Saturday, March 12, 2005

Libertarian Anti-Imperialism

William Appleman Williams

I had come across Joseph Stromberg’s libertarian analysis of Anti-Imperialist American Historian William Appleman Williams, some time ago on the web and had the opportunity to cruise Stromberg’s column at again and thought it important enough to share.

I had not heard of Williams before, and appreciated Stromberg’s introduction to this overlooked American revisionist historian.

I came to appreciate why his socialist critique of American Empire and foreign policy would influence Americans of both the Libertarian Left and the Right. "
Radicals have hailed him as a supreme anti-imperialist, while Libertarian conservatives have seen him as the ``second Charles Beard,'' renewing the perspectives of the nation's foremost historian. says Paul Buhle.

Williams fell out of favour in the eighties and nineties as the neo-liberal ideology steamrolled over its opponents on the left after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Williams however is has not been left as an obscure footnote in history. His work is now considered essential in understanding American Imperialism in the age of Globalization.

With Stromberg’s appreciation of Williams, written in 1999 at the height of Clintons Popular Front War against Serbia, we see libertarian dialectical analysis unafraid to confront a marxian dialectic and appreciate it. Williams insight into American Imperialism became even more relevant as America pursued its new preemptive strike policy post 9/11 against the neo-cons old straw dog Iraq.

An essential aspect of Libertarian Dialectics is the praxis of revisionist history. In this we need no conspiracy theories to understand that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, and that theirs is a history of the winners and losers. Our revisionism arises from understanding this dialectic we look at history from below, not from the losers, but the actual historical actors who have created the social change in the first place, the people themselves, as individuals and as social beings.

Stromberg is not your papa's libertarianism. It is not Republicanism Right, nor is it "vulgar libertarianism" or "liberaltarianism". If Kevin Carson is a Free Market Anti-Capitalist then Stromberg is a Libertarian Anti-Imperialist.

Stromberg is a consistent and outspoken opponent of Imperialism and War from a Libertarian perspective. And he has been so when such opposition on the right was tantamount to treason, which it has been in every case of American intervention abroad regardless of the popular opposition to it. Even now as half the American population opposes the Iraq war the Right continues to wave the flag of patriotism (the last refuge of a scoundrel as Bernard Shaw said) for their boys, and girls, over there. Why they are there is less important than supporting them once they are there, says the patriot regardless of whether they belong to the Democrats or Republicans. Stromberg consistently has asked why they are there and his answer is a consistent Anti-Imperialism in the tradition of Mark Twain.

Carson and Stromberg are amongst the few and the brave, who use Libertarian Dialectics, to confront the right wing liberaltarians and those who would reduce revisionist history to being a caricature of itself; conspiracy theory. Revisionist history is not a creature of the right but of the left, its essence is historical materialism, unable to accept this basic fact, the right insists on reducing every act to those of conspiracies amongst the rulers over the ruled.

So I am pleased to offer this introduction to Williams by Stromberg and a link to the rest of the article on Williams here on my blog. As well as readers will know from my web writings I have included other references to Williams as well as examples of his writings available on the web.

William Appleman Williams:

Premier New Left Revisionist


Joseph R.

Last week in a discussion of Charles Austin Beard, "isolationist" Progressive historian, I mentioned Beard's influence on a number of younger scholars, among them William Appleman Williams and Murray N. Rothbard. Williams emerged in the late 1950s as the spearhead of New Left diplomatic history and has had an enduring influence on the writing of American history. "Mainstream" scholars take his insights into account but acknowledge his impact only in the most backhanded way possible. It is probably among libertarians and anti-imperialist conservatives that Williams now finds his true following.


William Appleman Williams (1921-1990) was born in Iowa in and attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He served in the Pacific in World War II. As influences on his thought, I should mention Beard, John Adams, James Madison, Walter Prescott Webb (whose writings on the frontier – ending with The Great Frontier – treated a theme which Williams made his own), and – in a generic sort of way – Karl Marx. One doubts, however, that Williams was ever really a "Marxist," despite the Cold War liberals' joy in awarding him that title.

After the war, he took a PhD in History at the University of Wisconsin, which was still something of a bastion of the old-style Progressive history. His first book, American-Russian Relations, 1781-1947 [1952] had a small impact and led Mr. Vital Center himself – Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a founder of Cold War liberalism – to attack Williams as a "pro-Communist scholar."1 In 1957, Williams returned to teach at Wisconsin, where he and his graduate students became known as the "Wisconsin school" of diplomatic history. Late in life, he taught at Oregon State University and served as President of the Organization of American Historians. Even in the turbulent "sixties," he was critical of New Left excesses. He would have hated the present university climate of political correctness.


