Scholar, historian and public intellectual. Some notes on William Appleman Williams

The end of World War II lead to an international scenario in which the United States had a undeniable supremacy for what concerns the economic, military and cultural dimensions. By virtue of this asymmetric standing the United States aimed to shape the world order according to its own interests. However, American postwar vision had a competitor, namely the Soviet Union, and to contrast her and realize its own projects the US administration decided to «contain» the enemy. This strategy, recommended in the famous «X Article» published by Foreign Affairs, assumed the Soviet Union’s intrinsic expansionist and aggressive nature and consequently, the necessity to defend areas of vital and strategic importance to the United States (Kennan, 1947). The political and strategic outlook described in the article was also reinforced and supported by the intellectual and academic world. Most precisely, it was the community of diplomatic historians who contributed most wholeheartedly and directly to the support and defense of the American cause in the Cold War. These scholars’ principal contribution was providing a version of recent history which would justify current policy, linking America’s struggles with the Axis and with the Soviet Union as successive stages in one continuous and unavoidable struggle of the Free World against expansionist totalitarians. Diplomatic History was dominated by two coastal scholars, Samuel Flagg Bemis and Thomas Bailey who attempted to affirm a bleaker and more realistic perspective. Bemis’ classic textbook, A Diplomatic History of the United States, supported the vision of the United States as an anti-imperial power capable to stabilize Western civilization against the autocratic East. It was possible because US primary goal was to promote freedom and democracy around the globe through the example of its superior economic, political and cultural institutions. Bailey reinforced this portrayal with his America faces Russia in which he praised the United States for engaging in a principled moral crusade against Soviet suppression. He described with alarming tone the Soviet menace and its diabolic nature. Although the overemphasis of post-war synthesis, the so called “consensus history» also analyzed issues concerning the pre-1945 history of the country. For instance, Bailey supported a positive interpretation of Roosevelt’s policies both in domestic and foreign policy. Moreover, the leading diplomatic historian Foster Rhea Dulles showed a more sympathetic treatment of the turn-of-the-century imperialism, claiming that American policymakers were awakening to the responsibilities of a world power (Novick, 1988; Hunt, 1992; Brown, 2009).

It was during the Fifties that a huge challenge to this portrayal and interpretation of American history and politics came into being. Not surprisingly, its main interpreter was a diplomatic historian, William Appleman Williams. This research aims to analyze both his main works (with a special consideration of The Tragedy of American DiplomacyContours of American HistoryEmpire as a Way of Life) and their contribution to the historiographical debate among diplomatic historians. Moreover, this work will take into consideration the influence that Williams played on a generation of young scholars that wrote their thesis under his supervision at the University of Wisconsin. In fact, Williams contributed to create a new school of diplomatic history that would be called «Wisconsin school». Secondly, this research aims to shed a light on Williams considered as a public historian, a public intellectual. He was convinced that he might generate a lot of historical consciousness in the public at large: Williams constantly wrote articles published by several American journals, such as The NationMonthly ReviewThe New York Review of Books, criticizing the Cold War intellectual monolith that dominated «acceptable» debate. Furthermore, during the Eighties he wrote severe columns for two Oregonian newspapers (Portland Oregonian and The Statesman Journal) attempting to spread even «at the borders of the empire» new interpretations of the American politics. I will also highlight the role of public intellectual taking into consideration Williams’ influence on the New Left. One might say that he furnished the intellectual roots to part of the movements that would have distinguished the Sixties.

