Walter Lippmann

Walter Lippmann

Walter Lippmann, the only child of second-generation German-Jewish parents, was born in New York City on 23rd September, 1889. His father, Jacob Lippmann, worked in the family garment manufacturer company. His mother, Daisy Baum, inherited a large sum of money from her parents and the couple were able to buy a large house at 46 East 80th Street.

Lippmann's biographer, Ronald Steel, has argued: "Walter was neither particularly unhappy nor rebellious, although sometimes a bit lonely as an only child. He was coddled by his grandmother, whom he adored; indulged by his father, whom he considered weak; and ignored by his mother, whom he came to dislike." Lippmann later recalled his relationship with his father: "He was a very kind man with a kind of sweet humility and an unfailing good humor... We were never very intimate, but affectionately friendly; he always let me do whatever I wanted to do, even when he did not understand it, because he trusted me very much."

In September 1896 Lippmann was sent to the Sachs School for Boys. He was a talented student and ten years later he entered Harvard University. He came under the influence of his English tutor, Charles Townsend Copeland. Lippmann was inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and in 1908 he wrote an article in Harvard Illustrated criticising Barrett Wendell, the author of a new book, The Privileged Classes, for arguing that true culture had been debased by mass taste. Lippmann disliked the elitism of Wendell and argued: "The workingman has gone on genially producing houses he will never enter except to repair them, producing food while his own children go to school unfed; building automobiles so that fashionable ladies may take their Teddy Bears out for an airing in Newport."

The 65 year old, William James, was impressed with the article and went to visit Lippmann. "I thought I'd drop by and tell you how much I liked the article on Wendell." James encouraged his students to question the status quo. He once commented that at Harvard University "our undisciplinables are our proudest product." According to Lippmann they discussed "cultural fossils like Wendell, the bright promise of socialism, and the lectures James was preparing to give the following year on pluralism". James invited Lippmann for tea that Thursday with his wife and this became a weekly ritual. Lippmann responded eagerly to the philosopher's "passion for social reform, commitment to experimentation, abhorrence of dogma, and deep sense of personal morals." Lippmann wrote to his parents that his time spent with James was "the greatest thing that has happened to me in my college life."

Another important influence on Lippmann was George Santayana. Lippmann described Santayana as "resembling Leonardo's Mona Lisa with a little pointed beard". A fellow student, Max Eastman, thought him "dangerously fascinating". Bertrand Russell wrote that "aloofness and facile contempt were his defects and because of them, although he could be admired, he was a person whom it was difficult to love." It was claimed that Santayana "would stand at the lectern, stare into space, and, never once glancing at a note, give lectures that could have been printed verbatim." Lippmann wrote: "You feel at times that his ability to see the world steady and whole is a kind of tragic barrier between him and the common hopes of ordinary men. It's as if he saw all forest and no trees."

Lippmann read the work of Karl Marx but disliked his emphasis on class struggle and did not like the idea of inciting the masses to mob action. Instead he favoured the ideas of the Fabian Society that was being promoted by socialists like Beatrice Webb, Sidney Webb, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Lippmann preferred social reform to revolution and approved of this attempt to "level up" rather than to "level down". He wrote to his friend, Lucile Elsas: "I have come around to socialism as a creed. I do believe in it passionately and fearlessly - not that all men are equal, for that is a misapplication of democracy - I believe that the people must express themselves in an organized society where religion is the dynamic."

In May 1908 Lippmann and eight other students decided to organize a socialist discussion group at Harvard University. Its first official action was to apply for a charter from the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (ISS), a coordinating body founded by Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Norman Thomas, Clarence Darrow, Anna Strunsky, Randolph Bourne and Rose Pastor Stokes in 1905. The group invited several well-known speakers to Harvard. This included Lincoln Steffens, Florence Kelley, Morris Hillquit and Benjamin Flower.

