Walter Lippmann and the American Century

To James Thurber, in a 1943 New Yorker cartoon, Walter Lippmann was the object of respectful humor: a wife looks up from a newspaper and tells her husband, "Lippmann scares me this morning." To Judge Learned Hand, Colonel House, and five hundred guests at a testimonial dinner in 1931, he was, in the words of Time magazine, "their Moses, their prophet of Liberalism." To Dean Acheson, writing his memoirs, he was "that ambivalent Jeremiah." To Woodrow Wilson, for whom Lippmann prepared several of the famous Fourteen Points, his judgment was "most unsound"; to Lyndon Johnson, it was ultimately far worse than that. The one inescapable conclusion to be drawn from his six decades as a public correspondent is that Lippmann was America's, and perhaps the world's, most influential journalist.

That this should be so, when he changed his views so radically and so often, and indeed when he was so often wrong, is at first puzzling. But there were good reasons for it. His style, for one thing. From his Harvard days, the student and protégé of William James, George Santayana, and Charles Copeland commanded a forceful rhetoric that at best was both simple and magisterial. His concerns were elevated above political gossip; his focus was long and clear in almost everything he wrote, from his muckracking days as a young New Republic editor to his profoundly conservative middle years. Though he often came about 180 degrees within a few months, he was seldom ambivalent at any moment, and his limpid, reasonable prose gave his readers an impression of assurance and profundity.

He was influential as well because he developed with the nation's politicians a symbiotic relationship that enabled him to write about their policies with a degree of prescience, since in some instances he helped form them. Ronald Steel, in his insightful and stylish biography, credits Lippmann with a seminal role in shaping American war aims in 1917; in helping Senator Borah defeat the Versailles Treaty; in settling an angry dispute with Mexico in the late 1920s; in developing the concepts of the 1940 destroyer-bases deal and of Lend-Lease; and even in responding to Soviet threats after the war. According to Steel:

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