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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:

The Soviets-citing an agreement reached at Yalta and Potsdam-put pressure on Turkey for a naval base in the Dardanelles and joint control over the straits. In late February 1946, Lippmann talked the matter over with Navy Secretary Forrestal, with whom he had grown quite friendly, and together they decided that the United States should make a show of force in the Mediterranean to indicate its interest in Turkey. Forrestal came up with the idea of sending the battleship Missouri to return the body of the Turkish ambassador, who had just died in Washington. Lippmann hailed the plan in his column, (p. 427)

Steel may exaggerate Lippmann's contribution to making this decision and others cited in Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Public men have been known to induce powerful opinion-makers to believe that they have played a key part in forming policies, in order to give them a stake in celebrating those policies. And though Lippmann in later life warned his fellow journalists to beware of growing too close to politicians, he was himself not only susceptible to the attractions of power and ambitious to share in its use, but rightly considered himself one of the elite. For historical purposes, it is a pity that Steel's many accounts of Lippmann's participation in making American policy could not be posed to Wilson, House, Dwight Morrow, Forrestal, and the others with whom he is said to have shared their creation.

Still, it is undeniable that many public figures sought Lippmann's advice, and, like millions of their fellow Americans, were persuaded by his books and columns. Style alone could not have made this so, nor long-term consistency of opinion, since this was lacking. What most attracted his readers and won him their trust over more than half a century was, I believe, his constant effort to be fair; his essential conservatism; and his willingness to traverse, in his own mind, almost the entire range of political opinion. He was, in his youth, a socialist. Later, he found in scientific "disinterestedness" the key to sound government. Having once apotheosized the masses, he came to believe that democratic man was totally incapable of understanding the complex world about him, and should, for his own good, give over to experts the management of public affairs. At last, in his sulfurous tirades against American involvement in Vietnam, he denounced the experts who had planned it. In this life-long saga what mattered most was not the wide variety of his opinions, but his honesty in embracing, if only for a time, the many conflicting truths that make up truth.

On occasion, his fairness led him into dark corners. Immediately following the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Lippmann, then editorial page director of the New York World, composed a piece that praised both the Lowell Committee for its "bravery" in confirming the jury's guilty verdict, and Felix Frankfurter and the defense for upholding the "rights of the humblest and most despised." Amos Pinchot replied that "the important thing is that the contending factions should be united by a common appreciation of Walter Lippmann's fairness."

Later, in 1933, Lippmann sought to be fair to Nazi Germany. Following a seemingly conciliatory speech by Hitler, he wrote: "We have heard once more, through the fog and the din, the hysteria and the animal passions of a great revolution, the authentic voice of a genuinely civilized people." Ronald Steel writes:

By this he meant that the Germans should not be judged simply by Nazi rantings or treated as permanent outcasts. . . . People were capable of both good and evil. Would it be fair, he asked, to judge the French by the Terror, Protestantism by the Ku Klux Klan, the Catholic Church by the Inquisition? Or for that matter, "the Jews by their parvenus"? (p. 331)

That Lippmann could compare the flashiness of Jewish parvenus with terrorism and brutality is, as Steel writes, deeply shocking and offensive. In part, it must have emerged from his subliminal disdain for his own Jewishness, in part from a kind of cultural squeamishness that made order and tranquillity for him the chief constituents of a good society.


He was, both in his active social life and in his politics, a conservative-inclined, for the most part, to adopt the views and endorse the policies of those in power, at least at the beginning of their terms; then, as their inevitable failures or excesses carried them and the nation into stormy waters, to chide them and at last to demand their removal-in order that "safer" men, such as Landon, Willkie, Dewey, Eisenhower, and Nixon in 1968, might guide us to harbor. This progress was doubtless consonant with that of many readers, whose more visceral feelings were confirmed by Lippmann's Olympian prose.

