Image of Photo of Prof Hans van de Ven

Wendell Willkie’s 1942 Circumnavigation of the World: Asia and the Second World War

The China Forum lecture on Thursday 16 February 2023 was delivered by Professor Hans van de Ven (Deputy Vice Chancellor and Professor of Modern Chinese History, University of Cambridge; Fellow and Director of Studies in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, St Catharine's College, Cambridge; Deputy Director, China Forum; and Visiting Chair Professor, Department of History, Peking University).

Professor Hans van de Ven’s lecture focused on Wendell Willkie's 1942 circumnavigation of the world. Willkie was President Roosevelt’s special envoy and the tour was intended to mobilise support for the war effort among America’s allies at a time when the outcome of the war was uncertain. Hearing views about the war in other countries, especially those in Asia, transformed Willkie’s outlook. He became a fierce critic of western colonialism, including that of the USA in the Philippines, and became an advocate for ‘one world’ of collective global governance that embraced all nationalities. Willkie published a record of his journey in the book One World. The book was a best-seller. It helped to shape Americans’ view of the world outside the USA and set out Willkie’s views on global governance in the post-war era.

The lecture presented a detailed examination of Willkie’s encounters in the countries he visited. In Egypt Willkie met General Montgomery. He questioned Montgomery’s confident prediction that the Allies would win the war. Willkie felt that Western political ideas had been challenged by the diverse populations of the Middle East. Willkie considered that Turkey was a model for post-war development in the region. In the Soviet Union Willkie met Stalin and went to the front line, praising the fighting spirit of the Russian army. Willkie ‘humanised Stalin’ for his American audience. Willkie was greeted as a great statesman in China, where he met a wide array of people, visited factories and made speeches to enthusiastic student audiences. Willkie was taken to the front to observe the Chinese military forces in their fight against the Japanese, and he praised Chinese heroism. It seems likely that Chiang Kai-shek used Willkie to lobby Roosevelt to support his vision for post-war global governance. Chiang hoped for a joint mandate with the USA to end French colonial rule in Vietnam and Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. He hoped also to cooperate with the USA to end British colonial rule in Asia. He wished for the return to China of sovereignty over Taiwan, Manchuria and the Ryukyu Islands. Willkie had wished to include India, which was in the midst of its anti-colonial struggle, in his world tour but was unable to do so.

The following issues were raised in the Q&A session: the view that Willkie might have taken of the institutional structure of the UN, which was established after his death in 1944; the extent to which the religious context of Willkie’s upbringing in Indiana might have influenced his world view; the way in which Willkie reported Chiang Kai-shek’s views on post-war global governance to President Roosevelt; Willkie’s attitude towards the views of Roosevelt and Churchill on world governance set out in the Atlantic Charter of 1941; the extent to which history is useful in order to understand the global poly-crisis today; the American response to Chiang Kai-shek’s request for the return of Taiwan to China; the political implications of the rumoured affair between Willkie and Madame Chiang; a comparison of the impact of WWI and WWII upon Europe; and the extent to which a high-speed ‘world tour’ contributes to deeper understanding of the world.

Professor Hans van de Ven is Director of Studies in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Professor of Modern Chinese History at the University of Cambridge. Educated in the Netherlands at Leiden University and in the USA at Harvard, he is an expert on the history of nineteenth and twentieth century China. He has written on China’s military history as well as the history of China’s globalization. His most recent book is Breaking with the Past: The Global Origins of Modernity in China