In this pioneering book, "the man who has really put the counter-tradition together in its modern form" (Saturday Review) examines the profound contradictions between America's ideals and its uses of its vast power, from the Open Door Notes of 1898 to the Bay of Pigs and the Vietnam War.
I wish I could say I read this with the thoroughness of a baboon picking fleas off its paramour. With about half my normal focus, I could tell there was lots of good stuff in here. One of the main themes is that American foreign policy, from 1898 beginning with the Open Door Notes to about 1958 when the book was published, has always been heavily influenced by corporations and their need for markets. America's surplus products were a huge driver of policy, since Americans could only consume so much. As the summary of my edition states, the Open Door policy, "designed to assure continued expansion of the domestic economy by making secure markets abroad, has been pursued...in different versions up to the present time . Yet this policy has failed. It has failed to prevent economic depressions at home, and it has failed to keep the peace abroad." Anyone who has paid attention to our imperial adventures of late (Iraq comes to mind) will notice the parallels. It seems that our recent wars have benefited military purveyors and contractors and firms like Halliburton and Blackwater, while hurting everyone else.
There's a lot more going on in the book, at great depth and detail. I feel like I would need further background in the foreign policy of this whole era (1898-1958) in order to really grasp it.
The fact that this book has become a classic is hardly debatable. Williams’ examination of American foreign policy is now in its fourth printing with this 50th anniversary edition. The book takes a detailed look at “The Open Door Policy” which evolved out The Open Door Notes of the late 19th century. It shows that, for better or worse, American Capitalism had to find and constantly expand into foreign markets in order for there to be freedom and prosperity at home. Williams argues that not only American leaders but the general population internalized this belief so deeply that it was considered the very basis of morality in the world. Any other way of looking at society was believed to be simply wrong, and in fact, evil. Williams undoubtedly knew that this way of looking at Capitalism, and the world at large, coincided directly with the predictions of Marx concerning Capitalism’s globalization. The Policy of the Open Door can be used to explain the objectives of every foreign military excursion we have undertaken since the end of the 1800’s. It continues to this day in our oil-hungry drive for control of the nations in the Middle East and South Asia. It creates real and imagined enemies that have accounted for the build up of America’s military might over the years. Overall I found this examination of American foreign policy to be quite satisfactory and rational in explaining the successes and failures of American actions over the years. Where I would criticize Williams is in his characterization of America’s leaders having a truly benevolent anti-colonial attitude towards the lesser nations in which America invested and set up “trade”. Williams argued repeatedly, and the commentators in the 50th anniversary edition did as well, that the government really believed they were benefiting mankind as a whole by not only exporting America’s goods, but American values, and that the only "Tragedy" was the failure of these policies. I think it a bit uncritical to state this unequivocally. To argue that American leaders (both government and civilian) did NOT know that they were exploiting nations and purposely directing the trade to benefit Americans regardless of the effect on foreigners is quite bold. I believe that the greed of Americans and the drive that is inherent in Capitalistic countries meant that these leaders knew EXACTLY what they were doing, and that they had little true regard for the welfare of nations. Our failure to see that there is more than one way for societies to organize themselves is certainly a problem of ignorance in American culture, and Williams is right to argue that blaming America’s leaders becomes a scapegoat. Americans need to change themselves first and realize the error of their ways…that it will cause destruction at home and abroad…before we will see any change in leadership and our destructive policies. However, the American empire is really not that different than others in history. The drive for power becomes all consuming, and ultimately leads to disregard for humanity…unless that humanity happens to be at the top of the American food chain.
The greatest (?) American historian goes on a diatribe--only the tenured can get away with this kind of frankness. In its place and time, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy was bracing for its vision of history as leading inexorably, stupidly, to global thermonuclear war. And Wm. A. Williams was p-i-s-s-e-d! The best kind of history: a useful one. Read it.
