Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center

William Appleman Williams Papers, 1877-2012

Biographical Note

William Appleman Williams was a historian known for his sharp critiques of American foreign policy. A graduate of Kemper Military Academy in Boonville, Missouri, and later of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, he served as an officer in the Pacific during World War II, receiving an honorable discharge and a Purple Heart at war's end. He went on to the University of Wisconsin, where he took his Master's and Ph.D. degrees in history. Before coming to Oregon State University in 1968, he taught in Madison, in the process establishing the "Wisconsin School" of diplomatic history. During his career he was a Distinguished Fulbright Scholar at the University of Melbourne and, in 1979, was elected President of the Organization of American Historians. He retired from OSU in 1986 to his coastal home at Waldport, Oregon. On March 6, 1990, Williams died at the age of 69. Nine years later The Modern Library named his volume, The Contours of American History, one of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books Written in English in the 20th Century.

William Appleman Williams was a prolific and influential writer. His revisionist works -- particularly The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) -- challenged prevailing views of American history, deploring the United States as an imperialist power forcing its economic and ideological will around the globe. Hailed by Eugene Genovese as, "the best historian the Left has produced in this country," the genially combative professor termed himself a radical, isolated from the center of American intellectual life. He was particularly critical of US foreign policy, especially America's role in the Cold War and in Vietnam. In the estimation of Gore Vidal, Williams was, "the best school teacher who ever taught history in Oregon."

With passionate arguments and complex analysis, he championed self-determination for all people, and argued that refusal by Americans to acknowledge a national desire for expansion and global hegemony has led to major errors and confusion over the nation's future. "The act of imposing one people's morality upon another people is an imperial denial of self-determination," he wrote in his 1976 book America Confronts a Revolutionary World: 1776-1976. "Once begun, there is no end of empire except war and more war."

Detractors accused him and other revisionists of employing a double-standard, by justifying or explaining Soviet actions in the context of national security, while measuring Western actions against a utopian ideal. Reviewers termed his works provocative, honestly stated and admirable, but they challenged some arguments as flawed, simplistic and naïve in relying on good intentions and communal feeling.

Indeed, there was much that was paradoxical about the career of William Appleman Williams: the perpetual outsider whose personal influence on American historiography was probably greater than that of any of his contemporaries, a deeply American figure whose interpretation of US foreign policy found readier and wiser acceptance among non-Americans than among his own countrymen. Despite these paradoxes, proponents and critics both are compelled to acknowledge Williams's life and work as characterized by intellectual independence and moral seriousness.

