He misled me.
—Walter Lippmann on LBJ, May 21, 1967
The affair of Lyndon Johnson and Walter Lippmann began, as most affairs do, with invitations and flattery, and it ended in recriminations and a feeling of betrayal.
Lippmann knew that Johnson wanted to go down in history as the true descendant of Franklin Roosevelt, as the man who actually achieved the great reforms that John F. Kennedy had only promised. He encouraged Johnson in that ambition, and hailed the president as “a bold innovator.” He admired the civil rights legislation Johnson pushed through Congress before he stood for election in 1964. Rarely, he rejoiced a few weeks after the inauguration, had a new administration shown “such a coherent program, such insight and resourcefulness.” *
LBJ soaked up the compliments, but he had something on his mind besides the Great Society: Vietnam. Even while he had been assuring the American people, during the election campaign, that their “boys” should not be sent to do the job of South Vietnamese “boys,” he was secretly making plans to expand the war by bombing North Vietnam. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution, casually approved by Congress in August 1964, provided the legal authorization in the form of a blank check. All the president needed was a pretext. It came soon enough, early in February 1965, when Vietnamese communist forces attacked the base at Pleiku, killing seven Americans. Within hours the United States retaliated by bombing military sites in North Vietnam.
Another barrier had been breached, although few realized its full meaning at the time. Lippmann was among those who misread it, defending the bombing as a “test of American will.” Had the administration not retaliated, he explained, the Chinese would have labeled the United States a “paper tiger,” thus backing up their view that Moscow’s policy of peaceful coexistence with the capitalists was absurd. “President Johnson profoundly desires to avoid war, but his power to do that is not unlimited nor can he be counted on not to be provoked if the provocation is continual and cumulative,” Lippmann warned.
He supported the air strike on the grounds that LBJ, having now proved his toughness, could negotiate a settlement. He was sure that the Russians were pushing Hanoi toward a compromise—“The Russians have every interest in keeping the war from spreading,” he told his research assistant Elizabeth Farmer, “even though they will probably do things to reassure the North Vietnamese, like putting in missiles and the like, that simple-minded people here will find disturbing”—and was trying to nudge Johnson in the same direction. The retaliatory air strikes would put the United States in “a better bargaining position for a negotiation,” he wrote a few days after Pleiku, adding that LBJ’s “great predecessors, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, never thought they could have a military solution without at the same time a diplomatic offensive.”
Six days later, on February 17, 1965, Lippmann went to the White House to talk with McGeorge Bundy. That very morning he had written, in the column to appear the following day, that it was time for the administration to announce that it sought a cease-fire and an international conference to end the war. It would be a “supreme folly” for the United States to become involved in an Asian land war, he wrote. “While the warhawks would rejoice when it began, the people would weep before it ended.” Unknown to him, Pleiku was just the opening salvo of the administration’s long-planned and carefully concealed “Rolling Thunder” offensive against the North. That afternoon at the White House, Bundy, giving no hint of the plan to expand the war, told Lippmann what he wanted to hear: that the president truly sought a negotiated settlement.
Lippmann had every reason to believe him. He and Bundy had long been on close terms. And Bundy was certainly in a position to know the administration’s intentions, for he had been at Pleiku during the attack and had personally ordered the retaliation. On the day after his talk with Bundy, Lippmann taped his seventh—and, as it turned out, his final—TV interview in a series he recorded for CBS. Although the war hawks were powerful, he told Eric Severeid, “they’re not found in the interior and at the top of the White House—that I feel sure of…. The president is not a war hawk,” he insisted. Johnson’s bombing policy was “strictly controlled and regulated,” and was confined to the “rather empty country” just above the borderland of the seventeenth parallel. They were really “public relations jobs” more than military attacks, Lippmann explained, echoing what Bundy had told him. “I don’t think they kill anybody…because what we bomb is wooden sheds.”
Even though he trusted Bundy’s version of the bombing campaign, Lippmann began to suspect that his plea for negotiations was not making much of an impact. On March 1 a story appeared in the papers that Frank Church—one of the first senators to come out openly against the war—had cited Lippmann as an authority in urging a negotiated settlement. At a White House meeting for a key group of senators Johnson had, according to newspaper reports, glowered at the Idaho Democrat in his most intimidating manner and said, “Frank, the next time you want a dam in Idaho, you just go to Walter Lippmann for it.”
