Amid the turmoil of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted a respected American to travel the globe boosting morale among the Allies. The itinerary had 13 countries on five continents, including China, the Soviet Union and the nations of the Middle East. FDR's choice of emissary might have seemed strange from this distance: He picked Wendell Willkie, the Republican he had defeated in the 1940 election.
Everything had changed after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and Willkie gladly undertook this mission on behalf of a Democratic president. When he returned from his trip, Willkie enthusiastically shared his advice with both Roosevelt and the rest of America: Humanity needed a one-world government to avoid a future filled with unimaginable horrors. The onetime GOP presidential nominee wasn't the first or last person to reach that conclusion, but his story is both striking and strange.
Willkie's book, "One World," broke sales records when it was published in 1943, and holds up remarkably well today. (If you obtain an original edition, you'll notice it was made with cheap and lightweight materials, thanks to War Production Board regulations.) Willkie openly cribbed ideas from the Atlantic Charter, a 1941 statement by Roosevelt and Winston Churchill that articulated Anglo-American war objectives, but challenged them as too Eurocentric and not bold enough. His book helped inspire the World Federalist movement, which drew from Willkie's conclusions to argue that only supranational democratic institutions could protect humanity in an era of global threats. The general idea was for an organization much stronger than the League of Nations, which had been founded in the wake of World War I, although the specific proposals varied widely. Generally speaking, though, these groups shared the goals articulated in Willkie's book: International governing bodies that would prohibit colonialism and imperialism, whether economic or military; a ban on racial discrimination; a plan to reduce global income inequality; and a gradual worldwide transition to democracy, according to each nation's particular culture.
Roosevelt's choice of global emissary might seem unusual from this distance: The Republican who had run against him in 1940.
Some of the most famous people on the planet supported the One World movement, or its various incarnations thereof: Physicists Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, philosopher Bertrand Russell, anti-colonial heroes Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann. "One World" dominated the New York Times bestseller list for months, and all its proceeds went to war relief efforts in Britain, China and the Soviet Union. After the U.S. used nuclear bombs in Japan and ushered in the Cold War, the One Worlders' clamor for international government grew even stronger. For decades, the term "One Worlder" was used as an epithet by conservatives who saw this vision of left-liberal internationalism as Communism in a thin disguise.
"One World" reads less like a manifesto than a novel, at least for the most part. It's entertaining and vivid, driven by an array of fascinating characters, ranging from Joseph Stalin (!) to Charles de Gaulle to Chinese leader Zhou Enlai, along with many ordinary soldiers and civilians. He quotes at length, for example, both Chinese and Russian citizens who defend Communism, although Willkie makes it clear he disagrees. In one chapter, he marvels at the way the United States is almost universally liked (it's almost melancholy to read that now), but expresses concern that American politicians may squander that goodwill by seeking to build an empire — the very reason the Germans and Japanese were so despised.
Willkie was also far ahead of his time in deploring nationalism, even among oppressed peoples, arguing that because all humanity lives on a shrinking planet thanks to the wonders and horrors of technology, our fates are inextricably linked. He insists that racial and cultural diversity — concepts that were not widely discussed at the time — should be celebrated, and that humanity's common interests in peace, prosperity, justice and scientific progress should supersede the narrow allure of nationalism. He puts it this way in his introduction:
There are no distant points in the world any longer. I learned by this trip that the myriad millions of human beings of the Far East are as close to us as Los Angeles is to New York by the fastest trains. I cannot escape the conviction that in the future what concerns them must concern us, almost as much as the problems of the people of California concern the people of New York. Our thinking in the future must be world-wide.
Many of the anecdotes Willkie shares are heartbreaking. On his visit to the Soviet Union he sees Russian farm workers walking toward the combat front lines because they need to plow the fields. At a pit stop in Siberia for what he expects will only be a couple of hours, Willkie learns that a snowstorm is coming and he'll have to stay overnight: If a distinguished guest were to die in a plane crash, Stalin would have the responsible official "liquidated." Further east in what was then British-run Palestine, Willkie wonders whether the British Empire is inflaming grudges between the Arab and Jewish communities for its own purposes, and quickly deduces that the matter will not be easily resolved. In the Chinese provincial city of Chengtu, Willkie speaks with scholars who had fled from areas conquered by Japan; they're using the facilities of the two local universities in shifts, where "the buildings and the libraries and the laboratories [are] occupied almost twenty-four hours a day."
At a pit stop in Siberia for what he expects will only be a couple of hours, Willkie learns that a snowstorm is coming and he'll have to stay overnight: If a distinguished guest were to die in a plane crash, Stalin would have the responsible official "liquidated."
What in the world drove Wendell Willkie to this quixotic, utopian globetrotting adventure? I think we can say he wasn't much like 21st-century Republicans. Born in rural Indiana in 1892 to a family of abolitionist lawyers (his mother was one of the first women admitted to the Indiana bar), Willkie was inspired by Woodrow Wilson's internationalist vision and read Karl Marx in college. He graduated from Indiana Law School with high honors, but nearly lost his degree after delivering a commencement speech criticizing the school's leadership.
