Why Wendell Willkie, and why now? At first glance, the failed 1940 Republican presidential aspirant, corporate lawyer, and advocate of “one world” appears to have left only a glancing trace on the 20th century. Conventional wisdom sees him as an accessory to history, a courageous also-ran, and a fortuitous ally for his 1940 Democratic opponent, then-two-term president Franklin Roosevelt. Willkie is praised as a poignant reminder of a long-lost liberal Republicanism, a great bipartisan spirit who helped banish the party’s so-called “isolationism.” Jousting in the press with Charles Lindbergh’s America First Committee and offering critical support for Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program, which provided crucial aid to Britain, Willkie gave the canny operator in the White House the political cover to lead the country into war.
This take, cribbed from the “team of rivals” school of political history, arrives prepackaged with a built-in appeal, a familiar story of national sacrifice for the “good war.” Walter Lippmann, the ultimate keeper of conventional wisdom, first floated it back in 1944, just after Willkie’s untimely death: “Under any other leadership but his, the Republican party would have turned its back on Great Britain, causing all who still resisted Hitler to feel that they were abandoned.” Willkie had served his purpose, the story went, helping the Allies to defeat fascism and doing his bit to propel the indispensable nation to its rightful role as leader of the free world, and then left the scene. From there, the postwar consensus was all but a fait accompli. The businessman turned politician, as David Levering Lewis puts it in his rousing new biography, The Improbable Wendell Willkie: The Businessman Who Saved the Republican Party and His Country, and Conceived a New World Order, “save[d] the GOP to save freedom.”
Thankfully, Lewis’s book allows readers to glimpse a more complicated and less predictable Willkie, an “improbable” figure whose ideas laid the foundation for a road not taken in American politics. Best known for his two-volume biography of W.E.B. Du Bois, Lewis is well-placed to offer a fresh view of one of the 20th century’s more neglected figures. His dignified, agreeable, and sometimes ramshackle tome—reminiscent of its subject himself as it tumbles along in high spirits, throwing off insight and wisdom—reveals Willkie as a charismatic and iconoclastic champion of civil rights, free speech, and internationalism.
And yet Lewis also underplays Willkie’s most important intervention, hailing him as Roosevelt’s partner in building an American-led “new world order” rather than seeing him for what he was: the largely forgotten but indispensable tribune of an alternative internationalism that did not seek to supplant Old World imperialism with its New World counterpart. With his spectacular, globe-girdling flight in 1942 and his subsequent best-selling book, One World, Willkie urged Americans to transcend their “narrow nationalism” and avoid “international imperialism.” Welcoming the surge of anti-colonial opinion coursing across the globe, Willkie gave his fellow citizens a vision of an American internationalism in which the United States would put its power to work arranging a wary rapprochement with the Soviet Union, championing multilateral efforts to end European empire, and erecting a postwar world organization granting an equal role for smaller, decolonizing nations. In the end, Willkie’s greatest contribution to history came in service not just to his country, but to the internationalist vision he discovered on his journey around the world.
Born in 1892 in Indiana to a family of longtime Democrats, Willkie traveled an unlikely path to global prominence. Raised with five siblings by freethinking parents—his father was the town’s preeminent populist attorney and his mother one of the first women to be admitted to the Indiana bar—Willkie enjoyed a knockabout boyhood in Elwood, an industrial boomtown on the edge of a fading frontier. In his “Tom Sawyer teens,” Willkie jumped in mudholes behind factories, launched a failed skiff expedition to the Mississippi River, worked in a tin mill, and tramped around out West, taking odd jobs. Meanwhile, his parents kept a library of some 6,000 volumes, and Wendell’s father, Herman, roused his children from sleep every morning by bellowing inspirational quotes up the stairs.
Young Wendell learned politics at the family dinner table, where the Willkie kids had to take and defend a position on the issues of the day: imperialism, race relations, labor and capital, and populist challenges to the bankers. The family backed William Jennings Bryan in 1896 and even hosted him in their home during one of his campaign swings through the state.