The story hit the papers while Lippmann was in New York, where he had gone to deliver an address to the United Nations. His research assistant Elizabeth Farmer phoned to tell him about the story, which she found amusing. But he took it with deadly earnestness. “I’m afraid they don’t like me very much at the White House,” he responded glumly. “I’m not angry about it—just sorry, sorry for the president. It shows how wrong his estimate of a man like Church is, that he thinks you can trade dams against questions of war or peace.” As it turned out, LBJ had never made the remark about the dam; the journalist had heard the story second-hand and then garbled it. Johnson’s only comment about Lippmann, Church told him when they met a few days later, had been respectful. Lippmann’s reaction to the original story was more interesting than the story itself, for it showed, as his columns confirmed, that he was not a cynical man. Despite half a century of writing about politics, he was still shocked at the notion of trading off dams for war credits.
The dam story was apocryphal, but it gave a true picture of the president’s increasing impatience with the critics of his Vietnam policy. Early in March he complained publicly about the “folks who don’t understand,” a remark that led Lippmann to write a sorrowful column about the “self-delusion” of assuming a foreign policy was right if nobody dissented. “At the bottom of this self-delusion, if we search deeply enough, we shall find a visceral feeling that, as compared with foreigners, we are always right and never wrong,” he wrote. “If therefore we are agreed among ourselves, none can withstand us because none should withstand us, and we shall and must prevail.” By expecting conformity, Johnson was evoking “visceral feelings” that would make the whole business unmanageable, Lippmann warned.
Among those provoking Johnson were journalists like Joseph Alsop, who questioned in his columns whether LBJ was man enough to stand up to the communists, and many of the president’s advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Saigon Ambassador Maxwell Taylor, counselor Walt Rostow, and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. “I watched Rusk on television last night,” Lippmann told Elizabeth Farmer. “He’s a very intelligent stupid man. He doesn’t examine his premises. His reasoning is based on misplaced historical analogies, like what happened in the 1930s or in World War II. He’s like Joe Alsop in that respect. The trouble with Rusk is that he’s been promoted one level too high. He would have made a good undersecretary.”
Johnson, disturbed by Lippmann’s growing estrangement, invited him back to the White House on March 15 for lunch. The president showed him a great batch of diplomatic cables and intelligence reports, and read to Lippmann glowing accounts of American success against the Vietcong. “I don’t understand why those people in Hanoi won’t negotiate with me,” he complained. Lippmann suggested that maybe the reason was that he had never indicated what kind of settlement he was willing to accept. “Your policy is all stick and no carrot, Mr. President,” Lippmann explained. “You’re bombing them without offering any incentive for them to stop fighting; in effect you’re giving them a choice between destruction and withdrawal.” A dark cloud crossed Johnson’s face. He waved his hand impatiently and changed the subject, reading Lippmann the draft of a speech he was planning to give to Congress on Negro voting rights.
Johnson, who prided himself on his ability to manipulate people, realized he wasn’t getting through. Once, in a state of exasperation, he had said of Lippmann: “Every time I pull my chair nearer that guy, he pulls his chair further away.” He meant it as a reproach. His long years in politics had told him that every man had his vulnerable point. With Lippmann he had tried flattery, but had not had much effect. Now, at lunch, he would take a different tack: he would be the puzzled executive humbly seeking advice from the wise elder. As the servants were bringing in dessert LBJ turned from a frenetic monologue that had wandered from Texas county politics to the state of his digestive system, and returned to the subject of Vietnam. “Now about that peace offensive you mentioned, Walter. Tell me just what it is you have in mind.”
Seizing the opportunity, Lippmann explained why he believed the Pentagon’s bombing campaign would never bring Hanoi to the conference table. The North Vietnamese would suffer, but they would take whatever punishment the Americans could inflict. The only way to get them to negotiate was to outline what kind of compromise settlement the United States had in mind. A bombing campaign without a sketch for a political settlement was simply a demand for unconditional surrender. The war could go on forever. Johnson thought a moment and then got Bundy on the phone. “Mac, I’ve got Walter Lippmann over here and he says we’re not doing the right thing. Maybe he’s right.” Lippmann stayed on at the White House until 4:30 and returned home to Woodley Road in an elated mood. “I made quite an impression on the president with the peace offensive idea,” he told Farmer. “He asked me to think it over some more and said he’d come over and have a drink next week.”
