The American Socialist, July 1957

[Louis Proyect: In the latest issue of Against the Current, Alan Wald has a very perceptive review of Daniel Schwartz’s new biography of Betty Friedan, which highlights her early years in the CPUSA, and Ellen Schrecker’s ‘Many are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America.’ While sympathetic to the need for ending the demonization of the CPUSA, Alan points out that recent ‘revisionist’ scholarship on the party tends to go overboard. He writes, ‘Missing from ‘Many are the Crimes’ are the voices of the 1950s Marxist left that were independent of pro-Sovietism or liberal reformism. In the period under discussion, such trends, while dwarfed by the Communist movement, were certainly active and vocal, even if assaulted by the Communist Left (as crypto-fascist) and the right (as crypto-Communist). By and large they are associated with figures such as A.J. Muste, Sidney Lens, David Dellinger, and several remarkably well-edited publications variously identified with the Trotskyist movement.’

One of the key elements of this emerging non-Communist left was the American Socialist, which collaborated closely with Lens, Muste and Dellinger in the ‘regroupment’ process. While this process did not lead unfortunately to a permanent formation, it did provide an opening for radical intellectuals who not only were critical of the CP, but who were to play a key role in the formation of the New Left.

Among them was William Appleman Williams who contributed an article to the July 1957 American Socialist titled ‘The Choice Before Us’. The article stakes out a position which breaks definitively with the FDR as friend of peace and democracy paradigm promoted by Earl Browder during the war years. Although Browder was thrown out of the CP for going overboard, his successors never quite broke with the New Deal mentality, as evidenced by their critical support for LBJ in 1964.

Williams, who had no use for the ‘democracy expansion’ rhetoric of the Democratic Party, would have—I’m sure—been sympathetic to the movement against Nato’s war against Yugoslavia. His hostility toward liberal democracy’s ‘civilizing’ wars was a throwback to earlier traditions, such as the progressivism of Charles Beard, a 1920s and 30s figure who was one of the few on the left, besides the Trotskyist SWP, to oppose WWII.

Williams became the founder of the ‘Madison’ school of revisionist historians, who figured prominently in the Vietnam-era teach-ins. Their hostility to the Democratic Party’s war in its early stages was critical in turning a generation of youth, including me, into radicals. Among them are Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz and younger scholars grouped around the journal Radical America. By providing a platform for Williams, the American Socialist provided a ‘revolutionary continuity’ that was much more meaningful than that claimed by small, sectarian ‘vanguard’ parties claiming to be the avatar of Marx and Lenin.

An excerpt from Williams’ article is followed by an entry on him from the Encyclopedia of the American Left.]

An American radicalism, says this analysis. must arise if this nation is forced to choose between a devastating war and a fundamental reorganization of its social structure. The Left will play a key role if it can mature rapidly enough to forestall a nuclear war.

The Choice Before Us

by William Appleman Williams

(Mr. Williams has been assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon, and is moving to the University of Wisconsin this September. His books on American diplomacy attracted wide attention, and his articles have appeared in The Nation and other periodicals. This is his first article for the American Socialist.)

DOMESTIC radicalism has long been associated, in the thought of the Left and the Right alike, with unsettled international conditions. War and revolution have been linked together in the hopes of the rebels and in the fears of the reactionaries. Even more restrained observers tend to assume, or try to establish, a simple one-to-one relationship between war and radicalism. A great deal of pseudo-history has recently been written, for example, supposedly proving that the Bolshevik Revolution caused every war since 1917. And, since the Suez affair at any rate, everyone is familiar with the argument that the Western powers must at all costs avoid disagreements because another war among themselves would produce a Communist world.

Let it be granted that this familiar thesis does account, at least to a degree, and in the latter stages of the process, for some aspects of radical changes. The fact remains that it begs the crucial point about the relationship between radicalism and international affairs. Overlooked in all this free association between war and revolution is the hard truth that revolutions, whatever the suddenness of their eruption, are not spontaneous affairs. Major revolutions, or truly radical changes without violence, are preceded by a period of time during which the society in question is faced by a choice between competing solutions to the fundamental problems of political economy and social relationships. Almost without exception, these various approaches ultimately narrow down to two alternatives: a continuance of the existing order devolving into a and devastating war, or a radical reordering of domestic society. It is possible to specify examples which appear to contradict this proposition (Guatemala and Honduras come to mind), but closer inspection of such cases suggests that they fall into the category of revolutions occurring in the spheres of influence of major powers for the central thesis remains valid.

