Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
History As a Way of Learning: On the Death of the American Historian William A. Williams
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Now and then someone succeeds in establishing a scholarly reputation even while dedicated both to the search for truth and its clear expression. One such rare person was the American historian William Appleman Williams, who died recently at age 68.

Williams is known not only in the U.S., but also throughout the world as the father of the "revisionist school" of American diplomatic history. This was the new direction, taking shape in the sixties, that questioned the orthodox portrayal of the origins of the Cold War - thereby holding up a mirror in which to reflect a critical image of the self-righteous liberalism of the times. Diplomatic history in the socialist states also made good use of the revisionists, for the most part as a quarry in which to mine for evidence of "progressive, bourgeois" accomplishments, these to be used to strengthen Marxist-Leninist interpretations.

William Appleman Williams, ca. 1940s.
William Appleman Williams, ca. 1940s.

But the significance of Williams for the political culture of the United States is much, much greater and more subtly rich than that which derives from his having been a courageous and early critic of American foreign policy. For he was soon to be followed by others, whose position was then considerably strengthened by the growing opposition to the Vietnam war. These were to bring into circulation a series of iconoclastic analysis of American global strategy. Thus Williams's work has been brought to bear directly on the struggle to achieve national self-understanding, with obvious results for a definition of the American role in the modern world.