When Willkie arrived at Indiana University, he was one part iconoclast, one part hail-fellow-well-met glad-hander. He campaigned for a course on Marx and denounced the university’s nativist fraternities; he also masterminded several successful bids for class office and eventually joined a fraternity himself. After stints as a high-school teacher in Kansas and a lab assistant for a sugar company in Puerto Rico, where he witnessed firsthand the brutality of US rule over the island, he returned to Bloomington in 1915 to attend law school. Newly committed to his studies, Willkie rose to the top of his class and was elected speaker at his graduation. His commencement address, a rousing brief in defense of Woodrow Wilson’s “New Freedom,” advocated a host of reforms for Indiana’s courts, state constitution, and laissez-faire banking and business statutes. It was “the most radical speech you ever heard,” the university’s president later remembered, and while the brouhaha kept Willkie from receiving his diploma for several days, the lasting effect was merely to confirm what Lewis calls his subject’s “lifelong susceptibility to principled pugnacity.”
Service in an artillery unit on the Western Front during World War I followed law school, but Willkie saw no combat, arriving in France shortly after the Armistice. Willkie found his battles elsewhere, primarily in the courtroom: In the 1920s, he rose to regional prominence as a liberal lawyer in Toledo and also served as a delegate to the 1924 Democratic convention, where he worked futilely to see the party back Wilson’s League of Nations and campaigned against the influence that the Ku Klux Klan had over the party. Legal work for power companies brought Willkie to Manhattan, and his obvious abilities in both the courtroom and the boardroom lifted him into the executive ranks of Commonwealth & Southern, an electrical-industry holding company.
By 1934, Willkie was the chief executive of C&S, a position that would challenge his commitment to the Democratic Party when President Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority launched years of public confrontation between the New Deal and the power industry. Since C&S oversaw many of the power companies that the Roosevelt administration hoped to put out of business, the TVA hearings brought Willkie to a national audience as a high-spirited critic of government “overreach.” By the end of the decade, he had failed to stop the TVA—or convince most Americans that the corrupt power industry had their best interests at heart. But he had found widespread acclaim and a reputation as a smart, genial freethinker who was at home in front of a microphone.
Willkie’s performance as the public face of anti–New Deal sentiment also attracted influential admirers. An internationalist from the farm belt who defended “free enterprise” with a brio and verve unavailable to the dour and rigid “economic royalists” that Roosevelt taunted, Willkie found himself in conversation with a coterie of northeastern Republicans. Publishers like Time’s Henry Luce, Fortune’s Russell Davenport, and Look’s Gardner Cowles, along with governors and congressmen from New England and lesser-known lever pullers like the bankers Frank Altschul and Thomas Lamont, wanted Willkie as the face of their insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination in 1940. With war brewing in Europe, these internationalists hoped that he could drive the insular nationalism that everyone called “isolationism” from the cockpit of the Republican Party. Willkie was then still a Democrat, but he relished the idea of a one-on-one debate with Roosevelt over the future of the country.
Willkie still needed a push, however, so his new friends launched a public-relations campaign on his behalf in newspapers and national magazines. A group of young Ivy League graduates started a set of Willkie Clubs across the country and soon had 200,000 names on a nomination petition. By the time Willkie switched parties and declared his candidacy in June of 1940, he had touched off a civil war inside the GOP. Lewis shows in incisive detail how Willkie’s sudden appearance heightened the long-standing tensions between the Wall Street–Rockefeller Center bloc gathered around now-forgotten New England politicians like Connecticut Governor Raymond Baldwin, and the “Old Guard”—isolationist congressmen like Hamilton Fish and Robert Taft, backed by oil and chemical money: the DuPont family, Edgar Queeny of Monsanto, and Pennsylvania oil baron Joseph Pew, the Charles Koch of his day.
The first round went to the internationalists. Willkie’s upstart bid looked dubious heading into the Republican convention, but his popular appeal and some backroom shenanigans by his people put him over the top: Amid deafening cheers of “We want Willkie!” from the balconies, he won the nomination in a floor fight on the sixth ballot. The general election was less dramatic; Willkie’s support was broad but not deep. He appealed to many middle-class Americans, an independent-minded slice of the old WASP elite, and many African Americans, who favored his forthright support for civil rights over Roosevelt’s equivocation in the face of the Southern segregationists in his party. But he lagged with many white working-class voters, and he labored to distinguish himself from Roosevelt on foreign policy—in fact, he backed the president’s preparedness measures, angering many in his own party. Also, given the nature of his chief supporters, Willkie’s homespun charisma and farmer-made-good image, which the newspapers liked to play up, seemed contrived to many, and therefore put off some voters. He was, the New Dealer Harold Ickes cracked, the “barefoot boy from Wall Street.”
