U.S. Intellectual History Blog

William Appleman Williams: Fifty Years After His Book on the Tragedy of American Diplomacy

William Appleman Williams
By James Livingston
(Note: This essay was first published a few years ago at HNN. Jim asked that I re-publish here in the context of my recent post, “Against Irony.” The implication is that William Appleman Williams’s interpretation of U.S. foreign policy, which he famously labeled “tragic,” is an approach that might instead be thought of as ironic. )
Fifty years ago, William Appleman Williams published The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, the emblematic text of “revisionist” diplomatic history.  That anniversary was celebrated by a conference at Rutgers University which was organized and hosted by my colleague Lloyd Gardner, Williams’s first PhD student at the University of Wisconsin.  The conference featured a lacerating keynote address by Andrew Bacevich, twelve papers by “revisionist” historians of several generations, wonderful stories about Bill Williams in his intellectual prime, and the graying eminence of founders such as Thomas McCormick, Walter LaFeber, Stanley Kutler, Marilyn Young, Stanley Katz, and Warren Kimball.
In spite of those wonderful stories, three brilliant papers (by Jeff Engel, Nick Cullather, Greg Grandin), and the ambient eminence, I have to say the conference was disappointing, even disquieting.  There was too much consensus, too little conflict in that big room on the second floor of the brand new Heldrick Hotel, where a flop house used to face the World War I monument, the site of every local anti-war rally since 1965.  There was so much agreement on the immediate relevance of Tragedy that I am sure Bill himself would have protested.

But then I barely knew Bill Williams.  I met him only once, in 1976, at Carl Parrini’s house in DeKalb, Illinois, where he had given a talk extracted from his new book, America Confronts a Revolutionary World.  He drank us graduate students under the table, literally—one of us slept until morning under Carl’s coffee table—and meanwhile parried our intellectual protests with infuriating aplomb.  Bill and I did correspond manically in the mid-1980s after he became a reader for Cornell UP of my book manuscript on the origins of the Fed; he was then experimenting with stationery design, so every letter was worth looking at even without the words that filled those tiny, fragile, ragged pages.  He was already terminally ill.  I wrote his obituary for In These Times in March, 1990, at Jim Weinstein’s request, and a decade later published a paper on his contribution to counter-progressive historiography in Diplomatic History.
So we were professionally acquainted.  But I have long felt that somehow I knew Bill Williams as a close advisor, an intellectual mentor, a trusted friend.  Maybe because his presence at Northern Illinois University in the 1970s was everywhere you looked—he decisively shaped my origins as a professional historian.  To begin with, the department of history there was overpopulated and overdetermined by alumni from the University of Wisconsin that had been his home between 1957 and 1968.  My advisors, Parrini and Martin Sklar, were themselves alumni, having been present at the creation of “revisionist” diplomatic history along with Gardner, LaFeber, and McCormick.  And the European side of the curriculum was dominated by students of Harvey Goldberg and George Mosse.  But even those who began their careers elsewhere were swept up in the “revisionist” sensibility animated by Williams—for example, Al Young assigned The Contours of American History(1961) in every graduate course he offered, and that book was a point of contention in almost every conversation, in class and out (even the matters of its form, language, and style kept us up at night, imagine that).
“Revisionist” diplomatic history as inspired by Charles Beard, Howard Beale, and Fred Harvey Harrington, then restated, recast, and renewed by Williams, is often characterized as an instance of economic determinism because the revisionists consistently emphasize(d) the relation between the development of American capitalism and the evolution of US foreign policy.  In fact, they have paid close attention to the economic dimensions of the Open Door world—of which more below—but they have never equated foreign relations and dollar diplomacy.  Their goal has always been to dismantle the stale opposition of “realism vs. idealism” which still regulates conventional thinking about the making of US foreign policy; the means to this end is the revisionists’ recognition that until the very late 20th century—when “human rights” became a new benchmark—policy-makers saw no contradiction between their commitment to the globalization of capitalism and the realization of the highest possible morality.