Two days later, at LBJ’s request, Lippmann met Bundy for lunch at the Metropolitan Club. Lippmann elaboorated his suggestion for a “peace offensive”—one that he had laid out for the public in the column he had written that morning—and urged that the president make a declaration, something along the lines of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Lippmann left, guardedly optimistic that the president could yet be turned around, if he could be lured away from the hawkish advisers who were pressing for a military victory.
Reports by independent journalists, particularly a series by Richard Dudman in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, made it clear that the air war was not slowing the communist advance and that the South Vietnamese were on the verge of collapse. The war was at a turning point. Johnson was under pressure to extend the bombing campaign to the heavily populated areas around Hanoi and Haiphong, and to send a third of a million American soldiers to fight the Vietcong. As a first step Johnson dispatched a contingent of marines to protect the American base at Da Nang. Lippmann stepped up his own campaign. “I think I wrote something that will get under their skins,” he said to Farmer as he finished his article. “That’s what I want.” The nation, he wrote in his column, was on the brink of a vastly expanded war. The public was being told that events in Vietnam “decide the future of ‘wars of liberation.’ ” This “profoundly false notion,” he declared, showed a
lamentable lack of knowledge and understanding of the revolutionary upheavals of the epoch in which we live. It assumes that revolutionary uprisings against established authorities are manufactured in Peking or in Moscow, and that they would not happen if they were not instigated, supported, and directed from one of the capitals of communism…. They little know the hydra who think that the hydra has only one head and that it can be cut off.
A week later, on April 6, Lippmann got a message from Bundy that the president wanted to see him that afternoon. As far as the administration was concerned, Lippmann was getting to be a bit of a problem. He was not at all sympathetic to the effort to achieve a military victory, and indeed did not seem particularly concerned whether the communists even took over South Vietnam. While he was unlikely to be won over, there was at least some hope of neutralizing him.
To disarm criticism by Lippmann and others, Johnson had had his aides prepare a speech declaring his willingness to engage in “unconditional discussions” with Hanoi about a possible peace plan. Such discussions did not, of course, commit either side to any particular course of action. But the offer might assuage those critics who feared the administration was intent on a military solution.
Bundy sent the president a memo suggesting that he show Lippmann an advance draft of the speech. “A part of our purpose, after all, is to plug his guns,” Bundy pointed out, “and he can tell us better than anyone to what degree we have done so.” The only risk was the need to be “awfully careful that the language we finally use is not harder than what he sees, and for that reason it may be better to read to him from the speech and to slide gently past the words ‘unconditional discussions.’ ” Bundy also suggested that Johnson “make it clear to Lippmann that when we say we are ready to talk, we do not at all mean that we are ready for a cease-fire. The fact is that we expect our own military action to continue unless we see a prospect of a better situation in the South than we have now. Walter needs to understand this, and if he gets it straight from you, he is less likely to be objectionable about it.” Lippmann, he pointed out, had a “useful tendency to think the president himself is right,” even though he might believe the president’s aides were wrong. Johnson would now try to make the most of that “tendency.”
Dusk was just falling as Lippmann drove his car past the security guards onto the White House grounds. An aide greeted him at the door and led him to an anteroom off the Oval Office. There he found the president sitting on a raised platform. To his left a sculptor stood, molding his bust in clay. Aides rushed in and out, bearing documents and messages. A television set flickered in the corner. Distant buzzers and telephones rang. It was the usual chaos that surrounded Lyndon Johnson.
“Ah, Walter,” the president said as Lippmann entered the room. “You just make yourself comfortable on that sofa over there and we’ll have a little talk.” Lippmann took a seat, assumed his usual air of quizzical detachment, and waited. “Walter, I’m going up to Baltimore tomorrow to give a speech,” Johnson continued, “and I’m going to hold out that carrot you keep talking to me about. Now Mac here,” he said, nodding toward Bundy, “is going to show you the speech, and I want to know what you think of it.” Lippmann took the sheaf of papers but had barely got through the first page when Johnson started bellowing at him. “I’m not just going to pull up my pants and run out on Vietnam,” he declared. “Don’t you know the church is on fire over there and we’ve got to find a way out? There are four doors. Curtis LeMay wants to bomb Hanoi and Haiphong. You know how much he likes to go around bombing. Now I’m not going to do that. That’s why I got him out of my government. Then there’s the Wayne Morse way, which amounts to turning the place over to the communists. I’m sure as hell not going to do that. You say to negotiate, but there’s nobody over there to negotiate with. So the only thing there is to do is to hang on. And that’s what I’m going to do.”
