Samuel Zipp


On his book The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World

Cover Interview of May 13, 2020

In a nutshell

The Idealist is the story of one man, a world-circling journey, and an influential book. But it is more than that, too. It’s a story about an idea and a moment in time, and their implications for our own lives. I tell the tale of Wendell Willkie’s trip around the world in late 1942 and the unprecedented buzz surrounding One World, his blockbuster 1943 bestseller, to consider a larger dilemma: how should we handle the sense of planetary interdependence brought on by globalization?

This question is much with us today in the time of Covid-19, but I want readers to see that it has a longer history than one might expect. The book takes us back to World War II, another time of great global crisis, but approaches the war from a perhaps unexpected angle. Those familiar with Willkie will likely know him as Franklin Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the election of 1940. The usual story is that Willkie’s internationalism helped neutralize America First-style nationalism and allowed FDR to take the nation into the war. Willkie becomes a supporting player in the familiar narrative of American ascendance. He helps the United States to save the world from fascism and erect the postwar “liberal world order” that is in so much trouble today. In that sense, his story appears as a kind of sunny rejoinder to the noir alternative history on offer in David Simon’s recent HBO version of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America.

But the truth about Willkie—and the war—is more challenging than this conventional, and, to many Americans, comforting tale. The key here is to see Willkie’s trip and book as a crucial but forgotten drama of the war era. Organized initially with President Roosevelt as a way to boost Allied morale, the closely watched journey became that and much more.

Forced to avoid occupied Europe, Willkie made stops in Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, the Soviet Union, and China. This itinerary allowed him to discover an entirely different war, one between empires as much as against fascism. In One World—deemed the “the most widely read and discussed non-fiction book of the twentieth century” by its publishers—Willkie looked to bring home what he called an “invitation” from the “peoples of the East.” Americans, he argued, had to join the true world war. If the conflict could not bring about a postwar peace that delivered an end to empire it would not be truly won.

Willkie challenged Americans to see their fate as bound up with many millions they had tended to ignore—and whom common histories of the war still ignore. The world, he tried to show Americans, was “one,” united by technology and global war—and it was this interdependence that would shape the rest of the twentieth century. Ultimately, the history revealed by Willkie’s story should ask us to confront anew the dilemmas of interdependence he and others faced three-quarters of a century ago.