This is the third of a series of papers on public opinion culled from Mr. Lippmann’s forthcoming book on “Public Opinion.” The occasional transition paragraphs in brackets are not Mr. Lippmann’s, but are inserted by the editor.—THE EDITOR
How, in the language of democratic theory, do great numbers of people, each feeling privately about so abstract a picture of the world as they carry about in their heads, develop any common will? How does a simple and constant idea emerge from this complex of variables? How are those things known as the “will of the people” or “the national purpose” or “public opinion” crystallized out of such fleeting and casual imagery?
That there is a real difficulty here was shown by an angry tilt in the spring of 1921 between the American ambassador to England and a very large number of other Americans. Mr. Harvey, speaking at a British dinner-table, had assured the world without the least sign of hesitancy what were the motives of Americans in 1917. As he described them, they were not the motives which President Wilson had insisted upon when he enunciated the American mind. Now, of course, neither Mr. Harvey nor Mr. Wilson nor the critics and friends of either nor any one else can know quantitatively and qualitatively what went on in thirty or forty million adult minds. But what everybody knows is that a war was fought and won by a multitude of efforts, stimulated, no one knows in what proportion, by the motives of Wilson and the motives of Harvey and all kinds of hybrids of the two. People enlisted and fought, worked, paid taxes, sacrificed to a common end, and yet no one can begin to say exactly what moved each person to do each thing that he did. It is no use, then, for Mr. Harvey to tell a soldier who thought this was a war to end war that the soldier did not think any such thing. The soldier who thought that thought that. And Mr. Harvey, who thought something else, thought something else.
In the same speech Mr. Harvey formulated with equal clarity what the voters of 1920 had in their minds. That is a rash thing to do, and if you simply assume that all who voted your ticket voted as you did, then it is a disingenuous thing to do. The count shows that sixteen millions voted Republican, and nine millions Democratic. They voted, says Mr. Harvey, for and against the League of Nations, and in support to this claim he can point to Mr. Wilson’s request for a referendum and to the undeniable fact that the Democratic party and Mr. Cox insisted that the league was the issue. But, then, saying that the league was the issue did not make the league the issue, and by counting the votes on election day you do not know the real division of opinion about the league. There were, for example, nine million Democrats. Are you entitled to believe that all of them are stanch supporters of the league? Certainly you are not. For your knowledge of American politics tells you that many of the millions voted, as they always do, to maintain the existing social system in the South, and that whatever their views on the league, they did not vote to express their views. Those of them who wanted the league were no doubt pleased that the Democratic party wanted it, too. Those who disliked the league may have held their noses as they voted. But both groups of Southerners voted the same ticket.
Were the Republicans more unanimous? Anybody can pick out of his circle of friends enough Republican voters to cover the whole gamut of opinion from the irreconcilability of Senator Johnson to the advocacy of Secretary Hoover and Chief-Justice Taft. No one can say definitely how many people felt in any particular way about the league, or how many people let their feelings on that subject deter- mine their vote. When there are only two ways of expressing a hundred varieties of feeling, there is no certain way of knowing what the decisive combination was. Senator Borah found in the Republican ticket a reason for voting Republican, but so did President Lowell. The Republican majority was composed of men and women who thought a Republican victory would kill the league, plus those who thought it the most practical way to secure the league, plus those who thought it the surest way offered to obtain an amended league. All these voters were inextricably entangled with their own desire, or the desire of other voters to improve business, put labor in its place, punish the Democrats for going to war, punish them for not having gone sooner, get rid of Mr. Burleson, improve the price of wheat, lower taxes, stop Mr. Daniels from outbuilding the world, or help Mr. Harding to do the same thing.
And yet a sort of decision emerged; Mr. Harding moved into the White House. For the least common denominator of all the votes was that the Democrats should go and the Republicans come in. That was the only factor remaining after all the contradictions had canceled one another. But that factor was enough to alter policy for four years. The precise reasons why change was desired on that November day in 1920 are not recorded, not even in the memories of the individual voters. The reasons are not fixed. They grow and change and melt into other reasons, so that the public opinions Mr. Harding has to deal with are not the opinions that elected him. That there is no inevitable connection between an assortment of opinions and a particular hne of action every one saw in 1916. Elected, apparently, on the cry that he kept us out of war, Mr. Wilson within five months led the country into war.
