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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The University of Wisconsin in Madison became in the course of the sixties a center of student resistance to the Vietnam War. It was also emerging as a focus for an informed criticism of the structures and historical forces that were responsible for America's participation. The "New Left," as it called itself, developed a paradigm of analysis of American society and its political elites - in its own right deeply patriotic. The uproar over the genocide that was taking place in Southeast Asia in the name of freedom did not arise out of an abstract identification with the great world revolution, but rather from being ashamed of one's own land - with the ability to feel that way serving as the true test of patriotism.

In this sense was Williams a New-Left historian. For his radical critique of the clear impulse to domination apparent in American history since the Civil War - made not only in The Contours of American History, but also, in a series of increasingly sharper articles - was 100% native, "as American as apple pie." Only after several reviewers condemned Tragedy and Contours as Marxist, thus hoping to put his arguments beyond the pale of serious academic discussion, did he take a serious look at his alleged intellectual ancestors. The effort then gave rise to another book, 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.

William Appleman Williams, September 1969.
William Appleman Williams, September 1969.

Williams himself, however, did not thereby become a Marxist, unless, to be sure, one intends to include - as is at times the case in the U.S. - all those whose sins are merely to have made an intelligent criticism of American postwar liberal policy and to have refused to accept its myths. American communists, on the other hand, had made Lenin into a modern-day Jefferson and proclaimed communism to be just an updated version of the American dream. Using this deception, they did their best to conceal Marxism's foreign origins. This sort of disreputable approach was not hard to recognize. In sharp contrast, Williams had been self-confident enough, even at the height of the Cold War, to publish - once he had discovered that much that Marx had hoped for in politics coincided with his own ideals - a straight-forward acknowledgment.

But Williams's ideals had been created from American history. Not, however, from the usual heroes, Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln: about them Williams had little good to say. Rather it was to those that others had written off, such as John Quincy Adams, whose aristocratically restrained plan for a non-imperial republic had been overwhelmed by the democratic steamroller of western expansion; and also Herbert Hoover, who had tried diligently to solve the problems of the Depression without resorting to war and the dangerous magic of deficit spending.