Sunday, 28 December 2008

By the time Wendell Willkie's One World was published in Sydney, in July 1943, over 2 million copies of the short book had been sold. There seem to be two audiences, an internal (American) one, and an external (global) one. A Republican nominee for the 1940 US presidential election, Willkie was a lawyer and the first such nominee to run without previously holding public office.

A Republican ex presidential nominee writing, in 1940, about WWII and the plan for "winning the peace" (as he frequently phrases the scope of potential post-war scenarios), should give us some idea of the nature of the content, even before reading starts.

Willkie travelled, in preparation for writing the book, to several countries - most notably Russia and China - and spoke with world leaders, including Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek. He tried to get a 'feel' for politics and opinions among people outside his - traditionally isolationist - United States. In this he is frequently successful, but more often than not gets bogged down debating - as a politician tends to do - the specifics of recent events, rather than a long-term strategy designed to ensure no future world war would occur.

For this is - or seems to be - Willkie's purpose: to find a method whereby future war can be avoided. He also asks questions about abolishing colonies, which appeared to him to be a major preoccupation when talking with individuals on the ground. The omission of India in his itinerary must have galled him.

The other purpose would have been a purely tactical one of garnering support among his target audience for the United Nations (which he calls the 'Alliance' ranked adgainst the 'Axis' powers; a curious use of the title since the UN wasn't officially founded until 1945).

In support of his purpose, Willkie draws in a predictable way on the classical American narrative of freedom (in fact, the final word of the book is, precisely, 'freedom'). The 'colour' provided also aids in this method. While he singles out American soldiers for praise the most he can say about British ones is that their officers seem to all smoke pipes. They are in America's debt, clearly.

But apart from the more predictable ranklements such a book must provoke, it is an interesting read in that it gives you a chance to participate in a debate that, at the time, had no predictable outcome. India, Indonesia, malaysia, Vietnam - none of these countries had, in 1942 when, presumably, the flight of the Gulliver occurred, a clear future.

The goodwill demonstrated wherever he went, toward America, has, now, of course, been largely eclipsed by narrow nationalisms such as he wanted to fight against. But the exclusionary, American narrative of freedom, so heavily relied on here, has failed to support the aspirations of individuals and collectives around the world.

In this light, it would be advisable for American statesmen to try to find an alternative narrative. The problem here would be, of course, that to abandon their treasured 'history' would be to welcome the splintering of America itself. Perhaps.

We'll see. The most striking thing about the book, apart from the enormous sales, is that Willkie signally fails to predict any of the major developments of the following ten years. He says nothing about the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. He says nothing about the Cold War - not a word.

So despite flying completely round the globe, the earnest author - certainly an enlightened man - will fail to achieve closure in so many of the areas of debate he chooses to open up.


Anonymous said...

I ran across this blog posting when I was looking for a review of Tom Tryon's "Lady" -- a very memorable book. Imagine my surprise when I also found a review of "One World," by Wendell Willkie. In 1992 my husband and I produced a documentary about Willkie to commemorate the centennial of his birth. Willkie was a strangely contradictory and mysterious man. Basically he was a moderate Democrat masquerading as a Republican. He had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had a lock on the presidency for a very long time. The thought of Willkie traveling around the world at Roosevelt's behest and at the height of World War II is a little strange. But very typical of Wendell Willkie!

Matt da Silva said...

Glad you enjoyed the post. I pick up odd things in second hand bookshops on occasion, and this was one of them.