This is not to say, and most emphatically not to imply, that a radical reconstruction is certain to emerge from such circumstances. No one needs to open a reference book to recall instances in which this choice has been resolved in favor of war. It is only to advance the proposition that such circumstances constitute the environment for the inception, growth, and maturation of domestic radicalism. Hence the most general statement of this hypothesis that radicalism is the child of developing contradictions during a period of peace. Applied to major powers, including the United States, it asserts that no domestic radicalism can arise and become effective unless and until the nation in question is forced to choose between one hand, a war that threatens it with devastation on the other, a fundamental reorganization of society.

AMERICA offers striking verification of this hypothesis but lest it be thought that this proves nothing but the uniqueness of the United States, it is useful and illuminating to test it briefly by recourse to the twentieth-century history of Russia, Great Britain, France, and China. No better support for the general validity of the proposition can be offered, indeed, than the events which occurred in these countries prior to the advent of nuclear weapons. All the A-bomb has done is to make it clear that the proposition is valid for the United States, and to dramatize its relevance for other nations.

Radicalism became a serious and militant force in Russia only after 1870. It became apparent that, on the one hand, the legal emancipation of the serfs had not opened the way for the solution of fundamental questions of political economy and, on the other hand, Czarist expansion was leading the nation toward a debacle in foreign affairs. Japan’s successes in the war of 1904-05 clarified this fact, and led Russian radicals to call openly for a Japanese victory to dramatize the point that the system offered but two alternatives: repression or defeat. The rallying cry of Peace and Bread, which symbolized both the March and the October revolutions of 1917, documents the close inter-relationship between the rise of radicalism and the threat of grave defeat unless basic changes were made in the existing order.

A similar pattern developed in Great Britain and France. The depth and extent of the radicalism correlated with the degree to which the coming wars appeared to promise defeat, as well as with the seriousness of the internal crises. In foreign affairs, the key event was the rise of a Prussianized Germany in the 1870s; and in domestic affairs the period spans the same years during which reforms of the Third Republic and Gladstone Liberalism proved insufficient. Thus the crisis of the 1890s Britain hemmed in by the colonial antagonisms symbolized by the occupation of Egypt and the Boer War, Germany’s naval building program and Berlin’s assertiveness in Africa and the Far East, the agricultural depression of the 1880s, and the Great London Dock Strike of 1889.

By 1893, with the founding of the Labor Party, the options were clearly defined: a new Britain or a war of doubtful issue against Germany for supremacy in the old order. And in France it was the even more militant radicalism of Jean Jaurès—arising in the context of the Panama scandal, the Moroccan crises, the Dreyfus affair, the revival of Royalism—which offered the only viable alternative to another (and even more costly) war against Germany and an extended campaign to hold the colonies.

CHINA’S experience during the same period was even more extreme. The reigns of Kuang Hsü and Hsüan T’ung, last of the Manchus, were incapable of dealing effectively with the problems of political economy confronting the nation—despite Western loans and rationalization of the Maritime Customs Union. As for war, it was threatened and practiced on all sides: by France in the1880’s and then by Japan and the West during the 1890s. One of the central explanations of Sun Yat-sen’s difficulty in organizing effective radical activity lies in the fact that China lacked the opportunity to propose and select between alternatives. Its choice was very simple, albeit very harsh: fight or disappear as a nation. Domestic radicalism was not added to anti-foreign nationalism until the years of relative international peace following the World War. And it did not mature save as it became the increasingly obvious alternative to continued domination.

These examples, and the Russian and Chinese experiences in particular, dramatize the value for Americans of a re-analysis of the relationship between radicalism and war. Perhaps the wrong lesson has been learned—and much too well. The accepted conclusion seems to have that war is necessary for basic reconstruction, and this confines both the Left and the Right in a theoretical and programmatic straightjacket. Radicals tend to wait for the war, even though they squirm at the prospect, while the Right tries to avoid it by policies which insure its outbreak. Thus the Right goes off hunting the Snark of security, and the Left, uncomfortable in its reliance on war, sheepishly trails along.

