Susan Dunn

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Susan Dunn

The Im­prob­a­ble Wen­dell Wil­lkie: The Busi­ness­man Who Saved the Repub­li­can Party and His Coun­try, and Con­ceived a New World Or­der by David Lev­er­ing Lewis

The Im­prob­a­ble Wen­dell Wil­lkie: The Busi­ness­man Who Saved the Repub­li­can Party and His Coun­try, and Con­ceived a New World Or­der by David Lev­er­ing Lewis.

Liveright, 371 pp., $28.95

“I’d watch Wil­lkie,” wrote the New York Times colum­nist Arthur Krock in Fe­bru­ary 1939, quot­ing an anony­mous Repub­li­can ob­server who ad­mit­ted that Wen­dell Wil­lkie was a “long shot” can­di­date for the pres­i­dency of the United States and “the dark­est horse in the sta­ble” for 1940. Read­ers of the Times may have been for­given for ask­ing, Why Wil­lkie? Some may have won­dered, Who is Wil­lkie? Wen­dell Wil­lkie was a fire­ball of en­ergy, tenac­ity, busi­ness acu­men, ideas, and ideals. His ex­u­ber­ance is matched by that of David Lev­er­ing Lewis, the bi­og­ra­pher of W.E.B. Du Bois, in his deeply re­searched and highly ab­sorb­ing book The Im­prob­a­ble Wen­dell Wil­lkie. Im­prob­a­ble in­deed: a Demo­crat from a small town in In­di­ana who reg­is­tered as a Repub­li­can only in the fall of 1939; a highly re­garded cor­po­rate lawyer and the head of Com­mon­wealth and South­ern, one of the coun­try’s largest util­i­ties hold­ing com­pa­nies, who had never run for pub­lic of­fice be­fore his nom­i­na­tion as the 1940 Repub­li­can can­di­date for pres­i­dent; a sup­porter of the New Deal and an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist who, while rat­tling re­ac­tionar­ies and iso­la­tion­ists in his own party, left a stun­ning le­gacy of re­spon­si­ble bi­par­ti­san­ship in a time of na­tional and global emer­gency; and a far­sighted pioneer in civil rights. Booth Tark­ing­ton, whose na­tive In­di­ana pro­vided the small-town land­scape for much of his fic­tion, once de­scribed Wil­lkie as some­one “fa­mil­iar to us, a man wholly nat­u­ral in man­ner, a man with no pose, no ‘swell­ness,’ no con­de­scen­sion .... A man as Amer­i­can as the court­house yard.” Yet in 1940 that home­spun fel­low lived not in El­wood, In­di­ana, where he had been born in 1892, or in Cof­feyville, Kansas, where he had taught high school, or in Bloom­ing­ton, In­di­ana, where he earned a law de­gree in 1916, or in Rushville, where he owned a home and farm­land, but at 1010 Fifth Av­enue, in a splen­did apart­ment over­look­ing Cen­tral Park. He had moved to New York in 1929 to serve as coun­sel for Com­mon­wealth and South­ern. He had a wife, Edith, who spent much of her time in In­di­ana, rel­e­gated to “spousal for­mal­ity”; an only son, Philip, who at­tended Prince­ton; and a beau­ti­ful, tal­ented lover.

That lover was his “Dear Irita, you whom I ad­mire in­or­di­nately and love ex­ces­sively,” in whose apart­ment he often met non­cha­lantly with re­porters. Irita Brad­ford Van Doren was the book ed­i­tor for the New York Her­ald Tri­bune and the for­mer wife of Carl Van Doren, the Columbia pro­fes­sor and bi­og­ra­pher. She was Wil­lkie’s pass­port to New York in­tel­lec­tual cir­cles as well as to the ti­tans of pub­lish­ing who hun­gered for a for­ward-look­ing Repub­li­can who could chal­lenge Franklin Roo­sevelt: He­len and Og­den Reid, own­ers of the Her­ald Tri­bune; Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard news­pa­per syn­di­cate; Rus­sell Daven­port, the man­ag­ing ed­i­tor of For­tune and a ma­jor fig­ure in Wil­lkie’s 1940 cam­paign; and Henry Luce, the pub­lisher of Time, Life, and For­tune.