Willkie hoped to win over independents leery of a third term for Roosevelt, but his attacks on “dictatorial” executive power never quite took. A last-minute capitulation to the isolationists—in the final month, he began warning crowds that with FDR, “your boys will be sent overseas” to fight—gave him a bump in the polls but dismayed his most ardent supporters. The final tally wasn’t as close as it had looked in the remaining weeks: Roosevelt won 38 states, Willkie only 10. But it was a respectable loss for the Hoosier, who wound up with more than 22 million votes out of the almost 50 million cast.
The 1940 election unfolded against the grim spectacle of war in Europe, including the blitzkrieg, the fall of France, and the first sorties in the Battle of Britain. The United States was tearing itself apart trying to somehow stay out of the war while also helping the Allies. In the year between his defeat and Pearl Harbor, Willkie found his politics and his public persona reinvented one more time. As Roosevelt’s onetime rival, he now staked out a role as the leader of the loyal opposition, supporting FDR’s attempts to ease the country into the war and jousting with the aggrieved nationalist forces to his right, the most recalcitrant of which had gathered around Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee. Some of them wanted the United States to let the European powers destroy themselves; others were corrupted by anti-Semitism and the lure of fascism’s dreams of order and wanted to see Germany rule the world. Breaking with most of his party, Willkie testified before Congress in favor of Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease program to send war materiel to the Allies, ruining much of his already tarnished reputation in the GOP. Isolationism would die with the Japanese attack, but Willkie’s renewed commitment to civil rights, internationalism, and labor rights during the war sealed his political fate with the Republican Party. In 1944, when he tried again for the GOP’s presidential nomination, he didn’t get very far, and, when later that year he died suddenly, only a few in the party mourned his loss.
Willkie’s greatest legacy, however, would lie in a more nebulous realm. A fervent believer in the vision of Wilsonian internationalism since his teens, in late 1942 he found a way to renew his advocacy when he made a planet-circling trip to visit neutral nations and the battlefronts in Russia and China. Billed—and too often remembered—as a mere fact-finding and morale-boosting mission carried out on behalf of Roosevelt, the trip was actually Willkie’s idea. And it soon became much more than the stagy demonstration of American unity and resolve that the president had imagined. Greeted with intense fervor at home and abroad, Willkie made the trip a campaign for a fully democratic and global war effort—a plea that Americans see the truly international nature of the struggle against fascism and militarism.
Forced to avoid occupied Europe, Willkie flew south to the Caribbean and Brazil, and then across the Atlantic to Africa and the Middle East. There, he encountered a rising tide of nationalist movements seeking to liberate their countries from European empire and its racial hierarchies. From there he went to Moscow, where he met Stalin and tried to keep the Soviet leader committed to the Allies beyond the war. His last major stop was China and a week’s worth of calculated hospitality served up by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party. Willkie embraced a complacent view of Chiang’s corrupt and ill-fated regime, but he nonetheless found a spirit of expansive, anti-colonial internationalism in East Asia as well, one that reflected his own desire to see the imperial world order brought to an end. In Chongqing, the Nationalists’ wartime capital, Willkie broadcast a speech declaring that the end of the Second World War had to also “mean an end to the empire of nations over other nations.”
Upon his return to the United States, Willkie wrote One World, the travelogue-cum-manifesto that became the publishing sensation of the war years. Hailed as the fastest-selling book in history when it arrived in the spring of 1943, One World presented the planet as increasingly unified by the technologies of air travel and communications and yet divided by imperial forms of subjugation. The book also included his argument that the war was a chance not only to defeat fascism, but also to banish colonialism from the global stage. With its publication, Willkie made himself a conduit for the anti-imperialist vision that he had encountered abroad and pushed Americans to recognize as one of the true stakes of the war.
