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Wendell Willkie Wendell Willkie testifying to Congress May 17, 1939. Courtesy Library of Congress

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The One World of Wendell Willkie

Historian Samuel Zipp tells The American about the 7 week, round the world journey taken by American politician Wendell Willkie at the height of the Second World War
Published on April 2, 2020

Thanks for your time Sandy. Our traditional first question, where in the States are you from?

I was born and raised in Washington, DC. I’ve lived in a host of places: San Francisco, Chicago, New York, New Haven, CT, Long Beach, CA, and now I live in Providence, RI.

What prompted you to write about Wendell Willkie and his extraordinary worldwide journey in 1942?

As an American historian, I knew about Willkie’s journey and his book, One World. But it’s a story more often referred to in an offhand way than fully told, and only as a kind of curiosity of wartime life. One World was such a huge bestseller that it left enough of a trace to register in our official accounts of the war, but its full significance has been lost. So I had the bare outlines.

My first book was about urban renewal plans and ideas in New York City in the 1940s and ‘50s, and one of the projects I wrote about was the United Nations headquarters building. In researching the debates surrounding the UN’s arrival in NYC I discovered the internationalist writings of the essayist EB White. He’s best known, of course, for his children’s books and his essays for the New Yorker and other magazines. It turns out that he was also an advocate for world government during and after the war, and he wrote a lot about the UN. So I got interested in figures like White – popular writers who urged the United States to take on a more progressive role in the world. Willkie was the most popular of them all, and in looking into One World a bit more I found that his positions on anti-imperialism and racism were much more advanced than comparably popular figures. That a Presidential candidate for the GOP could take positions on those issues to the left of Franklin Roosevelt was intriguing, and suggested that there was more of a story here than just an odd, colorful tale of wartime life, although it’s that, too.

Wendell Willkie

Why did Willkie make the journey, particularly during such dangerous times?

Willkie had been an internationalist since he was young – one of his first political disappointments was the failure of the United States to ratify Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations. In the aftermath of the election of 1940, when he’d come out of almost nowhere to win the Republican nomination but lost the election to FDR, he was looking for ways to advance his internationalist ideals. During the election he had differed with many in his party who were non-interventionists, agreeing with FDR that the nation had to be ready to enter the war. Now, in 1941 and ‘42, he wanted to push the US to think about the postwar peace during the war and not wait until the fighting stopped, so that the country would avoid a repeat of Wilson’s failures after another great war.

Willkie was always very popular with reporters – many felt he had unsurpassed political charisma – and in the summer of 1942 several American newspapermen in the Soviet Union cabled him and suggested he make a trip there to boost morale. The fight was going badly there – the Nazis advancing towards Stalingrad – and they were in need of good news. Willkie pounced on this as a way to keep his ideas fresh and in the news – and took the idea of a tour to Roosevelt, who’d always appreciated Willkie not making the war a divisive issue in the campaign. FDR agreed to send him around the world to buck up morale amongst neutral and Allied nations. The President hoped the trip would serve as a kind of PR tour for the Allied war effort – here was the US leader sending his chief ally on a flying tour during the war. It would show the US was united, gearing up to get into the fight (few Americans were yet fighting outside the Pacific theater), and – if Willkie made it – that the Allies had control of air lanes around the globe. Willkie turned it into much more than that.

How did the unfolding war change Willkie's plans?

Europe was occupied, so that was out. The two leaders agreed on a trip to the Middle East (Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Iran), the Soviet Union, and, after some wrangling over the route, China too. This would bring him to battlefronts on three continents: El Alamein in North Africa, where he would witness the tide of battle turning, Rzhev west of Moscow, and the largely dormant front east of Xi’an in China. The flight took the usual Allied supply route to Africa – down to Brazil and over to West Africa, across the continent to the Sudan, and up the Nile to Cairo.

Willkie wanted to go to India before China. He was deeply interested in the fate of the British Empire there – he would become a controversial advocate of deliberate and speedy decolonization – but FDR did not want to risk antagonizing Winston Churchill and his British allies, so India was off limits. Willkie’s plane, The Gulliver, became the first American flight east into China from the Soviet Union, crossing mountains and deserts that were little known and rarely traversed by Westerners. From China he had to swing to the far north to fly home over Siberia, the Bering Strait, and Alaska, before dipping down into Canada and back home.

