Thoughts on an old book

Eric Alterman has a good post about William Appleman Williams’s famous book The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.  Williams’s book feels a bit dated now–it was clearly written before post-structuralism and post-colonial theory infected the American academy–but it’s a good book nonetheless, for its groundbreaking status if nothing else.  Alterman writes:

What’s so striking about Tragedy‘s lasting impact is that it was a full frontal attack on almost everything Americans believed about themselves, to say nothing of the heroic tales told about our nation’s history in college classrooms. Williams–who began publishing in The Nation in the late 1950s–did not merely blame America’s leaders for the imperfect execution of their overly idealistic ambitions, a common refrain since the end of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in 1921. As Bradford Perkins noted in 1984, Williams proffered a “fundamental assault on the merits of American objectives” themselves.

Tragedy sought to demonstrate that the American empire was no accident. Rather, it was the natural result of what Williams called the American Weltanschauung–a German term that combines a definition of the world with an explanation of the way it works.

And it’s not just that Williams opened the door for critical histories of American foreign policy–a feat that is impressive in its own right considering that he did it during the height of the Cold War, but I read Williams’s book fifty years after it was published and found it applicable to my investigation of the history of American foreign policy.


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