Walter Lippmann
Walter Lippmann; drawing by David Levine

Statesmanship, Walter Lippmann wrote in 1929, “requires the courage which is possible only in a mind that is detached from the agitations of the moment. It requires the insight which comes only from an objective and discerning knowledge of the facts, and a high and imperturbable disinterestedness” (p. 518). He could have been—he may have been—writing about himself.

Through more than fifty years as an editor and columnist, Lippmann seemed almost priestly in his detachment. To other journalists especially he was awesome. He had risen above the feelings and personal attachments that pulled on the rest of us: a high and imperturbable figure indeed. Toward the end of his working life he warned specifically against the dangers of being “on good terms with the powerful.” Speaking to the International Press Institute, he said: “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. The temptations are many…. Only a constant awareness of them offers protection” (p. 572).

But this symbol of detachment knew and revered Theodore Roosevelt, wrote speeches for Woodrow Wilson and personally campaigned for him, was part of Al Smith’s brain trust, worked with the stop-Roosevelt forces at the 1932 Democratic convention, advised Wendell Willkie in the 1940 campaign, told Harry Hopkins before the 1944 convention that Henry Wallace had to go as vice president, worked with George Kennan on how to organize and sell to the public what became the Marshall Plan, sent memoranda to John Foster Dulles when in 1948 he seemed about to become secretary of state, drafted a foreign policy speech for Thomas E. Dewey that same year, worked with eastern Republican leaders in 1952 on how to get General Eisenhower into the race, advised the Adlai Stevenson campaign in 1956 on how to beat Eisenhower, and was consulted by John F. Kennedy on whom to pick as secretary of state. (McGeorge Bundy, Lippmann suggested, or Senator J.W. Fulbright; Dean Rusk was “a profound conformist” [p. 523].) And his intimacy with the great was not limited to politicians. He was a companion of Thomas Lamont and other men of high finance, on the golf course and on European tours. In 1931 his friend William Allen White, the Kansas editor, warned him: “Watch your step. Don’t let the Bankers get you” (p. 282).

A man of astonishing contradictions: that is the Lippmann who emerges from Ronald Steel’s important biography. Long in preparation, it has turned out in a way an unexpected book. We knew that Lippmann in his long life had often intersected history, and all of that is drawn on a large canvas. But the greater interest lies in the man. The drama is more internal than external.

He was one of the first American intellectuals to write in praise of Sigmund Freud. At a time when Freudian theory was a target of mockery, Lippmann used it as a device for social analysis in A Preface to Politics in 1913, and in the New Republic in 1915 wrote that Freud “may rank among the greatest who have contributed to thought” (p. 48). Freud invited him to a meeting of the Psychoanalytic Society in Vienna, and introduced him to Adler and Jung. Lippmann must have understood as well as any layman the role of the unconscious, the importance of emotions in human life. Yet he purged emotion from his own visible makeup so thoroughly that in both his writings and his person he seemed distant, even cold. John Reed, who was a friend at Harvard and afterward until Lippmann forsook socialism and Reed took the path that led to the Kremlin wall, put it in verse:

…But were there one
Who builds a world, and leaves out all the fun—
Who dreams a pageant, gorgeous, infinite,
And then leaves all the color out of it—
Who wants to make the human race, and me,
March to a geometric Q.E.D.—
Who but must laugh, if such a man there be?
Who would not weep, if Walter L. were he?
[p. 55]

But this cold, repressed intellectual had an affair with the wife of his closest friend, and ended his marriage of twenty years to marry her. It is a poignant story as Steel tells it. The friend was Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of Foreign Affairs; they met for lunch once or twice a week and talked on the telephone nearly every day. Then, in 1937, Lippmann and Helen Byrne Armstrong found themselves in love. After weeks of the affair they were discovered when she went to Europe and four of his letters missed her at a hotel in Kitzbühel and were mistakenly forwarded to Armstrong’s office.