Luce was cap­ti­vated by the straight­shoot­ing, good-look­ing Hoosier, en­thu­si­as­ti­cally prais­ing him as “a force of na­ture.” He put Wil­lkie on the cover of Time in July 1939 and Oc­to­ber 1940, gave him an eleven-page pro­file in Life in the spring of 1940, and in April 1940 For­tune pub­lished Wil­lkie’s man­i­festo, “We, the Peo­ple: A Foun­da­tion for a Po­lit­i­cal Re­cov­ery,” which, Lewis at­tests, “spoke pow­er­fully to lib­eral Repub­li­cans and dis­af­fected Democrats, to eco­nom­i­cally so­phis­ti­cated busi­ness in­ter­ests, con­ser­va­tive mid­west­ern farm­ers,” and mid­dle-class Amer­i­cans strug­gling to stay afloat. Wil­lkie had first come to pub­lic at­ten­tion only a lit­tle ear­lier, when in 1938 he par­tic­i­pated in a de­bate with Robert Jack­son, FDR’s as­sis­tant at­tor­ney gen­eral, on a pop­u­lar weekly ra­dio show called Amer­ica’s Town Meet­ing of the Air. Four mil­lion house­holds heard what Lewis calls Wil­lkie’s “bravura per­for­mance” in de­fense of busi­ness’s con­tri­bu­tion to re­cov­ery from the De­pres­sion. Two years later, in April 1940, with an­other as­sured per­for­mance on Amer­ica’s most pop­u­lar ra­dio quiz show, In­for­ma­tion, Please, where ques­tions ranged from the Con­sti­tu­tion to the life of Matthew Arnold, Wil­lkie gained even more ad­mir­ers. In late June 1940, when Wil­lkie ar­rived at the GOP con­ven­tion in Philadel­phia, he was nev­er­the­less the odd man out. The lone in­ter­na­tion­al­ist among staunch iso­la­tion­ists, he had to fight the party es­tab­lish­ment, com­pet­ing against Ohio sen­a­tor Robert Taft, New York dis­trict at­tor­ney Thomas Dewey, Michi­gan sen­a­tor Arthur Van­den­berg, and even Her­bert Hoover, hop­ing to make an un­likely come­back. Some del­e­gates viewed him as lit­tle more than a me­dia cre­ation, while oth­ers as­saulted him as a Demo­cratic in­ter­loper out to sub­vert con­ser­va­tive prin­ci­ples.

Wil­lkie’s me­dia back­ers didn’t fail him in what they dra­ma­tized as a bat­tle for the soul of the Repub­li­can Party. On the day that bal­lot­ing be­gan at the con­ven­tion, the en­tire front page of the Her­ald Tri­bune con­sisted of an en­dorse­ment of him. In the late af­ter­noon of June 27, af­ter the first bal­lot, Dewey held the lead, with Taft in sec­ond place and Wil­lkie trail­ing far be­hind. Slowly but surely, though, Wil­lkie caught fire, and on the fourth bal­lot he pulled ahead. Past mid­night, as the state del­e­ga­tions called out their votes a sixth time, the lead swung back and forth be­tween Wil­lkie and Taft un­til Michi­gan sent Wil­lkie up to 499, two votes short of the nom­i­na­tion. Then Penn­syl­va­nia cast its votes and the dark horse crossed the fin­ish line. The con­ven­tion ad­journed at 1:30 AM, hav­ing set­tled on a can­di­date who, un­like Hoover in 1932 and Alf Lan­don in 1936, had a real chance to de­feat FDR. Harold Ickes, the pres­i­dent’s in­te­rior sec­re­tary, warned Roo­sevelt, “Noth­ing so ex­traor­di­nary has ever hap­pened in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.”

