William Appleman Williams

William Appleman Williams

William Appleman Williams (1921–1990) was one of the 20th century's most prominent historians of American diplomacy. He achieved the height of his influence while on the faculty of the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


Williams was born and raised in the small town of Atlantic, Iowa. He attended Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri, then earned a degree in engineering at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. He graduated and was commissioned in 1945. After serving in the Pacific in World War II, he was stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas where he made plans to become a naval aviator. A wartime injury had required spinal fusion surgery and it was determined that this made him ineligible for flight training. He retired from the Navy in 1946 and moved to University of Wisconsin-Madison to begin graduate studies. He earned a Master's Degree and a PhD there and came under the influence of the great historians Fred Harvey Harrington, Merle Curti, and Howard K. Beale. After teaching at various other colleges, he returned to Madison in 1957 to teach in the history department.

Academic career

Graduate students found his challenges to the established historiography quite compelling and flocked to the University to study with him, regardless of their fields. The same year that his most influential book, "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy" was published, Williams's students who were members of the campus's Socialist Club, began publication of "Studies on the Left", a manifesto of the emerging New Left in the United States. Like Williams, its articles offered a critique of the dominant liberalism, but after it moved to offices to New York in 1963, the club reflected less of his thinking and gradually declined and soon expired.

Williams departed from the mainstream of U.S. historiography in the 1950s. Whereas many U.S. historians wrote the story of the U.S. in terms of the spread of freedom, Williams argued that the U.S. had also spread as an empire. Williams's "central conception of American diplomacy," one critic has written, is that it was shaped "by the effort of American leaders to evade the domestic dilemmas of race and class through an escapist movement: they used world politics, he feels, to preserve a capitalist frontier safe for America's market and investment expansion." In this regard, Williams's understanding of American history owes a considerable debt to Frederick Jackson Turner and the first generation of American progressive historians. Because his history of American diplomacy pivots on John Hay's Open Door Notes to China–at around the same time as the closing of the internal American frontier–Williams's larger argument is sometimes referred to as the "Open Door thesis."

Williams maintained that the United States was more responsible for the Cold War than the Soviet Union. Williams argued that American politicians, fearful of a loss of markets in Europe, had exaggerated the threat of world domination from the Soviet Union. Amid much criticism, Williams made no moral distinction between the foreign policy of Joseph Stalin in Eastern Europe and the foreign policy of the United States in Latin America, Africa, or Asia. In the context of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, he went out of his way in an expanded second edition of "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy" (1962) to strongly criticize the behavior of the Soviet Union, but he also had the Kennedy Administration's Bay of Pigs invasion into Cuba as a parallel behavior. The difference in domestic policy between Stalin's Soviet Union and American democracy, he argued, made the U.S. embrace of empire all the more "tragic."

Williams inspired a generation of historians to re-think the Cold War, including Thomas J. McCormick, Lloyd Gardner, and Walter LaFeber, who along with Williams argued that the Vietnam War was neither democratizing nor liberating but was an attempt to spread American dominance.

He later edited a book of readings together with Gardner, LeFeber and Thomas McCormick (who had taken his place at UW-Madison when Williams left to teach in Oregon) called "America in Vietnam: A Documentary History" in 1989.

Williams' "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy" is often described as one of the most influential books written on American foreign policy. Bradford Perkins, a traditionalist diplomatic historian emeritus at the University of Michigan, said this in a twenty-five-year retrospective on Tragedy: "The influence of William Appleman Williams's "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy"... is beyond challenge."

After witnessing the turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s in Madison and tiring of the grind of teaching graduate students, he moved to Oregon State University in 1968 to spend the rest of his career teaching undergraduates. He served as President of the Organization of American Historians in 1980. He retired in 1988 and died in Oregon in 1990.