After his divorce Lippmann wrote a letter to Armstrong, asking his forgiveness, and had it hand-delivered by Helen’s brother. Armstrong refused to accept it, and as editor of Foreign Affairs for thirty-five years after that he barred any mention of Lippmann’s name from the magazine. When he died in 1973, he left a packet marked “For Helen, on my death.” In it Helen found the four 1937 letters, three of them still sealed; a note from Armstrong said, “I read only the first three lines of one of these” (p. 363).


The social punishment of Lippmann was hard for a time; some old friends dropped him, and he left New York for what he then considered provincial Washington. But Helen and Walter Lippmann had their love, and remained together for thirty-seven years.

When the Herald Tribune began publishing his column, “Today and Tomorrow,” in 1931, it was considered somewhat daring for that Republican paper to take on such a liberal. Lippmann was thought to be the popular philosopher of individualism, of the value of the common man.

But in Lippmann’s writings there was much disdain for the common man. In Public Opinion in 1922 he said the average citizen—the “outsider”—could not possibly be well-enough informed to make an intelligent judgment on policy questions: “The common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class” (p. 182). In The Phantom Public in 1925 he said the public in a democracy had no political function except to choose those capable of deciding: “With the substance of the problem it can do nothing but meddle ignorantly or tyrannically…. Only the insider can make the decisions, not because he is inherently a better man, but because he is so placed that he can understand and can act” (p. 213).

Reviewing the book, Bruce Bliven said it reminded him of H.G. Wells’s “new order of samurai,” “an aristocracy of mind and character whose members are dedicated to making democracy work for the best, whether the populace wants it or not” (p. 214). Lippmann knew and admired Wells. The Public Philosophy in 1955 took the gloomy view that free Western governments were crumbling because uninformed publics had overridden “the judgments of the informed and responsible officials.” We needed stronger executives: “Where mass opinion dominates the government, there is a morbid derangement of the true functions of power” (p. 492). General de Gaulle sent Lippmann an admiring note about the book.

The Great Man theory of government found regular expression in Lippmann. He had a succession of heroes, starting with Teddy Roosevelt, but each proved disappointing in the end and was put aside. Having boosted TR in the New Republic and criticized Wilson, in 1916 he wrote a British friend that Wilson’s was the “most freely speculative mind we’ve had in Washington, and as disinterested as a man could wish. If only so many people didn’t make it their chief business to distort his phrases” (p. 100). He became a strong supporter of Wilson and had a major part, toward the end of the war, in drafting the Fourteen Points. But he broke with Wilson over the peace and bitterly opposed Senate ratification of the Versailles Treaty; later he regretted that and confessed to Learned Hand that “I let irritation against Wilson’s stupidity push me into intransigent opposition to the Treaty” (p. 233).

Before 1933 he dismissed Franklin Roosevelt as a “kind of amiable boy scout” (p. 291). But a week before the inaugural he wrote: “By the greatest good fortune which has befallen this country in many a day, a kindly and intelligent man…” (p. 301). He wanted FDR to have the broadest emergency powers. “Popular government is unworkable,” he wrote, “except under the leadership and discipline of a strong national executive. Any group of 500 men, whether they are called Congressmen or anything else, is an unruly mob unless it comes under the strict control of a single will” (p. 300). Such talk made Roosevelt worry about congressional reaction; at his request Felix Frankfurter wrote Lippmann to warn that harping on the faults of Congress might encourage “the fascist forces.” Lippmann replied that Frankfurter was being “a little hesitant about breaking the eggs to make the omelet” (p. 301). But before long he turned anti-Roosevelt—as FDR had predicted.

Lippmann expressed his opinion on current issues in the New Republic starting in 1914, as assistant and then chief editorial writer of The World, and for thirty-six years starting in 1931 in his column. In hindsight, how perceptive was he?

