The Tragedy of American Diplomacy at Fifty
David S. Brown
author of Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing
The publication of Beyond the Frontier: The Midwestern Voice in American Historical Writing happens to come at an apt time: this year marks the half-century anniversary of the publication of William Appleman Williams’s iconic The Tragedy of American Diplomacy—a book that shook the foreign policy foundations of cold war America. In Beyond the Frontier, I reveal that Williams’s sense of past was shaped by his sense of place: a product of Atlantic, Iowa, he shared the small town cultural imprinting of his distinguished regional predecessors, Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard. And like them, Williams wrestled with the troubling questions posed by the closing of America’s continental frontier and the nation’s subsequent tilt toward imperialism.
A University of Wisconsin PhD, Williams returned to his alma mater in 1957 where, along with his mentor, Fred Harvey Harrington, he pioneered a revisionist approach to American foreign relations that captured the imagination of young scholars impatient with the conservative scholarship then in vogue. This “Wisconsin School” would become the stuff of legend. But first, as Williams toiled away on Tragedy, two coastal scholars dominated the writing of U.S. diplomatic history. Samuel Flagg Bemis of Yale and Stanford’s Thomas Bailey confidently claimed America to be an anti-imperial power carrying the cross of western liberal internationalism in a divided world. Williams would have none of it. Reared in an old Farmers’ Alliance stronghold, and referred to by one colleague as a “blue-eyed Iowa Socialist,” he believed–like Beard–that capitalism had joined with empire to threaten the quaint Main Street America from whence he came. “Those who turned the soil and harvest the crops,” Williams wrote of his hometown, “met others who sold and fixed the tools of the farm, and still others who handled livestock, poultry, and gingham and ice cream. And there was always the railroad…. Atlantic was part of the empire.”
Looking back, we can see clearly that Tragedy’s 1959 publication cracked the consensus monopoly that had dominated American historical writing since World War II. Liberal scholars had produced a host of seminal texts, including Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Roosevelt, books that in their own ways supported the emerging warfare-welfare status quo. But Williams read the past through the influence of a populistic Midwestern heritage, which led him to contest the dynamics of the imperial presidency, the efficacy of Keynesian capitalism, and the presumption that American global expansion benefited the world. By placing Williams in a line of interior intellectuals–including predecessors Turner and Beard, and contemporary Christopher Lasch–we can see his research in context and understand Tragedy’s place within a sectional scheme of thought that links progressive-minded historians in resistance to the military-industrial complex. Time seemed to make a prophet of Williams: a handful of years after Tragedy’s publication came the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. invasion of the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam.
While critics accused Tragedy of leaning left, in fact the book was informed by a residual middle-western conservatism. Williams’s aversion to liberal internationalists Wilson and Roosevelt are conspicuous in his scholarship; just as his admiration for the “Good Neighbor” continentalism of Herbert Hoover and the isolationism of Robert Taft Jr. clearly shows through. Many scholars simply assumed that Williams’s censorious review of American imperialism must have come from a Marxist perspective. Yet Williams conveyed a very American, a very populistic rejoinder to the imperial tectonics then being constructed. His most important influences were the regional scholars who anticipated him. Turner introduced the frontier expansionist theory to historical writing, Beard produced the first serious criticism of a global Open Door policy, and Williams’s colleague Merle Curti–Turner’s last student and friend to Beard–wrote several books exploring peace movements in America. Combined, they searched for the roots of their nation’s seemingly endless interventions, occupations, and wars.
In Tragedy, Williams powerfully resisted what Henry Luce had described in 1941 as the “American Century.” For rather than see the United States as a force for global democracy, Williams argued that an appetite for markets and expansion provoked his country’s actions on the world stage. Thus economics rather than idealism motivated U.S. foreign policy; American capitalism rather than Soviet communism was the real threat to world peace; and the U.S. had always practiced colonialism while imagining itself a firm opponent of colonization. Tragedy, in other words, challenged the nation’s self-image and self-identity. “‘Isolationism’ for America,” Williams wrote, “is a denial of its entire cultural tradition of expansion and empire;” imperialism had become “a way of life.”
A number of important liberals in the academy loathed Tragedy and it, along with a growing corpus of radical scholarship trailing in its wake, caused a great professional debate on the nature of the cold war. Critics such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Oscar Handlin and Robert James Maddox held firm to the conventional view that, as Schlesinger put it in 1966, “the cold war was the brave and essential response of free men to communist aggression.” And yet the times were now clearly on the side of the revisionists: Williams’s growing influence suggested to some of his critics that America suffered from a cultural illness. A decade of war, racial violence, and student uprisings had caused many scholars to lose confidence in objectivity and, at a deeper level, faith in their country as a force for good in the world.
The critics, in other words, regarded Tragedy as a product of a tumultuous era, its author seeking the approval of a New Left. There is no doubt that the ideological slant of American life in the 1960s popularized Tragedy—but its views were not the product of the 1960s. They emerged, rather, from Williams’s prewar Midwestern roots, graduate training at Wisconsin in the 1940s, and intensive study of American history in the 1950s. An intellectually serious scholar, Williams did not ride the counterculture to prominence; rather the culture caught up with him.
And then he walked away from it. Less than a decade after publishing Tragedy, Williams left Madison. Retreating to the Pacific Northwest, he taught for several years at Oregon State University, living in Waldport, a spare seaside town. He died in 1990.
At fifty, Tragedy retains its power to provoke. No doubt our own troubled times have something to do with that. While the cold war that impacted Williams’s work has now passed, our own generation is living in an all too eventful age of Near Eastern wars. And the questions Williams raised a half-century earlier–about the nature of America, its impact on the world, and its odd inability to regard itself as an empire even while acting imperially–remain vitally germane.