Samuel Zipp


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

Cover Interview of May 13, 2020


The Idealist is a strange and ambivalent tale, in a way. The book is a history of an idea that’s self-evident: it’s never been more obvious how technology, greenhouse gasses, markets, and the threat of pandemics connect us all. But it’s also a history of failure. The vision of global governance Willkie and many other midcentury internationalists favored was partially realized, but in a diluted fashion, and has been in retreat ever since. The postwar years, the historian David Reynolds argued two decades ago, could be summed up as a story of “one world, divisible.”

Willkie offered a geopolitical vision of a world in need of new maps and a new kind of global imagination. It was an idealistic vision, of a planet united in cooperation through a new world body designed to succeed where the League of Nations had failed. But it was strategic as well, envisioning the United States cooperating with the Soviet Union, championing decolonization, and managing a reinvigorated network of global trade. In his version of the future, America remained indispensable, not as the proprietor of a new empire, but as the guarantor of the freedom and equality imagined as the country’s birthright.

This was a treacherous path. Willkie was trying to tiptoe between two nationalisms—a lingering parochial hawkishness on the right and an emerging expansionary liberal nationalism that he both disputed and sometimes epitomized. In the end, Willkie revealed Americans’ contorted and conflicted feelings about the world at large.

For 75 years after World War II, Americans did embrace a global role, but it was too often one forged from a new kind of imperial vision. From the Cold War to the War on Terror, American global influence has been both benevolent and despotic—depending where you look—but always comfortable in its assurance that American dominance was indispensable to any kind of just world order. Now, however, that faith is in retreat.

Willkie took his trip at a hinge moment in the history of the twentieth century. The globe swung between a world shaped by European empire and a world shaped by American-led global capitalism. Now, with American power on the wane, we are living through another hinge moment. The 21st century will be shaped by a host of new factors: Chinese state capitalism, Russian authoritarianism, simultaneously rising prosperity and inequality, and a new global upsurge of nationalism in the face of climate-fueled migration and global pandemics. The United States can no longer pretend to “lead” the rest of the world. Willkie’s journey asks us to think about how we will live in the world rather than dominate it.