“Revisionist” diplomatic history accordingly grasps US foreign policy as fundamentally imperialist in its origins, aims, and results.  By this accounting, the American empire was not the spastic, temporary effect of high spirits and sloppy thinking at the State Department, ca. 1899-1900, as George Kennan, a quaintly “realist” architect of Cold War “containment” policy, described it in American Diplomacy (1950).  Nor was it the unintended effect of hurried reactions to Great Power moves on the chessboard of world politics, as other so-called realists would have it.  Instead it was a reliable way of exporting the social question—of pacifying internal conflicts, particularly the conflict between capital and labor over their respective shares of national income—and, inevitably, of externalizing evil.  It eventually became, in this sense, an agenda for changing everything in the world elsewhere, everything, that is, except the American standard of living.
But the tragedy residing in American diplomacy was not, according to Williams, the imperialist urge itself, simply because the Open Door World posited by policy-makers at the turn of the last century did represent a real break from the received tradition of Great Power politics, which equated military preponderance with world power.  It was also a genuinely anti-colonial and implicitly post-imperialist design for a new international order.  An Open Door world would, to be sure, permit the unfettered expansion of the American “business system” into areas of the globe hitherto closed off by European spheres of influence.  But this expansion would also transfer the most advanced technology of economic development to countries that suffered from a shortage of capitalism as well as capital; therefore it would enable the peaceful passage of the seat of empire from East to West, even, perhaps, unto Asia.
No, the tragedy of American diplomacy came later, according to Williams, when the Open Door hardened into a brittle anti-communist ideology under the hammers of the Cold War.  When a novel, flexible, pragmatic approach to world politics and the problem of development became an intellectual imperative that was no less arcane, dogmatic, and metaphysical than the inane exhortations which passed for true Marxism in the Soviet Union or the Peoples’ Republic, the youthful strengths of the Open Door became fatal weaknesses.
In this important sense, Williams assumed that a post-imperialist future was legible in the original intent of what he called the “imperialism of idealism” and in the real differences over diplomatic means and ends heard in the corridors of power as well as on the dissenting margins of political discourse (as, for example, in the offer to Williams of a State Department job from Adolph A. Berle, the prominent Kennedy appointee who had reviewed Tragedy on the front page of the New York Times Book Review). 
Without that assumption, I would insist, his critique of the American empire stops making sense because its fulfillment would then require the evasion of the world as it actually exists—an evasion that would not allow for history as a way of learning.  If the ethical principles of a post-imperialist future do not reside in the historical circumstances Williams taught us to study, then our only honorable recourse is to repudiate and escape those circumstances—to flee from the past as we understand it, and thus leave the world exactly as it stands.  As John Dewey put it in 1891, at full Hegelian speed: “An ‘ought’ which does not root in and flower from the ‘is,’ which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.”
In other words: When people start wishing that things were better and assuring you that they won’t be, largely because nothing has ever changed except for the worse, you know that you’re in the presence of Kantian radicals who lack, or despise, historical consciousness—you’re in the presence of metaphysicians who know the past cannot be a guide to the present because it is the repository of myths, lies, deceptions, and their attendant moral atrocities. 
But what if this happens at a conference of historians?  What if you find yourself among people who make daily professional visits to the past for the sole purpose of mapping the easiest evacuation routes?  What if, in the name of history as a way of learning, these same people were telling you that you can learn about the past, but not from it?
Wouldn’t you want to ask yourself, where am I?  Wouldn’t you want to know what discipline was at work in that big room full of professional historians?  I confess that I did last weekend at the Williams conference.  I further confess that I have no good answers to these questions.  Hence the disquiet I mentioned at the outset.  But let me at least explain in some detail why I’m worried about what I witnessed.
