Walter Lippmann on the War and American Democracy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Entry into World War I meant not only an immediate change within the United States but also that at some point there would be an exit. Walter Lippmann wrote the article reprinted below to give his perspective on war in general, the implications of the war for the United States, and what the best postwar scenario would be. Although the United States had been successful in staying out of the war for almost three years, entry into the war meant that the United States needed to reevaluate its role in the world. Much of what Lippmann says regarding America’s role in the postwar years foreshadows the contents of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. This is perhaps to be expected given the work Lippmann did on the committee appointed by Wilson to develop postwar policy ideas. Published in a widely circulated academic journal, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Lippmann’s article was an attempt not only to publicize the policy ideas emerging from liberal thinkers, such as himself, but to do so in a way that added weight to them.

Summary Overview

Entry into World War I meant not only an immediate change within the United States but also that at some point there would be an exit. Walter Lippmann wrote the article reprinted below to give his perspective on war in general, the implications of the war for the United States, and what the best postwar scenario would be. Although the United States had been successful in staying out of the war for almost three years, entry into the war meant that the United States needed to reevaluate its role in the world. Much of what Lippmann says regarding America’s role in the postwar years foreshadows the contents of President Wilson’s Fourteen Points. This is perhaps to be expected given the work Lippmann did on the committee appointed by Wilson to develop postwar policy ideas. Published in a widely circulated academic journal, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Lippmann’s article was an attempt not only to publicize the policy ideas emerging from liberal thinkers, such as himself, but to do so in a way that added weight to them.

Defining Moment

For many Americans, the entry of the United States into World War I, in April 1917, turned the world upside down. Events to which they had been observers were now events in which Americans would participate directly. The uncertainties of war, both for the individual and for the nation, suddenly had to be confronted. For Lippmann, and others, it was a time to reflect not only on the challenge that lay before of them but also on the type of world that is to be desired for the future. The trauma of war forced many to consider whether the past and the world it grew out of should be replicated or whether something markedly different should be created.

As a self-proclaimed liberal, Lippmann had much in common with President Wilson. Although Wilson was a two-term president, he was more liberal than most Americans, as was Lippmann himself. Their view that the United States should be more involved in international affairs was widely debated, and Lippmann’s article “The World Conflict and Its Relation to American Democracy” was one of many such statements pushing for that change. The liberal agenda pushed by both men, however, ultimately did not come to pass in American politics. Once the United States was in the war, the country swung more strongly in a conservative, Republican direction. While Lippmann’s article was well received within the academic community, it, and similar articles by others, failed to carry the day in mainstream American political thought.

Lippmann accurately understood that politically, postwar Europe would not be the same as prewar Europe. He believed that democracy was the key to the future, for all nations, especially for those Central Powers that would be defeated. Lippmann believed democracy would bring cooperation, which would bring peace. Thus, in addition to the development of democratic governments across Europe, there needed to be a “council of peace,” in which these governments participated. Lippmann was part of the school of thought that saw this “council” as vital to maintaining a peaceful world. While outside the American norm in desiring the League of Nations, Lippmann was united with most in hoping that the First World War would be “the war to end all wars.”

Author Biography

Walter Lippmann was born in New York City on September 23, 1889 and died on December 14, 1974. A Harvard University graduate, with majors in philosophy and foreign languages, after graduation Lippmann went into journalism. He used a philosophical perspective to examine what was happening around him and how it was being reported. In addition to his numerous books, Lippmann, with two associates, founded The New Republic, a journal of politics and opinion. Prior to writing the “World Conflict” article reproduced here, he had supported the United States staying out of the war even in the wake of the Lusitania sinking. During the war, he was an Army captain, working in the intelligence branch. After the war, he was part of the group negotiating the peace treaty. In the following decades, Lippmann became a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, focusing on politics and international relations. His books, articles, and other efforts were often concerned with the need for a free press, which accurately reported the news, and the need for citizens of democracies, such as the United States, to take time to read and to understand the facts in order to make the nation a true democracy.

Document Analysis

According to Lippmann’s analysis, the war that started in Europe in 1914 was unlike any previous war. Fighting went well beyond the borders of Europe, and resources from around the world were mobilized in the struggle. As a result, World War I was in the process of transforming Europe, the countries of which represented the dominant economic and military powers of the world. As the United States was pulled into the war, Lippmann believed that it was necessary not only to win the war but to make certain that the ideals of liberal democratic societies would prevail as part of a new world order to be established after the war.