Most of the students were uninterested in political discussion and by 1909 the Harvard Socialist Club had only 50 members. This included John Reed, who according to his biographer, Barbara Gelb, "was greatly impressed with Lippmann's ability to activate his ideas and he watched as the club began exerting an influence not only on the university, but on the community." At one meeting, Reed, described Lippmann as "the future President of the United States".

In 1910 Graham Wallas arrived at Harvard to teach politics. He had been a member of the Fabian Society but had left six years previously in a dispute with the leadership. His book, Human Nature in Politics (1908) had caused great controversy when it argued that politics like human life, was an essentially irrational phenomenon. Wallis argued that people made political judgments, not by a close study of the facts and their probable consequences, but as they made other judgments - through instinct, prejudice and habit. He added that the major flaw of political science was that it refused to take human nature into account and instead concentrated on examining statistics.

In his lectures Wallas undermined Lippmann's socialism. He later recalled: "The man who diverted me more than anyone else was Graham Wallas. He began more and more, gradually, slowly and patiently to explain to me his doubts as to how it would work, and the inability of man to administer a great society. According to Ronald Steel: "Lippmann impressed Wallas the way he had impressed James and Santayana and so many of his teachers. He had an ability to ask the right questions, to go to the heart of a matter, to challenge his teachers without impertinence." Lippmann had such an impact on Wallas that he dedicated his next book, The Great Society, to him.

In 1911 Lincoln Steffens, the campaigning journalist, took Lippmann on as his secretary. "I found Lippmann, saw right away what his classmates saw in him. He asked me intelligent, not practical, questions about my proposition and when they were answered, gave up the job he had and came home to New York to work with me on my Wall Street series of articles... Keen, quiet, industrious, he understood the meaning of all that he learned; and he asked the men he met for more than I asked him for."

Paterson was known as the "Silk City of America". More than one-third of its 73,000 workers held jobs in the silk industry. In 1911 silk manufacturers in Paterson decided that workers, who had previously ran two looms, were now required to operate four simultaneously. Workers complained that this would cause unemployment and consequently, would bring down wages. On 27th January, 1913, 800 employees of the Doherty Silk Mill went on strike when four members of the workers' committee were fired for trying to organize a meeting with the company's management to discuss the four-loom system. Within a week, all silk workers were on strike and the 300 mills in the town were forced to close. John Reed decided to report on the Paterson Strike. He was soon arrested and imprisoned in Paterson County Jail. Walter Lippmann arrived to show solidarity with Reed and to support the demand that reporters should be free to report industrial disputes.

Like his mentor, Lincoln Steffens, Lippmann supported Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive Party in the 1912 presidential elections. Lippmann's book, A Preface to Politics (1913) was well-received and the following year he joined Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl in establishing the political weekly, the New Republic.

Lippmann rejected his earlier socialism in Drift and Mastery (1914) and in 1916 became a staunch supporter of Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party. In May 1917 Lippmann married Faye Albertson. The following month he was appointed as assistant to Newton Baker, Wilson's Secretary of War. Lippmann worked closely with Woodrow Wilson and Edward House in drafting the Fourteen Points Peace Programme. He was a member of the USA's delegation to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and helped draw up the covenant of the League of Nations.

In 1920 Lippmann left the New Republic to work for the New York World. Later that year he argued in A Test of the News that the coverage of the Russian Revolution in the New York Times was biased and inaccurate. His controversial books, Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925), raised doubts about the possibility of developing a true democracy in a modern, complex society.

New York Word editorial staff: Seated, left to right, Charles Merz, Walter Lippmann, John L. Heaton. Standing: William O. Scroggs, James M. Cain, Allan Nevins, Rollin Kirby and L.R.E. Paulin.
New York Word editorial staff: Seated, left to right, Charles Merz,
Walter Lippmann, John L. Heaton. Standing: William O. Scroggs, James M. Cain, Allan Nevins, Rollin Kirby and L.R.E. Paulin.