It would seem fruitful for the Left to give serious consideration to the thought that radical isolationism is not the bugaboo that the advocates of status quo internationalism constantly assert it to be. The consequences in foreign affairs could not be any worse, for status quo internationalism always fights its wars from a very weak strategic position, and a war undertaken by a radical isolationism would have the great virtue of being waged for the right reasons and for viable objectives.

War would transform radical isolationism into radical internationalism, an outlook that is both aware of, and much better prepared to cope with, the central problem of achieving economic integration and development without economic, political, and cultural imperialism. British Labor offers an excellent illustration of this proposition. For whatever the degree of Labor’s responsibility for Britain’s weakness in the Munich crisis, two crucial points stand out: 1) Labor support for armaments would not have prevented Hitler from continuing his assault upon the world, and 2) Labor’s concentration on a program of basic reconstruction made the war much more meaningful and rewarding for Englishmen (and Indians) than would otherwise have been the case (or was the case, for example, for Americans).

ALL of these considerations suggest that America has never been an exception to the central proposition about radicalism and peace, or to the consequences; not even in the pre-atomic era when its geographic good fortune served to mitigate the less devastating character of conventional warfare. The key to the conservatism of American liberalism, and to the weakness and one-sidedness of its radicalism, lies not so much in the absence of feudalism (though that has relevance) as in the usually overlooked fact that between 1803 and 1950 the United States was able to expand without serious opposition, and hence without the probability that a war would bring extensive damage or defeat. And the only apparent exceptions to this rule, the rise of Eugene V. Debs and the more radical period of the New Deal, in fact bear out the central thesis; for in both cases the nation did have to consider the cost of an industrial war against powerful enemies.

From the era of the American Revolution through the Fair Deal, and from Left to Right, Americans have approached their difficulties with an expansionist philosophy of history which holds that the solution to all problems of political economy, and to all social tensions, lies in an increase of quantity rather than through an improvement of quality and a more rational and equitable use of existing opportunities. Because the most striking and overt statements of this interpretation of history did not come until 1893, when Brooks Adams and Frederick Jackson Turner offered it to the elite and the general public respectively, it is easy to overlook the fact that Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, Franklin Pierce, Stephen Douglas, William Seward, Benjamin Harrison, and James G. Blaine all operated on the same assumption.

For that matter, all of them put it into words. Franklin argued the need to sustain freedom by expansion across the Appalachian Mountains. Hamilton asserted the necessity of a mercantile empire. Jefferson sought and justified the Louisiana Purchase on the grounds that more land would bring more democracy. Jackson, Tyler, and Polk applied the same logic and rhetoric to the Pacific Basin as well as to the continental West. Pierce, Douglas, and Seward urged and defended further expansion as the way to prevent the Civil War.

VIEWED from any perspective other than orthodox nationalism, it can be seen that the central characteristic of this period of American history was a labor imperialism based upon the conquest and colonization, in the style of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century European imperialism, of the trans-Mississippi West. This fact has been neglected for the same reason that the policy worked so well: Neither the natives (the American Indians and the Mexicans) nor the competitors (England, France, and Russia) were capable of offering significant opposition. Hence we treat our wars of conquest as benevolent police actions undertaken in the cause of democratic civilization. It was their grasp of this pattern which enabled Marx and Engels to understand the lack of a truly radical movement in the United States: ‘America after all was the ideal of all bourgeois; a country rich, vast, expanding.’

Secretary of State Seward also saw this relationship, and undertook, in line with the switch from agrarianism to industrialism, to shift the nature of the expansion from territorial acquisition to overseas economic and strategic penetration. Markets, raw materials, and bases became his objectives—as witness his forays into the Caribbean, the Pacific Basin, and (in Korea) on the mainland of Asia itself. In many respects, indeed, Seward is the real Jefferson of America’s contemporary industrial liberalism; combining as he does the rhetoric and ideals of freedom with the pragmatic ability to accept the Existing Establishment on the basis of reform through further expansion. Harrison and Blame lacked his comprehension of this process of democracy by expansion, but their frenetic diplomacy was predicated on the same assumption.