Conservative in general, but various in particulars:

During the 1920's, and much of the 1930's as well [Steel writes], Lippmann was neither consistent nor persuasive in his prescriptions for preventing war. Simultaneously espousing disarmament and American naval strength, international cooperation and an Anglo-American domination of the seas, American freedom of action and a "political equivalent of war," he reflected the confusions of the age. Like the broad-minded financiers who were his friends, he wanted stability within the framework of an international system that, far more than he realized, was already breaking down. (pp. 255-6)

If his proposals were contradictory, his fundamental preference for caution was clear. He was, throughout the period, pessimistic about the usefulness of American intervention. In 1935 he wrote:

A cold appraisal of the American interest which is, I take it, to protect our own development as a free nation, seems to me to lead to the conclusion that we can contribute nothing substantially to the pacification of Europe today, that vague commitments would only mislead Europe and mask the realities. For the time being, therefore, our best course is to stand apart from European policies, (p. 334)

If this was true of Europe, it was even more true of Asia. When Japan seized Manchuria and Outer Mongolia, Lippmann wrote, "In the whole great region in which Japan claims predominance we have no particular political interest of our own to protect. If there is to be any concerted action, let the policy emanate from the governments which have a definite stake in the area"-Russia, China, the European powers. This was "a policy of realism."

The same realism caused him to think Chamberlain wise in 1938, because he was "expedient" in the face of superior force:

In dealing with these warrior statesmen, the democracies must not delude themselves with the idea that there is any bloodless, inexpensive substitute for the willingness to go to war. Collective security, economic sanctions, moral pressure, can be made effective only by nations known to be willing to go to war if necessary. If that willingness to fight does not exist, then Mr. Chamberlain is right when he concludes that he must try to make tolerable terms with the dictators, (p. 370)

This is Realpolitik at its purest. It offers a specific application of Lippmann's famous dictum that a workable foreign policy "consists in bringing into balance, with a comfortable surplus of power in reserve, the nation's commitments and the nation's power." Where power (which includes national will) is limited, so should be commitments. That it would have been better for Britain, the United States and France to have expressed a common determination to resist German aggression in the mid-1930s-despite the reluctance of their people to risk the renewal of war-seems almost a wistful judgment today, compared to Lippmann's astringent realism at the time. No one knows where such an allied policy, which would have created political storms in each country, might have gotten us. We all know, of course, where Munich led.

What runs through Lippmann's commentaries from the 1930s forward is a plea for the recognition of limits. Acknowledge the limits of your power, and of your essential interests. Acknowledge that equivalent powers also have essential interests, which you must respect in order to avoid war-to maintain tranquillity. This was not a counsel of appeasement: Lippmann was not pleased that behind Chamberlain were few Britons besides Winston Churchill who were willing to beard the Nazis. It was, in his mind, a counsel of realism.

It led him to propose, toward the end of World War II, that the West acknowledge and respect Russia's dominant influence in Eastern Europe, a region it considered vital to its security. This was, he argued, hardly heretical; the United States, after all, had a "privileged zone" in Latin America and the Pacific. Great powers required such friendly buffer zones. Thus the "right-wing" Poles-the anti-communist ones-should be ignored if they sought to create a hostile coalition against the Soviet Union. Lippmann did not argue, as some American liberals did in the aftermath of the war, that the Soviets would bring a more liberal and beneficent rule to areas long dominated by monarchies and privileged classes. He saw it purely in terms of territorial interests, the mutual recognition of which, he believed, would insure the peace.

He was appalled by Averell Harriman's comment at the San Francisco United Nations conference, that "our objectives and the Kremlin's objectives are irreconcilable." Lippmann denounced those "who, to say it flatly, are thinking of the international organization as a means of policing the Soviet Union." Had he foreseen what the United Nations would become, he might have been less exercised, at least in this regard.

The line drawn between the Soviets and Americans, he wrote Secretary-designate James Byrnes, was "not inherent in the nature of things," but rather due to "inexperience and emotional instability in our own delegation." The British, he thought, were principally responsible for stimulating trouble with the Russians. They were colonialists, hostile to any form of radicalism. And, he wrote later, "I do not believe that the pre-war rightist elements can continue to govern in Europe. I do not think it is ideology, but realism, to argue that the support of governments somewhat left of center has the greatest promise. . . ."-namely, the promise of assuaging Soviet fears of neighboring hostility. "[O]ur interest in free elections in Poland appears [in Moscow's view] as a British-American protection and encouragement of those East European and Balkan factions which are hostile to the Soviet Union." The Russians had reason to question, he said, "whether our political interest in that orbit is what it professes to be, or is the cover for an intervention designed to push them back to where they were in 1939." Of course they did; but, as in 1939, the Western nations were unable to contain the aggrandizement of the region's principal power.

