The value of Walter Lippmann—apart from his staying-power—has been his immunity to intellectual and political fashions, particularly to those of the 1930s. In the Thirties, while others were moving left, Lippmann moved to the right. He condemned Stalinism as a form of totalitarianism at a time when it was still fashionable to dismiss objections to the Soviet regime as evincing an old-maldish preference for “political” against “economic” democracy. Even the New Deal struck Lippmann as a dangerous centralization of power, and his skepticism about President Roosevelt—“a pleasant man who, without any important qualifications for the office, would very much like to be President”—seemed so uncommonly perverse, in the midst of the general adulation, that historians are still apologizing for it. Later, when Lippmann attacked McCarthyism, developed reservations about Eisenhower (whom he supported in 1952), and called for a more conciliatory approach to Soviet Russia, he regained the esteem—the somewhat grudging esteem—of American liberals. But they never forgave him for his opposition to the New Deal. That remained the great exception to the rule, once more safely established, of Mr. Lippmann’s infallibility: an-aberration, an inexplicable lapse of judgment, a momentary fall from grace. But this lapse, if that is what it was and, in addition, his early opposition to communism, enabled Lippmann to weather the storms of the cold war where others foundered. It was not simply that, having established unimpeachable anti-communist credentials, he could not be dismissed when began to criticize the way the cold war was being fought. It was important, in the hysterical climate of the cold war, that he did not have to apologize to his detractors; but it was even more important that he did not have to apologize to himself. He escaped the ordeal of confession and expiation through which so many others thought they had to pass. It was not necessary for him to atone for past sins by a display of uncompromising anti-communism. So it came about that the conservative, the critic of Stalin, the opponent of Roosevelt, was able to emerge in the late Forties as one of the most effective and persistent critics of “containment.”
Once again Mr. Lippmann found himself out of step. The liberal press rang with cries for the suppression of militant communist expansion. Truman had become a hero, the defender of the free world; Acheson represented the highest development of the diplomatic art. Mr. Lippmann was not impressed. From the very beginning, when it became clear that we had abandoned the wartime alliance with Russia and had decided to gamble everything on a showdown with communism, Lippmann saw how these policies implied an effort, hopeless in the long run, to impose our will everywhere, even in Russia itself. He saw too how they committed us to a counterrevolutionary crusade. As early as 1945, the United States pushed through the admission of Peronist Argentina to the United Nations, violating earlier promises to Russia. Lippmann warned that we “had adopted a line of conduct which, if it becomes our regular line, will have the most disastrous consequences.” When the announcement of the Truman doctrine committed us still more firmly to containment, Lippmann tried to explain the terrible rigidity of such a policy. The objections he set out in 1947 were taken up ten years later by George F. Kennan, one of the authors of containment; and they have now, of course, become familiar to anyone who reads anything to the left of The New Leader. But in 1947 most Americans were too impressed with the military power of the Soviet Union and too eager to apply the “lesson of Munich” to see that revolution, not “aggression,” was to he the central fact of the postwar world.
Since 1960, Mr. Lippmann has submitted to annual televised interviews by correspondents of CBS. These “conversations,” now collected and published, testify once more to Lippmann’s wide-ranging powers of analysis and to the lucidity of his exposition of events. They also remind us of the limits within which his critique of containment has evolved—limits inherent in the political and philosophical position, set forth in some of his more formal works, which Lippmann has come to occupy. He has criticized the rigidity, the lack of imagination, and even the inhumanity with which the United States has carried on the cold war, but he has not criticized the major premise of the cold war itself: that the United States must meet the Soviet “challenge”—outproduce the Soviet economy, outstrip Soviet achievements in science and technology, and maintain a decisive military advantage. To be sure, Lippmann has argued that the United States is overcommitted abroad—and that it is more important to get on with our own business than to police the world. He has for years been one of the few intelligent critics of our Vietnam policy writing regularly in the daily press. But he has a way of defining our business by referring it to the international competition with communism. Thus in the 1960 interview his ideas about education seemed to reflect the widespread post-Sputnik alarm that the Russians were turning out more scientists than we were. “We don’t spend enough on scientific research…medical research and research into space things and so on.”
There is very little moral urgency in Lippmann’s discussions of our domestic affairs. He barely mentions the civil rights question in these interviews, and then only to commend Johnson on the progress he is making, even though it is precisely within the last five years, the years covered by these interviews, that the moral urgency of the civil rights movement has become unambiguous and the inadequacy of liberal administrations, for all their genuine accomplishments here, increasingly evident.