Not until the crisis of the 1890s did Americans face even the possibility of a choice between radicalism and a damaging war. Even then, however, the ease with which Spain was defeated served temporarily to strengthen the assumption, so recently and so precisely formulated by Turner and Adams, that democracy was the sprightly handmaiden of expansion. But a bit later, between 1900 and 1917, events did structure the circumstances for the rise of an American radicalism. At home, it became apparent that the limits of political and economic democracy were closing in on every citizen. Abroad, meanwhile, expansion slowed down in the face of vigorous opposition from Japan, England, France, Russia, and Germany.

The threat of a serious war against Japan over China took the edge off America’s crusading fervor. Theodore Roosevelt was forced to give up the struggle for Manchuria and take up the rhetoric of domestic radicalism. Woodrow Wilson’s success was based on doing the same thing more convincingly, though not necessarily more thoroughly. More revealing was the effect of developments on the movement led by Debs. It strength steadily until Wilson’s New Freedom, a failure at home, expanded into a crusade to save the world for late Victorian democracy. That meant war: abroad the Germans and the Bolsheviks, and at home the radicals.

DEFEATED in that engagement, domestic radicalism did not revive until midway through Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, at which time it became even more apparent that continued expansion (for whatever purpose) meant war. Instead of following the policy of British Labor, which offered long-range benefits, despite short-term disadvantages, this American radicalism of the mid-thirties chose to follow the course laid out by Wilson. It abandoned radicalism for a crusade to save the status quo. But by whatever other name—and Doctor Win-the-War and the Fair Deal are in fact rather feeble diversionary rallying cries—the status quo is still the status quo. The end result of all this was the political mutation known as the Vital Center, which combined Theodore Roosevelt’s bellicose nationalistic expansion with Wilson’s Victorian liberalism. It should not really surprise that the Truman Doctrine reads like the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, or that John Foster Dulles is an evangelical preacher in the same tradition as Woodrow Wilson. The thesis that expansion is democracy, and democracy expansion, is America’s Orwell’s Doublethink.

It was not until the early 1950s, when the full significance of Russian possession of the A-bomb undercut this expansionist philosophy of history, that Americans slowly realized that democracy by expansion was apt to turn into repression for and by war. The first product of this awareness was the Geneva Conference, where the policy of containment-liberation—so clearly the classical expression of the expansionist philosophy of history—was tacitly (albeit not formally or rhetorically) abandoned, at least for the moment. Since that time the American scene has been characterized by a general formlessness and meaninglessness. Outmoded policies are sustained by nothing more than the habit and the inertia of expansion. Existing political leaders unsuccessfully rummage through their rhetoric for a relevant idea. And the morale and mores of the society disintegrate into the pulpy pap of an indiscriminate togetherness.

These developments have already sparked a flickering in the ashes of the American Left, as well as a much stronger and more vigorous reaction in British socialism. The key question is not whether such a new radicalism will arise in America, for it is already in existence, but whether or not it will mature intellectually and politically in time to forestall a nuclear war. Given the general, though unfocused, dissatisfaction throughout American the crucial problem is intellectual. A rigorous analysis and a positive program would appear to have more than a fighting chance to win widespread support.

THE theoretical problem is threefold: 1) to formulate and specify a domestic radicalism that will infuse with a purpose beyond its self-perpetuation and the continued mass production of the banal, the vulgar, and the irrelevant; 2) to define and adopt, for the immediate and vital purpose of disengaging from the Cold War before it devolves into nuclear war, a foreign policy of radical isolationism; and 3) to outline and develop, as an ultimate foreign policy, a radical internationalism which will strengthen political and cultural independence within a framework of economic integration and planning.

In the circumstances of the inter-continental ballistics missile, this appears to be the most promising program for replacing corporate capitalism with democratic socialism, and for transforming an empire into a commonwealth. Lacking this alternative, the existing American Empire will ultimately find itself isolated in a socialist and communist world. And, as with most empires of the status quo ante, it will very probably prefer to risk nuclear war instead of accepting its decline and fall with dignity. For it was, after all, only the militance of British Labor that gave Winston Churchill the opening for a graceful retreat from imperialism. He could withdraw abroad because he was challenged at home as well as checkmated overseas. Had he been secure at home, he would have had to fight abroad, even in the face of certain defeat. Anthony Eden was not so fortunate, for he was challenged by Nasser at a time when the Labor Party was immobilized by the conservatism of its own leadership. But Eden’s tragedy does have the value of dramatizing the central point.

