The William Appleman Williams Digital Collection
By Paul Buhle
The appearance of several new features in the digitized section of the Williams Appleman Williams Papers at Oregon State University offers an extended occasion for celebration but also for pondering the meanings of Williams' late work in particular, in a historical moment of the new century rife with anxiety over the U.S. role in the world. The great scholar of empire did not live to see the tragic events in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more to the point, the public disillusionment with the latest failed "mission" of American foreign policy, twice over. Neither of these, nor the disarray in the bi-partisan foreign policy establishment concerning some future course, would have surprised him even slightly. The ongoing debate in these regards over the meaning of the Founding Fathers' wisdom would have played, in particular, to Williams's strengths because he had made a most unique contribution, with insights entirely new to historical scholarship. In short, the works of Williams Appleman Williams continue to live, as no less than Andrew Bacevich, prominent military veteran and historian, has testified. The digitally-enhanced Williams archive allows and encourages a wide discussion among scholars and others interested in the subjects raised here.
There are many things to be said about W.A.Williams' life and works. Readers are directed to The Tragedy of Empire: William Appleman Williams (1997) for many details and references. Beyond this biography and in more recent times, the Web will offer much further material and interpretation. In this introductory note, it will be useful to touch upon themes resonant in the archival materials beyond the family memoir and the selection of unpublished essays freshly digitized.
Thanks to the family memoir "A Good Life and a Good Death: A Memoir of an Independent Lady, By Her Son...for Her Grandchildren," written as a reflection of Williams' mother's life but far broader in its scope, we know much about Williams' early life, albeit very much through his own eyes. Thanks to the collection's family and personal materials, high school clippings in particular, we can put the memoir into context. Scholars will find in the family's documents the imprint of several generations of a largely successful Midwestern, Protestant during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Tied to the agricultural-based economy even when not farming themselves, they can be seen to reflect the optimism of the time and the place. On the other hand, personal materials of Williams' mother, including many not available to the biographer, will offer strong hints of her sometimes troubled but altogether strong character, from before her marriage through her days as a teacher, long after her boy "Billy" had left home.
And yet, despite intriguing sports and other clippings, despite the memoir, the personality of the growing boy in the little commercial center of Atlantic, Iowa, may never be grasped in its full complexity. This is not an entirely bad thing, either. Williams himself was liable to supply a certain embroidery of anecdotes because the stories of his childhood, like all oral history, are subject to "orality," as oral history scholarship affirms. That is, the meaningful "truth" of story telling is larger than the facts of the "story." The facts would be interesting if they could be known down to the last personal detail, but are less vital than the interpretation that Williams himself gave to them. In writing a memoir, possibly as the basis for an autobiography that he never began as a full work, let alone completed, he may have wished (as Jeannie Williams, his first wife, indicated to me) to close the book on alternative interpretations. Or perhaps, as in some of the other unpublished late writings, he was amusing himself, trying to make sense of himself and his life, especially as he passed into illness and a sense of impending mortality. These documents, very much including the memoir of his mother, are open to our own alternative readings, even without all the additional details that he may have had in hand.
There is a real poignancy in the family memoir, as many moments of tragedy, and evidently a great deal of anxiety on the part of all the major players. When Williams insists that he is portraying his mother's strength of character, and how "community" operated in the Depression and after, posing a somewhat secure haven from a chaotic and often heartless world outside, he does not entirely convince us. Indeed, he offers so much contrary evidence that we appreciate the personal tensions that go along with the social tensions, and again this gap is mostly a good thing (at least for ourselves). As in the aborted novel, Ninety Days Under the Empire, but more effectively here, Williams' skill at detecting character comes across clearly. Less relaxed in the novel, Williams also wrote about people who, apart from himself and his wife, he could not have known as well as his extended family. Here, however, the characters, their strengths and their flaws alike, remind us of some of the best fiction about the Midwest and its inhabitants - perhaps with a touch of Booth Tarkington's taste for Indiana women's lives.