I’m worried that, with few exceptions, no hermeneutical principles were acknowledged as necessary in citing and appropriating the arguments of Tragedy.  It is true that the book appeared in two revised editions after 1959, but the participants I heard merely restated the original arguments as if nothing had changed since the 1960s in the articulation, in every sense, of foreign policy—as if once enunciated, Empire is a phenomenon that is not itself subject to historical change, except for the worse, as, for example, when American military power begins in the 1980s to stand in for world power as such.  Or as if once enunciated, a holy text is to be quoted, not interpreted, criticized, and made new.
I’m worried that Empire thus appears as a Totality that resembles the closed system we call capitalism or the commodity form or the market or whatever—the external, evil thing from which we must remove ourselves if we are to speak truth to power as authentic, uncorrupted critics.  I’d much prefer that we stop pretending we have access to an Archimedean point outside of the fallen, imperialist world we address, and that we stop acting as if that imperialist world is an instance of an Absolute that excludes our democratic hopes and purposes. 
To see what happens when we do, I offer you Judith Butler’s example.  Here she is criticizing Monica Wittig for assuming that only release or abstention from heterosexuality can break its stranglehold on our political imaginary.  I ask you to insert the words imperialism and imperialist (or capitalism and capitalist, if you like) where “heterosexuality” and “heterosexual” occur, and conclude, with Butler and against, say, Lenin, that the resulting either/or choice is at best inadequate:
Wittig appears to believe that only the radical departure from heterosexual contexts—namely becoming lesbian or gay—can bring about the downfall of this heterosexual regime.  But this political consequence follows only if one understands all ‘participation’ in heterosexuality to be a repetition and consolidation of heterosexual oppression.  The possibilities of resignifying heterosexuality itself are refused precisely because heterosexuality is understood as a total system that requires a thoroughgoing displacement.  The political options that follow from such a totalizing view of heterosexist power are (a) radical conformity or (b) radical revolution.
I’m worried, then, that “revisionist” diplomatic historians have become merely radical, and so are satisfied with this either/or choice in addressing the historical reality of imperialism.  I’m more worried that they invariably choose (b) for themselves, as if this prospect is visible on any horizon, and typically align contemporary political culture with (a), as if this conformist option is even available to their students and the larger population.  I’m worried that in doing so, they’re manning the barricades on a dead end street.
I’m worried that the post-imperialist possibilities of the Open Door world were never mentioned, whether by passing reference to Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’s Empire (1999) or by substantive use of the now voluminous political science literature on “post-imperialism” which was pioneered in the 1970s by Richard L. Sklar and David Becker and later applied to the Mexican Revolution, with brilliant results, by Keith Haynes.  This is a serious omission because the absence of thinking along these lines only validates the unproductive idea that Empire is an indivisible Totality that remains impervious to counter-imperialist sensibilities and strategies either at home or in the world elsewhere. 
It is no accident, by the way, that Hardt and Negri explicate the American template as the introduction to their analysis of a de-centered, post-imperialistEmpire.  The expansive immanence of power expressed in the wholly original U.S. notion of sovereignty “does not consist, then, in the regulation of the multitude,” they argue, I believe correctly, “but arises, rather, as the result of the productive synergies of the multitude. . . . [And] when it expands, this new sovereignty does not annex or destroy the other powers it faces but on the contrary opens itself to them, including them in the network.  What opens is the basis of consensus, and thus, through the constitutive networks of powers and counterpowers, the entire sovereign body is continually reformed.  Precisely because of this expansive tendency, the new concept of sovereignty is profoundly reformist.”
I’m worried that speakers at the conference, all in plenary session, took it for granted that Hardt and Negri can be safely ignored because policy-makers from James Madison to Donald Rumsfeld somehow believe(d) in the “exceptionalism” of the American experience.  One paper treated John Winthrop and James Madison as true believers in a polity exempted from the vicissitudes of historical time, as if the latter’s design for a modern republic didn’t presuppose his recognition that the balance between the “two cardinal objects of government, the rights of persons and the rights of property,” was endangered as early as the 1780s by the kind of economic development already evident “even in Kentucky”—the kind of development that would render the “smaller part only” interested in protecting the rights of property. 