“What, then, brought about the mir­a­cle of his nom­i­na­tion?” asked The New York Times in an ed­i­to­rial. Its con­clu­sion: “Never in our po­lit­i­cal his­tory has there been a de­mand for a can­di­date that sprang more ob­vi­ously from a spon­ta­neous wave of pub­lic sen­ti­ment.” In truth, never had a spon­ta­neous sen­ti­ment for a pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee been so thor­oughly or­ches­trated. Luce had led the charge; in the af­ter­math, Time crowed that “the peo­ple had won.” But Hitler, too, may have done his part, since the con­ven­tion’s de­ci­sion to nom­i­nate its only in­ter­na­tion­al­ist can­di­date came just six days af­ter France sur­ren­dered to Nazi forces.

What kind of can­di­date would Wil­lkie prove to be? He spent weeks af­ter the con­ven­tion va­ca­tion­ing at the Broad­moor Ho­tel in Colorado and gear­ing up his small, po­lit­i­cally in­ex­pe­ri­enced team. Sym­pa­thetic Repub­li­cans who made the trek to Broad­moor found the cam­paign’s chaos dis­may­ing. Wil­lkie had lit­tle idea of the way for­ward to Novem­ber. “We let what was the hottest thing in the world go cold,” one loy­al­ist lamented.

In mid-Au­gust he fi­nally de­scended from the Rocky Moun­tains to kick off his cam­paign. To a crowd in his home­town of El­wood, In­di­ana, es­ti­mated to be as large as 300,000 peo­ple, Wil­lkie spoke up as an ad­vo­cate of the New Deal and an op­po­nent of much of Repub­li­can or­tho­doxy. He de­clared his sup­port for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, min­i­mum wages, max­i­mum hours, fed­eral pen­sions, old-age ben­e­fits, un­em­ploy­ment al­lowances, and fed­eral reg­u­la­tion of se­cu­ri­ties mar­kets, bank­ing, and the “forces of free en­ter­prise.” But he in­sisted he could make FDR’s al­pha­bet soup of agen­cies and pro­grams smarter, less ex­pen­sive, more pro­duc­tive, and in­fused with less class an­i­mus. It was “the in­tel­li­gent busi­ness­man’s long-over­due syn­the­sis of the New Deal at its best and the lib­er­ated mar­ket econ­omy at its most pro­duc­tive,” Lewis writes. In fact, this for­mula ac­cu­rately de­scribes FDR’s mo­bi­liza­tion of in­dus­try and la­bor in 1940 and 1941, as the na­tion pre­pared for war. The elec­tions of 1932 and 1936 had fo­cused al­most en­tirely on do­mes­tic poli­cies, but in 1940 what mat­tered more to Amer­i­cans was the prospect of be­ing drawn into war in Europe or the Pa­cific. In Wil­lkie’s El­wood ad­dress, though he un­der­scored his op­po­si­tion to di­rect Amer­i­can in­volve­ment in the Eu­ro­pean war, he called for mil­i­tary pre­pared­ness and as­sis­tance for the Al­lies, agree­ing with FDR that the loss of the Bri­tish navy and sub­se­quent Ger­man dom­i­na­tion of the At­lantic would be a “calamity” for the United States. And echo­ing the pres­i­dent’s re­cent re­marks, he, too, de­clared him­self in fa­vor of com­pul­sory uni­ver­sal mil­i­tary ser­vice, ex­plain­ing that a draft was “the only demo­cratic way in which to se­cure the trained and com­pe­tent man­power we need for na­tional de­fense.”