This is a classic study in US foreign policy that I found both interesting and frustrating. A few caveats: this is more of a long essay than a traditional scholarly text. There are very few footnotes, and Williams interjects repeatedly with his own opinion. This book is best understood as a broad interpretive scheme of the driving force behind US foreign policy from the 1890s to the 1950s.
The big argument here is that in the 1890s American business and political leaders started to freak out about the end of the frontier in a Frederick Jackson Turner sense. They were less worried about excess population than about America's economic frontiers, ie the markets and resources it would have access to. This concern, combined with America's growing industrial and military power, prompted the United States to adopt an open-door policy in numerous parts of the world, most famously China. Williams keenly calls this the "imperialism of anti-colonialism," in that the United States wanted to open up colonial economic reserves and allow open trade, but it did so in a way that often abrogated the sovereignty of states like China or many Latin American countries. Williams strings together an impressive number of quotations of American presidents and other leaders saying that without overseas expansion for American surplus production, there would be huge political and social upheaval at home. Williams leaves this.a bit vague, but I think he meant that employment numbers would have to fall, creating more poverty and unrest.
Williams then links the Open Door policy to the origins of the Cold War by arguing that what had started as a conscious policy had evolved into an ideological faith by the 1940s. Openness was the American creed, and it could not tolerate Stalin's desire to carve out an exclusive economic and security zone in Eastern Europe or maybe even all of Germany. Williams narrates the early Cold War in a way that mostly blames the US for demanding full freedom of action in places like Greece and Iran but then freaked out about Soviet attempts to consolidate control in its zone. What I think he misses is that Stalin's actions violated Yalta and other wartime agreements about the sovereignty of Eastern European states.
Obviously, if you know your Cold War historiography, you know that the original debate between revisionists like Williams and more anti-Soviet scholars like Schlensinger Jr. has largely been superseded by a more balanced approach from historian like Gaddis and ZUbok that incorporates a wider range of primary sources. THere's a strong tendency in Williams to fold a wide and complex set of actors and events into his soft Marxist interpretation, subsuming politics, ideology, and strategy under the rubric of economics. I don't think you can just treat openness as a manifestation of US business interests and the desire to offload manufactured goods to sustain capitalism and high employment at home. Wilson and others are part of a long line of liberal thinkers who believe that economic openness, freedom of navigation, and deeper links between societies will soften international tensions and create a more peaceful world. Williams' treatment of Wilson's thinking is cursory and inaccurate. I don't mind if people criticize Wilson or US foreign policy in general, but they need to see the whole picture. While Williams makes an important contribution in his key idea about the Open Door foreign policy, he drastically oversimplifies these other factors.
Lastly, this book is not particularly well written. Williams tends to argue through lists, as in "3 factors drove the United States to..." There are at least 3 of these formulations in each chapter, and it gets really old. I think this way of writing speaks to the problem I was highlighting earlier about this book's ramming of complexity into one schema. So I don't really recommend it unless you are comping in Cold War historiography.. It is more balanced and fair-minded than many of the leftist screeds that followed in its path, but there's so much good scholarship on the Cold War out there to dig into.
“Our economic frontiers are no longer coextensive with our territorial frontiers.”
"The “tragedy” evolved out of the ultimate contradiction between the idea and the reality that the Open Door Policy disguised, and which left American policy-makers imprisoned within a rigid framework of their own assumptions."
