Not many people today have heard of Emery Reves. In the 1940s, however, he was well known as an intellectual leader in the movement for global government. One of the few traces of his past fame in the United States can be found in Dallas. In 1948, the Hungarian-born Reves took up with socialite and fashion model Wendy Russell, a Texan, whom he eventually married. She encouraged her husband’s art collecting, and today the Dallas Museum of Art houses the outstanding Wendy and Emery Reves Collection of impressionist and post-impressionist painting and European decorative arts. Here’s a photo of the couple that I especially like, drawn from the DMA website (call the image “high and low”?). It’s followed by a picture of Reves in about 1945, when he was at the height of his influence on advocates for world federalism—including the author of Stuart Little, about whom I wrote in yesterday’s post.
In the United States, its sympathizers included Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee for president, who after a stint as a global ambassador for the Roosevelt administration authored the bestselling book One World (1943). One can easily understand the movement’s appeal, especially at the time. Millions of people had just perished on the altar of nationalism, and in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nations began to stockpile weapons capable of reducing most of human life to radioactive ash.
Among their goals, world federalists sought—seek—to bring order and justice to the world by creating a government whose authority supersedes that of nation states. On their view, the United Nations is substantially deficient in this respect because the institutional loyalty of its members runs to their own national governments, not to the world as a whole. The one-hundred and ninety-three members of the General Assembly don’t simply hail from particular nations; instead, they represent them. This structure is a major reason why the institution regularly makes compromises with nations that flagrantly violate its principles, and why it’s so often unable to act forcefully when it counts (witness Syria today). The power of the U.N. depends on the self-interest and diplomatic calculations of its member states. This means that the world lacks what one can honestly call the international rule of law.
World federalists favor the creation of institutions of global governance, such as the WTO. But Reves also wanted something more: not governance but government. To achieve this end, he sought—first and foremost—the profound erosion of the principle of national sovereignty. In a chapter of A Democratic Manifesto that White especially singled out for praise, Reves put the matter this way:
“The Golden Calf to which the most devoted and mystic adoration of the masses goes in our days is: Sovereignty. No symbol carrying the pretension of a deity, which ever got hold of mankind, caused so much misery, hatred, starvation and mass execution as the notion of ‘Sovereignty of the Nation.’ … An organization must be created ranking above [nations], with full authority to settle all those matters—international relations, military and economic questions—which must be solved in such a way that each nation will have equal rights and equal obligations towards them. Only through such a separation of sovereignty, in establishing national sovereignties for all national matters, and international sovereignties for all international matters, can we create the basis of a world constitution”—one which would be truly democratic.
This is the legal ideal that so moved E. B. White, and which he had in mind while writing Stuart Little. Here is his formulation in The Wild Flag, from a column originally written in December 1944—just as he was in thick of completing his beloved children’s book. “Our belief,” he wrote, is that a just future “lies through a federation of democratic countries, which differs from a league in that it has a legislature that can legislate, a judiciary that can judge, and an executive that can execute. It does not have to operate through diplomacy, and it has a No Fooling sign on the door.”
It’s this vision that White put into literary form when his brave mouse acts as a substitute for Miss Gunderson in Number Seven school: when he rebuffs the proposal “Don’t eat mushrooms, they might be toadstools,” calling it merely “advice”; when he rejects the rule “Never poison anything but rats” as being “unfair to rats”; and when he shows that “absolutely no being mean” can make a “good law” by eliciting the students’ vigorous, collective enforcement after Harry Jamieson steals Katharine Stableford’s pillow.
All this makes Stuart Little a fascinating, if unexpected, contribution to the popular, midcentury legal imagination in America. But there is much more to the matter than even this—something that inextricably binds White’s vision of international law to his views about animals, the environment, literary form, and English prose style. On this, more next week, after a weekend of hiking.
In the meantime, here is the charge slip for the copy of The Wild Flag from the Wesleyan University library. I love the story of the rise and fall of intellectual influence that it tells. It also makes me wonder what the book must have meant to the student who, on April 7, 1968, checked out the book three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.