But as the race tight­ened in the fall, both men de­cided abruptly to change tack and ap­peal to the iso­la­tion­ists in their par­ties who were fear­ful of Amer­i­can in­ter­ven­tion in the war and frus­trated and an­gry that nei­ther of the “Wil­lkievelt twins” of­fered them an al­ter­na­tive to in­ter­na­tion­al­ism. Spout­ing a reck­less panoply of hy­per­bolic pro­nounce­ments and out­right un­truths, Wil­lkie por­trayed FDR as a war­mon­ger who had agreed in 1938 in a phone con­ver­sa­tion with Hitler and Mus­solini to “sell Cze­choslo­vakia down the river.” At an­other rally he gave no­tice that “when I am Pres­i­dent I shall send not one Amer­i­can boy into the sham­bles of a Eu­ro­pean war.”

But FDR would not be out­done. Three weeks later, speak­ing in Bos­ton, he could not have been more em-

phatic: “I have said this be­fore, but I shall say it again and again and again. Your boys are not go­ing to be sent into any for­eign wars”—ig­nit­ing Wil­lkie’s out­rage against “that hyp­o­crit­i­cal son-of-a-bitch Roo­sevelt!” All their last-minute ex­ag­ger­ated claims and prom­ises, Lewis notes, “were the stuff of elec­toral life or death.” But to many mil­lions around the world, it was a life-or-death strug­gle that was all too real.

In early Novem­ber, most of the coun­try’s ma­jor news­pa­pers came out for Wil­lkie, with the Los An­ge­les Times call­ing him “the in­dis­pens­able man in this time of na­tional cri­sis” and the Hart­ford Courant promis­ing that he “will make a truly great Pres­i­dent of the United States.” Not all en­dorse­ments, how­ever, were wel­come. “In or­der to live with my­self,” as he put it, Wil­lkie sidestepped or dis­claimed odi­ous seals of ap­proval from the pro-Nazi Ger­man Amer­i­can Bund, the Ital­ian Fas­cist Or­ga­ni­za­tion, the Amer­i­can Com­mu­nist Party, and Fa­ther Cough­lin’s ra­bidly anti-Semitic Na­tional Union for So­cial Jus­tice. One of the few news­pa­pers in Roo­sevelt’s cor­ner was the weekly Chicago De­fender. The na­tion’s largest African-Amer­i­can news­pa­per praised his ad­vances in “eco­nomic and so­cial democ­racy” and cau­tioned that “it would be sui­ci­dal for the masses to place their faith in Wen­dell Wil­lkie.”


Novem­ber 5, the po­lit­i­cal ama­teur was crushed by the con­sum­mate pro­fes­sional. Even a more com­pe­tent cam­paign would have been hard pressed to de­feat the man who had al­ready won two pres­i­den­tial elec­tions by land­slides. Wil­lkie took ten states to FDR’s thirty-eight and won five mil­lion fewer votes. FDR’s son James heard his fa­ther say, “I’m happy I’ve won, but sorry Wen­dell lost.” In­deed, com­pared to the re­sent­ful and an­tag­o­nis­tic Repub­li­cans who would dog Wil­lkie for years, Lewis writes, “Franklin Roo­sevelt might have been said to be Wen­dell Wil­lkie’s best sup­porter.”

De­spite his de­feat, Wil­lkie re­mained the tit­u­lar leader of the GOP. The colum­nist Wal­ter Lipp­mann be­lieved that Wil­lkie en­vis­aged him­self as, in Lewis’s words, “a trans­for­ma­tional leader rather than a mere politi­cian pos­sess­ing trans­ac­tional skills,” and he may have felt lib­er­ated by loss and un­con­strained by the com­pro­mises and trans­ac­tions that po­lit­i­cal of­fice re­quires. A mere week af­ter the elec­tion, in an un­usual Ar­mistice Day talk, he “recon­ceived the mean­ing of po­lit­i­cal par­ti­san­ship,” Lewis claims. “We have elected Franklin Roo­sevelt Pres­i­dent. He is your Pres­i­dent. He is my Pres­i­dent,” Wil­lkie de­clared, im­plor­ing fel­low Repub­li­cans not to “fall into the par­ti­san er­ror of op­pos­ing things just for the sake of op­po­si­tion”—an ad­mo­ni­tion, as Lewis re­marks, that “sounds de­press­ingly rel­e­vant to early twenty-first-cen­tury Repub­li­can politi­cians.”