William Appleman Williams' "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy" is part diplomatic history, part wistful look at a series of missed opportunities. In it, the United States plays the role of unwitting antagonist as its commitment to the "Open Door" leaves it incapable of understanding the ramifications of the pursuit of such a policy. From its seemingly benign application in China as a response to Japanese inroads into the region, the Open Door, far from being forgotten, became the guiding light of American foreign policy for generations. That this happened at all, Williams argues, is due in part to the connection made between domestic prosperity and access to foreign markets by followers of Turner's Frontier thesis. Following the Panic of 1890, American elites came to believe that the secret to America's wealth and dominance lay in its constantly expanding frontier to the West. With this frontier all filled up, many argued that "continued expansion in the form of overseas economic (and even territorial) empire provided the best, if not the only, way to sustain their freedom and prosperity." This new policy can be seen in America's successful prosecution of the Spanish American War which left her with several new colonial properties and unrestricted influence in those states not under direct control. Ultimately, the American Empire came to be different than the British, taking the form of an "informal empire" under which subject states were nominally free but had their freedom of action severely limited. Any state to cross the United States could expect, at best, a cessation of loans, and at worst an armed invasion as seen in Nicaragua where Coolidge deployed the Marines for six years. Had Williams known about the activities of the CIA, it is no doubt he would have included them in his empire framework. The policies of the informal empire were supported by all presidents from McKinley to LBJ, with only slight variations within. Woodrow Wilson, the Calvinist Idealist, saw it as the American duty to make the world "safe for democracy," that is, for democracy along the lines of the Anglo-Saxon variety and the American-style capitalism that came along with it. Wilson believed that American economic woes came from insufficient buyers on the export market, and sought to extend loans to foreign countries so that they could buy American products. Banks were to provide these loans, although in the end, "tax monies collected from individual citizens came to be used to provide private corporations with loans and other subsidies for overseas expansion, to create the power to protect those activities, and even to create reserve funds with which to make cash guarantees against losses." In essence, the American taxpayer foot the bill while the banks and corporations took in the majority of the profits of these ventures. Wilson also opposed foreign revolution as inimical to his view of a stable community of nations in the mold of American democracy. Hoover, a long-derided figure for his failure to resolve the Great Depression, comes off vindicated in this work, being presented by Williams as being possessed of a shrewd understanding of American and global political economy. Hoover hastened to shift American foreign policy away from military intervention, stating that “A large part of the world,” he warned the country at large (as well as businessmen), “has come to believe that they were in the presence of the birth of a new imperial power intent upon dominating the destinies and freedoms of other people.” He was not wrong in this assessment. Instead, he argued that "In stimulating our exports, we should be mainly interested in development work abroad such as roads and utilities which increase the standards of living of people and thus increase the demand for goods from every nation, for we gain in prosperity by a prosperous world, not by displacing others.” Hoover fought to "keep the door open" in territories gradually coming under the influence of the Axis, but was unable to end the Great Depression. Williams argues that WWII can also be viewed as in line with the Open Door Policy, citing a statement from FDR's Secretary of State Hull in which he claims that "Yes, war did come, despite the trade agreements. But it is a fact that war did not break out between the United States and any country with which we had been able to negotiate a trade agreement. It is also a fact that, with very few exceptions, the countries with which we signed trade agreements joined together in resisting the Axis. The political line-up followed the economic line-up." In his assessment of FDR, Williams echoes many of his other detractors in arguing that it was the war, rather than the New Deal, that brought America out of the depression and that the New Deal, far from being radical, was in fact a consensus aimed at preserving corporate capitalism. He states "it is most aptly defined and described as a movement to provide for the emergency relief, the short-run rehabilitation, and the long-term rationalization of the existing corporate society. Its objective was to define and institutionalize the roles, functions, and responsibilities of three important segments of any industrial society—capital, labor, and the government—and to do so according to the principles of capitalism." The Good Neighbor Policy was but a variation on the Open Door, now combined with FDR's sense of "noblesse oblige" and a desire to integrate Latin America more closely with the American market. Following the death of FDR, the Open Door was firmly calcified at the heart of American foreign policy and often taken for granted by policymakers. That that happened is in part due to the preponderance of American strength at the end of the war. Truman felt that because he was in control of the Bomb, there was no need to seriously negotiate with the Soviets and compromise with them over reparations, preferring instead push off the issue and assume that whatever was promised, the Americans could force their way into Eastern European markets at a later date. Stalin's seizure of Eastern Europe was not a surprise but was in fact an offer made by the Americans, an offer refused by Molotov for a week before relenting in the face of American intransigence. In this work, Williams displays a keen understanding of American history and of the American identity. He constantly notes how these elites did not believe they were acting in a malicious manner, but they were ultimately blind to the negative effects stemming from their seemingly benign policies.
