[Part 2 of 3]
The idea of a unifying world government may seem difficult to imagine, yet political thinkers have considered the possibility at different moments throughout history. One such moment came about during World War II, when the unity and mutual support of nations was seen as essential to both the Allied and the Axis powers.
Earlier, in 1920, the League of Nations was created in Geneva as a conservative acknowledgement of the need for an international governing authority. The League, however, quickly lost its footing after a brief period of promise in the 1930s.
In Europe to report on the weakening of the League was an American journalist, Clarence Streit. Though he served as a first-hand witness to the failure of an international political organization, the experience only inspired Streit to develop a new plan for an alternative international authority. Ultimately, after ten years working as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Streit gave up his position in favor of devoting his energies, full time, to becoming one of the United States’ leading advocates for a world government.
Born in 1896 in the city of California, Missouri, Clarence Kirschmann Streit received an early jumpstart to his career as a journalist when, in 1911, he and his family moved to Missoula, Montana. It was there that he founded Konah, the Sentinel High School newspaper, which to this day stands as one of the nation’s leading high school news publications, in addition to being one of the oldest. Later on, Streit earned a bachelor’s degree from what is now Montana State University, where he continued to pursue journalism as editor of the college newspaper.
In 1917 Streit volunteered for war service – joining some of the first Americans to land in Europe during World War I – and his involvement with both the media and the military led him to think more deeply about socio-political affairs. He was later awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which allowed him to pursue a graduate degree in History at Oxford University. His work as a foreign correspondent for The New York Times marked the beginning of Streit’s professional career as a journalist. And as he reported on the issues that brought about the crumbling of the League of Nations, Streit began planning his own proposal for an international governing force.
The vehicle for spreading Streit’s ideas was a book, Union Now, first published 1939. Written amidst the run-up to World War II, Streit’s book urged the United States government and its people to consider a union of interdependence between the United States and the United Kingdom. The text couched this idea in the context of patriotism, arguing that the plan’s primary aim was to protect the United States from the spread of totalitarianism and to promote peace throughout the world.
Union Now specifically proposes extending the principles of the U.S. Constitution to all of the world’s democracies, including British dominions and French colonies. Streit argued that the immediate threat of Hitler’s invasion of Britain represented a threat to the United States as well. Streit believed that if Britain were to be overtaken by Hitler’s forces, the United States would become Germany’s next target. Based on these premises, Streit proposed that the United States needed to join forces with Britain and to form a single government; one based not on nationalism but on the protection of democracy.
Interdependence was Streit’s key word when promoting this idea; he believed that each nation could maintain its national identity while supporting its sister democracies. As such, the union of the United States and Britain would not undo the efforts of the founders of the United States. Rather, it would represent a protection and prolongation of democracy.
Union Now further points out that, although interdependence had never been tested before, it was not out of the question. Prior to the year 1776, Streit notes, a federal union of former British colonies would have seemed a bizarre idea, but eventually that very community became a successful government. Streit felt that a federal union of interdependent democratic states would work equally as well and could become a means to prevent the tragedies of war. In this, worldwide federal union would protect democracy abroad while serving as an extension of the work of the founders of the United States.
Although radical, Streit’s proposal was well-received by many. Not long after the book’s publication, chapters of the Federal Unionist Club began appearing throughout the U.S., its members dedicated to discussing and promoting Streit’s proposal of interdependence. Chapters across the country collected membership fees to organize national conferences and to distribute pamphlets, again pushing to spread the word of Streit’s ideas on interdependence. The Club itself offered its members and leaders alike the chance to get involved in efforts to make sure that President Roosevelt was aware of Streit’s proposal. Not surprisingly, the increase of Federal Unionist Club chapters correlated with the increase of Union Now copies mailed to the Roosevelt family.
Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were among the supporters of Streit’s proposal and both were members of the Pasadena chapter of the Federal Unionist Club. During a visit to their alma mater, Oregon State College (OSC), the Paulings likewise encouraged the college community to start a chapter of the Federal Unionist Club in Corvallis. Correspondence suggests that the Paulings further discussed the idea with various professors and students after their visit, though the club never did make it to the college campus.
Streit’s proposal, however, was certainly well known at OSC. In September 1939, just a few days after the start of the Second World War, the college library’s copy of Union Now was checked out for the first time and was rarely seen back in the stacks for more than three years. A charging slip, still in the book today, indicates that between 1939 and November 1942 the book was persistently checked out. It appears that the book’s circulation was impacted only by American entry in the war, for it regained its original popularity in the fall of 1945, soon after the war officially ended.
Though it did not come to pass in the way that he envisioned, Clarence Streit’s proposal caused people across the country to both reconsider the limits of the United States Constitution and to ponder whether other republics could benefit from it. For their part, the Paulings’ involvement in the dissemination of Streit’s ideas marked an important first step of their public involvement in world affairs.
Indeed, World War II was a period that drove many Americans – including Streit and the Paulings – to become more politically proactive. For Linus and Ava Helen, this was also a time when they began to discover the extent to which their participation could influence broader decisions being made by the politicians of their time.