When Americans Fell in Love With the Ideal of ‘One World’

In 1943, Failed Presidential Candidate Wendell Willkie Advanced a Strikingly Anti-Racist, Anti-Colonial Plan to Bring the Planet Together

When Americans Fell in Love With the Ideal of ‘One World’ | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Wendell Willkie argued for “one world” as a global call for a world free of the racism and imperial exploitation fostered by nationalism. Illustration by Be Boggs.

What do you think of when you think of the phrase “one world?” Chances are it sounds like a vague gesture of unity or worldly inclusivity, like a stock phrase from the language of global marketing kitsch. No surprise: American Airlines has its One World alliance brand and OneWorld is a fast-fashion line featuring “ethnic” prints. The tourist attraction at the top of the One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan is, of course, the One World Observatory.

Even a generation ago, before the internet reached everyone, “one world” was an expression of idealism, signifying easy and carefree participation in a panoply of world cultures, all accessible by way of a flight, a screen, or a just-in-time supply chain. Think, for instance, of the Western vogue for so-called “world music” with its spirit of sentimental and nebulous togetherness: “One world is enough for all of us” went the refrain in Sting’s “One World (Not Three)” on his 1986 live album, Bring on the Night.

But now that the bloom is off globalization’s rose—world connection is just as likely to spur thoughts of climate change, inequality, or the spread of COVID-19 as global fellowship—we would do well to recall the longer, lost history of “one world.” Whether we know it or not, any modern use of the phrase, in both its hopeful and fearful senses, is indebted to the Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Willkie and his 1943 bestseller, One World.

If you’ve heard of Willkie, it’s likely because of his 1940 campaign for president against Franklin Roosevelt. A relative newcomer to politics, Willkie was drafted by business-friendly Republicans because he opposed FDR’s New Deal. He is often celebrated for his decision not to side with the so-called “isolationists” in the Republican Party—some of whom claimed the badge of “America First!” to resist American involvement in another European war.

Willkie is also revered for what happened after he lost that election. Instead of remaining in opposition, Willkie stepped up to support Lend-Lease, the President’s effort to send American war supplies to Britain. Willkie, it is said, helped FDR prepare America to save the world from fascism.

These stories, while powerful, actually slight Willkie’s true significance. He should be remembered more for his particular vision of “one world.” Specifically, Willkie argued for “one world” as a global call for a world free of the racism and imperial exploitation fostered by nationalism. His ideals may appear naïve at first, but they might give us some idea of what a visionary globalism is still good for in a time of resurgent nationalism and planetary fragility.

Willkie was not the first to use the phrase “one world.” Writers and thinkers had previously used it to describe how the steamship, the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, the stock market, and the radio all shrank space and sped up time, bringing far-flung places and cultures into greater contact.

These forces unleashed chaos and disintegration, too, as war and conquest swept the globe. Nationalist leaders rose, offering stories of shared purpose and common destiny as balms for disruption. But nationalism marked territory with myths of blood and belonging, sparking competition for patches of soil on the map.

By contrast, internationalists countered nationalism’s primal pull with rational plans for cooperation between states. Fashioned properly, internationalism would ride the new networks of global communication and finance and transportation. It would have to, the internationalists said, or the future held only war and privation.

Willkie became an internationalist early on. Born in 1892 in Indiana, his first political inspiration was President Woodrow Wilson, hero to many internationalists for his call to “make the world safe for democracy” and his advocacy of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. Much to Willkie’s dismay, however, many Americans, bitter about World War I, rejected the League, and the U.S. never joined.

The journey followed recently opened and occasionally un-scouted air lanes over Africa, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and China, a route that skirted Axis-held territory—well within range of enemy aircraft—and brought Willkie face to face with everyone from Soviet factory workers and Siberian peasants to Joseph Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek, and Charles de Gaulle.

As he built a career as a lawyer for the power industry and activist in the Democratic Party (he wouldn’t switch parties until just before the 1940 campaign), Willkie hoped for an American internationalist revival on more equitable terms than even Wilson, a racist and imperialist, imagined. But as the Great Depression deepened and war spread in Asia and Europe again, Willkie and other internationalists believed that nobody could now doubt that full international cooperation was necessary—and inevitable. In that spirit, Willkie supported Lend Lease in 1940. He also visited Britain in 1941, during the last days of the Blitz, and his genial, iconoclastic personality did much to lift spirits there.

By the late summer of 1942, the U.S. was in the fight, but active only in the Pacific. While the U.S. supplied aid and munitions to European Allies, the Nazis held Western Europe and occupied great swathes of Russia. Several American journalists working in Kuibyshev—the Soviets wartime capital—cabled Willkie to suggest he visit the beleaguered country to boost morale. Working with Roosevelt again, Willkie planned a much bigger undertaking: a closely watched, seven-week, 31,000-mile flying journey around the world that would take him to 13 countries on five continents.

