The Conceit of American Indispensability
As both politicians and historians mine the 1940s for alternate visions of international order, we must guard against the presumption that the United States remains the benevolent center of global politics.
August 18, 2020
Aug 18, 2020
20 Min read time
As both politicians and historians mine the 1940s for alternate visions of international order, we must guard against the presumption that the United States remains the benevolent center of global politics.
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.
The radical openness of the international system amid the devastations of the war makes the 1940s fertile ground for the recovery of long-forgotten imaginings.
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.
The latest effort in this project of mining the 1940s is by historian Samuel Zipp, who finds an unlikely alternative in the vision of businessman turned Republican nominee for president: Wendell Willkie.
But the trip also had an unofficial flavor, in part because Roosevelt wanted to maintain deniability if the unpolished Willkie went off-script. And he did. When in the USSR, Willkie spoke too freely about his desire for the United States and United Kingdom to open a second front against the Axis, generating a minor scandal in Washington and, for some, regrets about allowing the trip to go forward. Willkie, too, benefited from the greater freedom afforded him by distance from the president. As the tour progressed he became more and more focused on his “unofficial mission” of announcing and enacting a new American posture toward the world beyond its shores. Willkie’s narrative of the trip—and the lessons he took from it for his country’s approach to the world—formed the subject of his 1943 book One World, which became an immediate bestseller. Aimed at a broad audience rather than at experts, what made the book distinctive was its effort to articulate a popular internationalism, buoyed by the ex-candidate’s celebrity status. It argued that Americans should renounce isolationism, support the aspirations of colonized peoples, and, cautiously, not assume the worst about the Soviet Union.
Yet the limitations of Willkie’s project were striking. Though Zipp is hardly uncritical of his subject, his characterization of Willkie as a lost voice worth returning to now overlooks two essential shortcomings. First, Willkie’s broad anticolonial sympathies never translated into a vision for how a more egalitarian world order might be achieved. Second, he never doubted that the United States was, as Madeleine Albright would put it some fifty years later, the “indispensable nation.” His internationalism was tied to an American nationalism that saw the United States as the source of the world’s best ideals and the benevolent center of its politics. This commitment, along with his deeply held belief in a capitalist world economy revolving around free trade, calls into question how far Willkie’s vision truly departed from what would become the postwar mainstream. As Americans look to the past to broaden the foreign policy debate today, a hazy internationalist sentiment and an unquestioned faith in American “indispensability” are luxuries we cannot afford.
• • •
Much of The Idealist consists of a detailed account of Willkie’s world tour, told with verve and reflecting an impressive mastery of a variety of national histories. At each stop, readers get a feel for Willkie’s increasingly global perspective on the war and sympathy with the political aspirations of people in the locations he visited, especially semi-colonial territories such as Egypt and modernizing states such as Turkey. Detailed accounts of his brief stops are interwoven effectively with the social and political background to his visits, from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s modernization project in Turkey to the campaign of Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese nationalist Guomindang against the Japanese invasions. Throughout, a portrait emerges of Willkie as an archetype of a particular kind of twentieth-century American traveler: headstrong, a bit brash even, but open-hearted to the concerns of the people, on whose side he assumed himself to be.
Zipp’s characterization of Willkie as a lost voice worth returning to now overlooks the fact that Willkie’s broad anticolonial sympathies never translated into a vision for how a more egalitarian world order might be achieved.
Zipp’s day-by-day recounting of Willkie’s travels and informal diplomacy is engrossing. In one memorable section, Zipp reveals how Willkie nearly flubbed the delivery of Roosevelt’s to Stalin. The “perpetually disorganized” Willkie had forgotten about the letter over the course of his trip, which was then stretching into its second month. He was only saved from embarrassment, and a potential diplomatic incident, when he found it, just before his meeting at the Kremlin, at the bottom of a laundry bag.
But The Idealist is also a brief for the worthiness of Willkie’s international vision. Zipp casts Willkie, who died at fifty-two in 1944, as a forgotten prophet of a more peaceful mode of American engagement with the world. The book contrasts Willkie’s vision not only with the nationalism of the “America First” crowd but with the “liberal internationalism” that underwrote American power in the Cold War and after. The latter, Zipp says, embraced American primacy as the enabling condition of global order. Under liberal internationalist principles, American support for multilateral institutions only extended as far as these institutions’ reciprocal support for U.S. economic and military power. In other words, liberal internationalism construed the interests of the world as identical with the interests of the United States. It authorized American actions abroad, from military interventions to trade agreements, by portraying them as universally desirable. Although the full flowering of this liberal internationalism awaited the coming of the Cold War, its origins could be found in policy planners’ ambitions for American global primacy during the first two years of World War II, a subject explored in Stephen Wertheim’s forthcoming book Tomorrow, The World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy.
