Sessions on great historian William Appleman Williams

Historians in the News

William Appleman Williams, arguably the most influential historian ever to walk the halls of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's once-great history department, will be remembered at two events in Madison this week. Panels of former students and activist scholars will mark the 50th anniversary publication of his groundbreaking historical critique of U.S. foreign policy, "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy." They'll examine the impact of his career-long work exposing an often-avoided central element of U.S. history: the unfaltering quest for empire.

A true son of the American heartland, Williams grew up in the small community of Atlantic, Iowa. Following military school in Missouri, he went to the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1944. Following a World War II Pacific stint, he served in Corpus Christi, Texas, where he joined civil rights activism. Leaving the Navy in 1946, he came to graduate school in Madison in 1947. He earned a master's degree and Ph.D. here under the influence of that period's progressive history faculty, among them Fred Harvey Harrington, Merle Curti, Howard K. Beale and the German emigre sociologist, Hans Gerth. After teaching at Ohio State alongside his future UW-Madison colleague Harvey Goldberg, he returned to the UW-Madison history department in 1957.

Williams departed from mainstream historiography early on. While most U.S. historians were still constructing nationalist sagas of an "exceptional" ongoing experiment, the "city upon a hill" as a beacon of freedom for the rest of the world, Williams argued that the nation's leadership, from its earliest moments, had imperial ambitions that boded ill for all those in the way.

Williams' conception of U.S. foreign policy centered on the effort of the country's leaders to evade domestic inequality and protracted crisis through escapist movements abroad. The nation's problems and solutions were externalized as various interests looked abroad for ways to resolve crises and preserve a capitalist frontier made safe for market and investment expansion.

His masterwork, "Contours of American History," surveyed the breadth of the nation's history, from Jefferson and Madison forward, to illustrate the centrality of the expansionist drive and the imperial worldview or "weltanschauung" that legitimized and rationalized it. He homed in on the crises of the 1890s, a period of deep economic depression and massive social upheaval, as the point of departure for the modern global quest for empire. The result was the Spanish-American War, in which Uncle Sam snatched Cuba and the Philippines, highly prized as the gateway to the China market...

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Thomas R. Cox - 10/10/2009

He taught at the University of Oregon before returning to Wisconsin. I should know, I took classes from him. . . and after he left Wisconsin he taught at Oregon State where he was a mentor of the influential Western historian Bill Robbins. In most folks minds, Williams may be primarily connected with Wisconsin, but there is more to the story than that.