The Wilsonian Moment?

The Wilsonian Moment?

James Chace

The debate between national sovereignty and human rights began in earnest after World War I and continues to this day.

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Walter Lippmann, 27 years old and one of the brightest young men in Washington, was working in the War Department in 1917. A crusading progressive journalist at the New Republic, Lippmann had once been enamored of Theodore Roosevelt but had become an avid supporter of Woodrow Wilson. He joined the office of Secretary of War Newton Baker in an advisory group that included the future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter and Eugene Meyer, later the publisher of the Washington Post. Lippmann established himself in the department as a standard-bearer for liberal causes, in particular that of protecting the press from arbitrary censorship. Using Wilsonian language, he reminded Wilson's éminence grise, Edward House, "We are fighting not so much to beat an enemy, as to make a world that is safe for democracy." Though he was not, in his own words, a "sentimental liberal," he recognized that liberals were vital constituents in Wilson's search for consensus.

Lippmann's toughness recommended itself to the president and to House (who liked to be called "Colonel," an honorary Texas title). One day in September, six months after the United States had entered the Great War, Colonel House asked to see Lippmann on a secret matter: Wilson wanted to assemble a group of experts who would draw up material for an eventual peace conference. Lippmann was to be general secretary to the group, which would meet in New York under the rubric of "The Inquiry." Burying themselves in the offices of the American Geographical Society at 155th Street and Broadway, the members of The Inquiry pored over books and maps that would be critical to redrawing the frontiers of Europe. Lippmann did not exaggerate when he called the group's work "huge, superabundant, and overflowing."  

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