Timeline for William Appleman Williams

1921 William Appleman Williams is born in Atlantic, Iowa on June 12, the only child of Mildrede Williams and William Carlton "Billy" Williams, a pilot in the United States Air Force.
1929 In March, William Carlton Williams is killed in an airplane crash suffered during military war games exercises. William Appleman Williams is raised by his mother and maternal grandparents.
1935 Williams enters Atlantic High School, where he excels primarily as an athlete.
1939 Funded by a basketball scholarship, Williams is admitted into the Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri. It is here that he becomes more passionate about his academic studies.
1941 Williams accepts an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, extended by a Republican congressman from Iowa, Representative Ben F. Jensen.
Williams's grades at Annapolis, average at first, improve with time. While at the Academy, Williams also writes for and helps to edit the institution's Trident Magazine. His reading comes to include Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and the English socialist G. D. H. Cole.
1944 Williams graduates from the Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical and Thermodynamic Engineering. (His entire class is graduated one year early for purposes of its inclusion in World War II.)
Williams is immediately commissioned as a line officer in the United States Navy and is stationed on a Landing Ship Medium in the Pacific theatre.
1945 Days before the end of World War II, Williams sustains a severe back injury while sailing through heavy seas. He spends much of the next thirteen months recovering in hospital.
Following the conclusion of the war, Williams is stationed in Corpus Christi, Texas. While there, he involves himself in local civil rights activities and joins the N.A.A.C.P.
In December, Williams marries his high school sweetheart, Jeannie Preston.
1947 In September, Williams retires from military service in favor of pursuing his growing passion for history. He is accepted into the graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an institution that he seeks out in part because it is close to his mother's new residence in Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
While a graduate student, Williams is trained by a talented faculty deeply interested in the ideas of Charles Beard and other economic determinists.
1948 Williams receives his Master of Arts in History. His master's dissertation is titled "McCormick Reports on Russia: A Study of News and Opinion on Russia in the Chicago Tribune from 1917-1921."
1950 Williams receives his Ph. D. in American History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His doctoral thesis is titled "Raymond Robins and Russian-American Relations, 1917-1938."
That summer he spends ten weeks in England attending a University of Leeds seminar on the economics of the Labour government, taught by the economist A. J. Brown.
Upon his return, Williams assumes his first academic appointment, a one-year position as Instructor at Washington and Jefferson College.
1951 In the summer, Williams works as Visiting Lecturer at Bard College. That autumn he begins a one-year term as Instructor at Ohio State University.
1952 Williams publishes an influential essay titled "A Second Look at Mr. X" in the journal Monthly Review. The essay is a forerunner of the revisionist historiography for which Williams will become known.
He also publishes his first book, American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947, an outgrowth of his Ph. D. dissertation. One central theme of the book is Williams's idea that the roots of the Cold War could, in part, be traced to conflicting economic interests in east Asia between czarist Russia and the U.S. railroad industry.
Williams accepts his first long-term academic position as Associate Professor at the University of Oregon. While at Oregon, Williams will publish a number of articles in smaller, left-leaning journals, including several essays in the Nation. He finds that his work is often rejected when submitted to the mainstream journals preferred by most historians.
1955 Jeannie Williams and William Appleman Williams divorce. Shortly thereafter, William Appleman Williams marries Corrine Croft Hammer, a graduate student in Sociology at the University of Oregon.
1956 Williams edits a two-volume collection of documents on diplomatic history published under the title The Shaping of American Diplomacy, 1750-1955.
1957 Williams leaves the University of Oregon for a professorship at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He will remain in Madison until 1968, a period during which his fame and influence grow to their highest levels.
1959 Williams publishes The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, his most popular book. Tragedy will run through three editions in the next two decades, expanding by over 100 pages in the process. In it, Williams expounds upon his view of a U.S. foreign policy oriented primarily toward the twin goals of gaining entry into previously-closed foreign markets and maintaining a hegemonic status quo in markets already accessed. Williams suggests that this approach assumed tragic dimensions in part because of the grievous socio-economic consequences that arose out of policies that the U.S. government intended to be democratic and socially-uplifting in nature. Though largely overlooked in its first printing, Tragedy becomes an important book to a growing segment of scholars seeking to understand the roots of the turbulent 1960s. A 1972 survey of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations reveals Tragedy to be the greatest influence upon the teaching of 38 out of 182 respondents, the largest single group by far.
1960 The unpublished manuscript of Williams's next book, The Contours of American History, is subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Williams will eventually make a short appearance before the committee and be excused.