Consider for instance his brief recollections of an impoverished uncle on the farm as the Depression drove down prices, or more poignantly, a once-proud, now broken grandfather downing a tumbler, that is, eight ounces, of hard drink in evenings spent with his grandson. These are terribly revealing. Still more revealing, in the absence of more information, is his own recollection of a father's sudden death in an air show, and his description of the extended impact upon his mother. The further depictions of her torn between the desperate need to update her career credentials and her responsibilities to her son (she could leave some of them with her late husband's parents-but not without guilt) are searing. The need of a son for an absent father never quite disappears, showing itself up, far beyond the memoir, in Williams' adult life, his craving to become the father that he did not himself have.
How Williams the boy and teenager grew past the initial shock, into the competitor on the basketball court (further revealed, at least in part, by the clippings now available) and into the teen who would bring a book to the dinner table so as not to carry on a conversation, must remain in part a psychological mystery not likely to be solved. Life takes him to a military academy (whether he really welcomed this change or not, we do not know for sure) and then to another academy, the nation's foremost military school apart from West Point. The adult William Appleman Williams was emerging, even if one would not possibly yet guess how he might become a major social critic, let alone a Christian socialist thinker and scholar.
Although beyond the scope of this introductory note, it might be added that Williams' novel can be seen as completing the memoir, or perhaps weaving itself into the fabric of a work never written. If, as Williams' admirer Gore Vidal quipped, the manuscript reads more like a film script than like a novel, it may well be true because this is the story of a man of action in a time of action - and of a writer who is a film-goer in the last years of Hollywood's Golden Age, an era of powerful, progressive war films and (in 1946) the highest American film attendance numbers ever to be recorded. The William Appleman Williams of an optimistic 1944 saw the war and the world differently from the Williams of later years, and the presence of "Empire" in the novel reveals the backward look from a growing distance in time. His protagonist, true to film, is at the top of the game, the top of the world, when reality begins to drag him downward. The screenwriters of Pride of the Marines, G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, among many other critically admired money-makers of 1941-45, turned largely to deeply pessimistic "noir" film before the end of the decade, and for good reasons. Beyond their own glum personal fate, exiled or underemployed, writing under pseudonyms or for friendly "fronts," they perceived that "Empire" had bested the antifascist idealism that they had embraced.
What to do in a noir world, where ideals expressed as the defense of US and global democracy against the hydra-headed threats of Communism so often disguised a more cynical agenda? His memories of his parents and the Atlantic community, how it grew into accepting racial diversity but seemingly had few problems with such issues at any time, strains credulity. Williams was seeking, however, to emphasize the egalitarian values in his own family circle and somewhat beyond. This should help to explain the political organizing experience of the Williamses and their friends in Corpus Christi documented in NAACP files. Williams himself later commented with a pinch of humor about the presence of friendly Communist Party members (or sympathizers) around him in Corpus Christi, doing good work, and even pondered whether he might have been considered one of them, thanks to guilt-by-association. The barriers of race, as he understood them here, were not going to fall out of the good will of any government, federal, state or local, requiring a stiff push. Why was this incident virtually the last of any Williams had with the organized political Left and how did it shape the years ahead? This is a very large question that might be answered too easily by the plague of McCarthyism. In the memoir, he touches upon his mother's emotional support during the attacks upon him and her contempt for Cold War repression, an attitude that was presumably part of a large tradition of individual and collective dignity, the responsibility of citizenship.
The undigitized correspondence with his friends and students begins to fill in more as we arrive at Williams' first stay in Wisconsin, and determined scholars will find their way to Corvallis for this material. He was, as noted in The Tragedy of Empire, surrounded and protected by scholarly mentors and other helpful faculty at the University. Beyond the suggestions of fact and psychology in the novel, the enhanced correspondence is likely to be the most fruitful area for further research on Williams' maturing years. We understand better, from assorted accounts and materials in the Collection, why Williams had already chosen to study the activities of elites rather than the movements of restless masses. He recalled that his Annapolis classmates had regarded him, in a military career he did not take, as a fine future candidate for Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. (Did this memory also contain some embroidery? We don't know.) He had been a leader in various ways since high school and interested himself in other leaders, knowing that most of them had been born to the task by family connections or had made themselves friends of the very powerful. Williams looked in from the outside, but with a close perspective on the mentality of the inside. A career of looking at documents, especially foreign policy documents, trained his eyes to the critical details and interpretations of personalities. He could easily enter the mind-set of those he disliked as well as those he admired, and draw fresh conclusions.