His position at this critical moment of the "American century" was a subtle one. In the wake of Churchill's famous Fulton, Missouri speech, he wrote that America should make loans to Britain and France, enact universal military training, rebuild the Mediterranean and European fleets, and launch an economic development project for the Middle East. "But if we do any of these necessary, desirable, and inherently constructive things inside an alliance which is avowedly anti-Soviet, they will surely accentuate the antagonism of Moscow far more than they reinforce our own influence for a peaceable settlement." He was depressed by the Western effort, inspired, he believed, by the British, to create a strong West German state as a bulwark against the Soviets. He preferred a weak Bonn, with strong constituent Landesstaaten that would pose no threat to the supersensitive East.


Reading his views today, in the sympathetic hands of Ronald Steel, Lippmann emerges an early revisionist. If the Russians were difficult, it was because they perceived the West as aggressively hostile to them, determined to deny them the buffer zone of hegemony that history had shown they needed. Granting them their sphere of influence would, he thought, reduce their anxiety and make peace possible. The problem was not inherent Soviet adventurism, but responsive Soviet fear.

He was particularly affronted by the "globalism" that emerged in Truman's speeches and Acheson's policies. If Russia embraced the West directly, she should be resisted. But it was dangerous to confront her with "dispersed American power in the service of a heterogeneous collection of unstable governments and of contending parties and factions which happen to be opposed to the Soviet Union." Steel sums it up: "Intervention in the name of balance of power was justified and necessary; indiscriminate intervention in support of far-flung and unstable client regimes was wasteful and dangerous." One can hear in this either the voice of realism, particularly in the wake of Vietnam; or the voice of Neville Chamberlain, speaking of that faraway land, Czechoslovakia.

Europe, in any case, was not far away, and Lippmann early endorsed the Marshall Plan. Indeed, Steel's account of Lippmann's discussions with Acheson, Forrestal and Clayton suggests that the European recovery program might better have been called the Lippmann Plan. At the very least, his columns helped generate enough public support to make the plan politically possible. Europe counted for Lippmann. If it was made strong, and if that strength, together with a recognition of Russia's legitimate concern for protecting her borders with client states, led to a genuine balance of power in the region, and if the West avoided overcommitment to unstable regimes elsewhere, then peace was possible. He wrote to a friend: "I am convinced that the question of war or peace hangs upon the Soviet willingness to engage in a general war, and not on the strength of the local defenses in any part of the world. For this reason I have never believed in the policy of containment as preached by the State Department."

Lippmann in 1949 was eager to respond to a Soviet proposal that Germany be neutralized, and foreign troops withdrawn. If accepted, he argued, German nationalists might be held in check-instead of flirting with Moscow to recapture lost territories-and the need for NATO obviated. The Administration thought otherwise. "It dismissed the Soviet proposal as merely a device to block the formation of NATO," writes Steel. "This was indeed true. But the more important question was whether NATO was in fact necessary-particularly since it prevented the Soviet withdrawal from central Europe that was presumably a major objective of American diplomacy." The implied question-"What if?"-recurs throughout Steel's account of the postwar period. It is the revisionists' litany, in that it suggests that an alternative to the kind of Western alliance that was missing in the late 1930s might have produced better results than its absence produced then.