On questions of civil liberty his record looks dismal. When Amherst’s trustees in 1923 dismissed Alexander Meiklejohn, the great libertarian scholar, as president of the college, Lippmann wrote a World editorial praising Meiklejohn but defending his dismissal. He rushed to approve the report of A. Lawrence Lowell’s committee on the Sacco-Vanzetti Case in 1927—a report upholding the fairness of their trial despite devastating criticism of it by Frankfurter and others—before he read the text. He supported the 1929 Supreme Court decision in the Schwimmer case, denying citizenship to a Canadian-born pacifist because she would not swear to take up arms in the country’s defense—a decision that drew from Justice Holmes a passionate dissent in favor of “freedom for the thought that we hate.” In 1936 he defended the deportation of John Strachey, the British Marxist, for lecturing against capitalism. In 1942, when the Nisei were removed from California and put in “relocation camps,” he was briefed by the author of the plan, General John DeWitt, who was known for his statement, “A Jap’s a Jap”; Lippmann wrote in support of the forced evacuation, saying that the West Coast was in “imminent danger of a combined attack from within and without” (p. 394). He saw no constitutional or moral problem when Robert Oppenheimer, John Paton Davies, and others were removed from government service.


He did write letters to friends criticizing the conduct of the Sacco-Vanzetti case and, years earlier, the excesses of A. Mitchell Palmer’s raids against alleged “Reds.” But there were few brave words on such subjects in his public writings. Steel concludes that Lippmann was “reluctant to cut himself off from respectable, and respected, opinion.” He “cared about justice,” Steel writes, “but it was not an emotional issue for him. He also cared about his influence as a public person. His respect for authority, his fear of being cut off from centers of power, his distaste for too close an association with radicals often muted his voice…. To be effective meant to have the ear of those who made the decisions” (pp. 233-234).

On race, he was as slow to achieve understanding as most white Americans. In 1938 he supported a southern filibuster against an anti-lynching law in the Senate, writing: “If the spirit of democracy is to be maintained, a minority must never be coerced unless the reasons for coercing it are decisive and overwhelming” (p. 552). For years afterward he remained reluctant to see law used to end the oppression of blacks, perhaps believing as President Eisenhower used to say that law could not change “the hearts of men.” Finally in 1957, with Little Rock, he understood that indifference was impossible. After Bull Connor set his police dogs on the marchers seeking equal treatment in Birmingham’s department stores in 1963 he favored breaking the filibuster against the Kennedy, then Johnson, civil rights bill.

In economics it would probably be fair to call him naïve. As the Depression took hold in 1930, he wrote his friend Bernard Berenson: “The most exhilarating thing I have seen is the courage and quiet unselfishness of some of the big bankers who have really done extraordinary things” (p. 289). He changed his mind when investigation showed that some of those same bankers had paid no income taxes and helped friends buy shares at less than market prices. In 1932 he agreed with President Hoover that federal relief to the unemployed would “corrupt” them (p. 288). But he swung so heavily to Roosevelt that in 1934, in the Godkin Lectures at Harvard, he said a modern government must give its people jobs and social welfare; Congress should get out of the way, he suggested, and let the president have virtually total power over taxing and spending.

In politics his judgments were odd. As has been noted, he was scornful of FDR. then all for him, then again negative. After a private visit with him in 1935, Lippmann wrote a friend that the president would be coming under heavy attack. “and I don’t know whether his inner resources are sufficient to meet it” (p. 317). When the Republicans took control of Congress in 1946, he said that Truman should resign—as if we had a parliamentary system—and persuaded Senator Fulbright to take up the idea. He was for Eisenhower in 1952 and Nixon in 1968, despite doubts about the former’s mind and the latter’s character, on the pragmatic ground that the Republicans would curb their extremists if they had responsibility, and would be better able than the Democrats (under Republican attack) to liquidate the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

It was to foreign affairs that the later part of his career was mainly devoted, and here his judgments seem more weighty in retrospect. He was right about the punitive features of the Versailles Treaty and the dangers they posed for Europe’s future. He was right also to criticize Wilson for not insisting on Allied agreement about the shape of a peace before bringing the United States into the war. But Steel notes that Lippmann, in urging the US to intervene and in describing the war as a noble one (“a people’s war,” he called it in 1917), had himself laid down no conditions about Allied agreement on war aims. And his criticism of Versailles does not bear comparison with the devastating book produced in a few months by a young economist who quit the British delegation in disgust: J.M. Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace.

