You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Wendell Willkie’s World Without Borders

How a Republican presidential candidate became a leading critic of empire

Wendell Willkie arriving in England in January 1941
Davis/PNA Rota/Getty Images

On a brisk morning in late August 1942, Wendell Willkie—a corporate lawyer, failed presidential candidate, and media darling—got onto an airplane for a trip around the world. Soon, he’d be holding court with kings, premiers, the shah, as well as soldiers and civilians across Africa and Asia. As the Axis powers seized a terrifying amount of territory, Willkie had been dispatched by the president of the United States on an audacious, if vague, mission to introduce the U.S. to the world.

The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World
by Samuel Zipp
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 393 pp., $35.00

From his perch in the sky, Willkie saw the planet differently—a planet that could be. Looking down, there weren’t any nation states, or, in his words, “splotches of color” that you’d find on a map. The world was “small and completely interdependent.” Going abroad also gave him a unique vantage point on the different people of the world. Schmoozing with government officials in Chongking or mingling with ordinary Egyptians in cafés, Willkie witnessed firsthand the shared desires of people around the world: peace, freedom, self-determination, the fulfillment of material interests.

Wendell Willkie is an oddball in the history of internationalism. He wasn’t an intellectual. Nor was he a statesman. And he did not actively participate in any of the dozens of vibrant American organizations—such as the League of Nations Union—that sought to integrate the U.S. into the emerging interwar world order. Rather, Willkie spent those years working for big business and criticizing big government. But he was also, paradoxically, an avowed anti-racist (the NAACP even named its headquarters the Wendell Willkie Memorial Building). How this wealthy Wall Streeter became the star of internationalist efforts during World War II is a peculiar story. It is, as Samuel Zipp demonstrates in his exhilarating and timely new book, The Idealist, a story of media, technology, and a critique of empire that proved to be palatable—if only for a short while—for midcentury America.

Willkie leapt onto the national stage in the 1930s as a handsome, youthful force in the anti–New Deal coalition (which was, Zipp observes, an otherwise “dour and stuffy” bunch). Heading the third-largest electrical utility conglomerate in the country, he launched a public campaign against FDR’s plans to break up utility monopolies and provide cheap electricity to the impoverished Tennessee Valley. Willkie’s combination of a ferocious defense of free enterprise with small-town Indiana charm led one New Dealer to refer to him as that “barefoot boy from Wall Street.”

Willkie’s cause was unpopular. But it didn’t matter that Willkie led a losing fight against the New Deal. It had nudged him into the American spotlight. And that spotlight granted him, Zipp deftly argues, a novel form of power: celebrity. Thanks to radio, millions of Americans could tune in to hear his voice. In one radio appearance, on the highly popular Town Meeting of the Air, he trounced the assistant attorney general in a debate on whether the government should embrace the market. Magazines and newspapers covered Willkie obsessively: Puff pieces floated a presidential run, and photo essays in Life and Look made him a recognizable star. His hair—short on the sides, disheveled, a lock usually flopping over his forehead—was the subject of media attention. The New Yorker even interviewed Willkie’s barber.

Hoping to coast off that celebrity, Willkie swooped into the 1940 Republican nomination race. He skipped the primaries and went directly to the Republican National Convention, banking on sheer personality and a cabal of powerful Northeastern Republican friends. It worked“WE WANT WILLKIE!” roared from the gallery more than once. He then faced off against FDR in the general, racking up an impossibly eclectic set of endorsements, from the American Communist Party and from African American newspapers across the country, but also from Father Coughlin’s rabidly right-wing National Union for Social Justice. Even a young Ayn Rand volunteered for his campaign. Despite this hodgepodge coalition, Willkie lost.

Again, defeat didn’t doom Willkie’s career. Setbacks, according to the logic of celebrity, could be stepping-stones. In the days that followed the election, half-a-million letters, telegrams, and calls inundated his New York office. Over the next four yearsthe last years of his life, and the period Zipp focuses on in The IdealistWillkie would leverage his celebrity to advance the cause of internationalism.

The background to the 1940 election—indeed the main reason Willkie lost—was World War II. Even though Willkie had been a lifelong internationalist, the party that he had switched to at the last minute was still filled with people who wanted Fortress America to pull up the drawbridge. Between Willkie’s nomination and Election Day, however, Nazi tanks rolled into Paris and Nazi planes began to blitz London. These troubling developments had started to pull the American public toward supporting defense measures, a universal draft, and supplying embattled allies. Soon, the U.S., too, would be at war.

Willkie and FDR struck up an improbable friendship after the election. Despite the wide ideological gap that separated the two, they saw eye to eye on foreign policy, and Willkie became an important booster for FDR’s wartime policies. After Japan bombarded Pearl Harbor and other U.S. territories in the Pacific, and after the U.S. entered the conflict, the pair hatched a plan to send Willkie on a trip around the world. It was to be, as Zipp describes it, “something between a fact-finding tour and a propaganda circuit.”

And so Willkie took off, visiting Palestine, Iran, China, and many more countries and colonies on his 49-day, 28,000-mile journey. He dined with local leaders (such as with King Farouk of Egypt), talked strategy with generals (including with the esteemed British General Bernard Montgomery), gave speeches (locals and reporters regularly crowded around him), and always found ways to escape protocol. One journalist wrote that everywhere he went, Willkie “made formal diplomatic calls in a lounge suit instead of the sacred striped pants and tail coat of tradition,” imparting to everything “an atmosphere of clambake.” In one memorable scene, Willkie cheerfully debated communism with a Soviet engineer on a visit to a factory. In another, Willkie engaged Joseph Stalin in a tête-à-tête (after finessing around the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union). The two made merry, and Willkie scribbled down a shopping list of Lend-Lease material for the U.S. to provide to the Soviets: 500 airplanes, 10,000 cargo trucks, two million tons of wheat, and so on. Willkie’s casual approach delighted Stalin, who remarked: “Mr. Willkie, you know I grew up a Georgian peasant. I am unschooled in pretty talk. All I can say is that I like you very much.”