Lippmann became editor of the New York World in 1929, but after it closed in 1931, he moved to the New York Herald Tribune. For the next 30 years Lippmann wrote the nationally syndicated column, Today and Tomorrow. Lippmann developed a very pragmatic approach to politics and during this period supported six Republican and seven Democratic presidential candidates.

In the 1930s, with the support of Helen Rogers Reid, the owner of New York Herald Tribune, he worked very closely with British Security Coordination (BSC). Released BSC documents list Lippmann as "among those who rendered service of particular value". Thomas E. Mahl, the author of Desperate Deception: British Covert Operations in the United States, 1939-44 (1998) has argued: "In late winter or early spring 1940, Lippmann even told the British to initiate Secret Intelligence Service operations against American isolationists. His exact thoughts are unknown. His specific ideas were 'too delicate' for the British Foreign Office to put to paper, but the idea is quite clear. Lippmann was a heavy weight. His suggestions on how to handle the American public reached as high as the British War Cabinet."

His public papers show he was in regular contact with Ivar Bryce, an BSC agent. Nicholas J. Cull, the author of Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American Neutrality (1996), has argued: "During the summer of 1941, he (Bryce) became eager to awaken the United States to the Nazi threat in South America." It was especially important for the British Security Coordination to undermine the propaganda of the American First Committee. Bryce recalls in his autobiography, You Only Live Once (1975): "Sketching out trial maps of the possible changes, on my blotter, I came up with one showing the probable reallocation of territories that would appeal to Berlin. It was very convincing: the more I studied it the more sense it made... were a genuine German map of this kind to be discovered and publicised among... the American Firsters, what a commotion would be caused."

William Stephenson, who once argued that "nothing deceives like a document", approved the idea and the project was handed over to Station M, the phony document factory in Toronto run by Eric Maschwitz, of the Special Operations Executive (SOE). It took them only 48 hours to produce "a map, slightly travel-stained with use, but on which the Reich's chief map makers... would be prepared to swear was made by them." Stephenson now arranged for the FBI to find the map during a raid on a German safe-house on the south coast of Cuba. J. Edgar Hoover handed the map over to William Donovan. His executive assistant, James R. Murphy, delivered the map to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The historian, Thomas E. Mahl argues that "as a result of this document Congress dismantled the last of the neutrality legislation."

Ivar Bryce wrote to Lippmann in March 1942. He sent him a book by Hugo Artuco Fernandez that had been written at the behest of British intelligence."I am sending you a copy of my friend Artuco's book, which I think will interest you... Some of it sounds rather alarming and exaggerated but it is much more accurate than most books on South America.... If you felt at all inclined to write anything about the dangers to South America, I could give you any number of facts which have never been published, but which my friends here would like to see judiciously made public at this point."

After the Second World War, Lippmann returned to the liberal views of his youth. A supporter of Henry Wallace he argued against the foreign policies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, believing that it was necessary to respect a Soviet sphere of influence in Europe. During this period he became the first writer to use the phrase "cold war". He upset leaders of both the Democratic and Republican parties when he opposed the Korean War, McCarthyism and the Vietnam War.

On the publication of the Warren Report, Lippmann supported the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in assassinating John F. Kennedy. He wrote in his syndicated column, Today and Tomorrow on 29th September, 1964, that there was "no ground on which any contemporary man, here or abroad, should question the verdict". However, he told his friend, Ronald Steel, that he suspected that Kennedy had been killed as part of a conspiracy.

Walter Lippmann died on 14th December, 1974.