The digitized essays written in Williams' late years, help us further with this point. "The mind and body of America are defined, respectively, by the self-constructed revelation that Americans are the City On the Hill to Guide All Mankind," he wrote in one of the most searing of these essays, "and by the secular theory that endless expansion is the way to achieve happiness and welfare and security forever. There you have it. That is why America is nostalgic, as well as weary. Both of those ideas are very old - ancient one might even say - and increasingly irrelevant to contemporary life on this planet." Like the larger version in the brief volume Empire as a Way of Life, these phrases summed up a lifetime's wisdom.
Williams had seen so much, before 1960, that he could see through the apologetics of the mainstream liberal effort to rewrite US history so as to make the Vietnam misadventure seem a startling, almost inexplicable, exception to an otherwise benign legacy of US involvement abroad. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., had long since confirmed the acquisition of an overseas empire in particular as "accidental" - setting it off clearly from the imperial designs of nineteenth century European powers. Prestigious historians, the most prestigious of that day holding Ivy League positions, treated Williams' revelations as something like a Conspiracy Theory of American history. The charge was leveled at the works of Howard Zinn during Williams' lifetime, and has been hauled out in the post-election season of 2012 against the powerful television series and accompanying book The Untold History of the United States by Peter Kuznick and Oliver Stone. Kuznick and Stone, according to conservative and liberal scholars, were either rehashing Communist narratives of US history long discredited, or were "cuckoo" (a favorite word of Princeton's Sean Wilentz), so far away from the true facts as to be utterly deranged.
The Empire had definitely become more weary by 2012, amid wild charges on Fox News that Barack Obama was marching the nation toward Socialism, and amid more down-to-earth terrors, like the gunning down of civilians, adults and children alike, on the home front by only a few of a nation of gun-owners. Meanwhile, as Williams would have predicted, NATO, backed by the US, marched on and on into disheartening global adventures and the Swedish academy awarded the President and the European Union Nobel peace prizes, perhaps celebrating because things had not grown worse even faster. Intelligence agencies regularly predicted a future of world-wide middle class prosperity, endangered not by temperature change, loss of arable land and mass depletion of species, but-by terrorists. If the small bands of fanatics could be kept at bay, perhaps by the accelerated use of armed drones and "low intensity" warfare across several continents (but especially those with desired natural resources), the great vision of a world society shaped on the American model would surely triumph.
To this hubristic imperial vision, elaborated variously but not changed in fundamentals by at least a half-dozen generations' political leaders since the 1870s, Williams had offered not merely a crushing refutation. He struggled for alternatives, in his later life, based in part upon the recovery of the ideas and ideals in the Early National period exemplified in John Quincy Adams and captured in his friend Gore Vidal's historical novels. Like his own mother, in her way, the global-minded Adams, scion to a president, urged restraint. The agrarian republic (still agrarian, despite New York and Philadelphia, the sea trade and so on) might retain the best of its decentralized democracy, cast off its abuse and exploitation of Indians, African-Americans and women. By contrast, Williams took a view of Abraham Lincoln so nearly opposite to the portrayal of Lincoln in the scholarly explorations and media events of recent years that a reader remains staggered at his critique of the Great Emancipator. Williams saw the end of the agrarian republic as the enshrining of the industrial and corporate republic, no republic at all.
Williams' arguments will remain intriguing, challenging, even to those who do not agree with his conclusions. The more we read of his later works, completed or not, the more we begin to understand the sort of mind that could take the entire American experience in perspective. More than that could not be said of any historian, or perhaps an American intellectual.
(Madison, Wisconsin. December 2012.)
Table of Contents
- The Politics of Ecological Balance
- Seven Americas on the Way to the Future: An Exploration of American History
- The Crisis of American Democracy
- The Legacy of Karl Marx: Or, the Inheritance We Dare Not Squander
- The Intellectual in American Public Life
- Commencement Address
- Fred Harvey Harrington: Committed, Tough and Foxy Educator and Liberal.
- The Intellectual Menopause and Changing One's Major
- The Comparative Uses of Power: China on the African Rim and the United States on the Pacific Rim
- Harvey Goldberg and The Virtue of History
- Vietnam and the Revival of An Anti-Imperial Mood and Movement In the United States and the Beginnings of a Thaw in The Cold War.
- America As a Weary and Nostalgic Culture
- The Potential of Higher Education