Steel writes that Lippmann had no personal prejudice against African Americans. But he largely overlooked their struggles until they became an unavoidable part of the national conversation. In 1919, Lippmann advocated “race parallelism,” roughly meaning separate but equal, which qualified as a progressive opinion at the time. He wrote little about segregation in the ensuing decades.
Barry D. Riccio, in his book Walter Lippmann–Odyssey of a Liberal, describes Lippmann’s relationship to civil rights and the civil rights movement as “especially illustrative of his rather conservative brand of liberalism.” Discussions about the issue were bound up with considerations of precedent, constitutionalism, and order. “Rarely did it seem to be a matter of race or morals.” Riccio says that when Lippmann did address civil rights in the mid-1950s, he did so through a Cold War lens. Jim Crow made America look bad internationally, diminishing its global appeal.
Lippmann’s framing of civil rights in America as, at least partly, a Cold War issue was not an uncommon position as America vied with the Soviet Union for influence in Africa and other parts of the developing world. His broader caution was also not unique. Yet Lippmann’s views could change, and on civil rights, they did.
He supported President Dwight Eisenhower’s dispatch of federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 to ensure school desegregation. By 1963, following the Freedom Rides, the use by police of attack dogs on peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama, and the March on Washington organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lippmann realized “equal rights could not be achieved by persuasion alone,” writes Steel. Lippmann concluded desegregation must become a national movement led and directed by the federal government.
In the twilight of his career, Lippmann adopted an iconoclasm he had until then largely avoided. The trigger was the war in Vietnam.
President Johnson seemed to want Lippmann’s help. Less than two weeks into his presidency, he asked to come over to Lippmann’s house for a chat, recounts Steel. The two were on good terms for a time, with Lippmann visiting Johnson’s Texas ranch a couple of months later. They blasted down ranch roads in a Lincoln Continental, stopping to drink whiskey and soda while Johnson leaned on the car horn to warn cattle wandering nearby. Whatever genuine affection Johnson’s attention and flattery might have engendered, it didn’t blind Lippmann to the flaws in Johnson’s decision to escalate America’s military involvement in Vietnam.
The escalation came amidst frequent consultations between Lippmann, Johnson, and members of Johnson’s administration—which, for Lippmann, might have added to his later sense of betrayal and disappointment. Because the White House did not want to alienate Lippmann, Steel writes, Johnson and his national security advisor, McGeorge Bundy, kept telling him they would be willing to negotiate a settlement in Vietnam once the military situation there improved. Their real objective was winning the war.