The first criticism to the orthodox interpretation came through the first Williams’ book: American Russian Relations. In the book’s final chapter, he deeply criticized the decision of Truman  Administration to adopt a strategy of containment, as strongly recommended by policymakers such as George F. Kennan. According to Williams, this policy compounded the wartime error of postponing agreement with Russia over her interests in Eastern Europe, ignored the reality of Soviet military power in the area, and delayed economic aid badly needed as a result of the devastation of Russia. A similar view – that would be found in his later studies in more sophisticated interpretation – had noteworthy implications for what concerns the origins of the Cold War: Williams, in fact, argued that responsibilities for the outbreak of the confrontation between the two superpowers could be found on the American side. This challenging interpretation was developed and deepened in the subsequent book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. In this work, he challenged the United States’ moral standing in the world: the superpower was not a liberal and progressive force within the international community. He went deeply into this issue describing American diplomacy as driven by the conviction that without the «open door», namely without the unhindered internationalization of the market democracy, would lose its fundamental basis. Supporting the creation of its ownWeltanshauung the United States’ diplomacy denied and subverted its ideals an values, beginning from the intervention at Cuba in 1898 (Williams, 1952, 1962); (Noble, 1985). Williams claimed that United States’ imperial goals played a significant role in the onset of the conflict and Soviet Union was merely reacting to an aggressive American demands for business markets and political access around the world. Williams argued, in fact, that economics were inextricably linked with politics and ideology and, therefore, important for historical understanding. Therefore, 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. Williams meant breaking the cycle in which outward movement through territorial conquest, market expansion or war becomes the default solution to all social ills. In Contours he reached into seventeenth-century British history to argue that the relationship between liberalism and empire was a grand compromise, with expansion serving as a means of containing the factionalism generated by incipient capitalism. This was the same solution found to solve the crisis of 1929. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was not a revolution in order to change the whole system, but a way to preserve it. A system in which the «corporate capitalism» constitutes the leading force: a complex ‘understanding between big business, big government and big labor. Williams’ interpretation was absolutely antithetic to Schlesinger Jr. and Hofstader ones: they claimed the reforming power and the absolute originality of the liberalism during the Thirties. One cannot be denied the influence that actual issues had on Williams work. He wrote those notes in the epoch in which a passionate liberalism dominated the political scene. They were the years of Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Byrnes Johnson’s Great Society and the Vietnam War (Williams, 1961); (Testi, 1984); (Vaudagna, 1975).

The emphasis that Williams gave to economic factors in order to explain Us foreign policy had a great impact in his students. Many of them contributed to constitute the so called «Wisconsin school». It is partial and not sufficient to remember only some of Williams’ students who became influent and important scholars as well: Lloyd Gardner, Walter LaFeber and Thomas McCormick. Although, it might highlights the importance that Williams’ teaching and research activity had in the historical field. All of them have underlined the importance that the economic expansion had in the history of the United States. Gardner argued that the New Deal did not promote a nationalistic economy; on the contrary, during the Thirties the quest for new markets lead to the Us commitment in the world scenario (Gardner, 1964). Thomas McCormick emphasized the importance of the «Open Door Policy» through which the United States imposed their imperial power. An expansion that was not anymore territorial but it was based on the economic penetration, especially in Asia (McCormick, 1967). The idea of an industrial control over the world, that is the unconditional possibility for the United States to export its own goods was one of the core thesis of Walter LaFeber early work. Even though he recognized the importance of the debate between imperialists and anti-imperialists, the need for new markets was the common ground about which mediate (LaFeber, 1963).

One will be extremely interesting to analyze Williams’ articles published on journals and newspapers. I consider this section of the PhD thesis the most original one even though I did not get through this issue yet. The analysis conducted on Williams’ works have been mainly centered on his academic writings instead that what has been published for a larger and not professional public. The «intransigent historian» attempted through his severe even if sometimes really brief article to impose new interpretations of actual political events. One will be a worthwhile opportunity to shed a light on an aspect has been only partial considered 1.


The primary sources firstly considered to realize this research project has been Williams’ personal papers at the Oregon State University. The definition of «personal papers» results imprecise given the fact that Williams did not keep any of his personal papers. All the materials kept here have been donated by colleagues, friends and former students. Even though, the personal papers could be considered a fundamental basis for this thesis. Secondly, several collections retained to the Wisconsin State Historical Society will have a great importance to draw the contours of this research. First of all, the personal papers of Williams’ professors and mentors at the University of Wisconsin, where he received his PhD. Among them there are: Fred Harvey Harrington, William Hesseltine and Merle Curti. Oral history sources will be part of the sources considered: interviews realized during the Nineties to most of the faculty staff of the University of Wisconsin. Moreover, the Studies on the Left Papers and the Radical America Papers had a great importance to shed a light on Williams’ relation and influence on the student movement that was particularly active at the University of Wisconsin.

This research could not obviously leave out of consideration all Williams’ books through which one will be analyzed the development of his thought.

This research will use the most comprehensive spectrum of literature about Williams and the issues he addressed during his academic and public life. As mentioned above, there is a unique biography about him written by Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximine. The rest of the literature is mostly dedicated to the main topics that Williams discussed within his works: the empire and the Us imperialism, economic factors linked to foreign policy, the interpretation of the New Deal or more in general the revisionist school. One might notice that some of his former students contributed to the historiographical debate promoting a very sympathetic view of their mentor’s works. It will be necessary to include also works about other historians considered as public intellectuals. One very valid example could be Lo storico nel suo labirinto. Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. tra storia, impegno civile  e politica written by Marco Mariano.


  1. The only example of partial consideration of Williams’ articles – in particular published by Oregonian newspaper – has been done by Paul Buhle and Edward Rice Maximin (Buhle-Maximin, 1995).