Primary Sources

(1) Lincoln Steffens, Autobiography (1931)

It was late summer when I went to Cambridge. The graduated class of Harvard was scattered. There were a few of them left around Boston, and some professors. I described the man I was after, not the job I had to offer. If you mention a job, people think of a "friend who needs a job." I asked for the ablest mind that could express itself in writing. Three names were offered, only three, and after a little conversation everybody agreed on one - Walter Lippmann. I found Lippmann, saw right away what his classmates saw in him. He asked me intelligent, not practical, questions about my proposition and when they were answered, gave up the job he had and came home to New York to work with me on my Wall Street series of articles. It was reporting. I was writing in my house in Connecticut. He went to Wall Street for facts, which he reported to me. He "caught on" right away. Keen, quiet, industrious, he understood the meaning of all that he learned; and he asked the men he met for more than I asked him for. He searched them; I know it because he searched me, too, for my ideas and theories. My view that our work was scientific and that I should be able to predict the facts he went forth to find, he heard with canny doubt. To put it to a test we picked out a little, lively business community in south Jersey where there was a big business, a packing-house center. I had never been there, but I described the system of politics and business as it must exist there if our picture of Wall Street and government was right. He took a train, investigated the town, and brought back a report which met the prediction; it was printed, I think, later...

While Lippmann was with me we muckraked Greenwich, Connecticut, the town of which Riverside was a part. I had been lecturing, and one evening in a theater in an eastern Connecticut city I was interrupted by a man in a box. He rose and said that what I described of the corruption of cities might be true of New York, Philadelphia, and points west, but no such conditions prevailed in Connecticut. That city, for example, was not corrupt. I learned later that my heckler was a leading banker; all I could see at the moment was that he was a commanding, respected man. I replied that I did not know his town, but I did know some of Connecticut. "You may not know it, but I happen to be a resident of Greenwich, Connecticut, and I can tell you that that town is as corrupt as any city in the United States. Shall I describe Greenwich?" He sat down, didn't want me to speak of Greenwich, but there was a mischievous young editor in Greenwich, Norman Talcott, who reported what I had said of the town and challenged me to prove my libel. A town meeting was called and Lippmann investigated the town, he and my colored gardener. My wife was very ill at the time, and I could not leave the house. Lippmann gathered records; the colored boy "hung out around" the politicians and gathered the gossip. He said that there was betting on the result and that the bosses were giving odds that I'd win. I would myself have bet on my plan.

(2) Walter Lippmann, Drift and Mastery (1914)

There is no doubt, I think, that President Wilson and his party represent primarily small business in a war against the great interests. Socialists speak of his administration as a revolution within the bounds of capitalism. Wilson doesn't really fight the oppressions of property. He fights the evil done by large property-holders to small ones. The temper of his administration was revealed very clearly when the proposal was made to establish a Federal Trade Commission. It was suggested at once by leading spokesmen of the Democratic Party that corporations with a capital of less than a million dollars should be exempted from supervision. Is that because little corporations exploit labor or the consumer less? Not a bit of it. It is because little corporations are in control of the political situation.

But there are certain obstacles to the working out of the New Freedom. First of all, there was a suspicion in Wilson's mind, even during the campaign, that the tendency to large organization was too powerful to be stopped by legislation. So he left open a way of escape from the literal achievement of what the New Freedom seemed to threaten. "I am for big business' he said, "and I am against the trusts." That is a very subtle distinction, so subtle, I suspect, that no human legislation will ever be able to make it. The distinction is this: big business is a business that has survived competition; a trust is an arrangement to do away with competition. But when competition is done away with, who is the Solomon wise enough to know whether the result was accomplished by superior efficiency or by agreement among the competitors or by both?

The big trusts have undoubtedly been built up in part by superior business ability, and by successful competition, but also by ruthless competition, by underground arrangements, by an intricate series of facts which no earthly tribunal will ever be able to disentangle. And why should it try? These great combinations are here. What interests us is not their history but their future. The point is whether you are going to split them up, and if so into how many parts. Once split, are they to be kept from coming together again? Are you determined to prevent men who could cooperate from cooperating? Wilson seems to imply that a big business which has survived competition is to be let alone, and the trusts attacked. But as there is no real way of distinguishing between them, he leaves the question just where he found it: he must choose between the large organization of business and the small.