A fun read. America wants money and always has: free trade and pursuit of markets have been the consistent theme of American policy since the later 19th century, says Williams. And this pursuit has resulted in outcomes contrary to America's preferences. For example, we pushed so far to have an important presence in many countries, that we enabled radicals to make those countries communist. It makes sense and I'm sure there is some truth in it. But the book is far too simplistic. This country can't maintain consistency with any one president, let alone something this grand over a century.
An important contrarian view of American foreign policy. Thesis: American economic security has driven American foreign policy since the Spanish American War. American economic success and internal social stability depends upon economic expansion beyond American borders and throughout world, and Open Door Policy, Good Neighbor Policy, and other "innocently named policies" belie their intent. Should be read alongside a more traditional American foreign policy book for best understanding.
A radical analysis of American foreign policy from the 1890s to the 1960s. Argues that the open door policy was often inadequate or counter-productive. The need for constant economic expansion, to get rid of America's export surplus, was antagonistic to the rhetoric of democracy and self-determination employed by politicians. The strategy of containment being one example of that, which from its inception was known to be a policy of inevitable military conflict. The revolutions of the world that were crushed or interfered with by America resulted in resentment and deteriorating conditions in those countries. The goal of improving conditions in other countries through replication of the American model typically failed. It led to high levels of inequality in those countries, especially since the U.S. mainly prioritized building relationships that might have the potential to be economically beneficial. It should also be noted that economic benefit was taken as equivalent to national benefit in the minds of most politicians. In the end, he argues an open door for revolution is a moral imperative. True self-determination for all is necessary, especially now in the world of 2018, and it can only be achieved by building social and political infrastructures that will unapologetically articulate what a radically new society could or should be.
Excellent. My edition is the revised 1968 extended essay with a nice historiographical essay at the end written in 1985. Love a bit of historiography; something I wish I had grasped aged 21 when it made up 15% of my BA mark. Anyway. It's easy to pick apart Williams' analysis on the basis of over-egging economic factors to the detriment of other issues: totally correct. But this is an exemplary a piece of brave, original historical inquiry that named and challenged some gigantic sacred cows at a time when it was genuinely dangerous to do so. He writes really well too, thoroughly enjoyable.
What a horrible book. There are no footnotes and vague sweeping generalizations. Only popular because the New Left, in its fetishistic hatred of America, latched onto this. The main trouble though is that Williams took what was probably true about the Cold War and shoe-horned it onto the Progressive Era and New Deal. Of course the New Left is best at attacking liberal movements of the past and undermining the ideals of effective liberalism.
Militantly informed and meticulously critical, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy surpasses the term “essential.” Citing vast historical literature and State Department and Department of Commerce documents, William Appleman Williams forcefully dissects American foreign policy and its actors, persuasively uprooting purported ideals and unchallenged assumptions in the process. Employing Karl Jasper’s articulation of tragedy, Williams argues that America repeatedly undercuts its own policy goals by tactically achieving its own expressed foreign policy objectives. Put simply, Williams believes “. . . the tragedy of American diplomacy is not that it is evil, but that it [innately] denies and subverts American ideas and ideals” (pg. 291). It is a tragedy manifested from defining domestic prosperity through continuous economic expansion abroad, and of professing to maintain the integrity and self-determination of other nations while simultaneously imposing via economic (and military) pressure an exploitative nationalistic mold ripe for conflict. Williams’s argument principally deconstructs and impeaches Hay’s Open Door Policy, whose ideological seeds, he argues, lay within the original American expansionist outlook. Boldly, Williams posits the Open Door Policy as “a brilliant strategic stroke [leading] to the gradual extension of American economic and political power throughout the world” (Pgs 45-6). Designed explicitly to “clear the way and establish the conditions under which America’s preponderant economic power would extend the American system throughout the world without the embarrassment and inefficiency of traditional colonialism” (Pg 50), the Open Door Policy successfully established American economic