The same considerations make it imperative for American radicalism to accept its opportunity and its responsibility to perform a similar service for American society (and, indirectly, for existing American leadership). For the obvious is never obvious, nor the inevitable ever inevitable, until someone points it out or makes it so. The only other source of such action is the Russians, and the only teaching aids they have at their disposal are very apt to destroy the student with the lesson. Anyway, it is long past time for American radicals to abandon the Freudian sublimation of their frustrations in romantic illusions, self-righteous crusades to save someone else, or adjustment to the status quo, and turn instead to the Marxian challenge of changing their own world.


An atypical radical with distinctly conservative traits, not unlike Eugene Debs or various mid-western ‘Progressives,’ William Appleman Williams grew up in the farming community of Atlantic, Iowa, and later registered as a Republican who preferred Nixon to Kennedy in 1960; but always dreaming of old-fashioned egalitarian communities, Williams developed into something of a ‘Christian socialist’ or ‘socialist of the heart.’ A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and injured World War II veteran, Williams first became radicalized by his involvement following the war in civil rights activities in Corpus Christi, a harrowing experience that henceforth left him shy about engaging in direct-action politics. Nevertheless determined ‘to make sense’ out of everything that was going on in America and the world at that time, Williams decided to become a historian at the University of Wisconsin, where a high-powered and heavily Beardian history department favored economics and points of conflict in the study of American history, in sharp contrast to the prevailing ‘consensus’ history of the ‘Cold War liberals,’ particularly those at Ivy League schools. Williams also spent several months in England working with Labour scholars. Always fascinated by the instructive experiences of the Soviet Union, his first book sur veyed American-Russian relations, particularly during the Russian Revolution.

For most of the fifties Williams was a lone voice, writing frequently in left-wing journals such as the Nation, Science and Society and Monthly Review. Although denounced by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., as ‘a pro-Communist scholar’ and later hauled before to the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Williams eventually produced his celebrated Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) and The Contours of American History (1961). In these classic works he insisted that the United States had always been an imperialist nation (Vietnam was no aberration) and that American policy leaders, particularly ‘liberals’ in the tradition of Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt, consistently believed that American civilization could not survive without an ever-expanding frontier or by maintaining an ‘open door’ for American trade and political ideology throughout the world. The tragic result was involvement in two world wars (and a cold one) and staunch opposition to social revolutions almost everywhere, while at home the American elite had developed a ‘corporate liberal capitalist state’ that negated any sense of genuine community or responsible citizenship. Lacking any viable socialist alternative, Williams sought inspiration in such ‘enlightened conservatives’ as John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover. Radicals not only could but must learn from conservatives. Only forty years old, Williams had shaken historical studies as no one else had since Charles Beard.

Meanwhile, back at Madison since 1957, Williams was developing the ‘Wisconsin School of Diplomatic History,’ which produced a number of scholars who substantially rendered the study of American foreign relations more complex and much more rooted in economics. They particularly challenged the ‘Cold Warriors’ by arguing that the United States had been a much more aggressive power than the Soviet Union. This revisionist scholarship inspired and contributed greatly to a wave of ‘New Left’ history that swept across the nation in the next two decades. Williams, himself, greatly sympathized with the Cuban Revolution (The United States, Cuba, and Castro), applied (rather feebly) a Marxist analysis to American society (The Great Evasion), massively documented the imperialist role of agricultural businessmen (The Roots of the Modern American Empire), and sponsored a radical student publication, Studies on the Left, for which he contributed superb essays on American responses to the Russian Revolution. At the same time Williams became increasingly alienated from what he saw as ‘infantile leftists’ on the campus. Student activists needed to reach out and communicate with ‘middle America’ wherein, he naively believed, lay the germs of decentralized, communitarian, indigenous socialism.

Exasperated, Williams left Madison in 1968 for the simpler life of Oregon, thus removing himself from the cutting edge of radical history. Although he popularized his ideas in Empire as a Way of Life and was honored as president of the Organization of American Historians, he never again produced a path-breaking work. A second marriage ended badly, his children had serious problems, and he began drinking more heavily. He died of cancer in March 1990. His social and political involvement had been limited, his solutions vague and even naive, but Williams had left a whole generation of students, leftist scholars, and other concerned citizens with an irreversibly and radically different understanding of the course of American history


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