(3) Herbert Aptheker, Walter Lippmann and Democracy (1955)

Back in 1933, the editors of The Nation, in introducing a series of four articles devoted to Walter Lippmann, remarked that he was "probably the most influential American journalist of our time." A similar estimate is true for our own day both in terms of the extensive audience reached by his columns (they appear in about 140 U.S. newspapers, 17 Latin American, 9 Canadian, and in Australian, Greek, Japanese and other papers throughout the world) and in terms of the special seriousness with which so much of his audience studies his opinions.

This year there has appeared Mr. Lippmann's twentieth book, Essays in The Public Philosophy, (Little, Brown) which for weeks has been among the nation's best-sellers, and reached additional thousands through nearly complete re-publication in a single issue of the reactionary organ, United States News & World Report, and in several issues of the liberal Atlantic Monthly. This offers a good occasion for a critical evaluation of the work of Mr. Lippmann.

In the extensive literature about Walter Lippmann a recurrent theme is his alleged ambiguity. One repeatedly finds such questions as those posed a generation ago by Amos Pinchot: "Has he the liberal and democratic view, or... is he the prophet... of big-business fascism?" The simultaneous publication of extracts from his latest book in the Atlantic on the one hand and U. S. News on the other, indicates the same quality, as do the book's reviews by two writers in the New Republic who find opposite lessons.

The same duality appears in Max Freedman's review of The Public Philosophy in The Nation. He begins by saying: "Few things would be easier than to caricature this book and make out that Walter Lippmann is an enemy of the democratic tradition." Easier or not, Mr. Freedman feels it best "to take Mr. Lippmann at his own evaluation" and for this he quotes Lippmann as saying, early in the volume: "I am a liberal democrat... " Yet, before Mr. Freedman is half through with his own review, he is discussing Lippmann's "condemnation of the democratic process" - peculiar conduct for a liberal democrat who is a friend of the democratic tradition.

Related to this apparent duality is another striking feature of the literature concerning Lippmann. Since the day, over thirty years ago, that Mr. Lippmann left the then very young New Republic to join the editorial staff of the New York World to the day of the appearance of his latest volume, writers have commented upon what they described as Lippmann's change in what had been liberal or even radical views. Mr. Lippmann is forever the "former liberal."

A generation ago, his New Republic colleague, Herbert Croly reported a Lippmann shift and attributed it to "unpardonable opportunism"; and just the other day, R. H. S. Crossman headed his piece on The Public Philosophy, "Mr. Lippmann Loses Faith." In this case the Lippmann shift was attributed to the "snapping of his patience" after years of "throwing the pearls of his expertise before the swine of a vast syndicated readership" (New Statesman & Nation, June 11, 1955). Others, including Carl Friedrich, Heinz-Eulau and Max Lerner, have offered varying explanations": for what they have viewed at different times as sharp changes in Lippmann's position...

We shall not enter into the game of guessing Mr. Lippmann's motivations because we do not know him or them; because we are interested in his ideas, not his psyche; and because, therefore, his personal motivations are irrelevant to our inquiry.

We have, however, indicated the prevalence and range of the guessing to show the nearly unanimous assumption that notable inconsistency has marked Mr. Lippmann's career. This, we think, is wrong. Mr. Lippmann, with the exception of his extreme youth, has always been anti-democratic; his latest book confirms and sharpens his anti-democratic outlook. (This point is made in the discerning review of The Public Philosophy by Prof. H.H. Wilson, in I.F. Stone’s Weekly, June 27, 1955.) This is said despite Lippmann's insistence in the book that he is "a liberal democrat" and despite Mr. Freedman's warning that such a characterization as I have offered is actually a caricature of the man's views. It is not a caricature. Mr. Lippmann is, and has been for at least thirty years, a systematic opponent of democracy because he has been a principled proponent of monopoly capitalism.

It is true, of course, that Lippmann's banner has fluttered with the breeze - and nearly bowed to an occasional storm but the heart of the matter is that even his semantically most liberal works contain an anti-democratic essence. For the past generation and more this essence has been scantily disguised; with The Public Philosophy, issued in the midst of a "New Conservatism" upsurge, the essence is distilled and boldly presented.