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.”