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Lippmann, Walter

Lippmann, Walter



Walter Lippmann was born in 1889 in New York City. His upper-middle-class family exposed him early to art, music, and literature. He attended Harvard University, where he completed the requirements for the A.B. degree in three years. His fourth year at Harvard was spent as an assistant to the philosopher George Santayana; and he graduated formally with the celebrated class of 1910, which included many others who later became prominent in the arts, the sciences, and public affairs.

An early desire to write—he had published several pieces of social criticism in the Harvard Monthly —turned him to journalism as a career. His first opportunity came through Lincoln Steffens, who went to Harvard in search of “the ablest mind that could express itself in writing” to help him with a series of muckraking articles for Everybody’s Magazine.

Lippmann’s accomplishments as a writer rapidly attracted the attention of those intellectual circles which were influential in the progressive climate of the prewar years. A short and disappointing stint as secretary to the socialist mayor of a city in upstate New York was followed by a brief period of free-lance writing for several magazines. But it was an invitation from Herbert Croly to join the editorial board of a new liberal journal, the New Republic, that provided Lippmann with a congenial and more permanent environment for his talents. No longer a socialist, yet one of the young “movers and shakers” whose intellectual vitality made the period immediately prior to World War I a seedtime of new ideas and limitless hope for the future, Lippmann found in the pages of the New Republic an outlet for articles on almost any topic about which he chose to write.

The New Republic became increasingly identified with President Wilson’s policies, and in 1917 Lippmann was appointed executive secretary of a postwar planning group, the so-called House Inquiry. The following year he received a commission as captain in military intelligence to conduct propaganda on the western front. At the end of the war he was attached to the American Commission to Negotiate the Peace. In this capacity he prepared, in collaboration with Frank Cobb, then editor of the New York World, an elaborate memorandum on Wilson’s Fourteen Points which served the American delegation as a basis for the peace discussions.

Lippmann was disappointed at the commitments and concessions made by the United States at the Versailles Peace Conference and soon returned to the New Republic. But shortly thereafter he took leave from the magazine to write Public Opinion and, upon finishing the book in 1922, was invited to become an editorial writer for the World. After Cobb’s death in 1923, Lippmann was placed in charge of the paper’s editorial page, and in 1929 he became its editor. Although some critics castigated his measured direction of the editorial page as evasion and pusillanimity, the World remained, until its end in 1931, in the forefront of those fighting against social and political injustice and for liberal reforms, both within American society and in international relations.

In 1931 Lippmann surprised many of his admirers by accepting an offer to write an independent column for the conservative and traditionally Republican New York Herald Tribune. He was evidently given a free hand to write as he pleased, but from 1936 on, his affiliations and connections were no longer with those individuals and groups generally called liberal or progressive. He had become, more than any other columnist or commentator, a spokesman of the American “establishment.”

Intellectual development

Lippmann’s years at Harvard had a deep and lasting effect on his intellectual development. He had come in contact there with socialist ideas and, for a short time, had been active in the socialist movement. He had also met William James, whose philosophy of pragmatism provided a necessary foil for Santayana’s humanist idealism. And most important, he had met the English social scientist and Fabian ideologue Graham Wallas, whose Human Nature in Politics (1908) gave direction to Lippmann’s early writings.

The more indirect influence of Sigmund Freud was at least as important as any other for Lippmann’s work on public opinion and public morality. He had read Freud while writing A Preface to Politics (1913), and Freud’s ideas seem to have played a most important part in making Lippmann aware of the obstacles to that full rationality which he deemed the goal of intellectual effort.

Finally, one cannot ignore the intellectual impact that his colleagues on the New Republic probably had on Lippmann. The editors had divergent ideas which had to be related to one another in order to give the magazine a semblance of unity. There was the centralist, Hamiltonian nationalism that Croly had articulated in The Promise of American Life (1909); but there was also the decentralist, Jeffersonian radicalism that Walter E. Weyl, another editor, expressed in The New Democracy (1912). Lippmann surely learned at the New Republic the tolerance in the face of conflicting ideas that he called “disinterestedness” and which he cherished so much.

Lippmann’s own basic intellectual position is extremely difficult to describe, especially since, until his more advanced years, his political outlook rarely remained the same for long. The key to his successive political shifts may lie in Lippmann’s statement that “every truly civilized and enlightened man is conservative and liberal and progressive” (1962, p. 11). The best we can do is to examine Lippmann’s major works and to distinguish the different stages in his intellectual development.

Major works

Two of Lippmann’s early books –A Preface to Politics (1913) and Drift and Mastery (1914)–testify to his shift from socialism and progressivism to pragmatic liberalism. A Preface to Politics is the more important work, for it also contains a protest against the empty formalism and legalism of much political discussion. Lippmann described the book as “a preliminary sketch for a theory of politics, a preface to thinking,” and it is not surprising, given his training in philosophy, that he should have begun his writings on this epistemological note. The problem of how to think about things political continued to be a theme throughout his writings.