In the early years of the cold war Lippmann was admirably independent in resisting anti-Soviet hysteria. He was critical of Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. He kept reminding readers that Soviet history—including Western intervention against the revolution, a terrible war—was part of the background for Soviet concerns about security. He had no illusions about Soviet tenderness, of course; he supported military aid for Greece and Turkey in 1947 to bolster them against communist threats. What he objected to was open-ended US military commitments that might exclude diplomatic solutions and spread American forces around the globe. He opposed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1948, foreseeing that it would lead to a rearmed West Germany. Through those years he argued for working toward agreement with the Soviets on a reunified but disarmed and confederal Germany, which he thought would lead to withdrawal of Soviet troops from Central and Eastern Europe.

When Foreign Affairs published under the byline X Kennan’s call for the containment of a USSR driven by ideology and paranoia to expand its power, Lippmann wrote a series of fourteen columns warning against the notion that the only way for the United States to deal with the Russians was to confront them militarily at every point around their empire. That would lead, he warned prophetically, to the US propping up all kinds of dictatorial, unsavory, and unstable regimes. The effort to contain the Soviets, he argued, had to begin with diplomacy, with an effort to attract our adversary into useful agreements—the view that Kennan years later said he had really intended to express in the article, though at the time he did not correct the narrowly military reading of it. Finally, in the Korean War, Lippmann was bitterly critical of Truman and Secretary of State Acheson when they sent United Nations forces across the 38th Parallel. He was against American land wars in Asia.

After 1951 or so Lippmann’s iconoclasm about East-West relations faded; he conformed more and more to cold war stereotypes. Until 1965 he accepted what had become the consensus of the American Establishment, differing only in details of how policy should be applied. He often seemed, Steel says, “less a seer than a man overtaken by events he could not fully grasp or put into place…. His celebrated definition of a viable foreign policy as one that brought commitments and available power into balance was not of much help in deciding what those commitments should be” (p. 489).

No brief ticking-off of Lippmann’s views can do justice to what he wrote over fifty years as a practicing journalist. But no one could read Steel’s comprehensive sampling of his judgments and not think that Lippmann often went wrong. I suspect that younger people, not familiar with Lippmann in his time, may read the book and wonder why he was regarded for decades as the preeminent figure in American journalism. But there were reasons for that high regard.

He was an intellectual, a man genuinely interested in ideas, who came to journalism at a time when there were few if any thinkers in the business. As late as 1931, when he began his column, the dominant tone in journalism was the seedy cynicism of The Front Page. And Lippmann was not just a bright man. There was something special about his mind. As an undergraduate at Harvard (1906-1910) he was taken up by Santayana, William James, the British socialist Graham Wallas—who dedicated his next book to Lippmann.

He invented the column of analysis and opinion. He resisted the lure of scoops, understanding that they were usually less important than helping the reader penetrate the obscurities of policy: an understanding not less relevant in the gung ho age of post-Watergate journalism.

And he took a broad view of events. He looked for deeper explanations, for historical parallels, for philosophical foundations. He was serious, and he took his readers seriously. No one else would have written fourteen columns on the X article and the cold war.

