Q&A with Samuel Zipp - "The Idealist: Wendell Willkie's Wartime Quest to Build One World"

November 30th, 2020

The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World tells the unlikely story of America’s international coming of age during an earlier time of global crisis. The book reveals that history through the tale of Wendell Willkie, the Indiana Republican who lost the 1940 election to Franklin Roosevelt, but went on to launch a campaign to get the country to embrace a fully democratic spirit of international cooperation. Following Willkie around the world on his much-watched 1942 flying journey to Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and China, on through the publication of his giant best-seller One World in 1943 and his efforts to get the United States to embrace a more democratic shape for the United Nations, The Idealist discovers a forgotten public figure: an iconclastic quasi-celebrity who campaigned for racial justice and decolonization and challenged Americans to see that his “one world” vision gave them a picture of the globalized future. Brown University American Studies scholar and writer Samuel Zipp answered a few questions about his new book: 


  1. What made the book Willkie wrote about his 1942 globe-circling trip, One World, such a publishing sensation?

One of the biggest, but perhaps less well known, impacts of World War II was the way that it awakened a great hunger in Americans to learn more about the world at large. So many young men—and some women—were going abroad as part of the war effort. Mobilization sparked a sudden need to know about the course of the war and the far-flung battlefronts, of course—but it also fed a larger desire to understand how it was that the United States fit in to the larger world picture. 


More than any other book One World answered that need. And as a result when it appeared in the spring of 1943 it became the talismanic title of a great wartime reading boom, selling millions of copies in hardcover and paperback and attracting many millions more readers for serial editions in magazines and newspapers, a Book-of-the-Month club edition, and many foreign language editions, including several samizdat runs that appeared behind enemy lines. By summer the estimates were that over four million people had read the book, making it by some expert estimates the fastest selling book in American history. Nobody knows how many people it eventually reached in all its iterations, but it had massive global reach.


  1. How much impact did One World have on the creation of the United Nations and America’s internationalist orientation after World War II? 

One World gave Willkie indirect influence over the future direction of U.S. policy towards the world. Many people found that “one world” summed up a new kind of worldview—a sense that distant parts of the globe had been drawn together by technology and war and that some new political and social architecture had to be created to answer this new global scenario. They saw the failure of world cooperation after World War I as the cause of World War II, and wanted to ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. They felt that the U.S. would rise or fall in tandem with the rest of the globe. There were many sources of this shift in American international orientation—and it was never complete, or shared across society—but a good measure of this was spurred by the kinds of ideas that Willkie made broadly popular in his speeches, writings, and by dint of his iconoclastic personality. At the same time, Willkie pushed for a small-d democratic shape for the UN, one in which smaller nations and decolonization would take center stage. That proved to be a hard battle to win, and my book shows how fraught the debate would be as “one world” idealism confronted the emerging nationalist ideals that would go into making the U.S. national security state of the postwar and Cold War years.


  1. Why did Willkie’s ideas start to lose favor in the decades after his death? 

Several reasons. There was a concerted campaign to try to undo Willkie’s influence over U.S. public opinion. As early as 1943, he faced entrenched nationalism in his own party—many Republicans had never accepted him at all—and a growing swing towards a more hard nosed policy amongst liberals. For instance, the famed steward of liberal centrism, Walter Lippmann, once a Willkie enthusiast, wrote two books on foreign policy in 1943 and 1944 in “an open attempt to,” as he put it, “get away from the One World doctrine.” After Willkie’s untimely death in late 1944 his ideas survived, but increasingly in the political margins. The book traces that influence—with the generation of internationalists who created and ran the UN, or those who favored a full world government, or with anti-colonialists like Gandhi and Nehru. Of course, on the right, “one world” represented a threat. Even as the UN’s power waned over the postwar years, ideas like Willkie’s fueled fears, and eventually conspiracies, about the threat of the UN to U.S. sovereignty—culminating in Trump’s rise to power as an opponent of “globalism.” 


But for many Americans—especially those in power—“one world” ideals came to seem simply naïve, unsuited to the manly and sharp-elbowed diplomacy needed to “contain” the Soviets. Whatever the merits of this position, and it’s one that many in foreign policy circles would default to again and again, it tends to undersell the complexity of Willkie’s positions, his strategic vision, and his prescience about the forces that would come to shape the world after the war. One could argue that Willkie’s focus on the insurgent demands of decolonization should actually have driven U.S. policy—and that the country might have been spared no small amount of grief in Vietnam and elsewhere had those ideas had more influence. 


  1. Where do you see Willkie’s influence today? 

Directly? Very few places! But indirectly there are many people who are Willkie’s intellectual and tempermental heirs. They are working in NGOs on global governance, on aid issues, or working in various ways to empower the Global South or for global justice more broadly. On the other hand, one could argue that his combination of political idealism and free market economics predicted the shape of “globalization” since the 1970s, with all the dilemmas that era has left us with today. So it’s an ambiguous legacy. In general terms, though, Willkie is almost entirely forgotten now, except as the also-ran from 1940. The conventional wisdom sees him as the competitor to FDR who helped the President take the US into the war and then, by extension, to the commanding heights of world power after the war. He is, by these lights, a junior architect of the “liberal world order” that so many see Trump as having destroyed. But that’s not quite right—Willkie had a different vision. The truth is a lot more complicated, and interesting!


  1. You write that Willkie’s internationalism was one of history’s “unrealized ideas and possibilities.” What does revisiting Wilkie’s ideas offer America in the year 2020? 

My sense is that in looking back to how Willkie confronted the global situation during World War II, we have an object lesson in how to try to sort out what emerging problems will most shape the state of the world. Willkie’s emphasis on decolonization was prescient—and while he wasn’t alone in thinking about it he gave it pride of place in a way that most mainstream thinkers did not. This is useful for us today at another time of global crisis and resurgent nationalism. Much of Willkie’s idealistic vision was short-circuited by America’s rise to global domination. Now, however, things have changed. Ever since the end of the Cold War the U.S. has had an opportunity to reshape how it approaches the world, and to work to fully support and democratize the structures of global governance. So far, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the U.S. has tended to swing between unilateralism and a multilateralism concerned to protect the spread of global free market capitalism. But with the clock running out on American empire, and the twin threats of climate change and pandemics, the U.S. has the chance, even the desperate need, to help forge a truly democratic world order. Seventy five years ago Willkie and others like him sought international cooperation to head off global war and nuclear annihilation. Today those threats are joined by the challenge of finding new ways to inhabit a fragile planet besieged by the ever mounting human impact on the ecosystem. The problem of “one world” remains our quandary.