William Appleman Williams’s Tragedy of American Diplomacy is one of those rare works of history that can credibly be said to have changed history itself. Released in 1959 by the obscure World Publishing Company, Tragedy ranks, as Lloyd Gardner notes in his introduction to the fiftieth-anniversary edition, as the “most influential exploration of American foreign policy attempted by a historian in the twentieth century.” While Gardner is a proud leftist, cold war revisionist and former student of the author, this measure of Williams’s influence is shared across the ideological spectrum. John Lewis Gaddis–whose views often track those of the US foreign policy establishment, more recently its neoconservative wing–laments that historians “have allowed Williams’ ‘tragic’ perspective to obscure our vision…. We have transformed what was, in its day, a profoundly unorthodox criticism of conventional wisdom into an orthodoxy that has now become conventional wisdom.”
What’s so striking about Tragedy‘s lasting impact is that it was a full frontal attack on almost everything Americans believed about themselves, to say nothing of the heroic tales told about our nation’s history in college classrooms. Williams–who began publishing in The Nation in the late 1950s–did not merely blame America’s leaders for the imperfect execution of their overly idealistic ambitions, a common refrain since the end of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in 1921. As Bradford Perkins noted in 1984, Williams proffered a “fundamental assault on the merits of American objectives” themselves.
Tragedy sought to demonstrate that the American empire was no accident. Rather, it was the natural result of what Williams called the American Weltanschauung–a German term that combines a definition of the world with an explanation of the way it works. Andrew Bacevich, retired military officer and noted historian, defines it as follows:
A tendency to equate anti-colonialism with opposition to empire as such…;
An insistence that American values are universal values, leading to this corollary: “other peoples cannot really solve their problems and improve their lives unless they go about it in the same way as the United States”;
A…commitment to the principle of self-determination, informed by the conviction that “all peoples must ultimately self-determine themselves in the American Way if America itself is to be secure and prosperous”…;
A penchant for externalizing evil…;
A reflexive predilection for demonizing adversaries…;
A belief that the American economy cannot function absent opportunities for external expansion…;
A steady, if unacknowledged, drift toward militarization…;
An unshakable confidence in American Exceptionalism and American beneficence….
It is important to underline one point that some leftist and anti-American ideologues often ignore: the Weltanschauung of America’s self-understanding is neither cynical nor evil but is deeply felt by its proponents and proselytizers. “American leaders,” Williams wrote, “believed deeply in the ideals they proclaimed.”
However arguable Williams’s assertions and debatable many of his premises may have been, Tragedy provided a kind of intellectual open door for American historians. The Wisconsin School he helped spawn included such luminaries in the field as Gardner, Walter LaFeber and Thomas McCormick, who would write their own pathbreaking studies and train their students to do the same. Williams opened up a path not only for a revisionist history of US foreign relations but also for the “post-revisionist” response it later inspired among more establishment-oriented historians, like Gaddis and Melvyn Leffler.
As Curt Cardwell of Drake University pointed out at a spirited conference recently convened at Rutgers University to mark the book’s anniversary, orthodox historians may dispute the revisionists’ narrative, but they do not dispute their facts: Leffler’s 1992 work A Preponderance of Power, “still considered to be the definitive text on the origins of the cold war, agreed with the revisionists on virtually every particular and pressed his case often more forcefully than even the revisionists had.” Leffler shared the revisionists’ view that the Americans, not the Soviets, were the first to violate the Yalta Accords and that the US’s portrait of its cold war actions as largely defensive does not hold up to even minimal scrutiny. Leffler disagrees with the revisionist view that an expanding US economy was the driving force behind much of America’s cold war strategy. But as Cardwell noted, Secretary of State Dean Acheson explained in November 1949, a key moment in the period under dispute: “It cannot be too strongly emphasized that our exports must be maintained at the highest possible level.”
Bacevich, who gave the conference’s keynote address, argued quite correctly that “Williams’s greatness lay as a historian, not as prophet or political philosopher.” Williams’s analysis grew increasingly shrill over time (and across revised editions of Tragedy published in 1962 and ’72). In his later career Williams even advanced a proposal to break up the Union into a “federation of democratic Socialist communities.” By 1980 he was predicting, “We will suffer what we did unto Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo…. We will suffocate, sizzle and fry.”
But to open up an entire nation’s intellectual discourse is no mean feat. Voters have finally freed the nation from the brain-dead tyranny of some of the most egregious deceptions of the benighted Bush/Cheney era. Yet the Weltanschauung of that unhappy era awaits its Tragedy.