The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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A Remembrance of William Appleman Williams

An interview with Bill Robbins conducted by Chris Petersen.

March 27, 2012


William Appleman Williams was born in 1921 in Atlantic, Iowa. 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.

Williams 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 of cancer 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.

Indeed, Williams was a prolific and influential writer. His revisionist works - particularly The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) - challenged prevailing views of American history, decrying the United States as an imperialist power intent on expressing 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."

William G. Robbins (b. 1935), a close friend and colleague of Williams, served as a faculty member in the Oregon State University History Department from 1971 until his retirement, in 1999, as Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History. Robbins earned his B.S. from Western Connecticut State College and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Oregon. Robbins was named a Distinguished Professor at OSU in 1997.

Specializing in the history of the western United States from an economic and environmental perspective, Robbins has written extensively on the history of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. His books include Hard Times in Paradise: Coos Bay, Oregon, 1850-1896 (1988); Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940 (1997); Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000 (2004); and The Great Northwest: The Search for Regional Identity (2001). His 2005 book, Oregon: This Storied Land was a finalist for the 2006 Oregon Book Award in general non-fiction. His most recent book is a biography, A Man for All Seasons: Monroe Sweetland and the Liberal Paradox, published in 2015 by the Oregon State University Press.