Madison understood that economic development would produce a division between “the Class with, and the Class without Property”; he also understood such development as the engine of a regional division of labor which would keep producing a diversity of political interests.  But he hoped this diversity would in turn postpone—not prevent—the formation of majorities, and thus preserve the possibility of popular government.  In that crucial sense, Madison welcomed the very division of labor that earlier republican theorists had read as evidence of a descent into historical time and a death sentence on popular government.  The mind of the founder had no room for exceptionalism.  The minds of his successors were no more accommodating to this notion, regardless of what “revisionist” diplomatic historians would like to think.
I’m worried that “revisionist” diplomatic historians have accepted without question the periodization of imperialism on offer from world-systems theory and its cognate, dependency theory.  By this accounting, the impoverishment of a less-developed country is the inevitable result of any economic relation that conjoins it to an advanced capitalist nation, whether that relation is conducted in the form of trade or investment, and regardless of when the relation was established.  The developmental results enabled in the 19th and 20th centuries by transfers of technology—by direct investment of surplus capital accumulated in the advanced capitalist nations—therefore remain invisible, even though the work of Bill Warren, Carl Parrini, Martin Sklar, and Jeffry Frieden, among others, suggests that they are theoretically conceivable and empirically measurable.  The broader post-imperialist possibilities produced by such transfers also remain invisible.
I’m worried that Andrew Bacevich is now the heir apparent to the “revisionist” legacy prepared by Williams and kept alive by the “Wisconsin School” of diplomatic history.  Don’t get me wrong, he is a brilliant, trenchant, bracing critic of US imperialism; his new foreword to the 50th anniversary edition of Tragedy is worth the price of the book.  But his keynote address on Friday night reminded me of nothing so much as Lynne Cheney’s attack on the National Historical Standards back in the early 1990s, which resulted in her book of 1995, Telling the Truth.  For both of them end up accusing us—the professoriate and the people—of a postmodern aversion to “morally serious history.”
Professor Bacevich updated the periodization of American history Williams offered in Contours by suggesting that we have entered a fourth phase of development, following the Age of Corporation Capitalism, which he called the Age of Techno-Narcissism and/or Conspicuous Consumption.  His emphasis throughout was on Williams the intellectual historian, the scholar who appropriated Wilhelm Dilthey’s notion of Weltanschauung to explain the coherence and power of what Marx called “ruling ideas”—what Gramsci called “hegemony”—and to equip his readers with the ability to wage a “war of position” on this ideological terrain. 
Professor Bacevich concluded by measuring the gap between the world view (Weltanschauung) of American leaders—which still acknowledges no limits on US military power in or economic claims on the world elsewhere—and the reality of world politics, where the once-indispensable nation is now a hapless debtor with two unwinnable wars on it hands and no international support for its imperial ambitions. He explained this absurdly enormous gap between rhetoric and reality as a result of intellectual inertia, of cultural obstacles to political maturity and the corresponding recognition of limits on American power.
The principal obstacle, so conceived, to “morally serious history” and its policy-relevant consequences is the post-modern idea that there is no single, objective truth on which a “moral consensus” can be founded.  Personal opinion is all that matters anymore.  So there is no way to fight “the system,” let alone name it, because we don’t know how to tell the truth.  No wonder we’re still in thrall to a Weltanschauung that has no purchase on reality—we can’t even designate that reality.
Now I admit that I love this indictment because it makes intellectual historians like me both the symptom and the attempted cure of what ails us.  If only I could say, just compare the rhetoric of imperialism to the reality of underdevelopment, and you’ll agree with me on what to do about the reality!  The trouble is, I don’t believe there’s a reality out there that exists apart from my designation of it (and this makes the intellectual work of designation all the more important).  Yes, I’m a post-structuralist, or rather a pragmatist, and therefore I can’t see how Professor Bacevich’s indictment helps us speak truth to power. 
