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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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Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections/Daily BarameterWilliam Appleman Williams near his home in Waldport, Oregon, circa 1986.

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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"Why William Appleman Williams, for God's sake?" asked Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1999 when he learned that Williams's The Contours of American History had been voted one of the 100 best nonfiction books of the twentieth century by the Modern Library. Schlesinger had spent the better part of half a century fighting the influence of Williams, describing him in 1954 as "pro-communist" to the president of the American Historical Association. In 1959 the New York Times picked Schlesinger's The Coming of the New Deal and Williams's The Tragedy of American Diplomacy as best books of the year, calling the first, in a nod to a liberalism still vital, a "spirited study" and the second a "free-swinging attack" on US foreign policy, hinting at the raucous dissent to come. But forty years later, Schlesinger considered the fight won. The victory of the United States in the cold war had disproved Williams's jeremiads against an American empire careening toward disaster, while the concomitant collapse of the left had confirmed Schlesinger's position as curator of America's historical sensibility--liberal, democratic, pragmatic. Schlesinger was one of the Modern Library's jurors, and his own The Age of Jackson made the cut. Still, he couldn't keep Williams, dead for nearly a decade, out of the pantheon. For God's sake.

Williams was not the first historian to identify the United States as an empire, and much of his criticism of Eisenhower-era conformity echoed that of contemporaries like C. Wright Mills. Yet Williams was unique in linking domestic disquiet to a long history of expansion, which in his grandest formulations he traced back to England's Glorious Revolution, making him one of America's most consequential dissident intellectuals. He was ahead of many scholars in considering how the violence visited upon American Indians by Western expansion helped forge America's double-edged nationalism: espousing universalism, the Puritans wanted to subdue the "barbarians," Williams remarked in The Nation in 1959, while the Puritans' desire to be "left alone" could only be realized by "exterminating" them; the "American dream" for the country to become "a world unto itself" is not as "isolationist a policy as we have liked to think." "Gunfire removed the hardy," he wrote in Empire as a Way of Life, and displacement and disease extirpated the rest: "the coughs, the sneezes, and the laying on of hands were like the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki." Williams's criticism of containment--Washington's post-World War II efforts to isolate the Soviet Union and limit the spread of Communism--got him labeled a moral relativist when in fact he was an ethical absolutist. What is good for us is a non-negotiable good for them. "And if all that the rumors of catastrophe mean," he said on America's bicentennial, "is that the barbarians will land at Plymouth Rock, I can only say that I will give over in peace. They would move us off dead center."

By this, Williams meant breaking the cycle in which outward movement through territorial conquest, market expansion or war becomes the default solution to all social ills, and he spent most of his career trying to identify the problem that expansion deferred. At his most polemical and Freudian, tendencies that escalated in tandem with the Vietnam War, he argued that "Americans denied and sublimated their violence by projecting it upon those they defined as inferior." And he was acutely attuned to how "moralizing about the failures of other countries" could be an excellent career move. But in Contours, published in 1961, he reached into seventeenth-century British history to argue that the relationship between liberalism and empire was in effect a grand compromise, with expansion serving as a means of containing the factionalism generated by incipient capitalism. Empire, he wrote elsewhere, "was the only way to honor avarice and morality. The only way to be good and wealthy."

In America, the "presence of a continent defended only by weaker souls" made the merging of Puritan purpose with individualism "even more convenient"; the framers of the Constitution were acutely aware that private property generated interests too corrosive and passions too explosive for a circumscribed territory. James Madison was empire's great "theorist," who was "nothing if not comprehensive." Williams quoted a phrase of Madison's every chance he could: "Extend the sphere" and "you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens." Demands for a leveling of wealth could be defused by opening up "surplus social space." Thomas Jefferson once proposed redistributing property each generation as a way of retaining republican virtue in a small place, but he abandoned the idea to become, in Williams's words, the "epic poet" of the "urge to escape, to run away and spend one's life doing what one wanted--or in starting over again and again." In 1906 the German sociologist Werner Sombart had identified the pull of an open frontier as one explanation, among many, for why there was no socialism in America. And others in the 1950s, such as John Rawls and Louis Hartz, considered the problem of "property" in liberal thought, particularly as it related to the difficulty of achieving social democracy within a capitalist framework. Yet Williams was one of the first to link these questions explicitly to imperialism--or, more precisely, to realize the way expansion warps any consideration of the dilemma.

From 1957 to 1967, Williams taught in the history department at the University of Wisconsin, where he had received his doctorate. He had a considerable influence on the emerging New Left, drawing around him young bohemians and intellectuals compelled by watching him work out "an alternative radical critique to sterile Stalinism," as one of his teaching assistants, Herbert Gutman (himself a pioneer in US labor history), explained the attraction. Williams's many graduate students, including Walter LaFeber and Lloyd Gardner, dominated diplomatic history for decades. In the years after 9/11, however, his name was often invoked while his insights were routinely ignored, especially by liberals who sought to cast the Bush doctrine as an aberration, tracing its roots to the Israel lobby, Leo Strauss or perhaps Leon Trotsky. It took an ironic remark by a neocon historian to stress the perennial pertinence of Williams's ideas. "Can a generation raised on the teachings of William Appleman Williams and Walter LaFeber believe that the alleged sins of neoconservatism--excessive idealism, blinding self-righteousness, utopianism, hubris, militarism, and overweening ambition, and throw in if you want selfishness and greed--are somehow new sins?" asked Robert Kagan in 2008. As it happens, it was a question Williams had already answered. "We have been playing hide-and-seek for two centuries" in avoiding history, he wrote in America Confronts a Revolutionary World (1976), a game that has given us a "large playground" but has suspended us between past and future, "best epitomized in this motto: 'Limbo is our Way of Life.'"

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