Off Dead Center: William Appleman Williams | The Nation


Off Dead Center: William Appleman Williams

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Williams most likely would have considered Andrew Bacevich, who contributes an afterword to the anniversary edition of Tragedy, a "first-rate conservative," someone to argue with over the wisdom of containment. Bacevich graduated from West Point in 1969 and served in Vietnam the following year, and when he began to study international relations at Princeton, he considered the New Left historian his "personal nemesis." But he eventually came to appreciate Williams's analysis as resonating with his own postwar realism and based his American Empire (2002) largely on the Open Door thesis, arguing for the essential continuity of US foreign policy--driven by the quest for foreign markets and a belief that domestic well-being was predicated on expansion--from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton. He still thought, however, that Williams's view of the cold war was "wrong" for downplaying the Soviet Union's massive "abuse of human rights." Lately, Bacevich has focused on how some of the actions taken in the name of anti-Communism helped gestate neocon utopianism, yet he still proposes deployment of a restricted version of containment, stripped of its pastoral urges, against Islamic extremism. When asked what book he would recommend to Barack Obama, Bacevich picked not Tragedy but Niebuhr's The Irony of American History (1952), calling it a corrective to the Bush doctrine's delusion that history could be "coerced toward some predetermined destination." Wise diplomacy, Niebuhr wrote, embraces a "modest awareness of the limits of our own knowledge and power."

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Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop, Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and the...

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Niebuhr's conversion of the Christian concept of humility before God into a foreign policy ethics, however, cut two ways, upholding realism while justifying its own form of idealism. Niebuhr was an anti-imperialist in his youth, yet Irony served as something of a blank postdated check, underwriting intervention and liquidating its deficits. His interpretation of history as a series of "ironies" folded the violence involved in the rise of the United States--which Niebuhr and Williams described in strikingly similar terms--into a transcendent understanding of evil and, conveniently enough, projected onto the Soviet Union. In 1946, for instance, Niebuhr had called the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "morally indefensible." Six years later, Irony's first page warned that there is an "element of tragedy" in the struggle of "freedom against tyranny." Though "our civilization" is "confident of its virtue it must yet hold atomic bombs ready for use so as to prevent a possible world conflagration."

Williams thought this a theology of evasion. It was easy to lampoon what he described as the "high noon" fantasies of Henry Luce's American Century. Yet hand-wringers like Niebuhr--whom Williams called the "most sought-after soul sitter for American liberalism"--played their part in justifying expansion. Williams had no illusions about the Soviet Union; he criticized its repression of intellectuals. Russians, he said, paid a "terrible price in terror and hardship." But he too could appreciate what he called history's "harsh irony": by bringing a preponderance of power to bear against the USSR, which emerged from World War II with an exhausted military, wasted farms and factories, ruined cities and a "sad, weary, and lethargic population," the United States eventually conjured up the enemy it feared; armed with the threat of containment, Stalin drove "the Soviet people to the brink of collapse" until he turned his country into a nuclear power. Williams identified in the debates about how to respond to a revived USSR the same merry-go-round logic that emerged after 1898. "Containment-liberation" was "two sides of the same coin": idealism gets us in; realism keeps us there while promising to get us out.

Bacevich values Williams as an interpreter of America's Weltanschauung yet believes his contributions to global history "do not stand the test of time," since he underestimated the ability of the United States to regroup after Vietnam and overestimated the importance of Third World revolutions. It is true that Williams was at his weakest when, forgetting his criticisms of Hofstadter, he attributed psychological mass support to imperialism. For the most part, he thought change would come not from within the system--"where is Du Bois?" C.L.R. James asked after finishing Contours--but from expansion hitting a wall, which Williams kept thinking was imminent. The "General Theory of Relativity is likely to antiquate the frontier thesis," he wrote in 1955; Turner had "met his match in Einstein and Oppenheimer." In the 1960s, Vietnam, along with the revolt of the Third World, had "set the outer limits of the American Empire." And in the 1970s, the arms race and energy crisis brought the empire to bay. Yet each time Williams was proven wrong, his larger argument was confirmed. Third World revolutions didn't succeed on their own terms, but they did propel US history: Eisenhower begot Kennedy, who turned to counterinsurgency to bypass the nuclear impasse; Jimmy Carter begot Ronald Reagan, who responded to the melancholy 1970s by remoralizing and remilitarizing diplomacy, opening the Third World to hasten the shift from industrial to financial capitalism; Bill Clinton abandoned the New Deal's noblesse oblige to go global, equating America's interests with the world's, at which point George W. Bush enters stage right. If we start with Niebuhr, who eventually found the irony of Vietnam too much to bear, we have to somersault over this history to explain the past seven years. With Williams, the present flows from the past.

Williams did not believe, as did many progressives of his day, that liberalism was a way station on the road to social democracy; he thought that whatever transformative force the philosophy once held had mutated either into a corrosive, anti-intellectual individualism or a justification for monopoly capitalism, in both cases kept alive only by a constant "fleeing forward." Thus he was free to find traces of a latent socialism in the unlikeliest places, including in the South's culture of defeat and resentment (a "prism-prison" that distorts some truths, leading to racial supremacy and "hawkish bellicosity," but that clarifies a healthy distrust of the state) and in the writings of aristocrats, conservative politicians and businessmen who, even if they still defended hierarchy, candidly confronted the predicaments of capital. His most famous restoration project was Herbert Hoover; it seemed that every time Schlesinger wrote a book about FDR, Williams would counter by finding some new, underappreciated quality in the man New Dealers loved to ridicule.

But his true inspiration was the "courageous and deeply intelligent" civil rights movement, which rejected the "white man's theory of escape through the frontier" to work on "the here and now." Just as Williams could tease out the expansionist assumptions in the smallest asides, he found glimmers of a true American socialism in understated opposition to the evangelical impulse: "I'm not concerned with the New Jerusalem," he quoted Martin Luther King Jr. "I'm concerned with the New Atlanta, the New Birmingham, the New Montgomery."

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