Rutgers conference honors memory of William Appleman Williams





Two weeks ago I attended a moving conference at Rutgers University in honor of my late University of Wisconsin colleague, William Appleman Williams. Bill Williams was perhaps the most influential, and certainly the most controversial, of the U.S. diplomatic historians of the mid to late 20th century. Among his students can be counted three of the most distinguished living American diplomatic historians: Lloyd Gardner (Rutgers), Walter LaFeber (Cornell) and Thomas McCormick (Williams’s successor at Wisconsin). Gardner (who organized the conference), LaFeber, and McCormick have also been among the most important trainers of doctoral students in the field for a generation now, so that many of those in attendance at the conference were in effect Williams’ “grandchildren” and “great-grandchildren.” Stan Kutler (now emeritus at Wisconsin) and I were the only two of Williams’s History Department colleagues who attended.

The purpose of the conference was to revisit Williams’s most important book on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication: The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. W.W. Norton has just reissued Tragedy with a new foreward by Gardner and and a new afterword by Andrew Bacevich. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and an emerging academic superstar in the field of international military and political affairs, gave the keynote address in which he, Williams-like, reflected on the larger trends in the history of American foreign policy and ended in a call (which Williams surely would have applauded) for a “morally serious” history of American relations with the rest of the world.

Bacevich is nothing if not a deadly serious historian, and he set a wonderful tone for an excellent set of papers on various aspects of Tragedy on the second day of the conference. Those panels focused on Williams and the Cold War, on evaluations of the Williams school of diplomatic history, on Williams’s impact abroad, and on the assessment of the writing of diplomatic history in recent years. The conference was enlivened by the participation of an amazing group of Rutgers undergraduates who have been studying Tragedy with Gardner this spring.

I found the conference poignant and a little upsetting. It was poignant since so many of us had been friends of Bill Williams, and admired him greatly. It was great to be with those who shared beliefs based on his (and our) scholarship, although of course we were preaching to the already converted.

It was upsetting, though, since it reminded us that Williams has been widely misinterpreted and underappreciated, and that the field of diplomatic history has been in a long period of decline and inattention from which it is only now emerging. The problem is too big and too serious to be gestured at briefly here, but the gist of it is that the United States is only now beginning to emerge from a series of recent, willful foreign aggressions which are all too understandable in the terms laid out by William Appleman Williams 50 years ago. Those who believe that humanistic scholarship cannot be consequential would do well to read the 50th anniversary edition of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy.

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