William Appleman Williams: Premier New Left Revisionist


Last week in a discussion of Charles Austin Beard, "isolationist" Progressive historian, I mentioned Beard’s influence on a number of younger scholars, among them William Appleman Williams and Murray N. Rothbard. Williams emerged in the late 1950s as the spearhead of New Left diplomatic history and has had an enduring influence on the writing of American history. "Mainstream" scholars take his insights into account but acknowledge his impact only in the most backhanded way possible. It is probably among libertarians and anti-imperialist conservatives that Williams now finds his true following.


William Appleman Williams (1921-1990) was born in Iowa in and attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He served in the Pacific in World War II. As influences on his thought, I should mention Beard, John Adams, James Madison, Walter Prescott Webb (whose writings on the frontier – ending with The Great Frontier – treated a theme which Williams made his own), and – in a generic sort of way – Karl Marx. One doubts, however, that Williams was ever really a "Marxist," despite the Cold War liberals’ joy in awarding him that title.

After the war, he took a PhD in History at the University of Wisconsin, which was still something of a bastion of the old-style Progressive history. His first book, American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947 [1952] had a small impact and led Mr. Vital Center himself – Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a founder of Cold War liberalism – to attack Williams as a "pro-Communist scholar."1 In 1957, Williams returned to teach at Wisconsin, where he and his graduate students became known as the "Wisconsin school" of diplomatic history. Late in life, he taught at Oregon State University and served as President of the Organization of American Historians. Even in the turbulent "sixties," he was critical of New Left excesses. He would have hated the present university climate of political correctness.


His Tragedy of American Diplomacy [1959; 1972] was noticed by the scholarly community, although the Cold War liberals, of course, hated it. The House Un-American Activities Committee noticed his work and wasted his time with summonses which were suddenly revoked after he had spent money and time traveling to hearings. This petty harassment was continued for a while by another government agency I need not mention.

As the quagmire in Vietnam raised fundamental questions about the policies pursued – with mere differences of nuance – by Cold War liberals and conservatives, Williams began to find an audience for his ideas. Book followed book. Here I shall only mention the very important Contours of American History [1961, 1973], the two-volumes of readings in American diplomatic history (The Shaping of American Diplomacy [1966, 1967]), America Confronts a Revolutionary World [1976] and Empire as a Way of Life [1980].


The body of Williams’ writing is surprisingly American and conservative in ways that transcend the supposed "leftism" of the writer’s politics. As a Tory or Christian socialist, Williams admitted that there simply was no "usable American past" in the sense in which some New Left scholars sought one. Americans had never doubted the legitimacy of private property, and while this might make life hard for those working for socialism, there was no point in denying it. To the extent that he spent any time at all looking for "voices from below," Williams saw such details as part of the historical picture. One result of Williams’ realism in this regard is that the heroes in his books tend to be people he saw as humane conservatives, historical actors like John Quincy Adams or Herbert Hoover. He could change his mind, too, as witness his praise in Empire as a Way of Life for John Taylor of Caroline (as an opponent of empire), whom he had dismissed in Contours as a narrow laissez faire "physiocrat."

Williams saw American history in its unity, with US foreign policy ultimately reflecting the character of the society, or its dominant elements. Even so, it is of some use to divide his contributions, however arbitrarily, into domestic and foreign policy revisionism. On the home front, Williams’ periodization of US history – in Contours – into ages of Mercantilism, (relative) Laissez Faire, and, finally, Corporate Syndicalism, is worth the price of admission all by itself. The last period featured a state-corporate alliance – not unrelated to US foreign policy – which cemented existing relations of wealth and power while handing out apparent favors to the broad masses and making some effort to "stabilize" the system. From entirely different premises, Murray Rothbard and other libertarian writers came to similar conclusions about 20th-century American corporatism. And Rothbard, the "right-wing" scholar, was far more critical of Herbert Hoover, whom he saw as a founder of corporatism – and, in a sense, the New Deal itself.


The central focus of Williams’ work, beginning with the essays which foreshadowed his Tragedy of American Diplomacy, was how some Americans’ understanding of the role of the frontier in US history contributed to a foreign policy of overseas empire. Here, the emphasis is so much on ideas and interpretations of history that "economic determinism" recedes to rather un-Marxist dimensions. Of course, the ideas of the individuals and elites in question aimed at dealing with felt economic crises. Like the men of 1898, whom he was criticizing, Williams believed that the crisis was built into the market economy. They chose the path of domestic corporatism and overseas expansion (Open Door empire). Charles Beard, who shared the same critique of capitalism, sought to square the circle with a program of non-aggressive "continentalist" corporatism. Williams chose to reject the empire in the name of "decentralized socialism."

Williams believed that the men who brought America into the Spanish-American War had a well-developed Weltanschauung, or "world-outlook," based on a particular reading of American frontier history. This reading owed much to Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous "frontier thesis." The existence of a moving frontier of contiguous land for over two centuries had accustomed Americans to a certain level of prosperity and individual freedom. With the "closing" of the frontier in the 1890s, some new means must be found to prevent the economy from running down – a fear underlined by the Panic of 1893. To members of the northeastern elite it seemed obvious that a neo-mercantilist foreign policy in pursuit of ever-new foreign markets answered the case.

This "solution" to the perceived problem was soon repackaged as the Open Door – unlimited access of US companies to markets everywhere, to be achieved, where necessary, by political and military pressure on foreign states, peoples, and revolutionary movements (where they existed). The frontier-expansionist theory of history and the Open Door underlay US foreign policy from 1898 on. Disagreements – within policy-making circles, at least – took place within that framework and dealt with such details as tactics, timing, cost, and so on. Thus, from 1898 to Vietnam and beyond, there had never been a real debate on the purposes and bases of US foreign policy. And, of course, the "problem" the elites claimed to be solving was itself misconceived at several steps in the argument. And, here, we need to go beyond Williams’ analysis and integrate his historical materials with the insights of Austrian economic theory.

Williams’ critics liked to say that he misused his sources and stretched his evidence. It seems to me that when an historian can find the same rhetoric, the same analysis, and the same theme recurring constantly across the decades, he has made a case that this theme mattered to the policy makers and, in fact, formed their outlook, or at least a key part of that outlook . It is true that one can find other themes – international philanthropy and scrupulous US devotion to the letter and spirit of International Law – running parallel with Open Doors and foreign markets down through the same decades. One might equally well find kindness to small children and better working conditions for farm animals as persistent sub-themes in American policy. Experience – "the great teacher of mankind" – suggests just how much these spiritually uplifting bouts of rhetoric are worth, by themselves, to the analysis of US foreign policy.


By writing the story of the American establishment’s long-standing interest in, and obsession with, foreign markets, Williams provided us with one of the keys to understanding the origins and growth of the American empire. By his stalwart example of opposition to the empire and its works he inspires us all. This achievement, embodied in the many books he left us, makes it easy to forgive him his misunderstanding – as some of us see it – of the market economy and his resulting conviction that socialism provided a viable alternative to empire. In our time, mainstream scholars, whatever the inane radicalism of their views on domestic policy, glide along blissfully unaware of the empire or in active support of it (as we saw recently). As for the so-called "radicals," many of them imagine themselves critics of empire because they add "US imperialism" to their long checklist of ills to be dealt with by complete destruction of existing American society and its replacement by an envy-driven egalitarian bellum omnium contra omnes. In such times, it is a help to recall a radical scholar who was an American opponent of an empire which merely wears the American label.

[1] Quoted in Samuel Edward Konkin, "William Appleman Williams (1921-1990): Sire of Neo-Isolationism," New Isolationist, I, 1 (October 1990), p. 6.