To be specific, I can’t see any practical difference between history, the past as such, and historiography, our interpretations of the past, because all we actually know about the past is contained in those interpretations (the rhetoric of history, if you will).  You will of course say that the interpretations change but the past doesn’t.  My response is, really, how in the world would you know that?  Again, everything you know about the past as such has come from interpretations, even when you are fondling those primary sources in a dusty archive, because documentation itself—what qualifies as admissible evidence—has a history determined by prior judgments on acceptable forms of narrativity, on what properties a real event displays, on who has the attributes of political agency, and so forth.
The truth of historical reality is always plural.  The rhetorics are the reality.  Our task is not to strike through the mask, demonstrating the appalling difference between the appearance or the rhetoric, on the one hand, and the reality, on the other.  It is to ask, how and why is this rhetoric so convincing if the underlying reality is so evidently out of phase with its designations?   In other words, what evident yet unknownreality does the rhetoric make plausible and actionable?  What alternative reality does it meanwhile make invisible as inadmissible evidence?  Our answers cannot boil down to the “false consciousness” of the benighted masses or to the power of money to shape political discourse. 
For good ideas or true beliefs are not copies or transcripts of a fixed, external reality—there is no independent body of fact to which rival paradigms can appeal in making their case, because the facts themselves are convened by the different values, purposes, and methods that constitute the paradigms.  Good ideas or true beliefs cannot, then, correspond to a fixed, external reality; they do something else for us, and to us.
So what is to be done, about imperialism among other atrocities?  Can we salvage Professor Bacevich’s critique without endorsing his epistemological premises, his metaphysical realism?  I think so, in part because I believe, with Williams, that the post-imperialist purposes of the Open Door world invented a century ago are worth understanding, and realizing.  Our ethical principles are legible, in this sense, in the historical record of American imperialism—we don’t have to make pious wishes that things should be better, we can instead act upon possibilities that are already impending in our historical circumstances.  We don’t have to settle for the intellectual exile that mere radicalism forces upon us.  We can make professional visits to the past without memorizing the exits.
Let me conclude with a variation on the theme of tragedy, in keeping, I would like to think, with the sources of Bill Williams’s intellectual odyssey.  Professor Bacevich noted in passing, in response to a question, that Reinhold Niebuhr’s Irony of American History (1952) is “the most important book on American foreign policy ever written.”  It got me to thinking that the participants in the conference, myself included, were perhaps overlooking the extent to which Williams was trying to answer Niebuhr as well as Kennan in writing Tragedy, and that revisiting the difference between these literary categories with the help of Kenneth Burke and Hayden White might be worthwhile.
I take as my texts the opposition between rhetoric and reality which almost every participant brandished as an intellectual credential, and Nick Cullather’s thoughtful paper, “Contradictory Truths,” which both refused and indulged this opposition in specifying the origin of tragedy as Williams understood it.
Here is the refusal, at Professor Cullather’s page 6: “Tragedydirectly confronts the claim that international behavior can be understood only in reference to an underlying reality.”  Here is the indulgence, again at page 6, indeed in the same paragraph: “In the preface to the 1962 second edition he made his point more explicit, referring to the ‘contradictory truths’ on which policy and perception were based.  The tragic quality of American diplomacy stems from these contradictions. . . . For Williams, tragedies are manufactured out of inconsistencies of belief and action.”  And here is the way to grasp these contradictions or inconsistencies, these disjunctures between words and things, perceptions and policies, rhetorics and realities: “[His research] consisted in doing what we all do now, finding out everything leaders read and said, and everything said about them, and patiently determining their unique outlook on the world.”
It seems to me that Professor Cullather is addressing the issue of irony, not tragedy.  He is nevertheless opening up a promising line of inquiry because irony allows a formal ambiguity, or forensic complexity, that treats our current condition as something other than the non-heroic residue of a completed tragedy.  Irony derives from distance—from our removal as the audience from the scene of the action, where, unlike the actors on the stage, who can grasp only the partial truths available to them in the lines they read, we can see the whole truth unfolding.  In these terms, reality is the whole, while rhetoric is the part, and irony resides in the discrepancies of knowledge which can be perceived only by the audience—or, transposed to history’s workshop, by the scholar who is safely removed from the event she studies and who wants to know more about it than its makers.