Those were the qualities that distinguished Lippmann, not his wisdom on particular issues. Still, reading his words today does raise troubling questions—not only about Lippmann but about journalism. If our most serious journalist could be so shortsighted, if his views on dozens of issues can so quickly look embarrassing or irrelevant, what does it say about the profession? Especially troubling is Lippmann’s failure after 1951 to challenge the premises of American foreign policy. The press’s chief claim to respect is its independence. Yet in that period the leading correspondents and columnists in Washington in effect became collaborators with the policy makers, receiving confidences on the implicit understanding that they would not question the assumptions of official thinking—or the bona fides of officials. As the senior figure, Lippmann bore some responsibility for that age of collaboration.

The answer to that complicity came at the end of his life, in his extraordinary challenge to the American war in Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson courted Lippmann with even more than his usual hyperbole. Seeing him in a crowd at the White House in 1964, he put his arm around Lippmann and said: “This man here is the greatest journalist in the world, and he’s a friend of mine” (p. 548). He tried to keep Lippmann friendly on Vietnam by repeatedly asking his advice. But the tactic did not work.

In early 1965, despite lunches and visits in the Oval Office, Lippmann wrote columns warning sharply against the “wider war” that he saw coming in Vietnam. “The time has come,” he said, “to stop beating our heads against stone walls under the illusion that we have been appointed policeman to the human race” (p. 565). On April 7 Johnson delivered his Baltimore speech offering to join in “unconditional discussions” with Hanoi. The day before, McGeorge Bundy, his Assistant for National Security Affairs, urged the president to show Lippmann a draft in advance—as a way “to plug his guns.” Lippmann was called in and shown the speech, harangued by the president (“I’m not just going to pull up my pants and run out on Vietnam. Don’t you know the church is on fire over there…?”). But Lippmann told Bundy it wouldn’t work, the speech was “just a disguised demand for capitulation” (p. 563).

For the next two years, until he gave up the column at the age of seventyseven, Lippmann wrote almost entirely about Vietnam, and wrote with increasing emotion about the folly of American policy. He gave up many of his old official contacts. He sought out radical critics of the war to get their views. He invited to his house I.F. Stone, the one journalist who had always been impervious to the seductions of official Washington. And finally, unable to live in the same city as Lyndon Johnson, he moved back to New York.

And so this man who had argued for government by the elite, who said that outsiders had no right to influence policy, who did not want to separate himself from respectable opinion, who called for high disinterestedness—this man challenged the inside view, the respectable view on the most difficult of issues, and did so with high emotion.

He was obviously a man of passion. The question is what happened to that passion for most of his life. Lippmann paid dearly for suppressing it, in his person and—as I think this book shows—in his writings. In much of his work there is an abstractness, almost a sterility, that robs it of power. Compare Lippmann with someone not unlike him in some respects: Louis Brandeis, a man of awesome personal austerity and penetrating intellect. Justice Brandeis purged his life of distractions—drink, art, one suspects even wit—which Lippmann certainly did not. Yet into his profession, the law, Brandeis poured a consuming passion that still leaps from the pages of his opinions. Writing of the danger in suppressing dissent, he said: “Men feared witches and burnt women.” What such passion, such commitment would have done for Lippmann the writer.

Why? In the way he did, Lippmann gave us a clue in writing about someone else. Woodrow Wilson, he wrote in 1915, “cannot ‘let himself go,’ not because he lacks feeling, but because he is not robust enough to withstand the strain of allowing himself to feel too deeply.” His feelings had “become ideas, and it is to these ideas far more than to actual men and women that his emotions go out” (p. 85). In short, detachment was a defense. Walter Lippmann was confident of his intellect but terrified of his emotions. And in particular, one guesses, the man who seemed so serene feared hurt, disrespect, rejection.

