Walter Lippmann and his wife, Helen, boarded a plane for Europe on March 27, 1961. As they took their seats, the steward handed them a note from the Soviet ambassador in Washington. It informed them that a sudden political crisis had sent Nikita Khrushchev from Moscow to the Crimea. Could Mr. Lippmann delay his appointment with Mr. Khrushchev for a week?
"Impossible," Mr. Lippmann scrawled on the message that went back to the Soviet ambassador in Washington. When the Lippmanns arrived in Rome the next morning a message from Moscow informed them that Chairman Khrushchev would, after all, be able to receive them as originally scheduled on April 10.
For how many other people in the world would the chairman of the Soviet Union , the other most powerful man on earth in 1961, have so deferred?
Few statesmen and certainly no other journalist would have been treated so deferentially. To many an ordinary reader of daily newspapers, Walter Lippmann was just another journalist who wrote a regular signed article, known in the trade as a "column." But there has never before or since been a "column" that was read with such attention in every foreign office the world around, or a columnist who had such automatic entree to the offices -- and the homes -- of the most important statesmen, high officials, and influential personages of his lifetime.
Ronald Steel's full-length biography of Lippmann spans the nearly 60 years of this public career of extraordinary importance. The book has been superbly researched and beautifully written, weaving the human story of the man through the events he influenced. It is both first-class history and fine biography.
Walter and Helen Lippmann went to Europe every summer. It was part of their work routine. On these trips they were received and entertained by kings, prime ministers, foreign ministers. On the 1961 visit they were in Rome primarily to talk with the Pope. That was part of the preparation for the meeting with Mr. Khrushchev. Before leaving Washington Mr. Lippmann had been briefed at the White House, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency. When he arrived in Moscow he was met by the American ambassador, who accompanied him to the place of the meeting with Mr. Khrushchev.But the meeting itself was for Walter and Helen Lippmann, Helen acting as Walter's translator and recording secretary.She had learned Russian the previous winter for just such occasions.
The notes of that meeting were shared with the President and his advisers in Washington. The columns that came from it became part of the background material for the meeting that took place soon thereafter in Vienna between Mr. Khrushchev and the new President of the United States, John F. Kennedy. In fact Moscow had invited Mr. Lippmann in order to give Mr. Khrushchev a chance to prepare himself and to prepare the new American President for that meeting.
Incidentally, that Vienna conference turned out poorly, in part because the White House failed to heed the advice Lippmann gave after meeting with Mr. Khrushchev -- to proceed slowly with Mr. Khrushchev. Mr. Kennedy, instead of proceeding slowly, insisted on rushing the agenda. He was impatient. In part the American involvement in Vietnam was the consequence.
Walter Lippmann was born in 1889. He graduated from Harvard in the famous class of 1910, where he had become a protege of several of its most distinguished teachers, including William James and George Santayana. By the time World War I broke out he had advanced so far as a person with ability to think constructively about public affairs that he actually provided Woodrow Wilson with much of the thinking that brought the President around from neutralism to interventionism. Later he drafted the famous "Fourteen Points," which President Wilson offered to Germany as the basis for an end to the war and which were apparently decisive in causing the German government to surrender. He also did his utmost, but failed, in arguing against the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty, which the British, French, and Italians imposed on Germany and which had such disastrous results a generation later.
No other person who influenced world events in World War I was still playing an important role in world affairs 50 years later, in 1968. Lippmann was the most influential articulator of the case against American intervention in Vietnam. His writings fueled the opposition to the war. He, more than any other individual, was responsible for the fact that, as the presidential election of 1968 approached, Lyndon Baines Johnson knew that he would probably be defeated. Rather than risk defeat, he withdrew.
Between World War I and the retreat from Vietnam, Lippmann actually negotiated a settlement between the Vatican and the government of Mexico which, in 1927, headed off a possible third US intervention in Mexico and greatly improved US relations with all of its Latin neighbors to the south. That was the basis for a relationship with the Vatican, valued and nourished by both parties throughout the Lippmann career.
Lippmann's parents were well-to-do, upper-middle-class New York Reform Jews. He himself never joined or regularly practiced any religious faith. At one time he might have become a Roman Catholic, out of respect for its stabilizing social influence. However, his second wife, born Helen Byrne, of an Irish Catholic family, was decisively opposed to her childhood church. During their Washington years the Lippmanns lived across the street from the Episcopal Washington Cathedral and became close friends of its bishop, Angus Dun, and of its dean, Francis B. Sayre. They frequently attended services at the cathedral and socially were members of the cathedral community.
Ronald Steel's biography of Walter Lippmann is correctly subtitled "and The American Century," referring to the period when the US rose to pre-eminent world power. Lippmann's career did span "The American Century," from its origins with "Teddy" Roosevelt, who was Lippmann's first hero and whom he always regarded as the personification of the qualities of leadership. For the rest of his life he kept looking in other presidents for some of the qualities which he felt had made the first Roosevelt a true leader.
The "American Century" effectively ended with the US withdrawal from Vietnam. Lippmann's thinking played a major role all the way through (he retired in 1967 and died in 1974). He was not always right, in retrospect -- at least many of his critics think he made mistakes. He admitted several, including tardiness in recognizing both the evil and the danger in Hitler and Nazism. He became an important feature in the American "establishment." Through most of his active writing career he expounded America to the outside world and the outside world to America. His indirect influence was probably greater than his direct influence. His columns were read by the educated and the influential. They were directed at the White House and State Department. Editors the world over took their lead from him, and so did diplomats.
His thinking was largely in tune with national US policy right through until Harry Truman announced and phrased a doctrine of global US interventionism known as the Truman Doctrine. For the first time, Washington policy was set down a road that seemed increasingly dangerous to Walter Lippmann. He was in favor of giving US military and economic aid to Greece and Turkey, but he was deeply concerned at the implication of a doctrine that seemed to call for the US to play the role of world policeman. He wrote a series of columns analyzing the Truman Doctrine. His objections were so powerfully stated that for the first time in his career he ceased to be persona grata at the White House. He and Secretary of State Dean Acheson had been lifelong associates and friends until that time. From the time of those columns attacking the Truman Doctrine the two avoided each other. The Lippmanns did not accept social invitations if the Achesons were to be present.
US involvement in Vietnam was precisely what Lippmann feared the Truman Doctrine would lead into. He regarded Lyndon Johnson's decision to intervene massively as a commitment beyond American resources. He warned that it would do precisely what it did in the end do. It divided the American people, alienated the allies, and drained both the industrial and military resources of the country. It was during the years of spending American lives and treasure in Vietnam that the Soviet Union drew level with the United States in military power. Moscow conserved its human and military resources while America spent.
Mr. Steel is a fine historian as well as a careful biographer. I lived through the Lippmann period. I thought I understood most of the events. I understand them better for having relived them through the Lippmann story.
The human story is woven brilliantly through the historical narrative. The failure of Lippmann's first marriage and the success of the second is a romance well told. His second wife's handling of him is classic. He was a highly competitive tennis player. Once some children were being noisy in the next court just as her husband was about to serve. She stopped the game, went over to the children, and ordered them to "be quiet when Mr. Lippmann is serving." The children were quiet. When the Lippmanns were climbing the rocky side of a mountain, Helen called up to him a firm injunction: "Walter, look, don't think."
Mr. Steel's biography of Walter Lippmann is important both as history and as the story of a mind that influenced the American journey from the beginnings of world power under "Teddy" Roosevelt to the discovery in Vietnam of the limit on that power. This is a book of first importance and should be read by anyone wanting a clearer sense of how America got to where it finds itself today.