and political influence abroad for the next half century. Williams plots the development and realization of U.S. foreign policy as constructed through interactions between the key political figures who shape policy formation, noting an underlying assumption among them that America’s domestic prosperity lay in its foreign policy success abroad. In cultivating an informal “American empire” that limits the choices of smaller nations and exploits their weaker condition for economic and political gain, the Open Door Policy inevitably foments the discontent of those being controlled and unfairly governed. And accordingly, the Open Door Policy, “conceived and designed to win [foreign policy] victories without the wars” (Pg. 57), designed under the assumption that America would exert economic strength abroad in order to mold the economic and political landscape of underdeveloped countries toward the ‘superior’ American model, “was certain to produce foreign policy crises that would become increasingly severe” (ibid.). Later, both the American political elite and American society at large came to conflate the goals of the fundamentally economic Open Door Policy with American moral prerogatives. In a post-WW2 international order fraught with revolution and competing political ideologies, the urgency to expand intensified to the point of inflicting pulverizing destruction and terror upon countries such as Vietnam, all in the name of self-determination and peace. Taking the form of an essay, the book seems at times deliberately confrontational, sporadically making striking claims about political actors’ motivations and the ironic nature of certain events. For instance, despite portraying a worrying dynamic between business and political interests and ardently resisting the traditionalist view of American history, Williams sometimes presents America’s leaders as upstanding moral individuals led astray through tragic misconception. One seriously debates whether Williams advances this interpretation provocatively, so as to inspire serious internal suspicion. Regardless, these claims punctuate his argument, turn it dialectical, and reinforce an important emotional argument secondary to the rational. The book’s conclusion registers and insists upon these two arguments; it is deeply important to Williams, as both a historian and a witness to the terror and suffering of the Vietnam War, that you intimately perceive its tragedy. Presently, Williams’s argument elucidates American impulses behind the Iraq War, post-Soviet country relations, and the limits of American agency abroad. It is fair to criticize Williams’s overly charitable conceptions of American leaders, his emphasis on the importance of the elite-class (or under-emphasis of the American people), and his antiquated conclusions regarding the Soviet Union. However, the book maintains relevance as both a crucial lens through which to construct and view a revisionist history of American diplomacy and a profound argument for significant ideological change. The book urges the imagination of an entirely new form of American policy———one which finds domestic prosperity in itself, accepts its limits, and genuinely aids other countries with determining their own future. In this regard William’s essay surpasses "essential," as it attempts in earnest to remedy the flaws and tragedy of American diplomacy by charting an alternative pragmatic policy comparable in significance to the Open Door Policy.
Basically it confirmed what I've heard and thought about American foreign policy with lots of historical details I simply wasn't aware of. Some of the things I sort of knew but now really KNOW: 1. The tragedy: "The tragedy of American diplomacy is not that it is evil, but that it denies and subverts American ideas and ideals." Perhaps we can just call it hypocritical. 2. Lots of hyperbole was used to get us to hate our enemy. In 1947 Senator Vandenberg expressly told President Truman that it was necessary to "scare the hell out of the American people" to win support for his foreign policy. 3. America was unreasonable in dealing with other nations due partly to the hubris which developing the atomic bomb first engendered. In 1945 Secretary of War Stimson warned of "having this weapon ostentatiously on our hips," referring to the atomic bomb.
This is arguably the most influential book in the field of diplomatic history and introduced the idea that economic and ideological motivations drove American foreign policy over the long duree. Williams argues that the United States was always looking toward the frontier and when that closed on mainland North America that it continued to look primarily for external markets as a place to sell surpluses in order to keep the domestic economy humming. While he was incorrect in his predictions of a nuclear war happening if the US did not change course, many of the themes he presents will resonate with readers familiar with the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Scholars such as Michael Hunt and Walter Hixson have greatly expanded upon the ideas presented in Tragedy in more sophisticated ways. This is a book that any student of diplomatic history should read.
