Historian: William Appleman Williams

Name: William Appleman Williams

Lived: 1921-1990

Nationality: American

william appleman williams

Profession(s): Academic, historian

Books: American-Russian Relations 1781-1947 (1952), The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959), The Contours of American History (1961), The United States, Cuba and Castro (1962), The Roots of the Modern American Empire (1969), Americans in a Changing World: A History of United States in the Twentieth Century (1978).

Perspective: Revisionist

William Appleman Williams was one of America’s most prominent 20th-century historians.

Bill Williams was born and raised in a small town in southwestern Iowa. His father, an army aviator, was killed in an air crash when Williams was seven years old. Williams enlisted in the military during World War II and studied engineering at the US Naval Academy.

After the war, he studied history at the University of Wisconsin. His doctoral thesis, completed in 1950, focused on the history of US-Russian relations.

After graduation, Williams took academic positions in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Oregon, before returning to Wisconsin in 1957. His classes became popular with Wisconsin students, who enjoyed Williams’ forthright and engaging teaching style and his willingness to challenge orthodox views. He returned to Oregon State University in 1968, remaining there until his retirement two decades later.

Williams was a pioneer of the Revisionist school of Cold War history. In 1959, he published The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, a scathing criticism of United States foreign policy in the 20th century.

In Williams’ view, the US was a bullocking imperial power that sought to further enrich itself through expansion and trade. Its foreign policy served this objective by forcing open the economic borders of other countries, allowing American companies to access their markets (Williams called this an “Open Door” policy). America’s foreign policy was concerned not with spreading democracy or liberalism but expanding capitalism and free trade.

The ‘tragedy’ Williams refers to is that by imposing its will on other nations, the United States was betraying the freedom and self-determination it claims to be advancing. It follows that Williams holds the US chiefly responsible for igniting the Cold War. He attributes this to Washington’s inflexible attitude to the Bolshevik regime after it took power in 1917.


“America’s traditional view of itself and the world is composed of three basic ideas or images. One maintains that the United States was isolationist until world power was ‘thrust upon it’… Another holds that… America has been anti-imperialist throughout its history. A third asserts that a unique combination of economic power, intellectual and practical genius and moral rigour enables America to check the enemies of peace and progress and build a better world – without erecting an empire in the process.”

“The main points of American policy [toward the Soviet Union] were quickly evolved and implemented… As long as the Bolsheviks remained in power, the United States would refuse to establish intercourse and would refuse to recognise Lenin’s government. Washington would do all in its power to aid any serious and conservative leader or group whose aim was the destruction of the Soviet government.”

“The leaders who succeeded Roosevelt understood neither the dilemma nor the need to alter their outlook. A handful of them thought briefly of stabilising relations with the Soviet Union on the basis of economic and political agreements, but even that tiny minority saw the future in terms of continued [American] expansion… The great majority rapidly embarked upon a program to force the Soviet Union to accept America’s traditional conception of itself and the world.”

“Stalin’s effort to solve Russia’s problem of security and recovery short of widespread conflict with the United States was not matched by American leaders who acceded to power upon the death of Roosevelt… They proceeded rapidly and with a minimum of debate to translate that conception of America and the world into a series of actions and policies which closed the door to any result but the Cold War.”

“Very few, if any American leaders thought that Russia would launch a war. Policymakers were quite aware of the pitiful conditions in western Russia, of the nation’s staggering losses and its general exhaustion, of its simply enormous need for outside help to repair the devastation of war, and of Stalin’s stress on firm economic and political agreements with the United States to provide the basis for that reconstruction.”

“Another basic attitude held by American leaders defined the United States as the symbol and the agent of positive good, as opposed to Soviet evil, and assumed that the combination of American strength and Russian weakness made it possible to determine the future of the world in accordance with that judgement.”

“After the atom bomb was created and used, the attitude of the United States left the Soviets with but one real option: either acquiesce in American proposals or be confronted with American power and hostility. It was the decision of the United States to employ its new and awesome power in keeping with the traditional Open Door Policy which crystallised the Cold War.”

“George Kennan’s appointment as United States ambassador to the Soviet Union was a move of vital significance in the Cold War. For the choice of Kennan, self-acknowledged author of the policy of containment and publicly proclaimed ‘inside strategist’ of the Cold War, reemphasised Washington’s determination to press the original policy of containment.”

“America’s humanitarian urge to assist other people is undercut – even subverted – by the way it goes about helping them.”

“Isn’t it time to stop defining trade as the control of markets for our surplus products and control of raw materials for our factories? Isn’t it time to stop defending so narrowly – in our thinking as well as our practice – upon an informal empire for our well-being and welfare? Isn’t it time to ask ourselves if we are really so unimaginative that we have a frontier in the form of an informal empire in order to have democracy and prosperity at home? Isn’t it time to say that we can make American society function even better on the basis of equitable relationships with other people?”

Citation information
Title: “Historian: William Appleman Williams”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
URL: https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/historian-william-appleman-williams/
Date published: October 30, 2018
Date accessed: February 25, 2023
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