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.
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.
Willkie’s trip around the world is at the heart of The Idealist. The journey is unjustly forgotten today, but at the time it was heralded as a major political event. This was late summer of 1942, the darkest days of the war, when the world waited for the U.S. to fully join the fight, before it was clear the Allies would win. Willkie’s trip lifted spirits, but also challenged Americans to see the world anew.
Any number of scenes from his travels might grab a reader’s attention. In Egypt he toured the front west of Cairo and announced a turning point in the war at El Alamein. In Beirut he got an unvarnished picture of colonialism from Arab and Lebanese nationalists and jousted with a recalcitrant and haughty Charles de Gaulle, who refused to compromise French interests in the region. Jerusalem brought him face to face with both the Palestinians and the Zionists and the bitter impasse that would do so much to shape the postwar world. In Iran, Willkie gave the young Shah his first ride in an airplane. The gesture, meant to reassure the Iranians of American goodwill, foreshadowed the Cold War paternalism that would bring so much calamity to both countries.
Previously undiscovered Soviet sources helped me bring to life Willkie’s travels in war-ravaged Russia, where he debated political economy with a factory worker, visited the front west of Moscow, and encountered Joseph Stalin. The two leaders circled each other warily, each trying to make the vast, bloody drama of the besieged Soviet Union serve their own interests.
Willkie fell hard for Chiang Kai-Shek’s China. His rumored dalliance with Madame Chiang is the salacious highlight, but the Chiangs’ nationalist anti-imperialism gave him a glimpse of the non-aligned world to come and the incipient politics of what we call the Global South. Willkie’s much heralded but long forgotten speech in Chongqing tried to alert the Allies to this rising force in world affairs and to redefine the war as a battle for freedom from empire.
The trip sparked new conflicts with rivals old and new. Winston Churchill, irked by Willkie’s frank criticism of colonialism, responded to the trip by taking the trouble to announce to the world that Britain did not fight to see the empire destroyed. Roosevelt bristled at Willkie’s independence, but admired his gumption. The book follows their differences over the shape of the future United Nations—as well as an aborted collaboration: not long before Willkie’s untimely death in 1944 the two leaders launched a back channel discussion about forming a new political party to unite the nation’s liberals.
Beyond these particular scenes, I’d like to find readers who appreciate the lived history of ideas. The story of Willkie’s jaunt around the world enlivens the strange career of a concept. The idea of global interdependence, his “one world,” has become both a common sense cliché and a much-maligned expression of utopian unity. I close the book with an account of one world’s long reach across the twentieth century. The point is not to champion the idea, but to rediscover the dilemmas it still holds for us today.
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.
Samuel Zipp, a cultural and urban historian, is Associate Professor of American Studies and Urban Studies at Brown University. He is the author of The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World (Belknap, 2020), Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford, 2010), and co-editor of Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House, 2016). He’s written articles and reviews for a number of journals, magazines, and newspapers, including The Nation, n+1, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. See more at samuelzipp.com.