Conservative analysis of US foreign policy from Cleveland to Ike that actually ends up being radical. "Conservative" in the sense that blame is laid at the feet of Democratic Presidents; Republican Presidents are portrayed as more virtuous. "Radical" in that it is a contemporary view of Soviet and Bandung interests that actually considered these actors to be rational and acting in response to their (not inaccurate) perceptions of US behavior and the neocolonial Open Door marriage of business and ideology that drove it.
This is a very interesting and is simply a summation of history of America’s open door policy - from its initial self-serving beginning and the tragedy of leaders in upholding these policy with goals of controlling and manipulating trades markets To understand what’s happening today, we need to under what happened in the past. As the author puts it.. ‘.. it’s vital at this point to differentiate between the motives, the specific results and the overall consequences of American policy” It’s. A good read and must have the interest or else it could sometimes be quite monotonous...
Williams looks at the history of the Open Door Policy, which was the US's idea to have an economic empire without colonialism. He looks at how the policy developed starting about 1890 and had some success (for the US) early on but how the idea was not critically re-assessed and was partially to blame for diplomatic blinders that created the Cold War and the Vietnam War. And how the policy did not benefit other countries as the proponents said it would. The first edition of the book was published in 1961 and updated in 1968. There is an afterward written during the Iraq war by another historian.
A classic look into America and how big business exploited overseas resources. A wonderful and well-documented book with ample sources to check. If you ever wondered how America became so involved with the powers of big business, this book helps pinpoint the beginnings of such relationship. The American oversea endeavors are fully encouraged by the Open Door policy of the late 19th century. A must read for avid historians.
Tediously dull at times, "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy" remains a worthwhile read for its damning portrayal of American imperialism in the early twentieth century and its powerful moral message. Williams does not hate the United States. He believes strongly in America; he wants it to live up to its ideals and stop interfering in foreign markets and elections while claiming to support freedom. That's a message politicians in both major parties have yet to learn.
Thought provoking. Clearly shows strong linkage between American business interests and foreign policy. Debunks notion that Americans were idealistic, more practical. Not very good history though. I mean evidence seemed to be arrayed to prove a point. For example, no effort was made to explain ideas or event, which did not fit his narrative. For example he constantly stressed that America constantly pushed the open door, but never even mentioned Smoot-Hawley.
Considering this work was first published in 1959, its even more impressive in scale and scope. One of the original revisionist histories written on American history, Williams discussion on both economic and militaristic methods of imperialism is both eye opening and was revolutionary. Interpreting American values in the presence of a business and opportunity minded society is extremely intriguing.
Excellent book about the failure of American liberalism. Williams looks at the creation of the modern liberal (who he believes was born out of the more reactionary measures of the Second New Deal). Scathing review of both modern liberals and FDR. Be prepared to question all of your preconceived notions of FDR while you read.
Interesting take on the Open Door Policy and the lasting effect it had on U.S society. Williams defends his view that American diplomacy is tragic pretty well, using solid evidence. The book can be bland at times but overall it gives excellent insight into U.S Foreign Relations from the 1900s to around the 1960s.
Read this for a grad class. I found this book thoroughly enjoyable, due to Williams' unbridled bias and anger. For those same reasons, though, I wouldn't recommend this book to someone who didn't already have a decent background in foreign policy. Enjoyable though it is, it is definitely not a balanced examination.
This is a very interesting book if you are looking to think critically about American foreign policy and the our role in the world. It was not written with mass consumption in mind, so it is not a page turner, but Williams does a good job of presenting an argument that America acts against her own values on the world stage.
About as enjoyable as a pebble in my shoe. However, this book asks some important questions that continue to be relevant. It is also worth reading as one of the most influential texts from the history of US Foreign Policy.
Interesting concept concerning the egoism of the American government immediately out of the isolationist and into intervention of world affairs. Highly recommend but not for people who have very minimal knowledge of 20th century history or foreign affairs/diplomacy (could be highly confusing).