Walter Lippmann

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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...

(This entire section contains 2656 words.)

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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 how a “high religion” based on disinterestedness might replace the traditional religious foundations of ethics that were shattered by the “acids of modernity”; the book further maintained that, imbued with this ideal of disinterestedness, the business community was becoming more and more socially responsible (an untimely suggestion in the year of the stock market crash).

When the Great Depression led to the New York World’s demise in 1931, Lippmann accepted an offer by the Republican New York Herald Tribune to write a regular column, with the understanding that he would enjoy complete independence. Lippmann’s “Today and Tomorrow” column, written in his exquisite, graceful prose, soon became a national institution that endured more than three decades. It eventually appeared in more than 275 newspapers across the nation and overseas, and Lippmann became the nation’s most highly regarded political analyst, acclaimed for his Olympian objectivity. Yet Lippmann’s association with bankers such as Thomas Lamont and his fierce opposition to much of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (which he had initially supported) led to charges that Lippmann had become a tool of Wall Street interests. Further controversy surrounded the publication of The Good Society (1937), in which he, with some exaggeration, likened the New Deal to Communism and Fascism.

In 1938, Lippmann moved from New York to Washington, D.C., following the collapse of his twenty-year childless marriage and his remarriage to Helen Byrne Armstrong, the recently divorced wife of Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of Foreign Affairs and, until that point, a close friend. The move to the nation’s capital not only saved the new couple some embarrassment but also allowed the columnist more direct access to leading political figures.

The start of World War II, in 1939, led to a reconciliation with the Roosevelt Administration, as Lippmann lent his support to the president’s efforts to help the Allies. Lippmann played a crucial role in arranging the transfer of American destroyers to Great Britain and in promoting Lend-Lease assistance for that nation. Following the United States’ entry into the war, he became especially concerned with the nation’s postwar responsibilities. In U.S. Foreign Policy (1943) and U.S. War Aims (1944), Lippmann repudiated the Wilsonian vision of peace upheld by an international organization, instead advocating a balance of power maintained by the major Allies.

Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S Truman, ranked low in Lippmann’s estimate, and the journalist spurned a State Department offer in 1945 to serve as chief of its information and propaganda activities. Although Lippmann contributed to the formulation of the Marshall Plan that provided economic assistance to war-torn Europe, he took issue with most of Truman’s foreign policy. In a series of columns subsequently published as The Cold War (1947), he warned that the Truman Doctrine, designed to contain Communism, would overextend the nation’s resources, threaten its constitutional system, and make it dangerously dependent on unreliable client states. He similarly voiced misgivings over Truman’s decision to send American ground troops to Korea in 1950.

During the early 1950’s, Lippmann stoutly condemned Senator Joseph McCarthy and endorsed the 1952 candidacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower, hoping that the popular general would halt the senator’s destructive anti-Communist crusade. Eisenhower’s failure to provide firmer direction, however, proved disappointing. In Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955), Lippmann, distrustful of democracy and the masses, called for a strong executive leadership that possessed the “mandate of heaven.” He judged John F. Kennedy’s brief presidency as only partially successful but enthusiastically greeted Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society reform program. Johnson’s extension of the United States’ military involvement in Vietnam, however, led to a widely publicized feud. Lippmann, whose advice Johnson had solicited, maintained that he had been deliberately misled by the president, and his columns vehemently denounced the war as a futile, counterproductive enterprise that diverted national attention from more pressing domestic and international concerns.

Lippmann, in 1967, ended his “Today and Tomorrow” column, distributed for the past four years by The Washington Post after the New York Herald Tribune had ceased publication. He now returned to New York, where he continued to write occasional articles for Newsweek until 1971. Pessimistic, he spent his last years preparing a manuscript tentatively entitled “The Ungovernability of Man.” He suffered a heart attack and then a stroke in 1973 and died in a New York City nursing home on December 14, 1974, several months after the death of his wife, Helen.

Summary

During his long career as a journalist, Walter Lippmann attained unparalleled prominence and influence. Heralded as the Great Elucidator and as a philosopher-journalist, he produced nearly ten thousand articles and columns which enabled millions of readers to transcend the confusing events of a tumultuous age to find deeper meaning. The recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes (1958 and 1962) as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1964), Lippmann was lionized as was no other journalist.

