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Lippmann & Schwimmer

In response to:

Lippmann and the Schwimmer Case from the March 19, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

I was distressed that Ms. Wynner in her letter [NYR, March 19] inferred from my book, Walter Lippmann and the American Century, that Lippmann supported the Supreme Court’s denial of citizenship to Rosika Schwimmer in 1929. What I wrote, on p. 233, was that “Lippmann’s reaction to the Sacco-Vanzetti affair was similar to that of the Schwimmer case two years later….” What was that similar reaction? On the previous pages I demonstrate at considerable length how Lippmann supported Sacco and Vanzetti, though it was not an emotional, or even deeply felt cause for him. For example, on p. 232 I say: “While Lippmann did want to save the condemned men, the issue was not an emotional one for him. He cared with his head rather than his heart.”

In his New York World editorial of May 31, 1929 (Ms. Wynner claims I erroneously refer to an editorial of May 29, 1929, but I can find no such reference in my book) Lippmann criticizes the Court’s reasoning in denying citizenship to Schwimmer. He does so, however, not on the free speech grounds proclaimed by Justice Holmes in his famous dissent (“if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those that agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate”) but on the more narrow legal issue that Schwimmer was being treated differently from a native pacifist. In the very editorial that Ms. Wynner quotes he states: “The position of the majority of the Court would be a good deal simpler to understand if, instead of raising questions which impugn the civic loyalty of Americans so well regarded as the Quakers, they had, if they wished to do so, denied Madame Schwimmer’s application on the narrow ground of the working of the Naturalization Act.” He then points out that the Court would still have to draw a distinction between aliens and native-born citizens on the question of conscience.

Lack of space in an already very long book prevented me from going into this issue in detail, or from quoting the interesting correspondence between Lippmann and Felix Frankfurter, then a professor at Harvard Law School. “For the first time I felt that Holmes had not come to grips with the question, though naturally I liked his general remarks,” Lippmann wrote Frankfurter. “Of course the treatment of Madame Schwimmer was persecution, but the theoretical issue raised is one on which frankly I haven’t been able to form an opinion. I know how I feel in particular cases in regard to conscientious objectors, but I have never been able to arrive at any general principle that satisfied” (6/4/29). Despite Frankfurter’s assertion of being “flabbergasted” that Lippmann did not share Holmes’s view of the case as a free speech issue, Lippmann stuck to his guns, and in a later editorial for the World (6/26/29 [a typographical error in my book lists this as 6/6/29]) again resists Holmes’s contention that advocating refusal to bear arms even in wartime should be considered under free speech. “The theoretical issue raised in the Schwimmer case is whether an alien may become a citizen if he holds the same view of war as a native Quaker…. In view of the fact that conscription is not our permanent policy, it would seem to be going pretty far for judges to deal with applicants for citizenship as if conscription was our permanent policy.”

Ms. Wynner is quite correct in observing that Lippmann’s editorial is pro-Schwimmer. I am sorry if I did not make this sufficiently clear, though I thought I had. She also quite rightly points out that Schwimmer’s first name is correctly Rosika, and that her citizenship was denied by the Court rather than taken away.

Ronald Steel

New York City

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