Interdependency, Willkie argued, was the governing fact of modern life. Thus, the Allies had to plan—during the war—for a new world body to replace the League of Nations. Here, Willkie did finally distinguish himself from Roosevelt, who favored a limited procedural role for most countries in what would become the United Nations. Smaller nations could “blow off steam” in a legislative assembly, Roosevelt once commented, while the “Four Policemen”—the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China—would run things from an executive body.
Willkie, on the other hand, tried to persuade Americans to accept a more egalitarian international body with the power to curb national sovereignty, not just a debating society run by the great powers. A world body dominated by nationalism, Willkie argued in a 1944 Foreign Affairs article, actually endangered American sovereignty: It would allow “other nations to make decisions affecting vital American interests at their convenience and when they choose.”
In the end, Roosevelt’s vision won out. The United Nations was shaped to fit American, British, and Soviet strategic demands. The members of the Security Council, as the executive body came to be called after France was added to the ranks of FDR’s policemen, enjoyed a veto over any initiatives that endangered their interests. Smaller nations looked on from the General Assembly, while the UN had no international police powers that might infringe upon national sovereignty. It would oversee the gradual progress of some colonies toward self-determination, but many others would be left to the whims of their prewar masters.
With the onset of the “great twilight struggle” against the Soviet Union, Willkie-style internationalism went into full retreat, scorned as naive about the strategic realities in a world of competition among nation-states. The United States helped establish a multilateral “rules based order” designed to contain communism and allow the European powers to fortify their colonial holdings—a decision that would end in tears in Vietnam. Willkie himself was all but forgotten, recalled as a colorful bit player in the drama of American ascendance. Gone altogether was his vision of an American internationalism, one in solidarity with an anti-imperialism from below that demanded greater equality between nations. Gone as well was the idea that the United States might have served as midwife for that more expansive view of freedom rather than simply as the triumphalist “leader of the free world.”
These days, “one world” may sound like a particularly callow brand of universalism—just another version of globalization hype. And the Willkie show was always something of a high-wire act: As an anti-imperialist who assumed that America’s own empire was likely to simply fade away, he struggled to balance his advocacy for “free enterprise” and “free trade” with his support for political freedom from colonialism. Willkie’s early death preempted any reckoning with the contradictions that postwar history would have presented to his evolving liberalism and residual American nationalism.
Nonetheless, Willkie still has much to teach us, particularly now, when Donald Trump’s presidency has birthed an agitated spate of hand-wringing over his threat to the liberal world order. Trump and his Twitter account threaten to end more than just a half-century of US-led peace and prosperity, the solons of the Global North lament: All the institutions of multilateral, rules-based internationalism created in the wake of World War II, from NATO to the United Nations, teeter on the brink, pushed to the very edge by Trump’s return to an America First nationalism. Of course, that world order was always premised on the United States’ own complacency about American supremacy. Willkie imagined a different path forward, one that might have averted the weak foundations of the neoliberal global compact and the “Washington consensus” that helped give rise to Trump’s presidency. We may not like where Trump wants to take us—his is a dark and vicious view of the world—but those who lament the waning status quo also cloud our ability to understand the true history or possible future of America’s role in the world.
First, of course, the US-led liberal order was always, in the eyes of many around the world, simply US imperialism. And American hegemony—designed to win the Cold War as much as to ensure global comity—has been coming apart, in fits and starts, since the Vietnam War and the economic crises of the 1970s. The long-term question is not how to shore up the old world order—whatever its faults and virtues—but how to use the uncertain moment of Trumpian disruption to rethink it altogether.
On the American left, anti-imperial memory often only goes back to the 1960s. But Willkie gives us a chance to remember the 1940s, when dreams of global freedom commanded the attention of a broad swath of the American public. These days, as many Americans retreat into Trump’s insular and aggressive nationalism, and the heirs of Walter Lippmann fret that America’s decline will unleash the barbarian hordes—witness the title of Robert Kagan’s The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World—we would do well to recall how Wendell Willkie warned us away from that brand of race-tinged fearmongering and called us toward a vision of the United States at home in the world, with no need to dominate or control it.