1961 The Contours of American History is published. Though less-influential than Tragedy, Contours is considered by many contemporaries to be Williams's most original work. The book widens the scope of Williams's economic interpretation of American foreign policy to include the entirety of U.S. history. In Williams's view, mercantilism was the economic basis of what he considered to be the last genuine American community. With the rise of industrialism and, later, laissez-faire capitalism, the spirit of community in the U.S. had dissipated, leading to the rise of a host of domestic traumas. Through this prism, Williams defines, for example, the American Civil War as largely an effort to save a fledgling empire at any price. Echoing the claims issued in Tragedy, Williams sees twentieth-century foreign policy as primarily oriented toward protecting the interests of corporate elites.
1962 Williams publishes a short book titled The United States, Cuba and Castro: An Essay on the Dynamics of Revolution and the Dissolution of Empire, which argues that the rise to power of the Castro regime came about as a direct result of a century of U.S. expansionist policy in the region.
1964 Williams publishes a monograph titled The Great Evasion: An Essay on the Contemporary Relevance of Karl Marx and on the Wisdom of Admitting the Heretic Into the Dialogue about America's Future. The book's main focus is Williams's growing belief in a renewed focus on the spirit of community as the single-most important source for an increase in the quality of life of most Americans. Williams also uses the essay to criticize the women's liberation movement, an indication of his increasingly-dour perspective on the political activism of many New Left groups for which he himself had served as an ideological forefather.
1968 Williams shocks the academic community by leaving the influential History program at Wisconsin-Madison for a position as Professor at Oregon State University. He does so in part to escape the hectic press of work at Wisconsin, but also because of his love of the sea. He establishes a permanent residence in Newport, Oregon, a coastal community fifty-three miles west of Corvallis. Corrine Williams does not make the move with him and their marriage soon ends in divorce.
1969 Williams publishes The Roots of the Modern American Empire: A Study of the Growth and Shaping of Social Consciousness in a Marketplace Society. Heavily-footnoted, Roots is partly written in direct response to those critics who complain of Williams's tendency to lightly document his historical writing. Though widely-reviewed, the book also marks a waning in Williams's scholarly influence. Williams will publish prodigiously during his eighteen years at Oregon State, but none of his later work will make an impact anything like that of Tragedy or Contours.
1972 Williams publishes two books, From Colony to Empire: Essays in the History of American Foreign Relations and Some Presidents: Wilson to Nixon. The latter, a collection of essays previously-published in the New York Review of Books, sees Williams rethinking the conventional wisdom concerning the greatness of specific U.S. Presidents. Among them, Williams declares his affinity for Herbert Hoover, whom he regards to have been a misunderstood dreamer "of a cooperative American community."
1973 Williams delivers a speech, titled "Confessions of an Intransigent Revisionist," at an American Historical Association meeting devoted to his work. Williams uses the lecture to rebut the arguments of many of his long-time critics and to reinforce his feelings on the validity of the revisionist approach to writing history.
History as a Way of Learning, a collection of earlier essays, is published.
Late in the year, Williams marries Wendy Tomlin, a British student whom he meets at OSU. The new family relocates from Newport to Waldport, Oregon, a smaller coastal town seventeen miles to the south.
1976 In commemoration of the U.S. bicentennial, Williams publishes America Confronts a Revolutionary World, 1776-1976, which is met with tepid reviews.
1978 The Organization of American Historians honors Williams with a conference session dedicated to his scholarship.
Williams publishes Americans in a Changing World: A History of the United States in the Twentieth Century. As with America Confronts, the book makes little impact.
1980 Williams is elected to a one-year term as President of the Organization of American Historians. He uses the position to, among other activities, advocate for increased federal funding of state historical societies, stimulate employment for history Ph. D.'s and generate a capital fund for the organization.
Williams publishes his last book Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America's Present Predicament Along with a Few Thoughts about an Alternative. The book marks the first and only time that Williams expounds upon the possible impact that social and cultural trends may have had in propelling U.S. expansionism.
Throughout the decade, Williams will pen regular newspaper columns, first for the Salem Statesman-Journal and later for the Portland Oregonian. He uses the columns to express his feelings about the uniqueness of the American west and to detail his increasingly-radical views on the need for community in individual life. Williams eventually goes so far as to call for the division of the United States into a collection of smaller autonomous units, loosely joined under a weak Articles of Confederation steeped in "decentralized socialism."
1981 Williams publishes an article in The American Neptune titled "Notes on the Death of a Ship and the End of a World: The Grounding of the British Bark Glenesslin at Mount Neahkahnie on 1 October 1913." Along with his newspaper column, Williams's attentions increasingly turn to maritime topics over the final decade of his life.
1986 In June, Williams retires from Oregon State University under the title Professor Emeritus of History.
1990 On March 5th, Williams dies of cancer. He is cremated and his ashes are scattered at sea.

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