Off Dead Center: William Appleman Williams | The Nation


Off Dead Center: William Appleman Williams

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Having been chastened by so many wrong predictions about the end of empire, Williams, if he were around, might think the United States capable of slipping the knot of the current crisis to set out beyond the borders of its territory and markets yet again. But he would certainly appreciate the irony that China, long imagined as the ultimate frontier, the great absorber of American surplus, now keeps the United States afloat to serve as its capital and commodity market. Frederick Jackson Turner survived the bomb, Vietnam and the 1970s. But he has possibly met his match in Wen Jiabao, China's premier, who in March reminded the United States about its trillion-dollar debt to Beijing and criticized its "unsustainable model of development characterized by prolonged low savings and high consumption."

About the Author

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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Williams would likely empathize with Barack Obama, the way he did with LBJ, as someone charged with cleaning up the mess others made, "striving to do all that was possible within the orthodoxy he had been taught." But he would be suspicious of the president's endorsement of Niebuhr. In 2007 Obama impressed New York Times columnist David Brooks by saying he shared the theologian's view of history as tragic and ironic and the belief that there's "serious evil in the world"--though Williams might recognize it as a shrewd bid to win over our current crop of soul sitters. He might also understand Obama's embrace of the rhetoric of exceptionalism as an attempt to bridle that vanity and shift attention--as much as interests, ideology and the twenty-four-hour news cycle permit--to building a New America, one that finally kicks the habit of externalizing evil and jumping the perimeter.

He would, however, think dangerous the conceit that domestic and foreign policy could be hoodwinked into going their separate ways. Kennedy tried that, Williams once wrote, but saber-rattling to appease militarists made him a "hostage of the right." We need to "reconceptualize this war as existing in the mental space of the Pashtun nation," says counterinsurgent theorist John Nagl of the conflict along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Williams would know that the war already exists in the American mental space: in the denial of Washington's role in nurturing Islamic extremism; in the reliance on bomber drones to wage low-cost war; and in Obama's refusal to completely forsake rendition and other Bush-era extrajudicial innovations. Here, Williams might say, is "a fact that contains the whole, and a whole that contains every fact" of a legal system incapable of absorbing the excesses of expansion and war, as well as the deference that imperial power commands.

Ultimately, he would worry that Obama, as he believed FDR did before him, is responding to the current crisis by shoring up the settlement that ended the previous one (in this case, the contraction of the 1970s)--by recycling the policy-makers (like Iran/Contra luminary Robert Gates and derivative-enabler Lawrence Summers) responsible for the overleveraging of American power. But "empire as a way of life" is forgiving of mistakes, as Williams might say, provided they are made on behalf of that life.

A lazy reading of Williams has him decamping back to Oregon at the end of the 1960s after a decade teaching at Madison, disillusioned with New Left radicalism and increasingly strident in his predictions. Yet Williams's real anguish did not concern the left--he liked to tweak its conceits yet remained to his last days forgiving of its excesses--but with what might be called the atrophy of the Weltanschauung, as reflected in the degeneration of astute self-awareness into hardened ideology. For all their differences, Adolf Berle and Arthur Schlesinger were of Williams's world, and to a large degree their intelligence was honed by answering dissent. Schlesinger tried to dismiss Williams, but he was compelled to spend many long years arguing with him. Berle even invited him to join the Kennedy administration as a foreign policy adviser (Williams declined). Today, policy-makers and their intellectuals talk exclusively among themselves, thinking themselves accountable only to the distant opinions of "history." Recently asked to comment on her role in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Condoleezza Rice responded by saying that she had been reading Dean Acheson's Present at the Creation, which taught her that "you have to keep moving forward, recognizing that it will be a long time before history adjudicates one way or another on outcomes."

Until Judgment Day comes, we have to settle for Clio's answer to a more modest inquiry: why William Appleman Williams? Because as history has shown since the publication of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, things can always get worse.

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