Reed, anarchist Emma Goldman, and labor leader William Haywood. In some ways, Lippmann was out of place. A brown-eyed, handsome, muscular (though, when young, slightly chubby) man who stood five feet ten inches in height, Lippmann impressed men and attracted women. Yet in demeanor he was cautious, reserved, and even somewhat conventionally prudish. Although capable of displaying a quiet charm and warmth among intimates and important personages, Lippmann often appeared impatient, aloof, and arrogant to others. Within a short time Lippmann would shed his bohemian connections in favor of a more sedate circle that included statesmen, bankers, and distinguished jurists such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Felix Frankfurter.

Life’s Work

Upon leaving his Schenectady post, Lippmann wrote his first book, A Preface to Politics (1913), which called for bold reform and dynamic, creative leadership to meet the social crises that followed in the wake of rapid urbanization. Very favorably received, the work drew praise from Lippmann’s political hero, former President Theodore Roosevelt. Lippmann’s second volume, Drift and Mastery (1914), optimistically contended that the application of scientific methods would enable Americans to master their social environment. At the age of twenty-five, Lippmann, together with Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl, became a founding editor of The New Republic, one of the prime organs of Progressivism. The new journal quickly gravitated away from Roosevelt’s political camp to that of President Woodrow Wilson. With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, Lippmann directed his attention to foreign affairs. Strongly favoring American intervention in 1917, he temporarily left The New Republic to serve as assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Later that year he was appointed executive secretary of the Inquiry, a secret research body that drafted the territorial provisions of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. After brief duty in France as a captain of military intelligence, Lippmann joined the staff of Colonel Edward M. House, Wilson’s influential adviser, at the Paris Peace Conference. Distressed by Wilson’s willingness to compromise the ideals upon which American involvement in the war was supposedly based, Lippmann left Paris in early 1919 to return to The New Republic.

In 1921, Lippmann moved to the liberal New York World as an editorial writer under Frank Cobb; upon Cobb’s death in 1923, he became editor. Under Lippmann’s direction, the newspaper attacked Republican economic policies, fought Fundamentalist efforts to ban the teaching of evolution, and urged more cooperation with the League of Nations. Lippmann actively supported the unsuccessful presidential campaign of Alfred Smith in 1928, and in that same year he conducted a secret diplomatic mission to resolve a calamitous Mexican Church-State dispute that endangered relations with the United States. Yet if Lippmann remained essentially committed to liberal programs during the 1920’s, his books revealed a growing conservative tendency. In Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), he expressed grave doubts about the people’s ability to govern themselves, given their apathy, ignorance, and susceptibility to propaganda, and he recommended more reliance on experts. A Preface to Morals (1929) outlined...

(The entire section is 2656 words.)