The Conceit of American Indispensability [review]Historians in the News
tags: foreign policy, 1940s, isolationism, Wendell Willkie, World War 2
The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World
Harvard University Press, $35 (cloth)
In recent years debates about U.S. foreign policy have been haunted by the history of the 1940s. Donald Trump announced his approach to the world by resurrecting the “America First” slogan, which was associated with the far right during World War II. Meanwhile, Trump’s rhetoric and seeming comfort with authoritarian leaders has been met in mainstream Democratic circles with nostalgia for the supposed “liberal international order,” also inaugurated in the 1940s, that has long underwritten U.S. hegemony. While the Democratic primary campaigns of Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Warren briefly broadened the debate, the contest between Trump and Joe Biden again leaves Americans with a bleak choice between militaristic nationalism and liberal interventionism.
Politicians and political commentators are not alone in this effort. Many historians have also turned to the 1940s for alternative visions of global order to uncover, parse, and, at times, celebrate. The radical openness of the international system amid the devastations of the war, along with the collapse of the League of Nations, makes the decade fertile ground for the recovery of long-forgotten imaginings. Intellectual histories such as Perry Anderson’s American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (2017) and Or Rosenboim’s The Emergence of Globalism: Visions of World Order in Britain and the United States, 1939–1950 (2017) have paid tribute to the remarkable range of thought dedicated to reimagining the terms of global order and the place of the United States within it. From the pluralism of left-leaning China expert Owen Lattimore, who foresaw a tripolar, regional balance of power between the United States, Soviet Union, and China emerging as a replacement to the imperial system, to the high-minded universalism of Robert Maynard Hutchins, who spearheaded an effort to draft a world constitution after the war, the 1940s contained an unusually broad range of views enter serious consideration in both official and unofficial circles. The constrained and calcified debates of recent years—though perhaps beginning to be cracked open—pale in comparison.
The latest effort in this project of mining the 1940s is by historian Samuel Zipp, who finds an unlikely alternative in the vision of another businessman turned Republican nominee for president: Wendell Willkie. An Indiana-born corporate lawyer and telecommunications executive, Willkie rose to prominence as an outspoken opponent of the New Deal. His elevation to the status of Republican presidential nominee in 1940 was most notable for his departure from the party’s consensus that the United States should stay out of the war in Europe. Willkie, who idolized Woodrow Wilson, not only supported U.S. entry into the war but believed the conflict provided an opportunity to complete Wilson’s project of building a new framework for global governance. Zipp makes explicit the links between his return to Willkie and contemporary debates, arguing that the former nominee’s outlook on the world points a way beyond both the nationalism of a resurgent right and the Cold War longings of many mainstream liberals.
In his new book The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World, Zipp explores the resonance of Willkie’s international ideas through the story of his most quixotic venture. Beginning in August 1942, two years after his defeat in the presidential election, Willkie embarked on a two-month world tour that took him, among other stops, to London, Cairo, Ankara, Beirut, Jerusalem, Baghdad, Tehran, Moscow, and Chongqing. The trip had been Willkie’s idea, but it was approved by Franklin Roosevelt with the primary mission of building support for the Allied war effort. Willkie traveled in a military cargo plane alongside an escort from the Office of War Information; he delivered a secret message from FDR to Stalin. In many ways he was an official envoy of his former political opponent, working to shore up support for the war they both believed in.