The working of the popular will, therefore, has always called for explanation. Those who have been most impressed by its erratic working have found a prophet in M. LeBon, and have welcomed generalizations about what Sir Robert Peel called “that great compound of folly, weakness, prejudice, wrong feeling, right feeling, obstinacy, and newspaper paragraphs which is called public opinion.” Others have concluded that since out of drift and incoherence settled aims do appear, there must be a mysterious contrivance at work somewhere over and above the inhabitants of a nation. They invoke a collective soul, a national mind, a spirit of the age which imposes order upon random opinion. An over-soul seems to be needed, for the emotions and ideas in the members of a group do not disclose anything so simple and so crystalline as what those same persons will accept as a true statement of their public opinion.
But the facts can, I think, be explained more convincingly without the help of the over-soul in any of its manifestations. After all, the art of inducing all sorts of people who think differently to vote alike is practised in every political campaign. In 1916, for example, the Republican candidate had to produce Republican votes out of many different kinds of Republicans. Let us look at Mr. Hughes’s first speech after accepting the nomination. Mr. Hughes knew the occasion was momentous, and he had carefully prepared his manuscript. In a box sat Theodore Roosevelt, just back from Missouri. All over the house sat the veterans of Armageddon in various stages of doubt and dismay. On the platform and in the other boxes the ex-whited sepulchers and ex-second- story men of 1912 were to be seen, obviously in the best of health and in a melting mood. Out beyond the hall there were powerful pro-Germans and powerful pro-Allies; a war party in the East and in the big cities; a peace party in the Middle and Far West. There was strong feeling about Mexico. Mr. Hughes had to form a majority against the Democrats out of people divided into all sorts of combinations on Taft versus Roosevelt, pro- Germans versus pro-Allies, war versus neutrality, Mexican intervention versus non-intervention.
About the morality or the wisdom of the affair we are, of course, not concerned here. Our only interest is in the method by which a leader of heterogeneous opinion goes about the business of securing a homogeneous vote.
This representative gathering is a happy augury. It means the strength of reunion. It means that the party of Lincoln is restored.
The italicized words are binders: Lincoln in such a speech has, of course, no relation to Abraham Lincoln. It is merely a stereotype by which the piety which surrounds that name can be transferred to the Republican candidate who now stands in his shoes. Lincoln reminds the Republicans, Bull Moose and Old Guard, that before the schism they had a common history. About the schism no one can afford to speak; but it is there, as yet unhealed.
The speaker must heal it. Now, the schism of 1912 had arisen over domestic questions; the reunion of 1916 was, as Mr. Roosevelt had declared, to be based on a common indignation against Mr. Wilson’s conduct of international affairs. But international affairs were also a dangerous source of conflict. It was necessary to find an opening subject which would not only ignore 1912, but would also avoid the explosive conflicts of 1916. The speaker skilfully [sic] selected the spoils system in diplomatic appointments. “Deserving Democrats” was a discrediting phrase, and Mr. Hughes at once evoked it. The record being indefensible, there was no hesitation in the vigor of the attack. Logically, it was an ideal introduction to a common mood.
Mr. Hughes then turned to Mexico, beginning with a historical review. He had to consider the general sentiment that affairs were going badly in Mexico; also, a no less general sentiment that war should be avoided; and two powerful currents of opinion, one of which said President Wilson was right in not recognizing Huerta, the other which preferred Huerta to Carranza, and intervention to both. Huerta was the first sore spot in the record.
He was certainly in fact the head of the Government in Mexico.
But the moralists who regarded Huerta as a drunken murderer had to be placated.
Whether or not he should be recognized was a question to be determined in the exercise of a sound discretion, but according to correct principles.
So instead of saying that Huerta should have been recognized, the candidate says that correct principles ought to be applied. Everybody believes in correct principles, and everybody, of course, believes he possesses them. To blur the issue still further. President Wilson’s policy is described as “intervention.” It was that in law perhaps, but not in the sense then currently meant by the word. By stretching the word to cover what Mr. Wilson had done, as well as what the real interventionists wanted, the issue between the two factions was to be repressed.
