William Appleman Williams - Scholar, Historian, Public Intellectual

William Appleman Williams - Scholar, Historian, Public Intellectual

The early Fifties saw the emergence of a new synthesis of the American diplomatic history, advanced by a young historian, William Appleman Williams. In the midst of what was called “consensus history” he proposed a different interpretation of American foreign policy, focusing on economic factors. Archiving a diplomatic history conceived as history of treaties or as the interactions between leading élites, abandoning a vision conceiving of the balance of power as the inspiring principle of States’ actions, Williams placed major emphasis on the interplay between the private interest and the State in explaining Us foreign relations.

The aim of this research project is threefold:

First - to analyze the evolution of Williams’ intellectual career both in the historiographical field and in the public one, where he could be considered a “public intellectual”;

Second - to evaluate Williams’ contributions to the redefinition of Us identity and of its international role during the Sixties;

Lastly - to delineate the legacies of Williams’ ideas and interpretations within the historiographical field.

Inspired by Frederik J. Turner’s “frontier” Williams argues that the end of the domestic territorial expansion forced the United States to seek new markets for its own surplus. It was this necessity to catalyze the so called Open Door Diplomacy: a diplomacy driven by economic reasons, that soon came to identify the US national interest and then, during the XX century, it became a real ideology. To Williams, the single factor that contributed the most to this new diplomacy was what he called “corporate capitalism”, that is, the economic and political structure that represented the organized interests of influential national élites. In this sense, corporate capitalism amounted to a complex and tacit agreement between big business, big government e big labor. The consequence of a foreign policy so conceived was the creation of an American empire that was not territorial but the result of economic expansion. Corporate capitalism, in fact, would have continued to inspire the American Administrations’ foreign policy during the XX century - independently from being Republican or Democratic – making the United States an imperial power.

In so doing, according to Williams, the United States betrayed and subverted its own ideals and values, the ones that constituted the foundations of the democratic Nation. In his works he strongly criticized the US for not taking a stronger moral stand in the world arena: the superpower was not a liberal and progressive force within the international community. Williams’ writings belonged not only to the academic world but also to the journalism on contemporary events. During the Sixties, his articles and opinions inspired and influenced the student movements and the New Left, whom also asked for a fairer Us diplomacy. His reflections had a great influence also on his students and future historians and scholars whom, following his economic interpretation would have been identified as members of the so called revisionist school.

Analyzing the figure of William Appleman Williams will shed a light on the complex debate about Us foreign policy along the XX century not only in the historiografical context but above all in the political public sphere.