Before the trip, you mention in the book that Willkie visited London in 1941 – how did his time in Britain affect his views and his later tour?

Willkie arrived in London late in the Blitz. He also visited Dover, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, and Liverpool. The trip was a huge hit – with both the British and American public. Willkie displayed his easy rapport with people, touring around defense installations and air-raid shelters, sitting in on a House of Commons session, throwing darts in a pub, riding a bike through South London and dismounting to take tea in someone’s bomb-damaged house. Crowds gathered everywhere he went, singing the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ Willkie was immensely moved by what he called British “nerve” in the face of the Nazi bombs. He and Winston Churchill hit it off immediately – although that amity would be tested later.

He would continue to admire British resolve. On his world tour he met General Montgomery at El Alamein, and helped Monty announce to the world that the tide of battle was turning in the desert. But the larger impression of his world tour would diminish some of his enthusiasm. He was dismayed by the refusal of many Brits he met to confront the fact that people across the world were rising up to throw off European rule. As he traveled he was learning that for many colonized people World War II was essentially a war against empire as much as a war against Nazi fascism and Japanese militarism. But many British leaders were dead set on preserving the Empire – none more so than Churchill, who made one of his best known declarations to this effect as a direct response to the criticisms of his erstwhile friend Willkie. In a speech in Chongqing, China, and then in a major address upon his return to the US (heard by more than 36 million people), Willkie demanded an immediate plan for freedom for colonized peoples across the world. The PM used his Mansion House speech in November of 1942 to put his flag in the sand, declaring that he had not “become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” Willkie and Churchill kept up a wary correspondence, but it was touchy, as Willkie’s anti-imperialism became a key part of his internationalism and his vision for the postwar peace.

What story from Willkie's tour made the biggest impression on you?

There are quite a few: his testy contretemps with Charles De Gaulle in Beirut, his reckless, but strategically far-seeing, infatuation with Chiang Kai-shek and Madame Chiang in China, his attempts to woo Joseph Stalin and head off what would become the Cold War. Overall, I think I was most impressed to learn how much he learned during his tour.

Willkie could be a polarizing figure. Many people loved him, but some also found him distasteful. He was charismatic, quick-minded, and witty, but he could also be hasty and brush over details. As one journalist put it, commenting on his voyage, Willkie “managed to impart to nearly everything he did an atmosphere of clambake.” The trip was a 49-day jaunt around the world – tailor-made for misunderstanding the world rather than understanding it. But for all his free and easy spirit, Willkie made sure to listen to unheard voices. Particularly in the Middle East, where discontent with European domination was rampant, he heard those people whose opinion counted for little in official Allied circles. By bringing home what he called an “invitation” from the “peoples of the East” he tried to show Americans – and the rest of the Allies – that the world was changing and that the war was a conflict played out in a clash of ideas as much as ships, planes, and tanks.

In the end, the big idea that Willkie took home – that the world was “one,” united by technology and global war – inevitably overlooked much, but it also recognized the fact of the world’s growing interdependence, a crucial insight that Americans tended to want to ignore.

What was the immediate reaction to, and effect of, his tour, both in the US and overseas?

The tour was an immediate sensation – thousands tracked his journey around the globe in newspapers, magazines, and newsreels. One journalist hailed it as a “turning point in the war,” and Willkie himself as “the first United Nations statesman.” But it was divisive, too. Swayed by the great suffering he witnessed in the USSR, Willkie had made hasty comments during the trip demanding that the Allies launch a “second front” in Europe as soon as possible. Playing armchair general like this got him into hot water in both England and the US, where war planners knew the Allies wouldn’t be ready for what would be the June 1944, D-Day invasions for months to come.

This was the loudest clamor, but it blew over soon enough. Deeper were the debates over empire unleashed by his speech in Chongqing, his much-heard radio ‘Report to the People’ in late October, 1942, and, of course One World in the spring of 1943. Willkie’s frank anti-racism and anti-imperialism galvanized civil rights advocates and internationalists keen to see a new world body that would set up a more democratic frame of world governance and end empire. It inflamed the right-wing Republicans who had never trusted Willkie, as well as Roosevelt, who did not want overly idealistic postwar ideals to disrupt Allied unity, and Churchill, who did not want the war to disturb the colonial status-quo. These debates simmered for years, beyond Willkie’s untimely death in 1944, and into the formation of the United Nations, the rise of the Cold War, the actual arrival of decolonization, and beyond.