For almost an hour the president carried on a monologue. His listener shifted uneasily on the sofa. Finally he let Lippmann go to another room to talk to Bundy about the speech. They went over the address point by point. Lippmann could not find the carrot. Johnson wanted Hanoi to lay down its arms, but offered virtually nothing in return. “This isn’t going to work, Mac,” Lippmann told the younger man. “It’s just a disguised demand for capitulation. You’ve got to give the communists some incentive to negotiate.” “Like what?” Bundy countered. “Like an unconditional cease-fire,” Lippmann replied. Bundy thought a moment, then said he would see what he could do. For nearly an hour they argued over the feasibility of a cease-fire and of negotiations. Finally at 7:30 Lippmann pleaded that he was exhausted and had to go home. Bundy was reluctant to let him leave. They shook hands, and Lippmann departed, optimistic that there might be a chance for a cease-fire after all.
The next evening Lippmann sat before a television set and watched LBJ deliver his speech at Johns Hopkins University. There was something in it for everybody: hawks found grim allusions to the “deepening shadow of communist China” and the “wider pattern of aggressive purposes”; doves were heartened by a pledge to “use our power with restraint” and to engage in “unconditional discussions” with Hanoi. Yet the tone was uncompromising: “We will not be defeated. We will not grow tired. We will not withdraw, either openly or under the cloak of meaningless agreement.”
Lippmann did not know quite what to make of it. Johnson spoke of negotiations, and had personally told him that the war had to be won on the non-military side. But nowhere in the speech was there mention of a cease-fire. Lippmann thought he had persuaded Bundy of the need for that. But apparently he had failed. There was nothing but the vague call for “unconditional discussions.” Although Lippmann tried to be optimistic, he suspected that the administration meant to do no more than disarm its domestic critics when it offered “discussions” without indicating what kind of settlement it had in mind. At the White House Bundy told him that LBJ was not going to expand the bombing to North Vietnam’s urban centers, but also made clear that he would not negotiate so long as Saigon remained weak. That meant, Lippmann was convinced, that the war would go on indefinitely.
For months Lippmann had been trying to persuade the administration that it was folly for the US to rush around the world attempting to extinguish revolutions while neglecting its own vital interests. What were those interests? “A primary vital interest is one in which the security and well-being of a nation are involved. Our security and well-being are not involved in Southeast Asia or Korea and never have been.” Ever since the end of World War II the United States had been committed far beyond its primary vital interest and even beyond its military and political reach. “If it is said that this is isolationism, I would say yes. It is isolationism if the limitation of our power is isolationism. It is isolationism as compared with the globalism which became fashionable after the Second World War.”
Having confronted head-on the accusation of isolationism, Lippmann explained that it was as “abnormal” for the United States to be in Saigon and Seoul as it was for the Russians to be in Berlin and Prague. The historical process was “like a geological phenomenon, like the subsiding of the earth and the return of the waters after a great upheaval.” The role of the United States was to see that this readjustment came to pass decently and honorably. “The time has come,” he insisted in a gibe against the globalists, “to stop beating our heads against stone walls under the illusion that we have been appointed policeman to the human race.”
As his disillusion mounted, so his attack intensified. He refuted the administration’s accusation that North Vietnam had committed aggression against the South. To the contrary, he maintained: the two Vietnams were never separate countries but only “two zones of one nation.” The president was in “grave trouble because he has not taken to heart the historic fact that the role of the white man as a ruler in Asia” had ended in 1945.
The administration was particularly sensitive on this point, for it had defended its policy on the grounds that it had a “responsibility” to defend “freedom” in South Vietnam. This was, of course, the “world policeman” argument, one that the administration was particularly fond of evoking, and that recently had received powerful expression in a Washington Post editorial. The paper had long been hawkish on the war, and its editorial-page director, Russell Wiggins, had just written an editorial arguing that America was now in imperial Britain’s position. Because of their enormous power and “responsibilities,” great nations “must live in anguish,” the Post editorial concluded. “No country can have great power and a quiet conscience.”
