Walter Karp (1934 – July 19, 1989) was an American journalist, historian, and writer published in magazines such as American Heritage and Horizon, and also was a contributing editor for Harper's magazine (edited by friend Lewis H. Lapham), which re-published some of his political history books in 2003. As an historian, he emphasized the close relationship between domestic and international politics, and the shallowness of the modern two-party system of the US, proposing power and militarism — not money — as the corrupting influences upon politics.
Walter Karp was born in Brooklyn, New York City, and studied anthropology at Columbia College of Columbia University, and was graduated as valedictorian of the class of 1955. He began his career as a popular science writer, penning Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species (1968) a young-adult book about Charles Darwin. Later, he began writing about politics, his opposition response to the Vietnam War (1945–76). In 1969, he and H. R. Shapiro, a friend and fellow writer, founded the fortnightly magazine The Public Life, which W. H. Auden praised. As an intellectual, he named Thomas Jefferson and Hannah Arendt as two great influences, and the Founding Fathers of the United States as political influences, thus the eighteenth-century inflection of his literary style.
The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic 1890–1920 (1979) reports how William McKinley impelled the United States to fight the Spanish-American War (April–August 1898) and how Woodrow Wilson compelled intervention to the First World War (1914–18) — and how they determined the USA’s emergence as an imperial world power.
What impelled the US to fight Spain with the Spanish–American War was not a war-crazed public infected with yellow journalism (most historians’ conventional wisdom) — but the collusion of an ambitious political party pair seeking to again make the US a country “safe for oligarchy”. That was their response to the Populist movement of the 1890s, a destabilising threat to the “Republican–Democrat” two-party system. Moreover, despite the US defeating Imperial Spain — within the Republican Party, the Populist movement soon yielded to a Progressive movement led by Senator Robert La Follette, which culminated in the presidential election of 1912, wherein more than 70 per cent of the votes were for progressive and other candidates, leaving the incumbent US President, William Howard Taft (1909–13), in third place; thus “The privileged interests . . . seemed about to receive their death blow. Government of, by, and for the people was about to be restored to the American Republic.”
Yet, the man elected US president in 1912, Woodrow Wilson, was “a man driven by vaunting ambition” with very different plans for the republic. Originally very conservative, with a strong belief in laissez-faire capitalism, he believed himself a “man of destiny”, and altered his political beliefs to seek elected office. As an historian, Wilson dreamed of negotiating a treaty among the warring European imperial powers, yet knew that, as President, he would have to compel the US into the Great War, in order to fulfil his statesman’s ambition of setting Imperial Europe aright. Hence his Presidential favoritism towards the Allies and inflexible antagonism towards the Germans and the Central Powers — despite every belligerent having violated international law in prosecuting the war; to suit his political, man-of-destiny ambitions, President Woodrow Wilson embroiled the US in a European war.
Most noteworthy is the First Red Scare (1917–20), the Wilson Administration’s extended war-time suppression of the civil liberties of anti-war critics, thus the comparison between the war-time behaviors of President Lincoln and President Wilson: “Americans under Lincoln enjoyed every liberty that could possibly be spared; in a war safely fought 3,000 miles from our own shores, Americans under Wilson lost every liberty they could possibly be deprived of”. The war-time suppression of liberty “struck the American Republic a blow from which it has never recovered.”
In 2003, Harper’s magazine editor Lewis Lapham compared The Politics of War to the works of Henry Adams, emphasising its contemporary relevance, in that “Karp offers a clearer understanding of our current political circumstance than can be found in any two or twenty of the volumes published over the last ten years by the herd of Washington journalists grazing on the White House lawn.”
Liberty Under Siege: American Politics 1976–1988 (1989) develops the thematic line of articles written for Harper's magazine, proposing that the Republican and the Democratic parties colluded to undermine the presidency of the “feeble Democrat” Jimmy Carter (1976–80), and replace him with the “liar and tyrant” Ronald Reagan (1980–84, 84–88). Despite the harshly accurate assessment of the time chronicled, Liberty Under Siege concludes reiterating the historian’s trust in Jeffersonian democracy.
The Two Americas article presents his perspectives of democracy and patriotism; citing the Pledge of Allegiance, he proposes that the United States of America is two countries — a republic and a nation; the republic “exists for its own sake”, whilst the nation only exists relative to other nations — therefore, it is most alive when at war. He often quoted Lincoln’s praise of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay as a man who “loved his country, partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.”
“The left and right wings of the party establishment — two great pinions of an ancient bird of prey”. (Liberty Under Siege, p. 100)
“The public school system: ‘Usually a twelve year sentence of mind control. Crushing creativity, smashing individualism, encouraging collectivism and compromise, destroying the exercise of intellectual inquiry, twisting it instead into meek subservience to authority’ ”.
“The most esteemed journalists are precisely the most servile. For it is by making themselves useful to the powerful that they gain access to the ‘best’ sources”. (Harper’s magazine, July 1989)
“Professors of American history erect Gothic cathedrals of erudition on political axioms acquired from their fifth-grade ‘social studies’ readers”. (“Buried Alive”, Harper’s magazine, May 1980, p. 63)
“In one form or another, my enemies believe that the few should rule the many and that the many should shut their traps”. (an interview in American Heritagemagazine)
- Karp, Walter (2003). The Politics of War: The Story of Two Wars Which Altered Forever the Political Life of the American Republic 1890–1920. Mt. Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell Ltd. ISBN 1-879957-55-8. Lewis Lapham's introduction to the 2003 reissue of The Politics of War
- Karp, Walter (1993). Indispensable Enemies: The Politics of Misrule in America. New York: Franklin Square Press. ISBN 1-879957-13-2.
- Karp, Walter (1993). Liberty Under Siege: American Politics 1976–1988. New York: Franklin Square Press. ISBN 1-879957-11-6.
- Karp, Walter (2003). Buried Alive: Essays on Our Endangered Republic. New York: Franklin Square Press. ISBN 1-879957-04-3.
- Karp, Walter and Sidney Zion (1995). Betrayal: The Two Parties Against the People. New York: Argonaut Press. ISBN 1-882206-03-7.
- Karp, Walter (1965). The Smithsonian Institution: An Establishment for the Increase & Diffusion of Knowledge Among Men. New York: Smithsonian Institution.
- Karp, Walter (1968). Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species. New York: Harper & Row.
- Karp, Walter (1973). I Remember Wounded Knee Between the Wars. New York: American Heritage.
- Karp, Walter (1969). The American Land As It Was. New York: American Heritage.
- Interview of Karp by his daughter Jane Karp published in American Heritage
- Articles by Karp published in American Heritage
- Issue 13 (May 3, 1996) of The Last Ditch magazine, devoted to Walter Karp
- Walter Karp (1934-1989): War Critic and Republican Theorist, by Joseph Stromberg
- Photo of Karp and brief description
- Quotes from Karp
- Quotes from Karp
- Why Johnny Can't Think: The Politics of Bad Schooling, Harper's Magazine, June 1985
- List of Harper's Magazine Articles by Karp
- List of Harper's Magazine Letters by Karp
- List of Harper's Magazine Reviews by Karp
- Obituary in Harper's Magazine by Lewis Lapham
- Yankee Doodle Dandy by Lewis Lapham Essay on the relevance of Karp's The Politics of War to the American war in Iraq
- New York Times Obituary