Having got by the two explosive points, “Huerta” and “intervention,” by letting the words mean all things to all men, the speech passed for a while to safer ground. The candidate told the story of Tampico, Vera Cruz, Villa, Santa Ysabel, Columbus, and Carrizal. Mr. Hughes was specific, either because the facts as known from the newspapers were irritating, or because the true explanation was, as for example in regard to Tampico, too complicated. No contrary passions could be aroused by such a record. But at the end the candidate had to take a position; his audience expected it. The indictment was Mr. Roosevelt’s. Would Mr. Hughes adopt his remedy, intervention?
The nation has no policy of aggression toward Mexico. We have no desire for any part of her territory. We wish her to have peace, stability and prosperity. We should be ready to aid her in binding up her wounds, in relieving her from starvation and distress, in giving her in every practicable way the benefits of our disinterested friendship. The conduct of this administration has created difficulties which we shall have to surmount…. We shall have to adopt a new policy, a policy of firmness and consistency through which alone we can promote an enduring friendship.
The theme friendship is for the non-interventionists, the theme “new policy” and “firmness” is for the interventionists. On the non-contentious record the detail is overwhelming; on the issue everything is cloudy.
Concerning the European War Mr. Hughes employed an ingenious formula:
I stand for the unflinching maintenance of all American rights on land and sea.
In order to understand the force of that statement at the time it was spoken, we must remember how each faction during the period of neutrality believed that the nations it opposed in Europe were alone violating American rights. Mr. Hughes seemed to say to the pro-Allies: “I would have coerced Germany. But the pro-Germans had been insisting that British sea power was violating most of our rights. The formula covers two diametrically opposed purposes by the symbolic phrase ‘American rights.'”
But there was the Lusitania. Like the 1912 schism, it was an invincible obstacle to harmony.
I am confident that there would have been no destruction of American lives by the sinking of the Lusitania.
What cannot be compromised must be obliterated. When there is a question on which we cannot all hope to get together, let us pretend that it does not exist. About the future of American relations with Europe Mr. Hughes was silent. Nothing he could say would possibly please the two irreconcilable factions for whose support he was bidding.
It is hardly necessary to say that Mr. Hughes did not invent this technic and did not employ it with the utmost success; but he illustrated how a public opinion constituted out of divergent opinions is clouded, how its meaning approaches the neutral tint formed out of the blending of many colors. Where superficial harmony is the aim and conflict the fact, obscurantism in a public appeal is the usual result. Almost always vagueness at a crucial point in public debate is a symptom of cross-purposes in the public mind.
[President Wilson’s Fourteen Points afford another good laboratory example of the way political leadership goes about the task of making a common will out of the medley of private feelings and beliefs.] The Fourteen Points were addressed to all the governments, allied, enemy, neutral, and to all the peoples. They were an attempt to knit together the chief imponderables of a world war. Necessarily, this was a new departure, because this was the first great war in which all the deciding elements of mankind could be brought to think about the same ideas, or at least about the same names for ideas, simultaneously. Without cable, radio, telegraph, and daily press, the experiment of the Fourteen Points would have been impossible. It was an attempt to exploit the modern machinery of communication to start the return to a “common consciousness” throughout the world.
But first we must examine some of the circumstances as they presented themselves at the end of 1917. For in the form which the document finally assumed, all these considerations are somehow represented. During the summer and autumn a series of events had occurred which profoundly affected the temper of the people and the course of the war. In July the Russians made their last offensive, had been disastrously beaten, and the process of demoralization which led to the Bolshevik revolution of November had begun. Somewhat earlier the French had suffered an almost disastrous defeat in Champagne, which produced mutinies in the army and a defeatist agitation among the civilians. England was suffering from the effects of the submarine raids, from the terrible losses of the Flanders battles, and in November at Cambrai the British armies met a reverse that appalled the troops at the front and the leaders at home. Extreme war weariness pervaded the whole of western Europe. In effect, the agony and disappointment had jarred loose men’s concentration on the accepted version of the war. Their interests were no longer held by the ordinary official pronouncements, and their attention began to wander, fixing now upon their own suffering, now upon their party and class purposes, now upon general resentments against the governments. That more or less perfect organization of perception by official propaganda, of interest and attention by the stimuli of hope, fear, and hatred, which is called morale, was by way of breaking down. The minds of men everywhere began to search for new attachments that promised relief.