His basic premises in A Preface to Politics are that government is not a routine to be administered but a problem to be solved and that the desires of man, rather than artificially contrived institutional mechanisms, are the proper study of politics. Reason, he felt, must serve the dual purpose of setting direction to human wants and providing the tools for their satisfaction.

The uses of reason as a tool is .the main theme of Drift and Mastery. Not traditional authority but the method of science must be harnessed to attain human goals. Only this method will permit different persons to agree on what the facts are and to reach the same conclusions. It alone can replace passion with intelligence. The failure of progressivism was its inability to understand the changes that the new industrialism had brought about. Science is “the culture under which people can live forward in the midst of complexity, and treat life not as something given but as something to be shaped” (1914, p. 275).

After World War I Lippmann came to doubt that it is possible, and even that it is desirable, to create a rational society. In Liberty and the News (1920), he still expressed a belief that democracy can function, provided the public is supplied with reliable and relevant information. Two years later, however, in Public Opinion (1922), he came close to questioning whether citizens can possibly make rational, democratic decisions: the source of the difficulty in forming an intelligent public opinion is not man’s irrationality but the necessity, inherent in the modern communications system, of condensing information into brief slogans. These slogans create a wall of stereotypes between the citizen and the issues to which he is expected to respond.

Lippmann’s analysis of the public opinion process was remarkably advanced, considering that his contemporaries were still thinking in terms of such categories as “herd instinct” or “group mind.” He recognized that both the external environment and man’s own psyche are sources of errors that distort perceptions and opinions. Lippmann’s use of the concept of stereotype in the analysis of public opinion was an original contribution and has remained a valuable one. Somewhat less original but very cogent was Lippmann’s discussion of the role of the expert in public decision making. He did not consider the expert to be a mover and shaker in his own right; rather, he produces facts that may be helpful to those who do make decisions for the benefit of the mass. The mass, Lippmann concluded, is to all intents and purposes inarticulate— it does not decide issues; at most, it assents to or dissents from a proposition about a given issue.

While this denial of the possibility of genuine— in contrast with manipulated—democratic consensus is of course a prejudgment rather than a statement of fact, Public Opinion was predominantly analytical. Its sequel, The Phantom Public (1925), was frankly polemical. Here Lippmann asserted that the public’s role in a democracy is a shadowy one, but he did not accept the conclusions of those conservative critics of democracy who celebrated the rule of an elite. However, his skepticism about the ability of the masses to decide on the merits of a question reflected his own disillusionment with the traditional theory of democracy. Unlike other critics, he became a skeptic moralist rather than an elitist. Morality is a relative, not an absolute, matter, determined at any given time by what men want rather than by what they know to be true, for “a code of the right and the wrong must wait upon a perception of the true and the false” (1925, p. 30). Since such perception is extraordinarily difficult, a code is virtually impossible to achieve.

Skeptic moralist though he had come to be, Lippmann could not accept a morality based on naked desires. Desires must be subjected to the moral test; and in the case of a humanistic morality appropriate to modern conditions, human experience rather than divine revelation must provide the criteria of good and evil. In his next major work, A Preface to Morals (1929), Lippmann sought to formulate a new public morality.

The moral test that Lippmann proposed for action was rationality and disinterestedness. Yet, having stated this moral imperative, he continued to doubt the multitude’s ability to accept it. Statesmen and leaders would first have to reeducate the wants and desires of the many, and pending this outcome, these leaders must act on the basis of what the people will in the end consider good, rather than on the basis of their present desires.

A Preface to Morals in a sense reasserted Lippmann’s faith in the rationality of man, tempered by psychological insight into man’s volatility; it stated a belief in the possibility of responsible leadership but made the leaders subject to an ideal; and it excoriated current conditions as much as it expressed a new hope for the good society.

The appearance of the New Deal in America and of National Socialism in Germany presented a new challenge to Lippmann’s thought. Initially his response to the New Deal was a favorable one, for the New Deal revived his old faith in the possibility of a rational ordering of society. In two small books, The Method of Freedom (1934) and The New Imperative (1935), his outlook was hopeful. But by 1937, in his Inquiry Into the Principles of the Good Society, his appraisal had changed. He identified the compensatory economy of the New Deal with the regimented economy of the totalitarian state, seeing both as evidence of the “collectivist heresy.” Moreover, his old suspicion of irrational majorities was linked with a new fear of an irresponsible executive. Gradual collectivism, no less than any other collectivism, makes for arbitrary government.