That brings us to the darkest pages of this book: those disclosing Lippmann’s attitude toward the fact that he was a Jew. He sought to escape anti-Semitism by assimilation. That was the fashion of the day, when the old German-Jewish families looked down on the Eastern European newcomers and blamed them for anti-Jewish feeling. But Lippmann, a sensitive and thoughtful man, carried this crude defense to an extreme. “The rich and vulgar and pretentious Jews of our big American cities…are the real fountain of anti-Semitism,” he wrote in 1922. He added, with a truly brutal insensitivity, that “upper Broadway” showed “you cannot build up a decent civilization among people who, when they are at last, after centuries of denial, free to go to the land and cleanse their bodies, now huddle together in a steam-heated slum” (p. 192).

When President Lowell of Harvard proposed quotas to keep down the number of Jewish students, Lippmann objected to quotas but agreed that it would be “bad for the immigrant Jews as well as for Harvard if there were too great a concentration.” When a Harvard committee asked his advice, he drafted a reply saying he accepted its view that having more than 15 percent Jewish students would produce a clash of cultures—in which “my sympathies are with the non-Jew. His personal manners and physical habits are, I believe, distinctly superior to the prevailing manners and habits of the Jews” (p. 194). He suggested that Harvard reduce the number of Jews admitted by taking more students from distant places and fewer from New York and Boston—a policy that Harvard adopted.

When Hitler in 1933 made a seemingly conciliatory speech, Lippmann’s column disagreed with those who called it a mere maneuver. “The truer explanation,” he wrote, “is that 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.” It was “intolerance,” he said, “to deny today that Germany can speak as a civilized power.” Would it be fair to judge France “by what went on during the Terror?… Or Protestantism by the Ku Klux Klan? Or the Jews by their parvenus?” (pp. 619-620). Felix Frankfurter, the old friend who so often wrote Lippmann to disagree or praise, responded this time by silence. For three and one-half years he did not speak or write to Lippmann. Then he wrote and explained: “[When you] likened the Reich’s cold pogroms and the expulsion of some of its greatest minds and finest spirits, merely because their grandmothers or their wives happened to be Jewesses, to the fact that ‘Jews have their parvenus,’ then something inside of me snapped” (p. 332).

From 1933 on, Steel says, Lippmann wrote not a word about the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and did nothing to encourage the admission of refugees to the US. The closest he came was in two 1938 columns suggesting that Africa be developed to receive Europe’s “surplus” populations. He wrote nothing about the extermination camps, either during or after the war (p. 373). If he had spoken out when their existence was first becoming known—as early as 1942—he might have had a real effect in changing the terrible American and British indifference to the fate of the Jews. He might have saved lives.

The contradictions in Lippmann, many even of his failings, arouse a curious sympathy. But these pages are hard to forgive.

Ronald Steel had Lippmann’s cooperation in undertaking the biography, and it is a credit to them both that the book is so candid. Steel does not flinch from unpleasant facts or critical judgments. He has mastered an enormous amount of material and presents it with clarity and pace. He puts it in the setting of the rise and frustration of power in “the American Century”: a daunting task that I have neglected in this review, preferring to discuss Lippmann and journalism. The book has substantial footnotes, a useful bibliography, a first-class index. (But there are, perhaps inevitably, some mistakes. For example, Lippmann could not have “burrowed into the stacks of Widener Library” as an undergraduate [p. 24], because Widener was not built until 1914-1915.)

The result is a fascinating book: on journalism, on America in the world, on a mysterious human being. It is only on the last that I wanted something more. Steel explores the possible psychological origins of Lippmann’s contradictory qualities, and does so with skill, but such things may call for the imagination of a poet or novelist. (Louis Auchincloss, who was Lippmann’s lawyer, published a novel this year, The House of the Prophet, about a columnist, lofty and detached, who at the age of forty-seven goes off with his friend’s wife. Others disagree, but I found it dry.) Perhaps only an artist of the greatest powers could explain the man who wrote in 1915, in a discussion of nationalism:

Man must be at peace with the sources of his life. If he is ashamed of them, if he is at war with them, they will haunt him forever. They will rob him of the basis of assurance, will leave him an interloper in the world. [P. 92]

This Issue

October 9, 1980