His Tragedy of American Diplomacy [1959; 1972] was noticed by the scholarly community, although the Cold War liberals, of course, hated it. The House Un-American Activities Committee noticed his work and wasted his time with summonses which were suddenly revoked after he had spent money and time traveling to hearings. This petty harassment was continued for a while by another government agency I need not mention.

As the quagmire in Vietnam raised fundamental questions about the policies pursued – with mere differences of nuance – by Cold War liberals and conservatives, Williams began to find an audience for his ideas. Book followed book. Here I shall only mention the very important Contours of American History [1961, 1973], the two-volumes of readings in American diplomatic history (The Shaping of American Diplomacy [1966, 1967]), America Confronts a Revolutionary World [1976] and Empire as a Way of Life [1980].

Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He is a part-time lecturer in History at the college level. You can read his recent essay, "The Cold War," on the Ludwig von Mises Institute Website. His column, "The Old Cause," appears each Tuesday

William Appleman Williams Learning From History
American Radicals , American Radicals series

Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin

``I prefer to die as a free man struggling to create a human community than as a pawn of empire,'' wrote historian William Appleman Williams in 1976.

Annapolis graduate and World War II Naval officer, civil rights activist and President of the Organization of American Historians, Williams (1921-1990) is remembered as the pre-eminent historian and critic of Empire in the second half of this century. More than any other scholar, he anticipated, encouraged and explained the attack of conscience suffered by the nation during the Vietnam War. Radicals have hailed him as a supreme anti-imperialist, while Libertarian conservatives have seen him as the ``second Charles Beard,'' renewing the perspectives of the nation's foremost historian. Fellow historians consider him a great figure in American thought at large, one who looked for large patterns and asked the right questions.

Counterpunch also has an excellent article on Williams’s relevancy today in light of the new age of American Imperialism:

The Relevance of William Appleman Williams

History and the Tragedy of American Diplomacy

"William Appleman Williams suggested that in spite of its best intentions American foreign policy was based largely on a one-dimensional American belief that Americans and American democracy had all the answers. The sad truth is that that belief might not be far wrong, but the inflexibility of the administrators in charge of its application has contributed to a century of failure in foreign relations.

According to Williams, American diplomacy was based on three premises, which, for all intents and purposes, have not changed and maintain a contemporary validity and relevance. The first is the humanitarian impulse to help other people solve their problems. The second principle encourages self-determination, which insists that every society have the right to establish its own goals or objectives, and to realize them internally through the means it decides are appropriate. Third-and here's the kicker-American diplomacy has typically insisted that other people cannot really solve their problems and improve their lives unless they follow the American formula. The contradiction evident in this third premise effectively nullifies the genuine best interests of the first two, but it also speaks volumes about the global perception of American arrogance."

American Marxism: Theory without Tradition
by John B. Judis , Washington editor of In These Times and has recently completed a biography of William F. Buckley.

The Choice Before Us by William Appleman Williams
American Socialist, July 1957

Preface: History as a Way of Learning
Excerpted from The Contours of American History
by William Appleman Williams (1966) pp. 17-23.

Martin Luther King and the New American Frontier
By William Appleman Williams and Lewis Kreinberg

for Renewal Magazine. Originally Published April 5, 1968.

William Appleman Williams and the Myth of Economic Determinism
Steven Hurst
Manchester Metropolitan University
Paper prepared for the APG Conference, Reading, January 3-5 2003

Kindleberger on Bretton Woods
Redefining the Past: Essays in Honor of William Appleman Williams

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good to see the articles on WA Williams. I am proud to say I saw him speak back in ’68 at SFU. Also I am very fond of Stromberg, hard hitting stuff he writes. As for the pseudo-libertarians I felt they would best be ”hoisted by their own petard.” The vulgar left always went after them for believing in the free market and free enterprise. Of course, it was easy for the pseudos to deflect that argument. The real argument is that the “liberaltarians” DON’T believe in the free market, but want a state-supported economy, all capitalism being in essence STATE capitalism. Now there is a growing number of people, such as yourself, Kevin Carson, Little Red Blogger, Jonathan Simcock of Total Liberty and others, who are proceeding to very effectively rip away the supposed anti-statist mask of the “libertarians.” This situation can only lead to some of them opting for genuine anti-statism, as did Rothbard and SEK3, or joining the neocons.