Letters from an insider give a refresher course in US history
Public Philosopher: Selected Letters of Walter Lippmann, edited by John Morton Blum. New York: Ticknor & Fields. 652 pp. $29.95. I knew Walter Lippmann as a man whose newspaper columns influenced government and public opinion from World War I through World War II, and well into the new era that was brought about by those two cataclysmic events. Not until I read this new volume of his letters, though, selected by a distinguished Yale historian, did I realize that Lippmann not only helped to shape history from outside the government, but he also influenced history from inside over a longer period of time than any other person of hi s generation, and perhaps as importantly as any other, too.
Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin were primarily characters of World War II, as Woodrow Wilson was a major figure of World War I. Walter Lippmann, I find from these letters, wrote the first draft for Wilson's Fourteen Points, which cleared the way for the German surrender in World War I. He then provided much of the thinking for those senators who defeated Wilson over the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations.
Between wars, Lippmann worked for the rearmament of America so it might play a role at the time of the next great war, which he had correctly anticipated. He provided much of the intellectual rationalizaton for the US role in that war. After the war, he challenged the Truman Doctrine, which launched American expansionism, as an overcommitment of resources. He lived to see that appraisal confirmed in the American failure in Vietnam.
Walter Lippmann's life and work provide a continuing thread through the story of America's rise from a secondary and regional role in history to the world's mightiest nation.
If you wish to understand that story better, you will find this work of major value. Lippmann has been called ``America's political conscience.'' He was also a wise counselor to those in high office. He was on a first-name basis with most of them. He was an unofficial member of the policymaking community through much of his active lifetime, and several Presidents would have done better had they listened more carefully to his advice.
A letter to Newton D. Baker, Wilson's secretary of war (written on June 9, reasons Lippmann broke with Wilson over the treaty and saw in it, correctly, the seeds of future trouble:
How in our consciences are we to square the results with the promises? We said we would restore the French boundaries of 1871. We have gone far beyond those boundaries to the Saar and have set up a regime over a population of Germans which is humanly intolerable. . . . We said that we would give to Poland territory inhabited by ``indisputably Polish populations.'' We have put at least two million Germans under Polish rule. . . MDBR . We have severed from the main body of the German Republic the people of East Prussia. . . . In Bohemia we have denied to probably two million Germans any right to be consulted about their allegiance. In the Tyrol for purely strategic reasons we have placed under Italian sovereignty several thousand more Germans. . . . The exclusion of Germany from the League [of Nations] not only denies her the securities which the League may give to
its members, but it also denies her as long as she is excluded that economic equality which was promised in all the President's speeches and explicitly in the Fourteen Points.
There is much more of the reasons Lippmann opposed the treaty in this and other letters. This also explains something that has bothered critics of Lippmann's writings in the period leading up to the outbreak of World War II. He had seen clearly in the settlement of World War I the seeds of future trouble. The Versailles settlement was essentially an effort to rule the world without the participation of Germany and the Soviet Union. Both were excluded. Both were made pariahs of society. And both were thu s alienated to the point that they made common cause at Rapallo.
Lippmann saw that a settlement which excluded the Soviets and Germans was unstable. He foresaw that German resentment over the punitive terms of Versailles would breed a revival of German nationalism. Thus, when it occurred under the leadership of Adolph Hitler, Lippmann tended to see the new phenomenon as an inevitable reaction to past mistakes. He is accused of having been insensitive to the wickedness in the Nazi movement. He came to see it, but like many others at the time he saw it first as a hist oric inevitability born of the folly of Versailles, hence as a sort of deserved punishment on the French, British, and Italians for wrecking Wilson's Fourteen Points.
But as events moved on toward World War II, Lippmann became an active promotor of more US military power. He warned that the Japanese were outbuilding the United States at sea. He became concerned about the danger of the US undertaking commitments beyond its resources. He favored all possible aid to Britain and France, but warned that so long as Japan outgunned America in the Pacific, ``we cannot and must not consider military intervention in the other ocean.''
Lippmann's wisdom and interest covered many areas. In a letter to C. P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian on Aug. 6, 1919, he noted that the (first) world war had caused ``a large migration of Negroes from the South to the North, and this migration has caused complementary race problems in the North and South.'' Chicago had just had one of its worst-ever race riots. He was also an active member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers and advised its president on strictly Harvard matters.
But most of the letters in this large volume deal with the nations and their relations with one another. To read the thoughts Lippmann communicated to Baker and Wilson, to British prime ministers and French Foreign Office friends, to Herbert Hoover and John Foster Dulles and Dean Acheson and scores more, is to take a refresher course in the history of this country which has so profoundly changed the course of the world.
Walter Lippmann yearned to make the world better and safer, but he chronicled its stumbles through the 20th century with clarity and realism. This is the raw material of history. This collection is a proper companion to Ronald Steel's biography of Lippmann, published in 1980 under the title ``Walter Lippmann & the American Century.''
Joseph C. Harsch writes the Monitor's weekly ``Pattern of Diplomacy'' column.