Suddenly they beheld a tremendous drama. On the eastern front there was a Christmas truce, an end of slaughter, an end of noise, a promise of peace. At Brest-Litovsk the dream of all simple people had come to life: it was possible to negotiate, there was some other way to end the ordeal, except by matching lives with the enemy. Timidly, but with rapt attention, people began to turn to the east. Why not, they asked? What was it all for? Do the politicians know what they are doing? Are we really fighting for what they say? Is it possible, perhaps, to secure it with- out fighting? Under the ban of the censorship, little of this was allowed to show itself in print, but when Lord Lansdowne spoke, there was a response from the heart. The earlier symbols of the war had become hackneyed and had lost their power to unify. Beneath the surface a wide schism was opening up in every Allied country.
Something similar was happening in central Europe. There, too, the original impulse of the war was weakened; the union sacré was broken. The vertical cleavages along the battlefront were cut across by horizontal divisions running in all kinds of unforeseeable ways. The moral crisis of the war had arrived before the military decision was in sight. All this President Wilson and his advisers reahlized. They had not, of course, a perfect knowledge of the situation, but what I have sketched they knew.
They knew also that the Aliied governments were bound by a series of engagements that in letter and in spirit ran counter to the popular conception of what the war was about. The resolutions of the Paris economic conference were, of course, public property, and the network of secret treaties had been published by the Bolsheviks in November of 1917.* Their terms were only vaguely known to the peoples, but it was definitely believed that they did not comport with the idealistic slogan of self-determination, no annexations, and no indemnities. Popular questioning took the form of asking how many thousand English lives Alsace-Lorraine or Dalmatia were worth, how many French lives Poland or Mesopotamia were worth. Nor was such questioning entirely unknown in America. The whole Allied cause had been put on the defensive by the refusal to participate at Brest-Litovsk.
Here was a highly sensitive state of mind which no competent leader could fail to consider. The ideal response would have been joint action by the Allies. That was found to be impossible when it was considered at the interallied conference of October. But by December the pressure had become so great that Mr. George and Mr. Wilson were moved independently to make some response. The form selected by the President was a statement of peace terms under fourteen heads. The numbering of them was an artifice to secure precision and to create at once the impression that here was a businesslike document. The idea of stating “peace terms” instead of “war aims” arose from the necessity of establishing a genuine alternative to the Brest-Litovsk negotiations. They were intended to compete for attention by substituting for the spectacle of Russo-German parleys the much grander spectacle of a public, worldwide debate.
Having enlisted the interest of the world, it was necessary to hold that interest unified and flexible for all the different possibilities that the situation contained. The terms had to be such that the majority among the Allies would regard them as worth while. They had to meet the national aspirations of each people, and yet to limit those aspirations in order that no one nation would regard itself as a cat’s-paw for another. The terms had to satisfy official interests so as not to provoke official disunion, and yet they had to meet popular conceptions so as to prevent the spread of demoralization. They had, in short, to preserve and confirm Allied unity in case the war was to go on.
But they had also to be the terms of a possible peace, so that in case the German center and left were ripe for agitation, they would have a text with which to smite the governing class. The terms had, therefore, to push the Allied governors nearer to their people, drive the German governors away from their people, and establish a line of common understanding between the Allies, the non-official Germans, and the subject peoples of Austria-Hungary. The Fourteen Points were a daring attempt to raise a standard to which almost every one might repair. If a sufficient number of the enemy people were ready, there would be peace; if not, then the Allies would be better prepared to sustain the shock of war.