For one so convinced of the unique importance of Europe, Lippmann was curiously belligerent when North Korea launched its attack on the South in June 1950. He warned of international anarchy "if a wretched little satellite government in northern Korea can thumb its nose at the United Nations." He supported the dispatch of the Seventh Fleet to the Formosa Straits; but as Truman committed troops to Korea, Lippmann began looking for the guilty parties who had produced such a mess. He found them, as Republican campaigners did in 1952, in the White House and State Department, for "not having clarified the question of our obligation in Korea," and then for fighting there. (Whether Lippmann would have endorsed a specific commitment to Syngman Rhee's regime prior to June 25 is not made clear.) He told Joseph Alsop, "I am rather gloomy about the quality of the men in charge of our destiny." This solemn indictment, poured out to a fellow pessimist, must have hung in the air like an organ chord in St. Paul's.

Steel suggests-and it is worth citing here not as Lippmann's view, but as background music for Steel's biography-that the Korean invasion

might have been prompted by the American decision to sign a peace treaty with Japan-a treaty the Soviets had not been allowed to join, and one that turned Japan into an advance base of American power. [Or] the Soviet-backed invasion might have been designed to challenge China rather than the United States. For [Truman and Acheson] it was a test of American fortitude. To have backed away might have been, as Acheson later said, "highly destructive of the power and prestige of the United States." (p. 471)

Once again, the Soviet Union reacted to an unfriendly American action; or it acted in a way that, fairly seen, did not jeopardize American interests, but, in this case, those of China. The difficulty with such revisionism is not only its unanswerable "what if?," but its inutility as a guide to action. Neither Truman nor Acheson nor Lippmann could have known, in late June 1950, whether the Soviets were seeking to intimidate Japan or China. What they appeared to be doing, in the world's eyes, was sponsoring an invasion that, if successful, would have upset the Asian balance of power and would have seriously diminished-can one say it?-the credibility of the American deterrent.

Steel is not, as this review suggests, uniformly admiring of Lippmann's view. He admires his adherence to Realpolitik, the fact that he spoke the language of military strength, spheres of influence, an Atlantic alliance-which "made it difficult to dismiss his attacks on a diplomacy that had seemingly lost all sight of rational objectives in an obsessive search for an ever-elusive feeling of 'security'." But this very severity of approach had its limitations. Steel writes:

While penetrating in his critique of certain American policies- . . .containment, German rearmament, support for Chiang-he was always so within the self-imposed limitations of political "realism" . . . . Having no firm guidepost other than pragmatism, lacking a philosophical approach or ideological commitment, reluctant to accept the part that economic demands or imperial ambitions might play in explaining American foreign policy, Lippmann was unable to take a consistent approach to the issues he wrote about. (emphasis added) (p. 486)

He was not, in other words, in the camp of those who saw America's purposes and actions as central to the problem of world disorder. The implication is that had he been of that number, he would have denounced American "economic demands [and] imperial ambitions," and so used his influential voice to force a retrenchment. He is, Steel believes, to be praised for going as far as he did in resisting globalism; but "he nonetheless supported such American intervention where Western control was challenged by indigenous [sic] communists. Thus, he favored aid to the Greek monarchy, air and naval intervention in Korea (though not troops), and even support for the French in Indochina." In short, he "ended up by accepting the logic of containment in cases where the balance of power seemed to be involved." So, one might have thought, would Steel; but he is more consistent than his subject. A communist advance-not the theoretical threat of one-caused Lippmann to support containment in those instances. Steel would differ if the area involved was far distant from America's territorial interests. The fact that a remote transgression was communist-led did not, in Steel's view, convert it into a threat to the balance of power.

Lippmann in 1952 concluded that it would be a "catastrophe of enormous proportions . . . if Southeast Asia were to fall within the communist orbit." But by 1963, when President Kennedy expressed the same view, Lippmann-though a profound admirer of Kennedy, and an "insider" in his Administration-had grown wary. Though he did not favor American withdrawal, he thought "[t]he price of a military victory in the Vietnamese war is higher than American vital interests can justify." He shared the Administration's belief that China would inherit the spoils after a communist victory there, but he thought the best way to prevent that eventuality was to work for a "reunited, independent and neutral Vietnam." This was General de Gaulle's proposal, and since World War II days Lippmann had considered Charles de Gaulle the paragon of world statesmen. Following his lead, Lippmann urged limited support for Saigon, while the Administration pressed Hanoi and Peking for neutralization. Kennedy rejected the notion, and was concerned that the Diem family would attempt a settlement with the North that provided for it. Later, President Johnson asked Lippmann how neutralization could prevent Indochina from falling to the communists. There was no assurance that it would, Lippmann answered; but there was no realistic alternative.