While the editorial greatly pleased Johnson, it struck Lippmann as a globalist fantasy that failed to distinguish between vital interests and peripheral ones, between the protection of one’s own nation and the attempt to impose its will upon smaller ones. “A mature great power will make measured and limited use of its power,” he wrote in an emotional reply.
It will eschew the theory of a global and universal duty which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for righteousness, that each war is a war to end all war.
Since in this generation we have become a great power, I am in favor of learning to behave like a great power, of getting rid of the globalism which would not only entangle us everywhere but is based on the totally vain notion that if we do not set the world in order, no matter what the price, we cannot live in the world safely. If we examine this idea thoroughly, we shall see that it is nothing but the old isolationism of our innocence in a new form. Then we thought we had to preserve our purity by withdrawal from the ugliness of great power politics. Now we sometimes talk as if we could preserve our purity only by policing the globe. But in the real world we shall have to learn to live as a great power which defends itself and makes its way among other great powers.
In his dispute with the administration Lippmann took a pragmatic approach. 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. Such a calculation made it obvious that the US had no business fighting a land war on the mainland of Asia, that it could never win such a war and would suffer grievously if it foolishly persisted in an impossible objective.
Unlike some radical opponents of the war, Lippmann did not object to the application of American military power on principle. He cared only that it not be quixotic, irrational, or self-defeating. Trained in the geopolitics of Mahan and Mackinder, weaned on Theodore Roosevelt’s concept of American strength resting on a two-ocean navy, convinced that both economics and geography dictated that certain areas were more critical than others to America’s vital interest, he could see no justification for an American land war in Asia. In his calculus Europe was vital, Latin America was in Washington’s sphere of influence; the rest of the world, while of great interest, must inevitably be secondary.
While opposed to intervention on a global scale, Lippmann had no serious objection to a little backyard imperialism. When in April 1965 Johnson sent the marines to Santo Domingo to block a leftist coup against the US-supported right-wing military regime, Lippmann initially gave his guarded support. LBJ decided to halt the rebellion, he wrote just after the intervention, on what seemed the “right ground,” that “if the communists took over the government the result would be for all practical purposes irreversible.” The United States, he assured his readers, did not want to restore the “old reactionary regime” of dictator Trujillo, but rather was devoted to a “popular democratic revolution” of the kind represented by Juan Bosch—the democratically elected former president who had been ousted by a military junta. How such an objective would be achieved by using the marines to aid Bosch’s enemies he did not explain.
But Lippmann was less interested in what kind of government ruled the Dominican Republic than in establishing a political rule about intervention. How could the United States defend its action? Not on the ground that it was a “global fire department appointed to stop communism everywhere,” but on the “old-fashioned and classical diplomatic ground that the Dominican Republic lies squarely within the sphere of influence of the United States.” It was “normal, not abnormal, for a great power to insist that within its sphere of influence no other great power shall exercise hostile military and political force.” The fact that the Soviets were not involved in the Dominican coup did not trouble him. He wanted to make a political point: that spheres of influence were “fundamental in the very nature of international society” and not some evil impediment to a beatific “one world.”
The implication was clear: if the United States had the “right” to keep other great powers or even their ideologies out of its sphere in the Caribbean, so the Chinese, by the same token, had the same right in Southeast Asia. Russia had no business in the Dominican Republic—but neither did the United States in Vietnam. “The acceptance of spheres of influence has been the diplomatic foundation of the detente in Europe between the Soviet Union and the West,” Lippmann explained. “Eventually, it will provide the formula of coexistence between Red China and the United States.” Two weeks later, after it became obvious that there had never been a “communist” danger in the Dominican Republic, Lippmann expressed his dismay that the marines had been used to “restore the power of a reactionary military dictatorship.” There was little reason for him to have been surprised; but neither was the subject of overriding concern to him.
Despite his dismay over Johnson’s dramatic expansion of the war in the spring of 1965—by the end of the year there would be 190,000 American troops in Vietnam—he still tried to keep his lines open to the White House. He had been careful not to criticize Johnson personally, but rather the unnamed persons who gave him “bad advice.” Early in May 1965, before setting off for a month in Europe, he had lunch separately with Bundy and McNamara, and reported that the president’s advisers, while “not warmongers and certainly not fascists,” were nonetheless “seized with a grim determination” that the United States should continue its military action until Saigon started to win the war. For his own part, Lippmann confessed, he saw no hope for victory, and suggested that the Americans withdraw to fortified enclaves along the coast, where they would practice a “benevolent neutrality” toward negotiations among the Vietnamese, who would “work out a deal themselves.”