Wil­lkie didn’t stop there; his com­mit­ment to con­struc­tive bi­par­ti­san­ship con­tin­ued for the rest of his life. He joined Roo­sevelt in a quasi part­ner­ship that Lewis calls a re­mark­able “pas de deux.” In late De­cem­ber he ap­plauded FDR’s call for the US to be­come the “arse­nal of democ­racy.” When the Lend-Lease Bill to ex­tend des­per­ately needed aid to the Bri­tish was in­tro­duced in Congress the fol­low­ing month, he de­clared that “democ­racy can­not hope to de­fend it­self in any other way” and warned that the GOP “will never again gain con­trol of the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment” if it con­tin­ued to present it­self as an iso­la­tion­ist party. On the eve of Roo­sevelt’s third in­au­gu­ra­tion in Jan­uary, Wil­lkie went to the White House to dis­cuss his up­com­ing fact-find­ing trip to Eng­land. James Roo­sevelt re­called over­hear­ing “great bursts of laugh­ter” in the Oval Of­fice, where his fa­ther and Wil­lkie were meet­ing. Three days later, Wil­lkie left for Eng­land. Roo­sevelt had given him a per­sonal note for Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill that con­tained a verse from Longfel­low:

. . . sail on, O Ship of State!

Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!

Hu­man­ity with all its fears,

With all the hopes of fu­ture years, Is hang­ing breath­less on thy fate.

In Lon­don, Wil­lkie met with Churchill, For­eign Sec­re­tary An­thony Eden, and Labour Party leader Clement At­tlee, as well as King Ge­orge VI and El­iz­a­beth, who re­vealed over high tea and scotch their dis­plea­sure with the iso­la­tion­ist views of for­mer US am­bas­sador Joseph Kennedy. The Bri­tish peo­ple, af­ter months of Ger­man bom­bard­ment, were des­per­ate for a sign of sup­port from the United States. Along came Wil­lkie, with his “ebul­lient ap­proach­a­bil­ity,” ap­pear­ing in dev­as­tated neigh­bor­hoods in East Lon­don, Coven­try, Liver­pool, and Manch­ester. One woman re­called his sud­den ar­rival in an un­der­ground air raid shel­ter in Lon­don: “Peo­ple rose from their beds and ap­plauded.”

The trip was cut short by a tele­gram from Sec­re­tary of State Cordell Hull, ask­ing that he re­turn im­me­di­ately to Wash­ing­ton to tes­tify in Congress in fa­vor of Lend-Lease. Fol­low­ing the re­cent tes­ti­mony of Kennedy and Charles Lind­bergh op­pos­ing the leg­is­la­tion, it was all the more ur­gent for Wil­lkie to try to mar­shal Repub­li­can sup­port. On Fe­bru­ary 11, with the huge Se­nate Cau­cus Room “packed be­yond ca­pac­ity,” Wil­lkie drew on his mis­sion to Bri­tain to warn the mem­bers of the Se­nate For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee that Amer­i­cans had not yet “fully grasped the ex­tent of the cri­sis, or their re­spon­si­bil­ity with re­gard to it” and said that if Bri­tain were de­feated “the to­tal­i­tar­ian pow­ers will con­trol the world.” While frankly ad­mit­ting that “no man can guar­an­tee to you that the pol­icy of aid to Bri­tain will not in­volve the United States in war,” he nev­er­the­less stressed the ne­ces­sity of aid­ing the last stand­ing democ­racy in Europe with sup­plies, ships, planes, and ar­ma­ments. When one hos­tile sen­a­tor asked about the bit­ing re­marks he’d made about FDR dur­ing the cam­paign, Wil­lkie ca­su­ally brushed that aside as mere “cam­paign or­a­tory.”