It is tempting to dismiss the flight—and the hoopla that accompanied Willkie—as a P.R. stunt for a failed politician. But, as Zipp shows, this overlooks the very real influence that Willkie wielded. His freewheeling ways pulled diplomatic negotiations out of wood-paneled, smoke-filled rooms and pushed them into the public sphere. And this troubled imperial metropoles. British officials closely monitored Willkie, worrying that his anti-imperialist antics would yank American support from Britain. An exasperated Churchill even felt compelled to respond to Willkie’s critiques in a now-famous speech. “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire,” Churchill announced in November 1942, only weeks after Willkie returned home. Meanwhile, his unbuttoned diplomacy charmed Asian and African officials, who were accustomed to the high-handedness of Europeans. In Iran, under occupation by both Britain and the Soviet Union, Willkie took a keen 23-year-old shah on his very first plane ride.

Upon returning to the U.S., Willkie wrote up his travels in a book titled One World, which, Zipp writes, provided a “template for what it would feel like for Americans to assume equal and interdependent relations beyond their borders.” Bookshops and newsstands couldn’t keep up with demand. Published in April 1943, the book sold 1.6 million copies by July, though the number of actual readers was even higher (a Gallup poll found that each copy was read by three to four people). And a producer from Twentieth Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, announced plans for a feature film version. The excitement for Willkie sprang from a particular moment in U.S. history. “Never before have persons been so interested in the entire world,” Popular Mechanics reported in 1943. As Americans tried to keep up with the battles and invasions, map companies experienced a boom in sales. Even the very word global made its first widespread appearance in the English language.

One World was more than a travelogue; it was a manifesto for Willkie’s political philosophy. “Our thinking in the future,” Willkie averred in the first chapter, “must be world-wide.” And Zipp’s elucidation of Willkie’s One World doctrine is what distinguishes The Idealist from other recent titles on Willkie, such as David Levering Lewis’s 2018 biography, The Improbable Wendell Willkie, and Susan Dunn’s 1940, both of which focused more on Willkie’s domestic career.

Willkie promoted a homespun globalism as an alternative to what he called “narrow nationalism” and “international imperialism”—both of which, he argued, were causes of World War II. Instead of these dangerous doctrines, Willkie urged Americans to chart a different course. And the U.S. was to play a central, though not dominant, role in Willkie’s imagined world order. The way to bring the people of Africa and Asia aboard the international war effort, he believed, was to promise a postwar world worth fighting for. And that was, Willkie wrote, a world where “equality of opportunity for every race and every nation” was assured. Or, more simply, a world without empire.

Like other celebrities, Willkie lived a fast life. He “worked too hard, ate too much, smoked too much, drank too much, exercised too little,” writes Zipp. And on October 8, 1944, he died of a heart attack—his fourteenth—at the age of 52.

As it would happen, the day before Willkie died, representatives from China, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the U.S. concluded the Dumbarton Oaks conference, in which the Allied powers devised plans for establishing the United Nations. It seemed that the founding of the new global body was Willkie’s vision made manifest. His name was regularly invoked, including by President Truman in a stump speech for the new organization in 1945: “The world is no longer county size, no longer state size, no longer nation size. It is one world, as Willkie said.”

This was not quite true: The United Nations was far from the global integration of which Willkie had dreamed. One commentator remarked that “the League of Nations and now the United Nations, as their names imply, rest upon national separateness.” The United Nations guarded national sovereignty. It privileged the great powers residing in the Security Council chamber. And by allowing imperial powers into its midst, the United Nations denied the participation of one-quarter of the world’s population.

So what happened to One Worldism? The short answer is: the Cold War. Just as World War II was wrapping up, the U.S. and the Soviet Union lurched into another conflict, and Americans on the left and the right found it difficult to see through Willkie’s goggles. An Iron Curtain was soon in the way. Willkie’s star also faded soon after his death, and, without him, his ideas ceased to captivate the American imagination. By 1945, Zanuck, the Willkie-supporting Hollywood producer sitting on the rights to Willkie’s story, decided the idea for the film was “dated.” It was never made. And Zanuck himself began to trade in the tenets of one world for liberal anti-communism.

In the postwar years, One Worldism was increasingly the cause of fledgling, largely unknown NGOs and zealous individuals. One Willkie supporter, Garry Davis, a former actor and bomber pilot, renounced his U.S. citizenship in 1948 and camped at the United Nations’ temporary headquarters in Paris. During the General Assembly, Davis rushed the podium and, while security guards muscled him out of the room, screamed “one government for one world!” This was a display of enthusiasm, not of power.

No matter the fate of One Worldism during the Cold War, The Idealist makes the case for a return to Willkie’s thinking about interdependence and international cooperation. Fighting the reassembled forces of America First and the existential threat of global warming requires it, so Zipp suggests. By a coincidence, Zipp’s book has appeared amid a global pandemic that has both highlighted the need to transcend nationalism and its intractability. The only way to overcome the coronavirus will be through a global solution. And yet, as states around the world have shuttered borders and slowed transnational flows of critical goods, it has revealed that our world does remain “nation size.”