By 1965, Walter Lippmann-75 years old, veteran of half a century's involvement with men of power, author of millions of wise, and more than a few pompous and fatuous words, still his country's most respected journalist-had embarked upon the last great campaign of his life. "He did not argue the morality of America's involvement in Vietnam because, with rare exceptions, he did not view foreign policy as a moral issue. For him it was a question of geopolitics and a cold calculation of national interest," Steel writes. The same calculation led Lippmann to support American intervention in the Dominican Republic that year, not because of the need to "stop communism everywhere," but because the Dominican Republic is in our back yard. Vietnam was obviously not. "Russia had no business mucking around in the Dominican Republic-but neither did the United States in Vietnam," Steel sums it up.

As the American involvement deepened, so did Lippmann's passionate conviction that it was a desperate mistake. The bombing campaign against the North, he thought, was futile; for the Vietnamese "do not value their material possessions, which are few, nor even their lives, which are short and unhappy, as do the people of a country who have much to lose and much to live for." Hardly the sentiments of the anti-war movement as a whole, for whom American bombing was an act of immoral hostility; but their conclusions were similar. Lippmann became a hero to the movement, even as he became a pariah to the Johnson whom he had courted with praise-just as Johnson wooed him with attention-in the early years of the Administration. The network of personal, political and journalistic relationships that is peculiar to Washington, and, within which, for pleasure and professional contacts Lippmann was a central player for several decades, was savaged by the emotions generated by the war. Still he persisted-the guns of his prose more powerful than the invective Johnson poured upon his name in the Oval Office.

His opposition to the war led him, in 1968, to support the election of Richard Nixon. Hubert Humphrey was, he wrote, "Lyndon Johnson's creature," who could neither break with Johnson on the war nor carry with him the Republican support needed to resolve it. Nixon, on the other hand, would have to seek a cease-fire and a "self-respecting withdrawal of our land forces." Further, Nixon, unlike Humphrey, could take those stern measures necessary to restore domestic tranquillity to a "violently disordered" United States.

Once more, then, Lippmann endorsed the challenger to an incumbent Party. He had, in his long career, backed Smith and then FDR against Hoover; Landon and Willkie against Roosevelt; Dewey against Truman; Eisenhower against Stevenson, and then in 1956, Stevenson against Eisenhower; Kennedy against Nixon; and at last, Nixon against Humphrey. In most of these cases he chose the opposition in order to right what he perceived to be an imbalance in public affairs, brought on or perpetuated by the inadequacy of the man in office. Every President who won his praise, even those, like Wilson, Hoover, FDR, Kennedy, and Johnson, with whom he shared confidences and to whom he rendered private and public counsel, ultimately felt the lash of his displeasure. Only one among the politicians of his day, he told a friend, did he ever love: Theodore Roosevelt. But that affection was born before he became distressed by the "globalism" of American aims abroad.

The current President, no less than the Congress and the public, seems quite uncertain about the proper reach of American interests. One faction would aggressively confront the Soviet, and other totalitarian, regimes, over their abuse of human rights. This would have seemed nonsense to Lippmann; he seldom displayed outrage about internal repression in other nations, since what counted was achieving a balance of power among states that would preserve international peace. He would have been distressed by the present shakiness in U.S.-European relations. His column, "Today and Tomorrow," would now be filled with expressions of European dismay over the shortcomings of American statemanship.

Today, he would doubtless counsel restraint in responding to far-away hostilities and upheavals. But unlike some who, in the aftermath of Vietnam, embraced him as the angry critic of American "imperialism," he believed that the United States had a vital and constructive role in preserving peace, and that its instincts and purposes were not inherently corrupt. By and large his countrymen profited from his conservative, fair-minded advice, and could read it with advantage now. Ronald Steel is to be commended for an immense work of scholarship that vividly recalls Walter Lippmann's, and America's, century.