In March 1941 the Lend-Lease Bill, which Churchill called “the most un­sor­did act in the his­tory of any na­tion,” be­came law. Wil­lkie, with his pas­sion­ate con­vic­tion that aid to Bri­tain was es­sen­tial to the de­fense of the United States, helped per­suade ten Repub­li­can

sen­a­tors to sup­port the bill, en­sur­ing it was a bi­par­ti­san mea­sure.


Wil­lkie out­per­formed his part­ner in the White House. In the fall of 1941 he de­manded out­right re­peal of the 1939 Neu­tral­ity Act, not just re­peal of sec­tions of it, as FDR had re­quested, and pub­licly ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with FDR’s “fee­ble and fu­tile pol­icy” of fol­low­ing the peo­ple in­stead of lead­ing them. He chal­lenged GOP sen­a­tors and rep­re­sen­ta­tives to end the neu­tral­ity cha­rade “so that no man here or abroad may doubt where our party stands on the is­sue of sur­vival of free­dom.” Just three weeks be­fore the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor, the House and Se­nate fi­nally voted to junk the Neu­tral­ity Act, but in the House only twenty-two Repub­li­cans out of 132 voted for re­peal, and in the Se­nate just five of twenty-six. Still, Roo­sevelt ex­pressed grat­i­tude to Wil­lkie for “ris­ing above par­ti­san­ship and ral­ly­ing to the com­mon cause.” Wil­lkie also greatly sur­passed the pres­i­dent in his un­flag­ging com­mit­ment to civil rights. Where Roo­sevelt felt trapped by the Demo­cratic Party’s elec­toral re­liance on South­ern whites, Wil­lkie was free to pas­sion­ately take the lead in the fight for racial equal­ity. Speak­ing to the NAACP’s an­nual con­fer­ence in 1942, he de­nounced Amer­ica’s “race im­pe­ri­al­ism,” link­ing the na­tion’s “willing­ness to ex­ploit an un­pro­tected peo­ple” to the global strug­gle against op­pres­sion. The goal of the United States at home and abroad, Wil­lkie de­clared, must be “to lib­er­ate, not to en­slave.” In late Au­gust 1942, Wil­lkie and an en­tourage of twelve, in­clud­ing Gard­ner Cowles Jr. and Joseph Barnes of the Of­fice of War In­for­ma­tion and sev­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the armed ser­vices, flew out of Mitchel Field on Long Is­land in an Army Air Corps B-24 heavy bomber with a six-man mil­i­tary crew. The Gul­liver would take them to Egypt, Turkey, Le­banon, Syria, Pales­tine, Iraq, Iran, the USSR, and China. It was a self-ap­pointed mis­sion, but one swiftly em­braced by FDR, who be­lieved, Lewis com­ments, that it “could help make a cru­cial dif­fer­ence to the war’s out­come.” Wil­lkie’s trip as Roo­sevelt’s de facto am­bas­sador be­came a 31,000-mile odyssey, at times re­sem­bling what a re­porter called a pub­lic­ity “blitzvisit,” but he also con­ducted sub­stan­tive talks with world lead­ers. In Beirut, the tem­po­rary cap­i­tal of Free France, he and his com­pan­ions were ha­rangued for sev­eral hours about the grandeur of France by Gen­eral de Gaulle in a room adorned with a bust of Napoleon and a statue of Joan of Arc. “She saved France,” the gen­eral curtly in­formed his guests. “I will save France. Good day, gen­tle­men.” Next came Pales­tine, where two sep­a­rate del­e­ga­tions, one of Jews, the other of Arabs, held dis­cus­sions with Wil­lkie to press their cases. In Bagh­dad, Wil­lkie helped Iraq’s prime min­is­ter draft a for­mal dec­la­ra­tion of war against the Axis, while in Tehran young Reza Pahlavi bluntly sug­gested that Amer­i­can mil­i­tary per­son­nel train his army in or­der to im­prove his chances of re­main­ing in power.