What one misses, in these interviews, is a recognition that education and civil rights and the state of our cities are important in themselves. Lippmann sees defects in American life, but he discusses them without any sense of crisis. His attitude toward these matters is like Kennedy’s: he thinks of them as unfinished business, he wants to get America moving again. He does not consider that it may indeed be moving already, at a calamitous pace, toward a bureaucratized, militarized repressive state. He does not reflect that the war in Vietnam, which he deplores, may be not simply a failure of policy but an expression of what America has become—a society which, ostensibly committed to egalitarianism, cannot see what Negroes in Watts or students in Saigon have to riot about, and which has only one means of dealing with such situations—suppression of the promoters. President Johnson, after Watts, could only deplore the violence on both sides—as if a weekend of looking were the equivalent of using the full resources of the local authorities for medical and economic subjection; or, indeed, the moral equivalent of the inhumanity of Los Angeles itself, a city which in our lifetime has been razed to the ground and rebuilt, not for people but for cars. The President’s commitment to the Great Society, in the face of such atrocities, does not go beyond exhortations to moderation and restraint; but does Lippmann go much further?
Lippmann did devote a recent column (September 7) to the Los Angeles riot, in which he showed that the violence and looting reflected not only the national failure to make free men of the Negroes but the failure to make our cities “civilized and safe.” But he characteristically saw these failures, “enormous” as they might be, as exceptions; he saw them as having “marred” our progress. A more disturbing possibility is that they are part of our progress: the price we pay for a system that never had to meet any other test than the production of goods. For Lippmann, the dehumanization of American cities and the brutalizing of the Negro remain technical rather than moral problems which can be solved by central planning; and his main worry is not that any solution would necessarily disturb vested interests—“that can be endured and absorbed in a nation which is in the main so well off”—but that the planners themselves will have neither the time nor the imagination for the task. The problem presents itself to Lippmann, in short, as a problem of leadership. But it may be that it is precisely the cult of leadership, which his own writings nowadays seem so often to reflect, that atrophies the will to solve our problems democratically. And it may be that unless they are solved democratically, they cannot he solved at all; for measures imposed from above, as we have learned from experience, are dictated by the requirements of bureaucratic evasion and delay. Centralized governments seek first of all to perpetuate themselves; they must not offend the powerful interests whose support is necessary to their survival. Real solutions will have to come from below.
It is strange that Lippmann should have come to put so much faith in leaders and leadership. There was a time when he thought otherwise. The Good Society, published in 1937, was a powerful attack on central planning and the centralized state. It described with great acuteness the process of “gradual collectivization,” showing that what liberals had come to uphold as the “broker state” really meant the rule of powerful pressure groups, buttressed by the awesome power of centralized government. “Reformers,” Lippmann noted, “justified the return to an authoritarian state by the fiction that the state now belonged to the people” but in fact “the official state has grown so large that the legislature has only the vaguest idea of what the officials are doing, and is wholly incapable of holding them to account.”
Nothing has happened since 1937 to diminish the force of these observations; yet at some point Lippmann abandoned this line of thought for the one that dominates his present commentary on the political scene. By 1955, when he wrote The Public Philosophy, he had become convinced that the country suffered not from an excess but from a breakdown of central authority, a “derangement of powers” in which the “massive negative” of mass opinion increasingly paralyzed the conduct of policy. Lippmann thus completed his journey from progressivism (Drift and Mastery, 1914) through classical liberalism (The Good Society) to Tocquevillean conservatism: now he found the greatest danger to liberty neither in the weight of tradition nor the rapacity of interests, but in the tyranny of the majority—in the language of the mid-twentieth century, the “mass society.” One of the most striking features of the polities of the cold war, it would seem, has been the unprecedented delegation of legislative powers—even the power to declare war—to the executive; yet Lippmann now held that precisely the reverse had occurred. “The enormous expansion of public expenditure, chiefly for war and reconstruction,” had “augmented the power” of legislative assemblies and served “to devitalize, to enfeeble, and to eviscerate the executive powers.”
Observation should have contradicted these theories at once. They survived, however, to become the groundwork of Lippmann’s commentary on international events. The “drama of our age,” he now believes, is the question, as one of his interviewers, Howard K. Smith, put it, whether “a free, loose-jointed, easy-going society like the American democracy can compete with a tightly concentrated, tightly controlled, secret dictatorship like that of the Soviet Union and Red China.” What can have happened to the author of The Good Society to make him acquiesce in this description of America? Whatever the reason, this complacency about the virtues of the “very strong government” which Lippmann says is necessary to win the cold war drastically limits the effectiveness of his criticisms of American foreign policy.
Having said all this, one turns back to the memorable conclusion of Lippmann’s interview with Smith. He has been describing his feeling that we are “overexpanded”:
And then behind that all lies a very personal and human feeling—that I don’t think old men ought to promote wars for young men to fight. I don’t like warlike old men. I think it’s their business to try as best they can, by whatever wisdom they can find, to avert what would be an absolutely irreparable calamity for the world.
Lippmann’s decency, sobriety, and reasonableness are almost unique among political commentators in America. If one sometimes questions his faith in the good sense of our leaders and in the underlying soundness of American society, one has to admire the way in which he has made those assumptions the occasion not for the self-congratulatory effusions that usually pass for political analysis but for a continuing criticism of American life. Whatever his intellectual vicissitudes, Lippmann has never stopped writing as if his readers could bear to hear the truth. Where would we be without him?
December 9, 1965