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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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Tragedy traced the nascence of America's modern, nonterritorial empire to the industrial crisis of the 1890s, which brought violence and strife and threatened much worse. There emerged in reaction a "convergence of economic practice with intellectual analysis and emotional involvement" that created a "very powerful and dangerous propensity to define the essentials of American welfare in terms of activities outside the United States." With profits falling, cities swelling, workers marching and agrarians protesting, the United States, far from being "thrown back upon itself," as Turner described the result of reaching the Pacific, cast further afield. Militarists might have been dreaming of national regeneration, farmers and industrialists of international markets, labor leaders of social peace and a piece of the pie, intellectuals of an outlet for individualism in a world of corporate concentration, and missionaries of deliverance, but all came to share a vision in which domestic progress and prosperity were dependent on unfettered expansion.

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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The result was the Spanish-American War, when the United States got Cuba and Puerto Rico, along with what Williams thought the real prize: the Philippines, a foothold in the Pacific needed to pre-empt Europe's and Japan's drive to divvy up China. The acquisition of overseas territory--as opposed to the fruits of mainland Manifest Destiny--provoked a great national debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists. This debate was ultimately reconciled by a third camp, which advocated an "Open Door" of market expansion; this would allow the United States to use its ascendant economic strength to best competitors while remaining free from the burdens of direct colonialism.

The Open Door promised perpetual peace. "In a truly perceptive and even noble sense," Williams wrote, its designers "understood that war represented the failure of policy." Yet the policy delivered constant conflict. The grail was the Chinese market. But rivals like Japan, czarist Russia and Germany kept getting in the way, embroiling the United States in its own Great Game of geopolitics and war. Rather than discrediting the Open Door, opposition heightened the magnetism of the idea, uniting realists and idealists and pulling anti-imperialists into intervention. Fully committed to opening Chinese markets yet faced with a bloody insurgency in the US-occupied Philippines, a fierce critic of annexation like William Jennings Bryan argued that Washington should establish a protectorate on the islands until stability was achieved, just as "we have protected the republics of Central and South America."

Williams presented the Open Door as a variant of the dependent relationship between liberalism and empire, deferring yet again the problems of property. At the same time, the myth perpetuated by expansion--that a "harmony of interests" could be secured under crisis-prone industrial capitalism--was projected outward, obscuring the consequences of expansion. Neither revolutions in Mexico, China and Russia nor insurgencies against Marine occupations in the Philippines and the Caribbean were dealt with as effects of economic restructuring or US militarism. Rather, missionary certainty blended with the ideal of self-determination into an all-encompassing "imperial anticolonialism," allowing Americans to believe that self-interest and the world's well-being were mutually reliant. It was, Williams wrote, "as neat a circle as ever drawn freehand." Tragedy locates the origins of containment in Washington's overreaction to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution; later works would trace the policy back to the French and Haitian revolutions, both of which spawned an "idealism that was so broad as to question the uniqueness and mission of America."

Thus hard-wired into the Weltanschauung--a "conception of the world and how it works, and a strategy for acting upon that outlook on a routine basis as well as in times of crisis"--that drives the United States forward were the terms of its own denial, a point unintentionally affirmed by Adolf Berle, a brain-truster of FDR's presidency. Berle favorably reviewed Tragedy in the New York Times, thinking it a corrective to the excesses of the early cold war. Yet he quibbled with Williams's use of the word "imperialism"; the United States in the nineteenth century, he said, "did expand, but into empty land. It is one thing to conquer a subject people; another to occupy vacant real estate."

Tragedy appeared in stores a month after the Cuban Revolution, with deteriorating relations between Washington and Havana providing daily illustrations of many of its arguments. "A more saddening example," Williams remarked in a revised edition, "of reading world history since 1917 in terms of the Bolshevik Revolution would be very difficult to find." The ongoing influence of Frederick Jackson Turner was practically certified by Kennedy, who responded to Cuba and other Third World problems by declaring that "America's frontiers today are on every continent." Kennedy's 1961 Alliance for Progress (which Berle was instrumental in organizing) read like a screenplay based on Tragedy, with the United States in the dual role of preacher and constable, promoting both modernization and counterinsurgency to tragic ends in one country after another. And history continued to be kind to Tragedy's arguments. "After all," said Williams in 1973, in response to his critics, "Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Chile did happen." So did, in his lifetime, Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Brazil, Laos, Argentina, Angola, Mozambique, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Afghanistan. Yet through it all he would continue to discern the same pattern of denial. "The essence of American foreign relations is so obvious as to have been often ignored or evaded," Williams wrote in 1972; the "American Empire just grew like Topsy."

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