Iraq was im­por­tant for its oil re­serves and Iran for the south­ern route to Rus­sia for Lend-Lease ship­ments. But the high­est stakes were in the So­viet Union, which had be­come a cru­cial ally of the United States and Bri­tain. Dur­ing Wil­lkie’s long meet­ing in Moscow with Stalin, whom he de­scribed as hav­ing “a hard, tena­cious, driv­ing mind” that shot out ques­tions “like a loaded re­volver,” the dic­ta­tor an­grily de­manded an An­glo-Amer­i­can sec­ond front in Europe. The So­viet Union, he rightly com­plained, was left to face the full, sav­age force of Hitler’s armies and couldn’t sur­vive with­out more planes, trucks, ex­plo­sives—more ev­ery­thing. A few days later, at a con­fer­ence with Amer­i­can and Bri­tish jour­nal­ists just be­fore a farewell ban­quet in the Krem­lin, Wil­lkie oblig­ingly called for “a real sec­ond front in West­ern Europe at the ear­li­est pos­si­ble mo­ment.” The re­port of his speech “landed like a grenade,” in Lewis’s words, in Wash­ing­ton and Lon­don, where the sec­ond front was a sore is­sue be­tween the Amer­i­cans, ea­ger for it, and the Bri­tish, wary of fac­ing Hitler head-on.

Wil­lkie set off more alarm bells in China when he de­clared to a ra­dio au­di­ence that “mankind is on the march . . . . The colo­nial days are past.” His call for “an end to the em­pire of na­tions over other na­tions”—a view­point FDR shared—prompted Churchill to an­nounce in the House of Com­mons that he had no in­ten­tion of pre­sid­ing over “the liq­ui­da­tion of the Bri­tish Em­pire.” Upon his re­turn to the US in Oc­to­ber, Wil­lkie met with FDR in the White House, but af­ter the con­tro­ver­sies he had stirred abroad, their meet­ing this time was not marked, Lewis writes, by the old “con­ge­nial­ity.”

Wil­lkie put his in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ences into a book called One World (1943) that had, the poet Carl Sand­burg re­marked, a “bull’s eye ti­tle.” It was a pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non that sold more than a mil­lion copies in its first seven weeks. “If I had ever had any doubts that the world has be­come small and com­pletely in­ter­de­pen­dent,” Wil­lkie wrote on the first page, “this trip would have dis­pelled them al­to­gether.” He wanted to dis­pel those same doubts in his fel­low Amer­i­cans and stir them to com­mit them­selves to “the cre­ation of a world in which there shall be an equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity for ev­ery race and ev­ery na­tion.”

But Wil­lkie with his in­clu­sive vi­sion was a prophet with­out honor in his party. One Demo­crat re­marked that Repub­li­cans hated Wil­lkie even more than FDR, and his drive for a sec­ond pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion in 1944 was eas­ily sti­fled by the party’s old guard. At the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion in June, Wil­lkie was re­fused a speak­ing role and of­fered only a seat among “hon­ored guests.” Af­ter­ward, he agreed to work with Roo­sevelt to re­align the two par­ties and “form a new, re­ally lib­eral party in Amer­ica.”

That was not to come to pass, for on Oc­to­ber 8, 1944, just a lit­tle more than a year af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of One World and a few months af­ter the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion, the dark horse suf­fered a fa­tal heart at­tack. Yet as Lewis per­sua­sively ar­gues, Wil­lkie’s de­ci­sive le­gacy to post­war pol­i­tics was the grad­ual, grudg­ing ac­cep­tance by the party that dis­owned him of the bi­par­ti­san­ship and in­ter­na­tion­al­ism he fer­vently ad­vo­cated. Trag­i­cally, we are now wit­ness­ing reck­less as­saults on the in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions and ac­cords that the United States it­self cre­ated and that have en­dured for sev­enty years. Wil­lkie and One World re­mind us how nec­es­sary that world or­der is to the US—and how pre­cious and frag­ile.

Wen­dell Wil­lkie cam­paign­ing in his home­town of El­wood, In­di­ana, Au­gust 1940

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