This was hardly what the administration had in mind. It wanted to win the war, not achieve a “benevolent neutrality.” But Johnson and Bundy also did not want to alienate Lippmann, so they kept assuring him that the administration would be willing to negotiate as soon as the military picture brightened just a little. By this time Lippmann had learned not to rely on the White House or the Pentagon for a true picture of what was really happening in Vietnam. He began paying more attention to critics of the war, spent the morning before going to lunch with McNamara listening to a radio broadcast of a university “teach-in” on American policy, and went out of his way to talk to journalists who had been to Vietnam and were skeptical of US military “progress.”
In Paris at the end of May Lippmann talked to Jacques Chaffard, an Indochina expert, who complained that the American papers were censoring the articles he had written for Le Monde and L’Express, reprinting the part that seemed to support the US position but leaving out his pessimistic conclusions. He also revealed that on his recent trip to Washington the two Bundy brothers had given him very different accounts of US objectives. While McGeorge Bundy had told him that the United States was willing to hold discussions with the Vietcong, his brother William, a former CIA official who had become assistant secretary of state for Asian affairs, said that there could be no discussions until the United States had achieved a military victory. This, Chaffard said, would mean sending half a million Americans to fight for five years, and even then there could be no real settlement without the Vietcong. Jean Lacouture of Le Monde and French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville seconded Chaffard’s pessimistic conclusions.
In a long interview the foreign minister told Lippmann that the war would go on for years, that the US bombing would destroy both Vietnams, that the Americans would get tired and leave, and that eventually the country would fall into China’s hands. De Gaulle was even gloomier. Over lunch at the Elysée Palace, the general, after questioning Lippmann closely about American policy, speculated whether the old anti-imperial America had now itself become an imperial power. The great question, de Gaulle said, was no longer Germany or the Soviet Union, and not yet China, but that of imperialism. From that lofty plateau Lippmann gently guided the general back toward a discussion of NATO and the gold standard.
Lippmann came back from Europe in a much more somber mood than when he had left. “I’ve been pulling my punches,” he told Farmer. “I’m just going to have to take out after Johnson’s foreign policy and show that it doesn’t work.” “That won’t be hard,” she said. “No,” he replied sadly, “but it won’t be pleasant either.” He started pressing harder. The Europeans, he reported, questioned the “wisdom and competence” of the administration’s policies. They had not expected that Barry Goldwater’s recommendations about expanding the war, after being rejected by the voters in the 1964 election, “would in such great measure be adopted, by the victors.” They were “shocked” by the expansion of the Vietnam war, the invasion of Santo Domingo, and the administration’s “unlimited globalism.” Among knowledgeable Europeans there was the “strong opinion that in the personal and unilateral exercise of unlimited power, the performance has been that of amateurs inexperienced in the use of power.” This was powerful stuff for Lippmann, for it was a direct attack on the president and his immediate entourage. By the time he and his wife went off to Maine for the summer in mid-June, relations between Woodley Road and the White House had cooled distinctly.
All that summer on Mount Desert Island, as he watched the inexorable intensification of the war, he hammered at the administration’s policies, lamenting that it was too late to neutralize Southeast Asia as de Gaulle had earlier proposed, questioning the US military presence on the Asian mainland, and warning of an unending war in Asia. His appeals, while eloquently, even fervently, argued, fell largely on deaf ears. The president still had the majority of Congress, the public, and the press behind him. Open disagreement was confined to a few Senate mugwumps, such as Frank Church, J. William Fulbright, Wayne Morse, George McGovern, Gaylord Nelson, and Ernest Gruening; a handful of liberal magazines; and a vociferous group of street protesters. Lippmann’s home paper, the Washington Post, remained one of the administration’s most enthusiastic defenders. Katharine Graham, though a woman of ability and drive, had no strong feelings about the war, and allowed her paper’s policy to be set by her pro-war editorial director, Russell Wiggins. Johnson was so grateful for the Post’s support that he once told Wiggins, with his customary hyperbole, that the Post’s editorials were worth fifty divisions.
