Williams, William Appleman

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WILLIAMS, William Appleman

(b. 12 June 1921 in Atlantic, Iowa; d. 5 March 1990 in Waldport, Oregon), educator and historian.

Williams was the son of William Carleton Williams, a pilot killed during military exercises in Texas in 1929, and Mildrede (Appleman) Williams, a schoolteacher. Growing up in Iowa, Williams, an only child, excelled in sports and music and was a drummer in a jazz band. He entered Kemper Military Academy in Booneville, Missouri, in 1939 on a basketball scholarship. Two years later he received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Enamored with the works of Spinoza, Marx, and Freud, Williams read voraciously. He graduated from the academy in 1944 and spent the remainder of World War II serving as an officer on an amphibious landing craft. He married Emma Jean Preston in December 1945. He received a medical discharge from the Navy in 1947 due to a back injury. Williams entered the University of Wisconsin and earned his Ph.D. in 1950. Labeled a leftist and pro-Communist because of his Ph.D. thesis on America's "open door imperialism" and his 1952 book, American-Russian Relations, 1781–1947, Williams came under the scrutiny of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Williams taught at Washington and Jefferson College, Ohio State University, and the University of Oregon before returning to the University of Wisconsin in 1957. He divorced his first wife in 1956 and married Corrine Croft Hammer, whose two children he adopted. They later had three children together.

In 1960 Williams was becoming the leader of the cold war revisionists, who were attacking the orthodox view of this period of competition, tension, and conflict (mostly nonviolent) between Communist and non-Communist nations, especially the United States and the Soviet Union. Williams's reputation as a revisionist was solidified with the 1959 publication of his book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. The book, which became one of the most influential works ever written about the history of U.S. diplomacy, ushered in the new decade with a call for an honest appraisal of the foreign policy of the United States. Williams contended that American leaders had subverted their own ideals because of economic forces, which led them to impose capitalistic, liberal, economic standards on Eastern Europe. He said this effort frightened the Soviet Union's leader, Joseph Stalin, who wanted to have friendly regimes on Russia's borders and restore the Russian economy, which had been devastated by the war. In essence, Williams argued that Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S Truman were to blame for the cold war, not the Russians. Williams was criticized for putting too much emphasis on economic factors as the cause of the cold war while being lenient in his analysis of Stalin and the Soviet Union. Following the book's publication, accusations that he was a Communist resurfaced.

Williams's next book, 1961's Contours of American History, was eventually named to the Modern Library's List of the "100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Century." Focusing on the many aspects of capitalism in the United States throughout the country's history, Williams presented a unified picture of U.S. foreign policy as it reflected the character of its society. In the book Williams broke down U.S. history into three ages, "Mercantilism," relative "Laissez Faire," and "Corporate Syndicalism." As did his previous books, Contours of American History objected to many aspects of American life, in particular its imperialistic tendencies as first expressed by its constant move westward. This theme was continued in his 1969 book The Roots of the Modern American Empire, in which Williams also documented what he saw as the imperialist role of agricultural businessmen and explained his view of why America acquired an empire.

Williams is credited as the founder of the "Wisconsin School" of revisionist historians, whose students included noted historians Walter LaFeber, author of numerous books on foreign relations, and Lloyd Gardner, considered one of America's leading diplomatic historians. Throughout the 1960s, many of the Wisconsin School teachers and graduate students figured prominently in "teach-ins" in protest of the Vietnam War. To Williams and his fellow revisionists, the Vietnam War was merely a part of American politicians' efforts to pursue a policy of economic imperialism due to America's insatiable appetite for new markets. Williams, in particular, saw the United States's involvement in the Vietnam War as a tragic result of a misguided cold war policy.

Williams's other books published in the 1960s were The United States, Cuba, and Castro: An Essay on the Dynamics of Revolution and the Dissolution of Empire and The Great Evasion: An Essay on the Contemporary Relevance of Karl Marx and on the Wisdom of Admitting the Heretic into the Dialogue about America's Future. Despite his academic success, Williams's domestic life was becoming stressed. He was drinking heavily, and his marriage was falling apart. In 1969 he left Wisconsin and accepted a position at Oregon State University, where he focused on teaching undergraduates.

Throughout the 1960s, Williams's ideas on American imperialism, the cold war, and corporate liberalism brought forth the ire of both liberals and conservatives. Despite his largely unorthodox views and his somewhat "leftist" politics, his books and articles were surprisingly conservative, and his views often ran contrary to the prevailing thoughts of the decade's "New Left." Even if one did not agree with his belief that socialism was a viable alternative to the course that America was on, his books provided keen insights and a fundamental understanding of the nation's growth. Instead of taking a simplified, pro-American view of the country's history, Williams broke new ground as he exhorted other historians to analyze it honestly. He wrote that historians should focus on "a searching review of the way America has defined its own problems and objectives, and its relationship with the rest of the world."

In 1971 Williams's marriage to his wife, Corrine, ended, and on 8 December 1973 he married Wendy Margaret Tomlin. Williams was granted sole custody of his three children from the marriage. Although he continued to teach and publish, including History as a Way of Learning: Articles, Excerpts and Essays (1973) and Empire as a Way of Life: An Essay on the Causes and Character of America's Present Predicament (1980), his most groundbreaking work was behind him. He died of cancer in 1990, and his ashes were scattered near Waldport on the Oregon coast.

The William Appleman Williams Papers can be found in the Oregon State University Special Collections. The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 17: Twentieth-Century American Historians (1983) contains a comprehensive bibliography. For a retrospective review of Williams's views and impact on history and political thought during the 1960s, good sources include John Lewis Gaddis, "The Tragedy of Cold War History: Reflections on Revisionism," Foreign Affairs (Jan.–Feb. 1994): 142–154, and Jacob Heilbrunn, "The Revision Thing: Who Is to Blame for the Cold War? A New Quarrel," The New Republic (15 Aug. 1994): 31–38. Obituaries are in the New York Times, (9 Mar. 1990), Chicago Tribune, (12 Mar. 1990), and Los Angeles Times, (10 Mar. 1990).

David Petechuk

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