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After a few years practicing law in Indiana, Willkie began working in New York as counsel for the Commonwealth & Southern Corporation, and entered into the inner circle of America's intellectual, social and economic elite. Although he retained many liberal or even leftist views (particularly on civil rights), he turned against Roosevelt when the new president created the Tennessee Valley Authority, a federally-owned electric utility intended to create jobs and provide affordable power to much of the impoverished South — and also a direct threat to many C&S subsidiaries. Willkie not only fought FDR in court but also took his case to the press, utilizing his eloquence and charisma to great effect in newspaper columns and press conferences. Willkie lost the battle to stop the TVA, but his crusade hurt Roosevelt politically and made Willkie into a celebrity — and a Republican.
In the 1940 election, the party was most concerned with stopping Roosevelt from winning a third term, something no president had ever done. (Ulysses S. Grant had run for a third term in 1880, after four years out of office, but didn't even win the Republican nomination.) But to oppose FDR, Republicans had a weak bench: The main contenders were Manhattan District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey, a 38-year-old "gangbuster" with no national political experience; Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, a staunch right-winger with a stoical personality; and Sen. Arthur Vandenburg of Michigan, who had little popular support.
Through a coordinated grassroots "movement," a group of liberal Republican leaders overwhelmed the party's national convention that year and won the nomination for Willkie. He campaigned as something of an ideological eccentric: He was to the left of Roosevelt on civil rights, and frequently spoke out against segregation and antisemitism, but also opposed FDR's economic policies as "socialism." That wasn't his only contradiction: Willkie privately recognized that America wouldn't be able to stay out of the world war against imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, but ran as a pacifist.
There was some good news for Willkie on Election Day: He outperformed the previous two Republicans who had run against Roosevelt, winning more than 22 million votes. (Alf Landon had only gotten about 17 million in 1936, and Herbert Hoover got fewer than 16 million in 1932.) But he still lost by a decisive margin, losing the Electoral College 449-82 and getting only 45% of the popular vote. That said, Willkie still came out of that election with his reputation enhanced. His stature had been elevated, although he hadn't even come close to winning. (Another example of how different things were in that political era.)
"He supposedly had an affair with Soong Mei-ling, better known as the wife of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek."
Rather than continuing partisan attacks on Roosevelt in hopes of a 1944 rematch, Willkie went to work for FDR in support of the war effort. When Roosevelt and Churchill announced (in the aforementioned Atlantic Charter) that they would not use the war for imperial aggrandizement, Willkie made it clear that he would support the president's foreign policy agenda. Indeed, the two men formed a friendship, and Roosevelt decided it would be ingenious to send his former opponent around the world as an emissary for the effectiveness and flexibility of American democracy. Willkie understood this, and used it to his advantage. In his book he recalls causing a media furor in Turkey:
When the Axis radio during my visit complained of my presence in Turkey, I told the newspapermen that the answer was simple: "Invite Hitler to send to Turkey, as a representative of Germany, his opposition candidate." The remark, I found afterward, caused much quiet amusement among Turkish government officials.
There were rumors of quite a different kind around Willkie's 1942 visit to China, where he supposedly had an affair with Soong Mei-ling, better known as the wife of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. In this case, Willkie's foresight failed him: He assumed Chiang would be a world leader, not a renegade who would be forced to flee to Taiwan and form a fake Chinese government there after Mao Zedong and the Communists had taken power on the mainland. Soong had already emerged as her husband's most influential adviser, in no small part because of her superior command of the English language. As she later confided to one of Willkie's friends, she believed that the two had chemistry so powerful that after the war ended, they could form an alliance that would control the planet: Willkie commanding the West after defeating Roosevelt in the 1944 election, and Soong ruling the East through her manipulation of Chiang.
That was a far-fetched vision on any number of levels, among them that Willkie had pretty much blown any chance of winning the Republican nomination again by allying with FDR. But his liaison with Soong adds an unintentionally humorous subtext to "One World," as in his descriptions of her as resembling a Vogue cover model or his accounts of lengthy private conversations between them, held in dark rooms after they sneak away from dinner parties. Perhaps most notable is his glowing description of Soong while discussing his proposal that she should do a goodwill tour of the United States (as she eventually did):
Her great ability — and I know she will excuse me for speaking so personally — her great devotion to China, are well known in the United States. She would find herself not only beloved, but immensely effective. We would listen to her as to no one else. With wit and charm, a generous and understanding heart, a gracious and beautiful manner and appearance, and a burning conviction, she is just what we need as a visitor.
Tragically, at least from a narrative perspective, Willkie's fascinating saga ends in a disappointing anticlimax. He lost the Republican nomination to Thomas Dewey in 1944, and then died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was just 52. Roosevelt was elected to a fourth term but never got a chance to explore any of Willkie's ideas, dying himself early in 1945. (That period led to a constitutional amendment limiting presidents to two full terms.) Other world leaders would support piecemeal versions of the transnational institutions envisioned by Willkie, including the UN, NATO and the European Union. As recent events like the 2021 coup attempt in the U.S. and Russia's invasion of Ukraine have reminded us, those entities lack any meaningful moral authority, in the sense envisioned by Willkie, Einstein and Gandhi.
But who knows? Perhaps the real climax of Wendell Willkie's unlikely story has not yet arrived. The climate crisis, massive inequality, the rising specter of fascism and the threat of nuclear war continue to demand global solutions. Willkie's analysis in "One World," though specific to the context of World War II, will remain applicable as long as human society endures. It is tempting to speculate about how the next act of Willkie's career might have unfolded, but we'll never know. Perhaps it's enough to reckon with the remarkable fact that, 80 years ago, a Democratic president and the Republican he had defeated tried to work together for world peace.