Willkie’s view was different, what Zipp terms “interdependent internationalism.” In Zipp’s telling, Willkie’s perspective—shaped by the technological interconnectedness of the world that had become so apparent in the age of air travel—demanded that Americans embrace their position at the center of world affairs without taking on the imperial mantle of their European forebears. His vision, most fully expressed in One World, did not wade into many policy prescriptions or outline a theory of global politics. It offered, instead, cosmopolitan moralizing alongside a relatively rosy view of the world that awaited over the horizon of the war’s conclusion. In truth, the posture of interdependent internationalism represented less of a challenge to the mainstream than Zipp implies.
Contary to liberal internationalism, which embraced American primacy as the enabling condition of global order, Willkie espoused “interdependent internationalism”: embracing U.S. centrality while repudiating the imperial mantle.
Willkie saw independence for the colonial possessions of Britain, France, and other European powers as an overdue sequel to the American Revolution—as both morally right and in the national interest. Free trade and free enterprise, he thought—not the imperial preference system—were the wave of the future. He portrayed Soviet Communism as less of a threat than it appeared to some because he thought that the Soviet system would ultimately evolve into something closer to the American one. If Americans could steer between their isolationist leanings and the temptations of imperial grandeur, they would come to realize that the world needed U.S. leadership. A “one world spirit” that matched the technological interconnectedness of the globe would enable cooperation to take the place of the competition that had produced two worldwide conflagrations in the span of a few decades. But on all these issues except the question of the Soviet threat, Willkie’s vision resembled the “liberal internationalism” that would come to dominate U.S. foreign policy thinking. Even his undeniably admirable denunciations of formal, European colonialism alongside racism at home would become part and parcel of the official repertoire of the state apparatus as it fought for the loyalty of the decolonizing world during the Cold War.
Zipp portrays Willkie’s inattention to the institutional design of the forthcoming international order as a strength. With a household name and a folksy, Indiana charm, Willkie could speak directly to the American public. His critiques of colonialism and racism and his endorsement of interdependent internationalism were all the more likely to land, Zipp argues, because they weren’t bogged down in the details. The enormous popularity of One World proves that this approach had some merit: Willkie’s book sold a million copies in its first month. Some deemed it “the fastest-selling book in American history.” Clearly, Willkie’s vision of global cooperation spurred by American power and American ideals held broad appeal. Zipp suggests that in his “barnstorming” for the somewhat nebulous idea of interdependent internationalism, Willkie may have had a broader impact on public opinion than previously appreciated.
The posture of interdependent internationalism represented less of a challenge to the mainstream than Zipp implies.
Yet the weaknesses of Willkie’s “barnstorming” deserve more attention than Zipp gives them. On colonialism in particular, Willkie was unprepared to translate his sympathy for anticolonial aspirations into interventions into the policymaking process. Debates about how the colonies of both Allied and Axis powers would be treated in the postwar settlement occupied an important place in the State Department’s postwar planning. In the crucial years of 1943 and 1944, as Willkie sought to play kingmaker in the coming presidential elections, policy planners coalesced around a replacement for the League of Nations’ mandate system that deeply disappointed anticolonial hopes. The British and French held onto most colonies outright, and the new United Nations gained only extremely limited international oversight of “trusteeship” territories. On the issue of trusteeship, as Zipp admits, “it is not clear if Willkie knew exactly what was happening behind closed doors at the State Department.”
Possibilities for a genuinely anticolonial refashioning of the global order were snuffed out at the conferences at Dumbarton Oaks and San Francisco that established the United Nations, as African American and anticolonial activists pointed out at the time. W. E. B. Du Bois testified to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1945 that the trusteeship system would ensure that “colonial powers are to be the sole judges” of what happens in the colonies. Nnamdi Azikiwe, a leader of the Nigerian independence movement, put it more sharply: the UN’s design meant that “colonialism and the economic enslavement of the Negro are to be maintained.” This trajectory complicates Zipp’s assessment that Willkie’s “one world” idea “echoed most forcefully in the world society in miniature of the United Nations.” Its institutional shape, in fact, sharply curtailed anticolonial hopes. As Adom Getachew illustrates in Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (2018), only the winning of independence from below—often without significant UN support—would begin to turn the world body into a vehicle for projects of decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s.