But the whole truth is never available to those who would interpret as well as watch the play.  That is why interpretations of plays are always plural.  The interpreters, no matter how immersed they are in everything the playwright read and said, must bring partial truths to bear on the play in the form of their values, purposes, and methods.  The same goes for the scholar who wants to know more about the event she studies than its makers.  There is no God’s-eye view of anything.  So irony is a permanent and indispensable dimension of all retrospection, even the systematic version of it we call the discipline of history.  As an irreducible element of the human condition, it is no more intrinsically tragic than, say, language.
All tragedy will then contain this element because the discrepancies of knowledge that produce irony are a condition of tragedy—the hero doesn’t know that his great strength will prove to be a fatal weakness, and, if the author is any good, neither will we until Act III.  Even so, Niebuhr and Burke are right, irony can produce comedy as well as tragedy.  “But tragic elements in present history are not as significant as the ironic ones,” the former insisted: “Pure tragedy elicits tears of admiration and pity for the hero who is willing to brave death or incur guilt for the sake of some great good.  Irony however prompts some laughter and a nod of comprehension beyond the laughter; for irony involves comic absurdities which cease to be altogether absurd when fully understood.”
Burke was more playful, and more casually erudite: “Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity. . . . The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.  When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, . . .that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.  The audience, from its vantage point, sees the operation of errors that the characters of the play cannot see; thus seeing from two angles at once, it is chastened by dramatic irony; it is admonished to remember that when intelligence means wisdom, [it] requires fear, resignation, the sense of limits, as an important ingredient.”  In short: “The best of Bentham, Marx, and Veblen is high comedy.”
As Burke appropriated William James in writing Attitudes Toward History(1935), from which this excerpt is taken, so Hayden White appropriated G. W. F. Hegel in writing Metahistory (1973): “Hegel regards Tragedy and Comedy, not as opposed ways of looking at reality, but as perceptions of situations of conflict from different sides of the action.  Tragedy approaches the culmination of an action . . . from the standpoint of the agent who sees before him a world which is at once a means and an impediment to the realization of his purpose.  Comedy looks back upon the effects of that collision from beyond the condition of resolution through which the Tragic action has carried the spectators, even if the action has not carried him there but has consumed him in the process.”
By these accounts, the narrative form of comedy contains tragedy in both the exclusive and the inclusive sense—it acknowledges the real losses and the unspeakable costs that historical time has imposed on human beings, but it will not rest there.  As White puts it: “Comedy is the form which reflection takes after it has assimilated the truths of Tragedy to itself.”  I would translate this dictum by saying that the moral calendar of comedy converts despair to hope—it permits an optimism that is neither innocent nor naïve—and I would offer the fundamental American music, the blues, as a colloquial example of the realistic yet redemptive urge that comedy makes practical, audible, and actionable in the here and now, not in some otherworldly, disembodied space beyond time.  
These formal distinctions between tragedy and comedy can become political differences.  When regulated by the narrative form of tragedy, for example, the irony determined by our distance from the scene of the action tends to remove us even further, so that resignation from the completed action will feel more mature and realistic than identification with the actors.  When regulated by comedy, irony tends to reverse this relation, so that identification with the actors and vicarious participation in an incomplete action will feel more realistic than resignation. 
With these distinctions and their consequences in mind, I would propose that “revisionist” diplomatic historians re-read William Appleman Williams with Niebuhr, Burke, White, and Hegel close at hand.  Let them keep their understanding of irony intact—and indeed let them amplify its narrative effects by developing the forensic complexity which follows from knowing that every truth is one-sided, that no reality is singular, and that any moral consensus is momentary.  But let them also consider the possibility of writing a book called The Comedy of American Diplomacy.  I think Bill Williams would approve.

One Thought on this Post

  1. whoa.
    I am definitely going to come back and read this closely when I have more time. Perhaps I’ll even have a substantive comment then.

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