- When Wendell Willkie Went Visiting:Between Interdependency and Exceptionalism in the Public Feeling for One World
In April 1943, Robert van Gelder, the New York Times book editor, used his regular column, “Speaking of Books,” to hail a recent bestseller. The book, One World (1943), by the 1940 Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie, had provoked an unprecedented sensation. Ten days after it appeared, the little volume was jumping out of the stores like no book before it in the history of publishing. The story of Willkie’s journey around the world in late 1942, One World would eventually reach millions of Americans. Willkie enchanted them with the story of his encounter with the people of the world, from a Baghdad shopkeeper and a Soviet factory superintendent to Charles De Gaulle, the Shah of Iran, Joseph Stalin, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, while also challenging readers to embrace the new spirit of global connection and interdependence he claimed to have discovered everywhere he went.
A certain kind of sophisticate, van Gelder noted, discounted Willkie as a wide-eyed hick from Indiana who had just “discovered the world” (BR2). But a much wider and deeper audience responded to the sense of “a world opening up,” and to the way that Willkie himself heralded new sentiments of connectedness that opening invited. Between late 1942, when he embarked on the trip, and his untimely death in October 1944, he gave the high abstractions of [End Page 484] diplomacy a populist charge, becoming the foremost advocate of a refreshed American internationalism, one that would issue a novel and vital challenge to the poles of isolationism and imperialism that had structured American foreign policy over the previous half-century. Indeed, public support for US involvement in a new form of world organization swelled in these years, and this surge in opinion was due in no small part to the popular fervor that collected around Willkie’s trip and One World. Willkie stood at the center of a swirl of cultural production, an intense and contestatory back and forth concerning America’s role in the world. Through his trip and his book, as well as a series of closely watched press statements, public addresses, national network radio speeches, and articles in the major weekly magazines, Willkie made himself a popular phenomenon, a galvanizing medium for a public culture of middlebrow interest in world affairs. Ultimately, the popular attention Willkie excited revealed a nation struggling to see this new world on its own terms, and to square the new spirit of interdependence Willkie announced with the persistent exceptionalism that had so long governed American national self-conceptions.
What we should catch in van Gelder’s piece, most pressingly, however, is his awareness of the fresh form of public attention to worldliness that Willkie’s travel and writing was just then unleashing. The book, he wrote, was “exciting” not just because of the story Willkie told, or the “entré” he had to world-historical personalities, but “because of the feeling that is behind it of a world opening up, of frontiers that are not far any longer.” Willkie’s book capitalized on a new yet widely shared sense that technology and war had made the world small—and potentially interdependent—but it brought that reality home in a felt as much as intellectual manner. “We all know what has happened to distance in these last years,” he wrote. “But between the knowing and the feeling, between the knowledge and the emotional understanding, there is almost inevitably a gap. Willkie’s book is like a spark that closes that gap” (BR2).
Indeed, Willkie sent a host of “sparks” across the gap between knowing and feeling in these years, providing Americans with a model of an affective as much as deliberative relation to questions of foreign relations. The public personality that took shape around him—open, forthright, jocular, plain-spoken—came to represent the structure of feeling, the “emotional understanding” in van Gelder’s words, that increased interdependence with the world might foster. In his own and other accounts of his trip, Willkie came to embody the ideal connective spirit, the necessary affective disposition Americans could bring...