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Off Dead Center: William Appleman Williams | The Nation

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Off Dead Center: William Appleman Williams

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William Appleman Williams was born in 1921 in the wheat and oat town of Atlantic, Iowa, founded after the Civil War and named, according to the historian, by a flip of a coin because it sat halfway between the two coasts. Williams credited his interest in politics and history to an underappreciated prairie cosmopolitanism (his mother and grandmothers were "liberated women"), one as open to the world's ideas as the local farmers were, via the Rock Island Railroad, to the continent's two great ocean markets. Educated at Missouri's Kemper Military Academy, he graduated from Annapolis and then served in the Pacific in World War II. At war's end, the Navy sent him to Corpus Christi, Texas, to train as a pilot. But in retaliation for his work with the NAACP--which, with the help of local Communists, was taking on General Motors, King Ranch and the local Catholic church--he was ordered back to the Pacific to take part in Operation Crossroads, an experiment that entailed the nuclear destruction of Bikini Atoll to test the effects of radiation on military personnel and equipment. A wartime back injury prevented his participation, sparing him the illnesses that afflicted many Crossroads alumni but leaving him in a shoulder-to-thigh cast for months. With little to do except read, he deepened his interest in history and philosophy. Shortly after he left Texas, an African-American activist was murdered. Williams often cited this and other instances of "routine violence" that met demands for equality, as well as his close-call escape from Crossroads, as contributing to his radicalization. "Yes, sir, that will make a socialist out of you," he once said to an interviewer, referring to the killing, "unless you are dead."

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University and is the author of Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize...

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He began graduate school at Madison in 1947, the same year Wisconsin voters sent Joseph McCarthy to the Senate. McCarthyism, though, largely passed over Madison; the university's greater challenge was resisting liberal orthodoxy. Williams remembered later in his life that the campus was alive with a postwar class of "alert veterans" outspoken on issues like the Korean War, an engagement "largely forgotten in all the talk about the silent generation of the 1950s and the activism of the 1960s." Also vital to campus life was "thoughtful dialogue with first-rate conservatives"--not today's mean-spirited ids to liberal superegos but scholars who honestly grappled with American history.

Above all, Madison was a stew of ideas, with émigrés from Europe and refugees from New York drawing on European social and cultural theory to reinvigorate older Progressive Era historiography. The German sociologist Hans Gerth introduced Williams to Continental philosophy and Frankfurt School Marxism, which sent him "soaring," according to Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin in their excellent intellectual biography William Appleman Williams: The Tragedy of Empire. The Americanists brought him "back down to earth." At some point, Williams felt compelled to decide between thinkers who saw the world as a dynamic whole, such as Hegel, Marx and Spinoza, and those who viewed it as made up of "atomistic elements" only mechanically related. "I chose Spinoza," he said. He also chose Marx, "exhilarated" by his "capacity to see in one piece of evidence a set of relationships that reveal an economic truth, a truth about an idea, a social verity, and a political truth." He focused on diplomacy because "if there is a Spinozian whole for an historian, then it has to involve foreign policy and the periodization of history."

This self-description makes Williams sound more like a Hegelian than a Spinozian or a Marxist. Indeed, despite his searing indictment of empire, he was openly obsessed with the idea of America as the embodiment of a world spirit. "America," he wrote toward the end of his life, "is the kind of culture that wakes you in the night, the kind of nightmare that may [yet] possibly lead us closer to the truth." Williams was a serious, empirical scholar whose prose could be as dense as any academic's, but he often broke out of form to riff in a style as sprawling as his subject matter. "If we start with reform and go on to modernize, prosperity, improve, uplift," he said of the action words of American expansion, "then we come out with purify, put right, purgation, overtake, and never look back. Finally, we find stewards as policemen, which leads us backward and forwards to benevolence, surveillance, reform, paternalism, and systematic discipline in the name of progress." Intoxicated by the "dialectical tension" of "coming apart at the seams at midnight" and "stitching it back together in a sentence or two at 3 a.m.," Williams, a jazz drummer, increasingly expressed himself with bop rhythm and beat imagery. "Assume the worst," he warned in his last great work, chanting its title with a frequency worthy of Howl's Moloch: "empire as a way of life will lead to nuclear death."

But Williams also got in close. For all his talk about grand historical narratives, he rendered his subjects with an intimacy beyond the reach of most historians, of whatever political persuasion. Gen. Douglas MacArthur "had an instinct for the viscera," and his lunge for power stemmed as much from the dynamics of the military-industrial complex as from the frustrations of his Scottish aristocratic family's three-generation bid to break into American politics. "One has to touch one's cap," Williams said, to any "man sitting on that combination of personal and social dynamite, and somehow keeping it under control." Then there's "Ol' Lyndon" Johnson, "first and always" a "southern white who grew up wandering hither and yon across that no man's land that divides the lowers from the maybe middles," his Confederate "consciousness of being first among the damned" making him aware of the New Deal's betrayal of African-Americans in ways Northern patricians like John F. Kennedy never could understand. One has the feeling Williams knew these people, or men very much like them, during his service in the Pacific and his time in Corpus Christi.

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