All these considerations entered into the making of the Fourteen Points. No one man may have had them all in mind, but all the men concerned had some of them in mind. Against this background let us examine some phases of the document. The first five points and the fourteenth deal with “open diplomacy,” “freedom of the seas,” “equal trade opportunities,” “reduction of armaments,” no imperialist annexation of colonies, and the League of Nations. They might be described as a statement of the popular generalizations in which every one at that time professed to believe. But Number Three is more specific. I t was aimed consciously and directly at the resolutions of the Paris economic conference, and was meant to relieve the German people of their fear of suffocation.
Number Six is the first point dealing with a particular nation. It was intended as a reply to Russian suspicion of the Allies, and the eloquence of its promises was attuned to the drama of Brest-Litovsk. Number Seven deals with Belgium, and is as absolute in form and purpose as was the conviction of virtually the whole world, including very large sections of central Europe. Over Number Eight we must pause. It begins with an absolute demand for evacuation and restoration of French territory, and then passes on to the question of Alsace-Lorraine. The phrasing of this clause most perfectly illustrates the character of a pubhc statement that must condense a vast complex of interests in a few words. “And the wrong done to France by Prussia in 1871 in the matter of Alsace-Lorraine, which has unsettled the peace of the world for nearly fifty years, should be righted.” Every word here was chosen with meticulous care. The wrong done should be righted; why not say that Alsace-Lorraine should be restored? It was not said, because it was not certain that all of the French at that time would fight on indefinitely for reannexation if they were offered a plebiscite; and because it was even less certain whether the English and Italians would fight on. The formula had, therefore, to cover both contingencies. The word “righted” guaranteed satisfaction to France, but did not read as a commitment to simple annexation. But why speak of the wrong done by Prussia in 1871? The word Prussia was, of course, intended to remind the South Germans that Alsace-Lorraine belonged not to them, but to Prussia. Why speak of peace unsettled for “fifty years,” and why the use of “1871”? In the first place, what the French and the rest of the world remembered was 1871. That was the nodal point of their grievance. But the formulators of the Fourteen Points knew that French officialdom planned for more than the Alsace-Lorraine of 1871. The secret memoranda that had passed between the czar’s ministers and French officials in 1916 covered the annexation of the Saar Valley and some sort of dismemberment of the Rhineland. It was planned to include the Saar Valley under the term “Alsace-Lorraine” because it had been part of Alsace-Lorraine in 1814, though it had been detached in 1815, and was no part of the territory at the close of the Franco-Prussian War. The official French formula for annexing the Saar was to subsume it under “Alsace-Lorraine,” meaning the Alsace-Lorraine of 1814-15. By insistence on “1871” the President was really defining the ultimate boundary between Germany and France, was adverting to the secret treaty, and was casting it aside.
Number Nine, a little less subtly, does the same thing in respect to Italy. “Clearly recognizable lines of nationality” are exactly what the lines of the Treaty of London were not. Those lines were partly strategic, partly economic, partly imperialistic, partly ethnic. The only part of them that could possibly procure Allied sympathy was that which would recover the genuine Italia Irrendenta.
It would be a mistake to suppose that the apparently unanimous enthusiasm which greeted the Fourteen Points represented agreement on a program. Every one seemed to find something that he liked and stressed this aspect and that detail. But no one risked a discussion. The phrases, so pregnant with the underlying conflicts of the civilized world, were accepted. They stood for conflicting ideas, but they evoked a common emotion. And to that extent they played a part in rallying the Western peoples for the desperate ten months of war that they had still to endure.
As long as the Fourteen Points dealt with that hazy and happy future when the agony was to be over, the real conflicts of interpretation were not made manifest. They were plans for the settlement of a wholly invisible environment, and because these plans inspired all groups, each with its own private hope, all hopes ran together as a public hope. For harmonization, as we saw in Mr. Hughes’s speech, is a hierarchy of symbols. As you ascend the hierarchy in order to include more and more factions, you may for a time preserve the emotional connection, though you lose the intellectual. But even the emotion becomes thinner. As you go further away from experience, you go higher into generalization or subtlety. As you go up in the balloon, you throw more and more concrete objects overboard, and when you have reached the top in an omni- bus like the “Rights of Humanity” or the “World Made Safe for Democracy,” you see far and wide, but you see very little. Yet the people whose emotions are entrained do not remain passive. As the public appeal be- comes more and more all things to all men, as the emotion is stirred while the meaning is dispersed, their very private meanings are given a universal application. Whatever you want badly is the “Rights of Humanity.” For the phrase, ever more vacant, capable of meaning almost anything, soon comes to mean pretty nearly everything. Mr. Wilson’s phrases were understood in endlessly different ways in every comer of the earth. No document negotiated and of public record existed to correct the confusion. And so, when the day of settlement came, everybody expected everything. The European authors of the treaty had a large choice, and they chose to realize those expectations that were held by those of their countrymen who by common consent wielded the most power at home.