In his major books, Lippmann forthrightly probed the dilemmas facing modern democracies, in the hope of discovering principles that might lead to some rational control over forces unleashed by revolution and technology. If Lippmann’s ideas were more derivative than original, and if he tended to waver between such philosophical extremes as pragmatism and the concept of natural law, his books as a body, perhaps more so than those of any contemporary, reflect the intellectual and political currents of his era. A Preface to Politics was the first work to apply Freudian psychology to the realm of politics; Public Opinion, notable for its effort to explain how “stereotypes” limit an individual’s perception of reality, has become a classic in the field of political science.

Lippmann’s shifting political allegiances led to charges of inconsistency and even opportunism, but from the beginning there was always a tendency toward elitism and a predisposition to value order over justice. His pronouncements on such issues as the Cold War and Vietnam proved prophetic, but his insensitivity toward the plight of European Jews in the 1930’s, his advocacy of Japanese-American relocation during World War II, and his relative indifference toward civil rights until the disruptions of the 1960’s blemished his reputation. Moreover, while his advice was sought, if not always heeded, by presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard M. Nixon, and while he had access to world leaders such as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Nikita Khrushchev, after his Progressive days, Lippmann seemed to lose empathy for the plight of the common people.

Lippmann’s faith in democracy steadily eroded, and as an old man he ruefully confessed that he had found no philosophy suitable for the revolutionary period in which he lived. Yet there always remained an underlying commitment to the democratic process—the fundamental right of the people to choose their own leaders—and an appreciation for the responsibilities of the press in a democratic society.

Bibliography

Blum, D. Steven. Walter Lippmann: Cosmopolitanism in the Century of Total War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984. Rejects the notion that Lippmann can be understood in terms of liberal or conservative labels and maintains that his writings can be best understood as championing a cosmopolitan outlook that challenged American parochialism. Well written, with valuable insights, but the central thesis is sometimes labored.

Childs, Marquis William, and James Barrett Reston, eds. Walter Lippmann and His Times. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1959. Excellent collection of six essays commemorating Lippmann’s seventieth birthday. Particularly noteworthy are boyhood friend Carl Binger’s depiction of the young Lippmann, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s critique of Lippmann’s writings, and Reston’s observations on Lippmann’s style of life and work.

Forcey, Charles. The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippmann and the Progressive Era, 1900-1925. New York: Oxford University Press, 1961. Fascinating but unflattering depiction of Lippmann’s years at The New Republic, when the young, ambitious editor forged close ties with the Wilson Administration. Demonstrates Lippmann’s vulnerability to seduction by men in power, a problem about which he would later write but which he never fully overcame.

Luskin, John. Lippmann, Liberty, and the Press. University: University of Alabama Press, 1972. A study of Lippmann’s career as a journalist, particularly his views on the tension between the journalist’s responsibility to inform the public and the necessity of government secrecy.

Schapsmeier, Edward L., and Frederick H. Schapsmeier. Walter Lippmann: Philosopher-Journalist. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1969. A satisfactory but not very penetrating account of Lippmann’s activities from Harvard to the 1960’s. Although it is generally reverent in tone, the authors were uncomfortable with Lippmann’s strong condemnation of Johnson’s Vietnam policy.

Steel, Ronald. Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1980. A detailed, award-winning authorized biography written by the first researcher who was granted access to Lippmann’s private papers. Valuable for its examination of its subject’s personal life, it also provides a balanced assessment of his public career. Steel’s analysis of Lippmann’s political philosophy is disappointingly meager. Contains a short annotated bibliography.

Syed, Anwar. Walter Lippmann’s Philosophy of International Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1963. A critical study of Lippmann’s views on nationalism, the national interest, alliances, and the balance of power, among other issues. Abstract and theoretical but of benefit to those interested in this area.

Weingast, David Elliott. Walter Lippmann: A Study in Personal Journalism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1949. This attempt to evaluate Lippmann’s ideological position in terms of a content analysis of “Today and Tomorrow” columns during the period from 1932 to 1938 is somewhat simplistic, but the book is helpful in outlining, if not adequately analyzing, Lippmann’s views on the New Deal.

Wellborn, Charles. Twentieth Century Pilgrimage: Walter Lippmann and the Public Philosophy, 1969. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. A brief, sympathetic intellectual biography that traces Lippmann’s evolution as a thinker, with particular emphasis on his views on human nature, democracy, and religion. The conclusions are debatable, but the book contains a valuable discussion of influences on Lippmann’s thought and a good bibliography.

Wright, Benjamin F. Five Public Philosophies of Walter Lippmann. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973. A discerning assessment of nine of Lippmann’s books on political philosophy. Wright convincingly argues that Lippmann’s knowledge of history, economics, and political philosophy was broader than it was deep. Emphasizes his inconsistencies and makes little effort to find unifying themes.