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William Appleman Williams Papers, 1877-2012

By Finding aid prepared by Special Collections staff.

Collection Overview

Title: William Appleman Williams Papers, 1877-2012

ID: MSS WilliamsWA

Primary Creator: Williams, William Appleman

Extent: 22.0 cubic feet. More info below.

Arrangement: The Williams Papers are organized into six series. All archival materials within each series are arranged either chronologically or thematically, as appropriate. Items in the Williams library are organized alphabetically by author.

Languages of Materials: English [eng]


William Appleman Williams (1921-1990), an influential American historian and writer, was a member of the History faculty at Oregon State University from 1968-1986. He is regarded to be a founder of the "revisionist school" of American diplomatic history. A prolific author, Williams's The Contours of American History (1961), was named, by the Modern Library, one of the 100 best non-fiction books written in English in the twentieth century. The Williams Papers consist of correspondence, newspaper clippings, books, photographs and memorabilia.

Access to the Gerard F. McCauley, William Robbins, and Edward P. Crapol materials in Series 1 is restricted due to provisions set by the donors. Permission for access the McCauley and Robbins materials may be granted only by the donors. All requests for access to this material should be directed to the University Archivist.

Scope and Content Notes

The collection consists of newspaper clippings, correspondence, photographs, photographic tintypes, published articles, unpublished manuscripts, memorial service notes and assorted personal items dating from the early 1800s to 2012. Williams's correspondence includes letters to friends, colleagues and associates, with many communications relating directly to works authored by Williams. The collection also includes personnel information dating to Williams's time at Oregon State University, documents related to his service in the United States Navy, and genealogical records collected and saved by the Williams family.

Biographical / Historical Notes

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.

Administrative Information

More Extent Information: 35 boxes; 29 books

Statement on Access: Access to the Gerard F. McCauley, William Robbins, and Edward P. Crapol materials in Series 1 is restricted due to provisions set by the donors. Permission for access the McCauley and Robbins materials may be granted only by the donors. All requests for access to this material should be directed to the University Archivist. All other materials in this collection are open for research.

Acquisition Note: Content was initially accessioned from multiple donors in 1991. A second large donation was accessioned from Kyenne Williams in November 2001. A significant trove of correspondence was gifted by Edward Crapol in 2012.

Related Materials:

An oral history interview conducted with Bill Robbins recounting his memories of William Appleman Williams is held in the History of Oregon State University Oral Histories and Sound Recordings (OH 003).

See also: History As a Way of Learning: On the death of the American Historian William A. Williams, A Good Life and a Good Death: A Memoir of an Independent Lady, Ninety Days Inside the Empire, and an unpublished manuscript by William Appleman Williams.

Preferred Citation: William Appleman Williams Papers (MSS WilliamsWA), Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives Research Center, Corvallis, Oregon.

Processing Information: Final arrangement by Chris Petersen.

Other URL: A preliminary container list was created for this collection on or before November 19, 2015.


Williams, William Appleman

People, Places, and Topics

Gardner, Lloyd C., 1934-
History--Study and teaching (Higher)--Oregon.
Kemper Military School and College (Boonville, Mo.)
LaFeber, Walter
McCauley, G. F., 1940-
Oregon State University
Organization of American Historians
Robbins, William G., 1935-
Susman, Warren, 1927-1985
Unger, Frank, 1945-
United States--Foreign Relations
United States--Historiography
United States--History--Philosophy
United States--Naval Academy, Annapolis
United States Naval Academy
University of Wisconsin
Williams, William Appleman
Williams, William Appleman--Archives.

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