Wendell Willkie: The Hidden Architect of Post-war American Internationalism

How bipartisanship and humanitarianism from a failed presidential candidate reshaped US foreign policy in the midst of World War II 

American bipartisanship is a rare occurrence in today’s political climate, especially between a President and his former election rival. But in 1940s America, with public opinion split on entering World War II as the nation watched Europe fall to Nazi invasion, one man helped eradicate isolationism in Washington whilst setting the foundations for a new American world order. 

Wendell Willkie, born in 1892 and raised in a modest household in Elwood, Indiana, had a vibrant journey on his way to the Republican convention in 1940. From working in the Caribbean where first-hand experience of plantations catalysed his anti-imperialist fervour, to removing the Ku Klux Klan from a school board whilst serving as an attorney, Willkie was not a career politician. His business and legal background cast him as an outsider, an appealing characteristic at the 1940 Republican brokered convention where he shocked the attendees by securing the nomination in the sixth ballot, despite having been a registered Democrat a year beforehand. 

Despite 1940 being a landslide victory for Roosevelt, securing his record third term, the significance of the election was the campaign, not the outcome. Willkie was a committed internationalist (inspired by Wilsonian liberalism) and was dismayed by the prospect of a Nazi-controlled Europe. Willkie’s subsequent pro-intervention, anti-isolationist campaign platform, despite diverging from past Republican policy, was a godsend for Roosevelt who was fearful of the election campaign being a referendum on American support for the British war effort. When Roosevelt secured 38 out of 48 states in November 1940, he knew that his opponent had largely removed Republican isolationism from political discourse and given him the opportunity to expand aid to Churchill’s Britain, whose endurance against Nazi U-boats and Luftwaffe was being tested to the limit. 

After helping to swing public support towards the possibility of intervention, Willkie could have honourably stepped away from frontline politics. However, the start of Roosevelt’s third term was the beginning of the most consequential period of Willkie’s life. Recognising that Willkie’s charisma and popularity would be foolish to waste, Roosevelt met with him shortly after the election and offered him the informal position of his emissary to Britain. Willkie immediately accepted the job and headed to Blitz-stricken London at the start of 1941. 

Meeting Churchill several times and touring London without a mask or helmet (to the dismay of his hosts), Willkie quickly realised the British desperately required more US support. When called back to Washington to testify before the Senate’s hearing on the controversial Lend-Lease Programme, Willkie’s convincing and passionate testimony in February was regarded as the reason Roosevelt’s key policy was passed. Willkie had emerged as an unlikely yet highly popular ally of Roosevelt despite having lost to him in a presidential election just months beforehand. Recognising their shared desire for British continued survival whilst American war fever crystallised, slowly but surely Willkie’s tireless efforts were vital for Roosevelt’s relations with Churchill.  

However, whilst Willkie advocated strengthened Anglo-American relations, he was not an Anglophile. It was a 49-day trip around Africa and Asia shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack that exposed the failed project of British imperialism to Roosevelt’s informal envoy. In what Willkie’s biographer, Samuel Zipp, described as ‘something between a fact-finding tour and a propaganda circuit,’ Willkie’s circumnavigation in a converted B-25 bomber took him to Egypt, meeting Field Marshal Montgomery; Lebanon, where he encountered General De Gaulle of the Free French and onto the Middle East where his talks with Iraqi, Iranian and Saudi leaders informed him of a widespread desire for America to step in and offer an alternative to British influence. Walking through Jerusalem, noting the visible decline in the city’s cleanliness and status owing to British rule, Willkie is recorded saying: ‘Here I am in the land where Christ was born, and I wish to Christ I was back in the land where I was born.’ As well as meeting with Stalin (personally promising the Soviet leader more American aid, much to Roosevelt’s dismay) and China’s Chiang Kai-Shek before returning to the US, Willkie’s mission had convinced him of the need for America – not Britain – to lead the post-war world. In his view, imperialism’s neglect of local people and cultures combined with its economic subordination of Middle Eastern nations was something that America could not accept if Britain continued to depend on American aid. 

Arriving in the US with much to tell Roosevelt about his vision for a post-war world, Willkie’s observations and conclusions of his trip were published in his only book, One World, which sold a million copies in its first month. He took to the radio in October 1942 and told his 26 million listeners that America should join and lead a global organisation to enable the self-determination of deserving states and construct a new global order based on liberal values and cooperation. Willkie was indeed referring to the United Nations, and it is extraordinary how he turned down Roosevelt’s offer for him to lead it.  

Despite his popularity among the American people, the Republican establishment were reluctant to continue supporting a liberal internationalist who had pledged to racially integrate the military and appoint African Americans to the cabinet or Supreme Court. After poor results in the Wisconsin primaries in the run-up to the 1944 election, Willkie dropped out and seemed to have severed his friendship with Roosevelt after his proposal to form a new party following the election, consisting of the liberal wings of both major parties, was leaked to the press. After a series of heart attacks resulting from a lifelong habit of drinking and smoking heavily, Willkie passed away on 4 October 1944, aged 52 years old. 

Willkie’s impact on American internationalism and his emphasis on forming a new American hegemony after World War II is often overlooked. Whilst not holding major political office in his life, his services to President Roosevelt in such a crucial period of the war demonstrated Willkie’s willingness to place country over party. Recognising the common aspects between the two men’s policies allowed Willkie to forge a strong friendship, enabling him to still bear influence on government policy. His distaste for British imperialism and his insistence on America taking a greater responsibility in the Middle East was influential in pivoting US foreign policy to the Levant and surrounding countries, a policy that helped bring about the end of British de-facto control of Arab states by the 1960s.  

Regarded as one of America’s greatest could-be presidents, Wendell Willkie’s life conveyed how an individuals’ altruism and desire for peace alone can have such far-reaching effects, through compromise and cooperation. Helping shake off the damaging isolationism from American policy and forging a new brand of liberal internationalism that would have decades-lasting impacts, Willkie, as Susan Dunn elucidates, ‘died as he had lived, an idealist, a humanitarian—and a lone wolf.’ 

Written by Fraser Barnes


Barr, James. Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle With America To Dominate the Middle East. London, UK: Simon and Schuster, 2018. 

Dexter Fergie. “Wendell Willkie’s World Without Borders.” 2020. Accessed 1 November 2020. www.newrepublic.com/article/159441/wendell-willkies-world-without-borders-samuel-zipp-book-review. 

Dunn, Susan. 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler – the Election Amid the StormNew Haven, USA: Yale University Press, 2013. 

Heard, Stephen Jr. “When Reason Trumped Politics: The Remarkable Political Partnership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell L. Willkie.” Accessed 29 October 2020. https://fdrfoundation.org/publications/willkie/

Wendell Willkie II. “My Grandfather Was a Republican Nominee Who Put Country First.” Accessed 2 November 2020. www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/wendell-willkie/572290/. 

For online articles. Image source: Creator: Davis | Credit: Getty Images 

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