The journey followed recently opened and occasionally un-scouted air lanes over Africa, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, and China, a route that skirted Axis-held territory—well within range of enemy aircraft—and brought Willkie face to face with everyone from Soviet factory workers and Siberian peasants to Joseph Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek, and Charles de Gaulle. Millions followed his route via the papers and newsreels, discovering a world that had become, as Willkie would later put it, “small and completely interdependent.”

FDR saw the trip as a fact-finding mission and a morale-building effort. But his former opponent made it much more than that. Across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, Willkie discovered, the war was not just a struggle against Nazi fascism and Japanese militarism, but potentially a colossal turning point in world history. A whole generation of anti-imperial nationalists saw a war fought for democracy and freedom as a chance to persuade the great European empires to finally relinquish their hold on the globe.

This meant the U.S. was at a crossroads too. America would become the next great power—but what kind of power would it choose to become?

Here, in the midst of worldwide terror and destruction, Willkie discovered a fleeting opportunity: The United States had a chance to lead the planet to a new era of cooperation—but only if it would truly embrace its own ideals in an effort to end colonialism and colonial thinking. To win a lasting peace and a future of global cooperation, Willkie came to believe, Americans would have to accept a more cooperative relationship with the rest of the planet.

“There are no distant points in the world any longer,” Willkie announced in his book describing his journey. The volume was initially going to be called One War, One Peace, One World, but Willkie soon realized that the last third said it all. A planet shrunk by aviation and total war was unified by technology, and could be brought together politically, too, if only Americans would put in the work. The U.S., he argued, had to forego “narrow nationalism” or the “international imperialism” practiced by the European powers. Americans had to choose instead to support “equality of opportunity for every race and every nation.”

Millions read One World—some called it the fastest-selling book in American history to date—even though it was critical of America and the West. In fact, one of the chief lessons of his trip, he argued was that the linked forces of racism and empire were hampering the Allied war effort. “The moral atmosphere in which the white race lives is changing,” he wrote, conveying the demands he heard across the globe. People everywhere were “no longer willing to be Eastern slaves for Western profits. The big house on the hill surrounded by mud huts has lost its awesome charm.”

Americans were not exempt, either. The U.S., Willkie wrote, had long “practiced inside our own boundaries something that amounts to race imperialism.”

However, Willkie was less critical of American imperial power. In general, he saw the United States as crucial to a global solution rather than part of the problem, a perspective that suggests how Americans tended to discount the negative impact of their power abroad. The idea of “one world” would become broadly influential during the war years, but a current of resilient nationalism would eventually undermine his hopes. Willkie’s bid for the 1944 Republican nomination never got off the ground. He argued for a fully democratic structure for the United Nations—one that would give smaller nations equal power and open a clear path to freedom for colonized countries. But FDR’s preferred plan—dominance by the Great Powers in the Security Council—won the day.

Tragically, Willkie never saw the U.N. convene. He died, unexpectedly, in October 1944 at only 52.

Before long, “Willkie” began to seem like a name from another time. One World has often been recalled as an oddity of wartime life, a naïve statement of wishful global harmony, and Willkie was remembered as an almost-President who helped Roosevelt save democracy in 1940. But if Willkie’s own name has faded, the phrase he made popular lived on, inspiring a host of global visions down to our own time.

“One world or none!” declared pacifists, world government advocates, and anti-nuclear activists in the 1940s and ’50s. Anti-imperialists like Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru of India claimed it as a slogan, too, as they harnessed the U.N. to help usher colonialism off the world stage. Later it resurfaced as an environmentalist credo, echoed by the early astronauts who first saw the Earth from space. “When you’re finally up at the moon looking back at the Earth,” Apollo 8’s Frank Borman mused in 1968, “all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this is really one world and why the hell can’t we learn to live together like decent people.”

With the precipitous globalization of the 1980s and ’90s the idea came rushing back. Global capitalism, some argued, was leveling barriers to opportunity everywhere. But this new “one world” felt like a threat to others. One World, Ready or Not, announced journalist William Greider in his 1997 expose of the borderless world of free trade and finance. Greider observed that Willkie’s idealism had been replaced by “the manic logic of global capitalism,” which would doom local industry and community and drive inequality to new heights.

Since then, of course, the perils of “one world” have swamped any lingering promise the phrase once held. Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center, the resulting “war on terror,” the financial crisis of 2008, the refugee crisis, Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic: all spring from the precarious state of a planet in which all of us are inescapably joined in a web of communications, market transactions, greenhouse gasses, possible pandemics, migration routes, and interlocking political alliances, resentments, and inequalities. Globalization, we are told, continues to lift more people out of poverty than it immiserates, but that’s statistics, not perception.

When another political outsider—like Willkie, a former Democrat from the world of business—took the presidency by storm in 2016, he promised to turn back the clock, invoking the name of his predecessor’s bête noir. “From this moment on,” Donald Trump declared at his inauguration, “it’s going to be ‘America First.’”

Trump is not alone, of course. The worldwide retreat into nationalism is spurred by both inequality and xenophobia. And it denies what Willkie—were he still with us—would surely say: We are one world made out of many creatures—human and nonhuman—living together on a single fragile earth.


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