They came down the hierarchy from the “Rights of Humanity” to the rights of France, Great Britain, and Italy. They did not abandon the use of symbols. They abandoned only those that after the war had no permanent roots in the imagination of their constituents. They preserved the unity of France by the use of symbolism, but they would not risk anything for the unity of Europe. The symbol France was deeply attached; the symbol Europe had only a recent history. Nevertheless, the distinction between omnibus and symbol is not sharp. The history of states and empires reveals times when the scope of the unifying idea increases and also times when it shrinks. One cannot say that men have moved consistently from smaller loyalties to larger ones, because the facts will not bear out the claim. The Roman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire bellied out further than those national unifications in the nineteenth century from which believers in a world state argue by analogy. Nevertheless, it is probably true that the real integration has increased despite the inflation and deflation of empires.
Such a real integration has undoubtedly occurred in American history. In the decade before 1789 most men, it seems, felt that their State and their community were real-, but that the confederation of States was unreal. The idea of their State, its flag, its most conspicuous leaders, or whatever it was that represented Massachusetts or Virginia, were genuine symbols. That is to say, they were fed by actual experiences from childhood, occupation, residence, and the like. The span of men’s experience had rarely traversed the imaginary boundaries of their States. The word “Virginian” was related to pretty nearly everything that most Virginians had ever known or felt. It was the most extensive political idea that had genuine contact with their experience.
Their experience, not their needs; for their needs arose out of their real environment, which in those days was at least as large as the thirteen colonies. They needed a common defense. They needed a financial and economic regime as extensive as the confederation. But as long as the pseudo-environment of the State encompassed them, the state symbols exhausted their political interest. An interstate idea, like the confederation, represented a powerless abstraction. It was an omnibus rather than a symbol, and the harmony among groups which the omnibus creates is transient.
I have said that the idea of confederation was a powerless abstraction. Yet the need of unity existed in the decade before the Constitution was adopted. The need existed in the sense that affairs were askew unless the need of unity was taken into account. Gradually, certain classes in each colony began to break through the state experience. Their personal interests led across the state lines to interstate experiences, and gradually there was constructed in their minds a picture of the American environment which was truly national in scope. For them the idea of federation became a true symbol, and ceased to be an omnibus. The most imaginative of these men was Alexander Hamilton. It happened that he had no primitive attachment to any one State, for he was born in the West Indies, and had, from the very beginning of his active life, been associated with the common interests of all the States. Thus to most men of the time the question of whether the capitol should be in Virginia or in Philadelphia was of enormous importance because they were local-minded. To Hamilton this question was of no emotional consequence: what he wanted was the assumption of the state debts because they would further nationalize the proposed union. So he gladly traded the site of the capitol for two necessary votes from men who represented the Potomac district. To Hamilton the union was a symbol that represented all his interests and his whole experience; to White and Lee, from the Potomac, the symbol of their province was the highest political entity they served, and they served it, though they hated to pay the price. They agreed, says Jefferson, to change their votes, “White with a revulsion of stomach almost convulsive.”
In the crystallizing of a common will there is always an Alexander Hamilton at work.
*President Wilson stated at his conference with the senators that he had never heard of these treaties until he reached Paris. That statement was a temporary loss of memory, and did him grave injustice. The Fourteen Points, as the text shows, could not have been formulated without a knowledge of the secret treaties. The substance of those treaties was before the President when he and Colonel House prepared the final published text of the Fourteen Points.
Walter Lippmann (1889-1974) was an American journalist and public intellectual. Lippmann assisted Wilson in the preparation of several of the Fourteen Points. This article appeared in Century Magazine in January 1922.