Samuel Zipp


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

Cover Interview of May 13, 2020

The wide angle

Oddly, this book began with the history of New York City. In writing about the building of the United Nations headquarters site for my book on postwar urbanism in New York, Manhattan Projects, I stumbled upon something of a lost literary genre—writers who celebrated the UN and the prospects for progressive American internationalism. Willkie was the most popular proponent of this sensibility.

I already knew about One World. It was a sort of set piece in accounts of the war—representative of the country’s momentary dalliance with progressive internationalism, but a minor chord in songs about Roosevelt and Churchill’s “Atlantic Charter,” Henry Luce’s “American Century,” Henry Wallace’s “Century of the Common Man,” and the eventual coming of the Cold War. So this sensibility was not exactly undiscovered, but neither has it been fully understood.

What grabbed me about Willkie was just how popular he was: 36 million people listened to each of the two radio speeches he gave after his trip; more than four million read One World. It was deemed by some “the fastest selling book in American history.” He was something close to a celebrity in these years. He gave debates about the postwar peace a populist flavor, delivering to Americans not just an argument about internationalism, but a sense of what it would feel like to consider their fates linked with the rest of the world.

Most surprising to me, though, was the message he delivered in this populist medium. One World reads like Henry Wallace filtered through W.E.B. Du Bois. The book’s call for international cooperation hinges on a challenge to Americans: end empire and its fatal handmaiden, racism.

In American Studies and U.S. history in the last few decades, there’s been a lot of attention to questions of race and empire. We have great accounts of the ways that U.S. empire was built, perpetuated, and naturalized for many Americans through stories about maintaining the racial and gender order. We have a rich literature on the transnational connections between the black freedom struggle and anti-imperialism. What has not been fully understood, I think, is the way that a critique of race and empire made its way into the American mainstream—and eventually faltered there—during and after World War II. The strange career of Wendell Willkie and the idea of “one world” lets us see that story.

As I wrote I sensed that something else was at stake in Willkie’s story, too. He has long been written off as a wishful utopian, promoting an unrealistic dream of global harmony. But Willkie did offer a strategic vision for American postwar policy, one held by quite a few on the liberal left at the time. Careful cooperation with the Soviet Union, he argued, could pave the way for speedy decolonization and a freer, more prosperous, more democratic global society. The U.S. and the world went another way, but Willkie’s story lets us see how histories of the Cold War and histories of decolonization, too often pursued separately, are actually part of one larger history: the making of our globalized world.