Always a bit eccentric and not a little idiosyncratic, Williams gave his interpretation of the nation's past a moralistic tone, finding soul mates in conservatives like John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover. He always distrusted cosmopolitanism and championed small communities, while distrusting intellectuals who sneered at the unwashed masses. For all his radicalism, he never outgrew the kind of populist approach that he believed was an important part of the American heritage. In this sense he fit in well with his Wisconsin colleagues, William B. Hesseltine and Merrill Jensen, all of whom added to what has been called the "Wisconsin school" of historical interpretation.


To some degree, Williams's economic interpretation of American diplomacy has been criticized on the same grounds as Charles A. Beard's larger economic analysis of American history. In 1974, for instance, N. Gordon Levin, Jr. compared Williams to Beard and argued that the Open Door model "is inadequate because it insists on forcing all political-moral and strategic motivations" for American foreign policy into "the Procrustean confines" of relentless economic expansion. Williams' response was that he was merely re-stating what American intellectual and political leaders said at the time.

Another serious critique of Williams's work was offered by Robert W. Tucker in 1971, followed by Robert James Maddox in 1973, and by Howard Schonberger in 1975. Tucker’s arguments challenged those of Williams by arguing that United States foreign policy had been generally passive, rather than aggressive, before 1939. Tucker’s arguments were elaborated and expanded later by other scholars. Maddox in "The New Left and the Origins of the Cold War" criticized Williams, Lloyd Gardner, and other revisionist scholars for alleged pervasive misuse of historical source documents and for a general lack of objectivity. Williams and the others published detailed rebuttals in the "New York Times Book Review" in 1973.

In 1986, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., whom Williams always distrusted for his closeness to power brokers, criticized him from a liberal perspective in "The Cycles of American History". In the 1950s, Schlesinger had accused Williams of "Communist" influence, because of Williams's critique of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union in "American-Russian Relations" and the "Monthly Review" article "Second Look at Mr. X," a response to George F. Kennan "Foreign Affairs" article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," published under the moniker Mr. X in 1947.


Some of Williams' ideas about the imperial nature of American foreign policy have been revived by Andrew Bacevich, who uses them as a starting point for his own critique of US policies since the end of the Cold War in "American Empire".

Morris Berman, in his 2006 book "" [ [http://morrisberman.blogspot.com DARK AGES AMERICA - Blog for Morris Berman ] ] also cites Williams as "perhaps the greatest of the so-called revisionist historians" whose influence can be seen in the works of Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber, Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, and Gar Alperovitz.

Works by Williams

*"American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947", 1952
*"", 1958
*"The Tragedy of American Diplomacy", 1959
*"The Contours of American History", 1961
*"", 1962
*"", 1964
*"", 1969
*"", 1972
*"", 1976
*"", 1978
*"", 1980


* Bacevich, Andrew, "American Empire: Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy", Harvard University Press(2002)
* Buhle, Paul and Edward Rice-Maximin. "William Appleman Williams. The Tragedy of Empire" (1995).
* Levin, N. Gordon, Jr., "The Open Door Thesis Reconsidered," "Reviews In American History", Vol. 2(4), 1974
* Perkins, Bradford, "'The Tragedy of American Diplomacy': Twenty-Five Years After," "Reviews in American History" 12 (March 1984).
* Wiener, Jonathan M., "Radical Historians and the Crisis in American History, 1959-1980," "Journal of American History", 76:2 (September 1989): 399.


External links

* [http://osulibrary.orst.edu/specialcollections/coll/williams/index.html The William Appleman Williams Papers at the Oregon State University Libraries] .
* [http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1132/is_n2_v48/ai_18375976 "William Appleman Williams: The Tragedy of Empire" book review by Michael Meeropol] .
* [http://sweetpeareview.blogspot.com/2007/08/william-appleman-williams-american.html William Appleman Williams, American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947' (1952)] article at "Explorations Deep Into the Quagmire Known" blog.
* http://members.tripod.com/~MILTENOFF/WAWilliams.html

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