True liberalism, he asserted in The Good Society, must insist on two social mechanisms that are threatened by the collectivist order—the free market and the law. With the market as the prime regulator of the division of labor, the state’s function is limited to the administration of justice among men conducting their own affairs in terms of a common law of reciprocal rights and duties. Large public expenditures for education and public works are to be retained, as is protection against the hazards of a free economy, for liberalism is “radical in relation to the social order but conservative in relation to the division of labor in a market economy” (1937, p. 236). As to the role of the executive, society is so pluralistic and diversified that the statesman can only hope to reconcile social conflicts, but he cannot treat society as if it were an organization.

With the beginning of World War II, Lippmann’s interest was diverted from problems of political theory to those of international affairs, and it was only with Essays in the Public Philosophy (1955) that he returned to his earlier concerns with the political order and democratic structure. The public philosophy, for Lippmann, is a set of positive precepts defining the law that is superior to arbitrary power. It can be discovered by any rational mind, and it is basic to Western institutions. It is the foundation of the good society and must be conscientiously cultivated and transmitted from generation to generation. The liberal democracies, Lippmann charged, have come dangerously close to ignoring the tradition of the public philosophy and accepting politics based on conflict and on interest as legitimate. But political conflict must have limits; and these, like the moral principles that must guide conduct, are to be discovered by reason.

If reason is sovereign, majority voting cannot be trusted, since the voters are too easily swept away by their passions and selfish interests. And their representatives are equally incapable of governing, for they are “insecure and intimidated men. .. [who] advance politically only as they placate, appease, bribe, seduce, or bamboozle, or otherwise manage to manipulate the demanding and threatening elements in their constituencies” (1955, p. 27). As in his first works, Lippmann turned to strong executive power as the practical way out— an executive power enlightened by rationality and constrained by natural law. Such an executive can rule in the interest of “the people”—namely, a “community of the entire living population, with their predecessors and successors” (1955, p. 32) — and not be subject to the whim of the voters.

Heinz Eulau

[see alsoConservatism; Democracy; Liberalism; Political Theory; Public Opinion; and the biographies ofFreud; James; Wallas.]


1913 A Preface to Politics. New York: Kennerley. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by the University of Michigan Press.

1914 Drift and Mastery: An Attempt to Diagnose the Current Unrest. New York: Kennerley. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Prentice-Hall. (1915) 1917 The Stakes of Diplomacy. 2d ed. New York: Holt.

1919 The Political Scene: An Essay on the Victory of 1918. New York: Holt.

1920 Liberty and the News. New York: Harcourt. → Reprinted in part from the Atlantic Monthly.

(1922) 1944 Public Opinion. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.

1925 The Phantom Public. New York: Harcourt.

1927 Men of Destiny. New York: Macmillan.

1928 American Inquisitors: A Commentary on and Chicago. New York: Macmillan.

(1929) 1952 A Preface to Morals. New York: Macmillan.

1931–1932) 1932 Interpretations: 1931–1932. Edited by Allan Nevins. New York: Macmillan.

1933–1935) 1936 Interpretations: 1933–1935. Edited by Allan Nevins. New York: Macmillan.

1934 The Method of Freedom. New York: Macmillan.

1935 The New Imperative. New York: Macmillan. → Contains two essays, “The Permanent New Deal” and “The New Imperative,” both first published in 1935).

(1937) 1943 Inquiry Into the Principles of the Society. Rev. ed. Boston: Little.

1943 U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. Boston: Little.

1944 U.S. War Aims. Boston: Little.

1947 The Cold War: A Study in U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Harper. → First appeared as a series of articles in the New York Herald Tribune.

1955 Essays in the Public Philosophy. Boston: Little.

1959 The Communist World and Ours. Boston: Little.

1962 Conservative, Liberal, Progressive. New Republic146: 10-11.


Childs , Marquis ; and Reston , James (editors) 1959 Walter Lippmann and His Times. New York: Harcourt.

Croly , Herbert D. (1909) 1965 The Promise of American Life. Edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press.

Eulau , Heinz 1951 Mover and Shaker: Walter Lippmann as a Young Man. Antioch Review11: 291-312.

Eulau , Heinz 1952 Man Against Himself: Walter Lippmann’s Years of Doubt. American Quarterly 4 : 291-304.

Eulau , Heinz 1954 Wilsonian Idealist: Walter Lippmann Goes to War. Antioch Review 14: 87-108.

Eulau , Heinz 1956 From Public Opinion to Public Philosophy: Walter Lippmann’s Classic Reexamined. American Journal of Economics and Sociology15: 439-451.

Wallas , Graham (1908) 1962 Human Nature in Politics. 4th ed. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

Weingast , David E. 1949 Walter Lippmann: A Study in Personal Journalism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press.

Weyl, Walter E. (1912) 1920 The New Democracy. Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1964 by Harper.

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Walter Lippmann

Walter Lippmann

The American author Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was his era's most respected journalist and a significant contributor to its political thought.