• • •
The vagueness of Willkie’s “one world spirit” not only left crucial institutional questions unaddressed. It also made it easy to marshal the slogan in support of contradictory political agendas after the war. Although Zipp spends only a few pages on the postwar legacy of Willkie’s vision, he focuses on how the slogan of “one world” became a “kind of rallying cry” among “international lawyers, human rights advocates, and experts in global governance” (309). Within U.S. politics, Willkie’s former rival Henry Wallace adopted “one world” rhetoric in his 1948 Progressive Party campaign for president, as he stumped in favor of peace with the Soviet Union and gained the backing of the Communist Party.
But the slogan was equally easy to translate into forthright support of the Cold War. It was particularly popular among some of the strongest supporters for Harry Truman’s Point Four Program, the first U.S. effort to provide development aid in the Third World. Civil society groups argued that technical assistance to “two thirds of the world” would enable these societies to reach the level of development at which a level of cooperation on more equal terms—a true “one world”—would be possible. Yet Point Four was always a Cold War project. The originator of the policy, a junior official in the State Department named Benjamin Hardy, described it as a “weapon in the struggle against international communism.” Those who defended Point Four in Willkie’s language often dressed up a politics of national interest as a politics of global leveling.
The vagueness of Willkie’s “one world spirit” not only left crucial institutional questions unaddressed. It also made it easy to marshal the slogan in support of contradictory political agendas after the war.
Willkie’s slogan had perhaps the most postwar purchase in an organization called the United World Federalists (UWF). Although founded in 1947, the group had its roots in the peace movements of an earlier generation. The fortunes of the UWF provide some insight into how well Willkie’s ideas might have survived in the Cold War years. Despite the pacifist leanings of some of its members, by 1950 the UWF endorsed U.S. military action in the Korean War. The deadly conflict not only served to militarize the U.S. Cold War posture but set a dangerous precedent for aggressive action overseas without congressional authorization. But the war had gained the fig leaf of Security Council approval: with the newly established People’s Republic of China not yet seated, and the Soviet Union boycotting the UN as a result, the world body endorsed the war as a “police action.” With this internationalist façade in place, many UWF supporters of U.S. action in Korea declared it a war on behalf of “one world” against Communist aggression.
These trajectories of the “one world” rallying cry call into question Zipp’s central thesis: that Willkie’s brand of interdependent internationalism represented a sharp departure from the pursuit of global power that defined U.S. foreign policy after the war. How much daylight was there, really?
It is impossible to know what Willkie would have thought of these events that happened after his death, and Zipp is right to commend Willkie for his belief that peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union might remain possible after the war. At the same time, the conditions that made it tenable for a moderate, pro-business Republican to hold that view in 1942 no longer held true in 1948. The superficiality of much of Willkie’s internationalist philosophy makes it hard to believe that he would have bucked such a strong trend toward a muscular Cold War stance, and his ebullient praise of right-wing Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai-Shek suggests he may well have embraced military action taken to contain the influence of communism in the Pacific. What is absolutely clear is that many who carried his “one world” slogan forward offered little resistance to projects of extending U.S. military supremacy in the Cold War years.
Many who carried Willkie’s “one world” slogan forward offered little resistance to projects of extending U.S. military supremacy in the Cold War years.
If anything, a brand of business-friendly internationalism not unlike Willkie’s would become dominant among American capitalists. Often cautious in the 1940s that an expansive state abroad might complement the New Deal and serve to crowd out private investment, U.S. businessmen soon made their peace with American globalism. Willkie’s commitments to anticolonialism and antiracism, on the one hand, and to free enterprise and free trade, on the other, were not as easy to square as he liked to imagine. Much of the architecture of global governance, in the 1948 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its successor the World Trade Organization (WTO), came to protect the rights of private capital against nationalization efforts and claims to resource sovereignty in the newly independent states of the Third World. The cudgel of free trade was wielded more frequently and more violently against efforts at economic decolonization in the 1960s and 1970s than at colonial monopolies in the 1940s.
Zipp argues convincingly that Willkie, through his world tour, rejected one side of the American exceptionalist equation: the idea that Americans are a uniquely capable and virtuous people. But he never rejected the other side—the idea that the world should look to the United States as its guiding light.