What do you think the tour's legacy has become for US relations in the world?

In the medium term, its legacy was quite minimal. It was largely forgotten, and Willkie’s “one world” ideas fell on hard times, scorned as insufficiently hard headed and realistic for the Cold War. In Washington and London, he was seen as naïve: too ready to barter away national interests in the name of international cooperation. His views were seen as foolishly Utopian – what had once been seen as a charismatic attempt to get Americans to really feel what it would be like to embrace global cooperation would be dismissed as wishful thinking. Willkie did actually have a strategic vision – he wanted the US and USSR to find a workable rapport, avoiding competition, supporting decolonization and a new democratic world order. The Cold War dashed that hope – it was hard pressed even by 1944 – but the resulting conventional wisdom has obscured the true nature of Willkie’s vision, whatever its faults.

In the long term the challenge that Willkie issued to Americans would echo around the world. The idea of “one world” would go on to influence anti-nuclear campaigners, anti-imperialists like Gandhi and Nehru, and environmentalists. It would pop up again in the lexicon of those who favored and disputed globalization. It remains a kind of taken-for-granted leitmotif whenever people talk about worldly connection – air travel, the Internet, global finance, global warming, our current pandemic trials.

American tours of the world have appeared throughout history – why do US figures feel the need to travel?

I guess some might say that there’s something about American unboundedness – a country founded on ideals (honored too often in the breach, unfortunately) and the promise of open land – that prompts big journeys. Lighting out for the territory, and all that. Others might say that Americans have a kind of self-obsession – US exceptionalism is the technical term – that fuels a paradoxical combination of insular inwardness and a self-satisfied sense that we should be free to go anywhere and do anything without consequences. In this sense, American “isolationism” and empire stem from similar impulses. Willkie fought the former, but embodied some of the latter – he was sure that the state of the world depended on American benevolence and power, if only it was used wisely.

His journey arrived at an odd time – after the peak of Western imperial discovery and conquest – at a time when many Europeans and Americans had the luxury of travel and global mastery, but in the wake of Depression and World War, when many felt the world was divided and anarchic. Willkie’s travels suggested Americans needed to see the world as connected – and to answer that fact by granting the world’s peoples the same freedoms enjoyed by Americans. After the war many Americans would travel more than ever, enjoying the “one world,” but they did not always and everywhere recognize the full freedoms of the world’s peoples. We’re still struggling with that dilemma.

What lessons can we learn today from Willkie's travels?

This is a unique story about an American discovering the world at another moment of global crisis. Willkie doesn’t offer answers, so much as a unique perspective on dilemmas that are still with us. I think the key thing we can learn today is to think hard about the dilemmas of interdependence. Many Americans and others in what we now call the global North have taken globalization for granted – accepting its benefits while failing to confront its perils – whether that’s inequality, global warming, or the pandemic raging across the world today. We need to think about how we can use our interdependence to confront these challenges. Willkie’s story can help us see the stakes of that undertaking – one that will shape the human future.

On a personal note, what do you hope readers take away from the book?

I have wanted to find readers that are interested in both a sweeping story and the strange career of an almost-forgotten idea, readers who enjoy stories of travel and adventure who are also intrigued by learning about the challenging history of empire that lies behind the history of World War II. I hope readers can appreciate the story and the context that makes the action possible, and see them as intertwined ways of understanding the past, with equal richness, depth, and revelation.

What projects are next on the horizon for you?

I am not sure, exactly, but I am interested in stories in which questions of great political or intellectual import find their way into popular debates – moments when abstract ideas and political struggle are made concrete for millions of people. I’ve been thinking a lot about big questions about selfhood and humanity – and how they’ve been brought down to earth in how we have understood and shaped city life across the twentieth century. We’ll see!

Finally, what's the best thing about being Samuel Zipp?

Well, at this moment, it’s that I am privileged and lucky to be still healthy and alive as this disease sweeps across the world and ravages places I love, like New York City. Beyond that, it’s that as someone who teaches about culture and history I have the freedom to think hard about most any subject that interests me – to research the way it’s been understood and experienced and to try to tell stories and frame ideas that might make the world more equitable and more democratic.

Samuel Zipp's book The Idealist is available to buy now from the Harvard University Press website. URL: https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674737518.

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