The only child of well-to-do, second-generation German-Jewish parents, Walter Lippmann studied at a private school in his native New York City. His parents took him often to Europe to absorb its culture. He completed his undergraduate studies at Harvard in three years with the highest honors and was an editor of the Harvard Monthly and cofounder of the Harvard Socialist Club. He remained at Harvard another year as assistant to George Santayana in the philosophy department. Also, the famous philosopher William James made himself available to Lippmann for private seminars.

In 1911 Lincoln Steffens, editor of the muckraking Everybody's Magazine, took Lippmann on as his secretary. His first book, A Preface to Politics (1913), brought him instant recognition and the opportunity to join Herbert Croly and Walter Weyl in founding the weekly New Republic. All three had backed Theodore Roosevelt for president in 1912; in 1916 they and their magazine switched to Woodrow Wilson. In 1917 Lippmann served as assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. As captain in military intelligence in 1918, Lippmann worked on Wilson's Fourteen Points program and on preparations for the Paris Peace Conference. In 1920 he left the New Republic to become editorial writer and, later, editor of the Democratic New York World.

When the World suspended publication in 1931, Lippmann moved to the Republican Herald Tribune, to which, for the next 30 years, he contributed his nationally syndicated column, "Today and Tomorrow." Here he recorded his responses to the ever-changing contemporary scene. Between 1912 and 1968 he supported, with varying reservations, six Republican and seven Democratic candidates for the presidency. In 1945, on the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt—whom he had never greatly admired—Lippmann wrote, "Here lay the political genius of Franklin Roosevelt: that in his own time he knew what were the questions that had to be answered, even though he himself did not always find the full answer."

The following years raised even more such questions, and Lippmann responded with firmness and courage. He opposed the Korean War, the Senate hearings of Joseph McCarthy, and the war in Vietnam. He expressed admiration for France's Charles De Gaulle, with whom—as with the U.S.S.R.'s Nikita Khrushchev—he established relations of personal confidence as had no American official of the time. His second wife, Helen Byrne Armstrong, mastered the Russian language so thoroughly that her fluency delighted Khrushchev.

In the late 1960s, Lippmann's opposition to the Vietnam War earned him the enmity of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who derided him as a treacherous, senile old man. At last Lippmann was all but cut off from the American political establishment. Though even his critics gave him credit for his independent stance, Lippmann shortly retired from the public scene. Failing health in the ensuing years forced his wife to put him in a New York nursing home. He died there on December 14, 1974.

A number of Lippmann's books on political science have become classics in their field, including A Preface to Morals (1929), United States Foreign Policy (1943), and The Cold War (1947).

Further Reading

Aside from Lippmann's own writings, excerpts from his works and summaries of his thoughts are in Clinton Rossiter and James Lare, eds., The Essential Lippmann: A Political Philosophy for Liberal Democracy (1963). A biography of Lippmann is Edward L. Schapsmeier and Frederick H. Schapsmeier, Walter Lippmann (1969). Useful studies are David E. Weingast, Walter Lippmann: A Study in Personal Journalism (1949); Marquis W. Childs and James Reston, eds., Walter Lippmann and His Times (1959); Charles Forcey, The Crossroads of Liberalism: Croly, Weyl, Lippmann, and the Progressive Era, 1900-1925 (1961); and Ronald Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980). Barry D. Riccio, Walter Lippmann: Odyssey of a Liberal (1994) focuses on Lippmann's relationship to liberal political ideas in the course of his evolution from socialism to conservatism. □

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Lippmann, Walter

Walter Lippmann, 1889–1974, American essayist and editor, b. New York City. He was associate editor of the New Republic in its early days (1914–17), but at the outbreak of World War I he left to become Assistant Secretary of War, later helping to prepare data for the peace conference. From 1921 to 1931 he was on the editorial staff of the New York World, serving as editor the last two years. In 1931 he began writing for the New York Herald Tribune a highly influential syndicated column, which moved to the Washington Post in 1962. He ceased writing a regular newspaper column in 1967. Lippmann's early books, written when he was a champion of liberalism, include A Preface to Politics (1913), Public Opinion (1922), and A Preface to Morals (1929). An early supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, Lippmann became disillusioned and condemned collectivism in The Good Society (1937). His political stance became one of moderate detachment, and he won distinction as a farsighted and incisive analyst of foreign policy. A special Pulitzer Prize citation (1958) praised his powers of news analysis, which he demonstrated in U.S. War Aims (1944), The Cold War (1947), Isolation and Alliances (1952), and Western Unity and the Common Market (1962).

See M. W. Childs and J. B. Reston, ed., Walter Lippmann and His Times (1959); E. W. Weeks, ed., Conversations with Walter Lippmann (1965); R. Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (1980).

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