• • •
The Idealist is far more sophisticated than the recent outpouring of political commentary—very often historically impoverished—that has been anxious to characterize Trump’s “America First” foreign policy as an abrupt departure from U.S. political traditions. Zipp rightly rejects nostalgia for a postwar “liberal international order” that was nothing of the kind. He admirably criticizes his subject’s blind spot when it came to the U.S. territorial empire in Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and elsewhere. He sees the Cold War and the U.S. rise to unquestioned global supremacy as a regrettable turn, not as what enabled the country to fully embrace its inclusive promise. His goal of finding an alternative to the pursuit of U.S. primacy is worthy, even if the object of his recovery is not.
But in elevating Willkie’s brand of internationalism as a great missed opportunity, Zipp fails to reckon fully with the consequences of Willkie’s faith in the presumptive universality of official American ideals. In the end, One World only reinforced what Aziz Rana has called the “creedal” narrative of America. In the classic account of the “American Creed” by Swedish social scientist Gunnar Myrdal, American power in the world can be redeemed because the United States “feels itself to be humanity in miniature.” Willkie represented this viewpoint perfectly. As much as Willkie encouraged Americans to have sympathy for foreign peoples struggling under European colonial regimes, he portrayed the unfolding worldwide revolt against empire as a mere continuation of 1776. He based his model of global cooperation on the thirteen colonies that became the United States. His sensitivity to the aspirations for freedom in the colonized world was joined to a popularized version of the “convergence theory”—the notion that the ultimate destination of human societies looked something quite like midcentury America. Willkie’s “diagnosis of the value of global interdependence,” as Zipp calls it, never fully imagined a globe not tilted on its axis toward the United States. America was still first: the model and leader of the world he envisioned.
The value of global interdependence depends on the conditions of its realization. What we lack is not a sufficiently cosmopolitan attitude but a politics of international cooperation capable of meeting global challenges.
More promising alternatives from the 1940s might be found in the popular politics of labor internationalism and black internationalism that were particularly vibrant at the time of Willkie’s tour. The short-lived World Federation of Trade Unions (1941–49), as Victor Silverman shows in Imagining Internationalism in American and British Labor, 1939–49 (2000), marked an effort to pry international politics out of the realm of the elite by creating an institutional voice for organized labor across national borders. Simultaneously, as Hakim Adi explores in Pan-Africanism: A History (2018), a ferment of popular Pan-Africanism on both sides of the Atlantic, in organizations such as the U.S.-based Council on African Affairs and the UK-based International African Service Bureau countered the Allies’ pursuit of postwar dominance on anticolonial lines. Although these groups’ concern with building bottom-up support for their global agendas had something in common with Willkie, they departed from him on crucial issues. They knew their more egalitarian visions required the building of alternative sources of power—not simply the cultivation of a more cosmopolitan attitude—and they posed U.S. leadership as a problem to be overcome, not the basis of a lasting peace.
Oddly, the defining events of this summer have both questioned and reinforced U.S. centrality in the world. The disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic has appeared as the death knell of whatever claim to “global leadership” some of the nation’s elites have held onto. The banning of travelers from the United States to Europe has struck some commentators as both an irony to match Trump’s own travel bans and an ignominy that fits his presidency. Meanwhile, uprisings in response to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other African Americans have highlighted the undemocratic heart of American governance. An American language of antiracist protest, from the phrases “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe” to the ever-growing roster of names of U.S. Black people murdered by agents of the state, has become the vernacular of solidarity protests in Europe and elsewhere. As Gary Younge has written, these protests, in their resonance abroad and, at times, their overriding of local concerns, have further underlined the continuing global hegemony of the United States.The value of global interdependence, too, depends on the conditions of its realization. The pandemic has revealed our linkages to the rest of the planet in ways that the age of capitalist globalization that produced the virus did not. The “worldly spirit” that Willkie promoted, in other words, has been made corporeal. What we lack is not a sufficiently cosmopolitan attitude but a politics of international cooperation capable of meeting global challenges. Devising such a politics would require both a substantive vision of the world not beholden to the shibboleths of free enterprise and free trade and an intimate familiarity with the intricacies of global institutions. Willkie’s vision, idealistic as it was, offered neither. An internationalism of sentiment cannot cure what ails us.
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August 18, 2020
20 Min read time