But by the fall of 1965 Katharine Graham was beginning to have doubts. As an old acquaintance of Lippmann, she had turned to him for advice several times since the death of her husband in 1963. Just a few months earlier she had persuaded him to serve as intermediary with the Post’s managing editor, Alfred Friendly, whom she was replacing with Benjamin Bradlee. Lippmann was an old friend not only of Graham but of Bradlee, whom he had known since the latter was a boy. Bradlee’s mother had been Helen Lippmann’s childhood friend at Chapin, while his father was the football hero of Lippmann’s Harvard class of 1910. Often while en route to Maine the Lippmanns stopped off to spend the night with the Bradlees at Beverly, Massachusetts. To help smooth the path for Bradlee, Lippmann agreed to try to persuade Friendly to step down voluntarily as the Post’s managing editor. That summer he invited Friendly up to Maine for the weekend, and over drinks on the terrace one evening casually suggested that Friendly get away from the tedious job of editing and return to the kind of foreign reporting he did so well. Friendly, realizing what was going on, took the hint and went off to London as the Post’s correspondent, leaving his deputy Bradlee to take over as managing editor.
Having smoothed the transition at the top, Lippmann went to work on Graham to change the editorial page. Wiggins’s pro-war editorials sounded like administration handouts, he told her; they were making the paper look ridiculous. He suggested that she replace Wiggins, who was due to retire in 1968, with Philip Geyelin, a political writer for the Wall Street Journal. Geyelin joined the paper early in 1967 as Wiggins’s deputy, but did not take over the page or reverse the Post’s pro-war position until Wiggins retired the following year. LBJ rewarded his favorite editorial writer by naming Wiggins as American ambassador to the UN.
As Lippmann’s frustration mounted, so did his sympathy for all forms of opposition to the war, even street demonstrations and draft-card burnings. Although he would not identify himself publicly with the antiwar demonstrators—the constraints of civility were too strong—neither would he condemn them. If the demonstrations were “self-defeating,” he wrote in October 1965, they nonetheless were valuable as a “pathetic reminder” of what happened when a government stifled public debate on a vital issue. If the draft-card burners were “misguided,” they should be viewed sympathetically, for they were citizens of a nation “which expects to understand what its government is doing, from a nation which is not habituated to obedience and to the idea that it must listen to its superiors and not talk back.”
Lippmann was now clearly moving over to the opposition. A few months earlier, in a speech to the International Press Institute in London, he had urged journalists to seek the truth and report it, however embarrassing it might be to the government of the day. Unavoidably journalists were torn, he said, between their “pursuit of the truth and their need and their desire to be on good terms with the powerful.” The powerful were the chief source of news, but also the “dispensers of many kinds of favor, privilege, honor, and self-esteem. The most important forms of corruption in the modern journalist’s world are the many guises and disguises of social climbing on the pyramids of power,” he warned. “The temptations are many; some are simple, some are refined, and often they are yielded to without the consciousness of yielding. Only a constant awareness of them offers protection.”
No one was in a better position than Lippmann to know the dangers of wanting to be on good terms with the powerful. He was not immune to the lure of privileged access to the mighty. He had allowed himself to be drawn into Johnson’s net, not by any promise of rewards, but because he was flattered at being called in for advice, and because he thought the administration was seriously listening to him. When he discovered that the White House was not serious, he was hurt and angry. He could not forgive Johnson for lying about his intentions in Vietnam and using him. Nor, in a way more difficult to admit, could he forgive himself for being used.
“He misled me,” Lippmann later said of his break with the president. “The day before making his Baltimore speech, Johnson told me that the war had to be won on the non-military side. But a short time later I found that he was telling other people other things. He was either lying to me or to the others.” Lippmann never set foot in Johnson’s White House again after that marathon session of April 1965. LBJ became to him, as he said privately in a comment that soon got around, the “most disagreeable individual ever to have occupied the White House.”
Lyndon Johnson now faced a formidable adversary.
Copyright © 1980 by Ronald Steel.
September 25, 1980
Lippmann wrote this in his syndicated column, “Today and Tomorrow,” for February 2, 1965. In this account I have drawn on, among other sources, Lippmann’s columns, his correspondence, the notes of conversations he had with his assistant Elizabeth Farmer and with myself, and on McGeorge Bundy’s memorandum to Lyndon Johnson of April 6, 1965 in the Johnson papers in the Johnson Library, Austin, Texas. Full citations are given in my book, Walter Lippmann and the American Century. ↩