While this article was published only three months after the entry of the United States into World War I, the European nations had been at war for three years by then. Lippmann could see that the systems of government in many European nations, as well as their relationships among themselves and other nations, had to change if there was to be an enduring peace. The various “autocracies,” as Lippmann termed old-style governments, must become true democracies, based on the liberal principles of equality and respect for all people. He asserts that “democracy” is “the only principle on which peace can be secured.” Conversely, autocracies, especially Germany, have disregarded the desires of the common people and resorted to war to gain what the ruling class desires. Thus, things that were formerly of central importance in international relations, such as a Berlin-to-Basra railroad or the fact that much of the world was divided up into colonies, would no longer be important. As a result of the “revolution” unfolding because of the war, a new focus on peace must take center stage. The League of Nations, to be formed after the war, is Lippmann’s hope that a new era of peace would take root.

It is clear to Lippmann that Germany and Austria-Hungary have to be defeated. Lippmann does not maintain strong views on how postwar borders should be drawn, or what should happen to the African colonies. But victory over the Central Powers has to occur in any case, he argues, whether through internal dissent or through the use of Allied military force. Through that victory Lippmann hopes that the autocratic leadership present in those and other countries will be pushed aside and replaced by a democratic revolution. Lippmann sees that, while Germany may be the most autocratic of nations, many other nations have an autocratic form of leadership. Thus, it becomes easy for conflict to arise, even when it involves countries that have a democratic system in place. This is true even in the case of the United States. While those outside the United States might harbor “love and gratitude” toward it for helping to win the war, Lippmann asserts that America’s liberal democracy must be carefully maintained. Anyone who “resists it at home” should be considered “un-American.” For Lippmann, the peace that has been sought for Europe must be won “at home” as well.

Essential Themes

Walter Lippmann understood that war was not something that a country should enter into without great provocation and consideration. Earlier, he had written in support of President Wilson’s decision not to push to enter the war after the sinking of the Lusitania. Once the point was reached, however, where war could no longer be avoided, Lippmann believed that the war could and should serve some useful purpose. Fighting just to see which army was the strongest was of no value. On the other hand, entering the war to change the factors that had caused it to unfold was a legitimate reason to act. Having been drawn into the war because of attacks on American ships by German submarines, the United States, along with other leading nations, should take the opportunity to effect a major transformation within Germany and within the international order. The ruling elite in Germany should be pushed aside, and a true liberal democracy should replace them.

Lippmann’s view that the world should be transformed for the better did not end with Germany or Austria-Hungary, however. He wanted to see true liberal democracies as the social and political order in all of the European nations as well as in the United States. Even though the United States and various European countries had democratic governments on paper, they allowed elites within these nations to act as their rulers. Lippmann would not disagree with the proposition that the United States had free and honest elections, but he would disagree with the notion that all people in the United States had equal opportunity in the political, social, and economic systems. As tragic as the war might have been, then, it was, in Lippmann’s mind, an opportunity to introduce significant political transformations throughout the world. Although the Allied victory was more than a year away at the time of this article, the author of “The World Conflict and Its Relation to American Democracy” was confident that war would come. He asserts that at that point there should be a push within all countries to do away with their ruling elites, their autocracies, in order to make way for more peaceful democratic governments. This would then combine with a step toward getting rid of the old autocratic forms of international relations, replacing them with a system in which even the weaker nations of the world had a say in diplomatic matters. Such a system would constitute the “council of peace,” or League of Nations, that had been discussed by many individuals, including Lippmann. Even though the League never achieved the lofty goals that Lippmann, Wilson, and others, hoped for it, their having raised the idea of a place for honest negotiations was important. The idea of a neutral place for discussion and negotiation did not disappear, after all, with the demise of the League of Nations. Rather, it continued after the Second World War in the form of the United Nations.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Duffy, Michael. “Who’s Who–Walter Lippmann.” Firstworldwar.com, 2009. Web. 4 June 2014.
  • Luskin, John. Lippmann, Liberty, and the Press. Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 1972. Print.
  • McPherson, Harry C., Jr. “Walter Lippmann and the American Century.” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1980. Web. 4 June 2014.
  • Steel, Ronald. Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. Print.
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