Historians Discuss American Internationalism in Newly Released Books


Harvard History Professor Nancy F. Cott and Brown History Professor Samuel Zipp shared the stories of five twentieth century American internationalists and the legacy of their writings in a Mahindra Humanities Center webinar Monday.

The event, which was titled “Hidden Histories of U.S. Internationalists,” featured the professors’ latest works on American engagement in international affairs.

After summarizing their books, the two historians took part in a discussion moderated by MIT History Professor Christopher Capozzola ’94.

Mahindra Humanities Center Executive Director Steven H. Biel said Cott proposed pairing her latest book, “Fighting Words: The Bold American Journalists Who Brought the World Home,” with Zipp’s, “The Idealist: Wendell Willkie’s Wartime Quest to Build One World,” for the event. Both books highlight the work of influential U.S. internationalists.


“She suggested the pairing of Samuel Zipp’s book and her recent book would go well together and would resonate in this moment, especially in the lead up to the election,” Biel said.

In her book, Cott focuses on American journalists Dorothy Thompson, Vincent Sheean, John Gunther, and Rayna Raphaelson, who reported on international politics in the 1920s and 1930s.

“They sent back home their reportage, their commentary, which acted like searchlights sweeping across foreign turbulence and politics,” Cott said.

Similarly, Zipp wrote about how Wendell Willkie, a U.S. politician and writer, pushed for international cooperation and global anti-racism in the 1940s.

In her presentation, Cott said global interconnectedness through communication technology and economic interdependence enabled her four characters’ works to become “searchlights.”

“My book became more of a history lesson for today than I would have anticipated,” Cott said, noting the similarities between her subjects’ writings about limitations on press freedoms in the 1920s and 1930s and disinformation by modern governments today.

Zipp said he thinks of his book as a sequel to Cott’s work, noting that Willkie was influenced by Cott’s four focuses and similarly pushed American attention abroad.

However, he added Willkie’s vision of “one world” has since been largely dismissed as idealistic, despite its dramatic popularity during his lifetime.

In the question and answer session, the historians delved more into their writing processes, discussing the role individual narratives played in their accounts of the interwar years and World War II.

They also spoke to characterizations of America in the twentieth century, arguing against the idea that the United States became “more isolationist” after World War I.

In an interview with The Crimson before the event, Zipp drew a parallel between 20th-century isolationism and public perceptions of internationalism today.

“Today, I think a lot of people are interested in American benefits that globalization brings, but not so much the responsibilities,” Zipp said.

He added that the current administration’s “America First” ideology mimics that of the 1940s.

“The ideas in this book could become even more important for us to think about,” Zipp said.

Capozzola posed a final question to both Cott and Zipp at the end of the webinar: “Are there some authentic characters today who you see carrying on legacies in journalism or in political culture in building internationalism?”

Cott and Zipp agreed that many journalists are doing great work to draw the public’s attention abroad, but Zipp said more work must be done to educate Americans.

“I think it’s a matter of activating more people’s expansive relationship to the world and seeing that that’s happening all around us all the time,” Zipp said.