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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William Appleman Williams, June 1948.
William Appleman Williams, June 1948.

It was along these lines that Williams attacked - his position concisely formulated in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, which appeared in 1959 - the myth of the pragmatic-realistic character of American foreign policy. His contribution was not so much to uncover new facts, but rather to provide new interpretations. Instead of standing for the containment of an ideological universalism (namely, communism), as the rhetoric constantly portrayed it, American diplomacy according to Williams was itself the expression of an ideological universalism: the more or less openly confessed conviction that without the "Open Door," i.e., without the unhindered internationalization of the market, democracy - especially American democracy - would lose its fundamental basis. This ideology of liberal internationalism was at the same time the result and precondition of an in fact expansive American power politics, which had begun already in the nineteenth century. After the Second World War the essential content of that power politics became, primarily, opposition to national liberation movements.

In the context of 1959, such a thesis, which in effect put the United States on the same moral level as the Soviet Union, was an unheard-of provocation. Two factors, however, eventually contributed to the recognition of Williams's arguments as at least worthy of consideration: the one was the fact that the Soviet Union by launching Sputnik in 1957 had given notice that it might soon be the equal of the U.S. with regard to strategic matters. This brought about a certain inclination of the part of the American public to be more accommodating.

And the second factor was Williams himself. His heredity, education, and place of origin all presented the exact opposite of the usual picture of a communist fellow traveler: Williams was neither a New Yorker, nor a Jew, nor a black, nor an East-Coast, overly Europeanized intellectual with suspiciously civilized diction - which at least since the Alger Hiss case had been assumed on the great plains of America's interior to be the chief distinguishing feature of a communist conspirator. He was himself a child of the flatland, born on a farm near Atlantic, Iowa, of classic Anglo-Scottish stock, and his early academic indoctrination was at such unreproachable institutions as Kemper Military School in Boonville, Missouri, and the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. After graduation from Annapolis, he spent fifteen months as a naval officer in the Pacific, serving until he was wounded in action and sent for treatment and rehabilitation to the naval hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas.