Oregon State University Libraries Special Collections/Daily Barameter
“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.'”
William Appleman Williams was born in 1921 in the wheat and oat town of Atlantic, Iowa, founded after the Civil War and named, according to the historian, by a flip of a coin because it sat halfway between the two coasts. Williams credited his interest in politics and history to an underappreciated prairie cosmopolitanism (his mother and grandmothers were “liberated women”), one as open to the world’s ideas as the local farmers were, via the Rock Island Railroad, to the continent’s two great ocean markets. Educated at Missouri’s Kemper Military Academy, he graduated from Annapolis and then served in the Pacific in World War II. At war’s end, the Navy sent him to Corpus Christi, Texas, to train as a pilot. But in retaliation for his work with the NAACP–which, with the help of local Communists, was taking on General Motors, King Ranch and the local Catholic church–he was ordered back to the Pacific to take part in Operation Crossroads, an experiment that entailed the nuclear destruction of Bikini Atoll to test the effects of radiation on military personnel and equipment. A wartime back injury prevented his participation, sparing him the illnesses that afflicted many Crossroads alumni but leaving him in a shoulder-to-thigh cast for months. With little to do except read, he deepened his interest in history and philosophy. Shortly after he left Texas, an African-American activist was murdered. Williams often cited this and other instances of “routine violence” that met demands for equality, as well as his close-call escape from Crossroads, as contributing to his radicalization. “Yes, sir, that will make a socialist out of you,” he once said to an interviewer, referring to the killing, “unless you are dead.”
He began graduate school at Madison in 1947, the same year Wisconsin voters sent Joseph McCarthy to the Senate. McCarthyism, though, largely passed over Madison; the university’s greater challenge was resisting liberal orthodoxy. Williams remembered later in his life that the campus was alive with a postwar class of “alert veterans” outspoken on issues like the Korean War, an engagement “largely forgotten in all the talk about the silent generation of the 1950s and the activism of the 1960s.” Also vital to campus life was “thoughtful dialogue with first-rate conservatives”–not today’s mean-spirited ids to liberal superegos but scholars who honestly grappled with American history.
Above all, Madison was a stew of ideas, with émigrés from Europe and refugees from New York drawing on European social and cultural theory to reinvigorate older Progressive Era historiography. The German sociologist Hans Gerth introduced Williams to Continental philosophy and Frankfurt School Marxism, which sent him “soaring,” according to Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin in their excellent intellectual biography William Appleman Williams: The Tragedy of Empire. The Americanists brought him “back down to earth.” At some point, Williams felt compelled to decide between thinkers who saw the world as a dynamic whole, such as Hegel, Marx and Spinoza, and those who viewed it as made up of “atomistic elements” only mechanically related. “I chose Spinoza,” he said. He also chose Marx, “exhilarated” by his “capacity to see in one piece of evidence a set of relationships that reveal an economic truth, a truth about an idea, a social verity, and a political truth.” He focused on diplomacy because “if there is a Spinozian whole for an historian, then it has to involve foreign policy and the periodization of history.”
This self-description makes Williams sound more like a Hegelian than a Spinozian or a Marxist. Indeed, despite his searing indictment of empire, he was openly obsessed with the idea of America as the embodiment of a world spirit. “America,” he wrote toward the end of his life, “is the kind of culture that wakes you in the night, the kind of nightmare that may [yet] possibly lead us closer to the truth.” Williams was a serious, empirical scholar whose prose could be as dense as any academic’s, but he often broke out of form to riff in a style as sprawling as his subject matter. “If we start with reform and go on to modernize, prosperity, improve, uplift,” he said of the action words of American expansion, “then we come out with purify, put right, purgation, overtake, and never look back. Finally, we find stewards as policemen, which leads us backward and forwards to benevolence, surveillance, reform, paternalism, and systematic discipline in the name of progress.” Intoxicated by the “dialectical tension” of “coming apart at the seams at midnight” and “stitching it back together in a sentence or two at 3 a.m.,” Williams, a jazz drummer, increasingly expressed himself with bop rhythm and beat imagery. “Assume the worst,” he warned in his last great work, chanting its title with a frequency worthy of Howl‘s Moloch: “empire as a way of life will lead to nuclear death.”
But Williams also got in close. For all his talk about grand historical narratives, he rendered his subjects with an intimacy beyond the reach of most historians, of whatever political persuasion. Gen. Douglas MacArthur “had an instinct for the viscera,” and his lunge for power stemmed as much from the dynamics of the military-industrial complex as from the frustrations of his Scottish aristocratic family’s three-generation bid to break into American politics. “One has to touch one’s cap,” Williams said, to any “man sitting on that combination of personal and social dynamite, and somehow keeping it under control.” Then there’s “Ol’ Lyndon” Johnson, “first and always” a “southern white who grew up wandering hither and yon across that no man’s land that divides the lowers from the maybe middles,” his Confederate “consciousness of being first among the damned” making him aware of the New Deal’s betrayal of African-Americans in ways Northern patricians like John F. Kennedy never could understand. One has the feeling Williams knew these people, or men very much like them, during his service in the Pacific and his time in Corpus Christi.
Well before the publication of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy–Williams’s best-known book, it has been reissued this year on its fiftieth anniversary–tragedy had become a favored genre of scholars operating within the “vital center” of American intellectual life. “History is not a redeemer, promising to solve all human problems in time,” Arthur Schlesinger cautioned in 1949 in a Partisan Review essay nominally about the Civil War but really a brief for containment; it is rather a “tragedy in which we are all involved, whose keynote is anxiety and frustration.” Other “tough-minded” liberal intellectuals, such as Richard Hofstadter and Reinhold Niebuhr, invoked the force of instinct and passion in mass society as something of a deus ex machina to stress history’s tragic dimensions. The notion that evil did not “proceed from a cruel system”–that is, a system that could be engineered to produce ever more virtue–but from man’s “dark and tangled aspects,” as Schlesinger interpreted Niebuhr, helped transform liberalism from a politics of hope to one of fear. The policy implications were clear: the New Deal was the outer limit of reform, beyond which lay the nether lands of totalitarianism, and the Soviets needed to be confronted with the same resolve with which the Union defeated the Confederacy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat the Nazis.
Williams viewed this dramaturgical turn as a manifestation of America’s “New Babbittry,” a middlebrow provincialism that, despite gestures to liberal internationalism, garrisoned American thought from the rest of the world–as well as from its own past. In the mid-1950s, Williams was recruited to write for The Nation by editor Carey McWilliams, himself recently brought from the West to revive the magazine, politically and financially besieged for taking an anti-anti-Communist stance during the editorship of Freda Kirchwey. Both men favored a show-me skepticism in their dealings with East Coast intellectuals. But Williams, trained in European criticism and well read in Freud, was particularly unimpressed by the moral theatrics of their work and unconvinced by their justifying pretensions. “There is a great book to be written some day,” he quipped, that could explain how historians like Schlesinger who blamed the cold war on Stalin’s paranoia “came by the power to render such flat-out psychiatric judgments without professional training.” At The Nation, McWilliams used the historian to lend “depth” to front-of-the-book reporting, giving him free rein to develop a prescient critique of still-unnamed neoconservatism. In a 1956 review/essay, Williams identified Hofstadter’s celebrated The Age of Reform–with its heavy use of psychology to explain violent episodes in American history, including the Spanish-American War–as signaling a turning point in American thought. Absolved from having to examine the relationship between ideology and interests, liberals had rendered history into “myth.” “Perhaps the major American casualty of the cold war,” he wrote in another essay, “has been the idea of history.”
But if the “New Babbitts” wanted history as dinner theater, Williams could do that too. In 1955 Williams produced a Nation “fable,” casting the cold warrior as a composite of four historical types: Puritan, Planter, Hamiltonian and Homesteader:
The Puritan elected himself America’s first elite. He originally intended to establish a righteous Eden. His handmaiden was to have been Calvin’s Virgin of unexploited wealth. But the Devil, cleverly camouflaged as the noble savage, already claimed the Virgin. Thus the Puritan had first to contain and defeat the red man…. But the pietistic intensity of his awareness of the Devil withered the Puritan’s sense of purpose. Morality ceased to be the means of communicating with God and the guide to the good life…. Only the Devil, warned the Puritan, spoke of the general welfare. Thus the Puritan gave way to the Planter, who comforted and wooed the Virgin…. Not until the Puritan pointed to the evil of the slave did the Planter and the Virgin take up the language of noblesse oblige. It was then too late. The hell of a fellow who occasionally feeds the neighborhood does not become m’Lord through rhetoric….
And on it goes, with Williams introducing the Hamiltonian empire builder, who vanquished the Planter, and the Homesteader, a potential repository of a nonimperial America but compromised by his ties to the Hamiltonian and the Planter. At this point Williams was an assistant professor at the University of Oregon, a land-grant university tucked into a remote corner of the continental United States. Yet here he was, precociously seizing on the then-influential “myth and symbol” school of American studies to sweepingly reinterpret all of US history. He perversely cast FDR not as a Hamiltonian but as a Planter who renovated noblesse oblige for the industrial age and reconciled the Homesteader (Henry Wallace!) to the “machine.” Williams made the story’s endpoint 1955, hoping that Soviet nuclear power would rescue history from the “Puritan memory hole” and free Eisenhower from crusaders who mistook “catechism for wisdom.” The tale helps decode his subsequent writings, in particular his recurrent concern with the externalization of morality: “good” came to be understood as expansion (“Calvin’s Virgin”), whereas anything that stood in its way–from American Indians to the Confederacy, from the Soviet Union to the Third World–was “evil.” “Americans became very prone to define their rivals as unnatural men,” he wrote, “almost, if not wholly, beyond redemption.”
Three years later, Williams published Tragedy, taking Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”–which held that the westward advance of the United States determined the unique character of American society–and standing it on its head. Since the end of the nineteenth century, Turner’s ideas, Williams wrote in an earlier essay, “rolled through the universities and into popular literature as a tidal wave.” But most historians had misconstrued their importance, debating whether or not the frontier had closed when Turner said it did, in the 1890s, or if a continent of “free land” actually led to political or social democracy. The very term “frontier,” he argued, emphasized the “static” over the “dynamic,” distracting scholars from viewing the thesis as a “classic illustration of the transformation of an idea into an ideology,” the influence of which extended into the twentieth century. The real task, Williams said, was to understand how Turner served as a guide to policy-makers, including presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who saw the American border not as a line to stop at but as one to cross.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.