William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, 1972

Writing in 1972, William Appleman Williams surveyed the wreckage of U.S. diplomacy from the Spanish American War to the quagmire of Southeast Asia. Long dominated by elites, U.S. foreign policy bred the very problems that Americans had argued they wanted to export: democracy, self-determination, and the development of laizze faire capitalism. Rather Williams found that much of U.S. foreign policy undermined its stated goals, shifting taxpayer money in support of the expansion of private American industries into developing nations (China, etc). The use of “informal empire” did little to assuage the raw feelings of native populations (not indigenous here), thus Appleman opens his introduction with reflections on the reasons for Cuba’s 1959 Communist Revolution. The inability of policymakers, government officials, and the U.S. public itself to consider the viewpoints of those nations it so “generously” aided, contributed to the tragedy of U.S. policy.

By the late nineteenth century, fears regarding the closing of the frontier, most notably in relation to Frederick Jackson Turner’s safety valve thesis, resulted in the pervasive belief that the United States needed to expand in order to solve its domestic problems. The need for markets drove much of this discourse as many policymakers, farmers, and others pushed for economic expansion, “By 1895, many individuals and groups were stressing the importance of expansion as a way to solve domestic economic problems” . [note- this is reminiscent of Suffragists in the Age of Empire and the Amy Kaplan book on which both talk about how expansion was sees as way to reform US while reinforcing gender racial roles, those simultaneously women and blacks used the same imperialism to prove their citizenship etc so it has countervailing forces] However, Americans and their representatives claimed to abhor the colonialism or imperialism of their European counterparts, thus, United States policymakers drafted the Open Door Notes which according to Williams drove U.S. foreign policy for much of the 20th century. Though at the time of its initial publication, many historians portrayed the battle over this policy as internal and one that occured between “imperialists led by Roosevelt and Lodge and anti-imperialists led by William Jennings Bryan, Grover Cleveland, and Carl Schurz,” Appleman argues that this depiction remains inaccurate. Rather a third group “a coalition of businessmen, intellectuals, and politicians who opposed traditional colonialism and advocated instead a polity of an open door through which America’s preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all underdeveloped areas of the world” emerged as the catalyst and ultimate winner in this debate. Appleman acknowledges the briallance of this maneuver while noting that its success contributed to its downfall, “If it ultimately failed, it was not because it was foolish or weak, but because it was so successful. The empire that was built according to the strategy and tactics of the Open Door Notes engendered the antagonisms created by all empires, and it is that opposition which posed so many difficulties for American diplomacy after World War II.”

Intially at least, reformers did not embrace this new policy, however by the mid 1890s most were on board even mimicking the rhetoric of politicians, “Missionaries came to sound more and more like political leaders, who were themselves submerging their domestic ideological differences at the water’s edge in a general agreement on expansion as a reform movement.” The convergence of the reform movement along with the support of business led to a strange development in which U.S. expansionism came to be seen by its practitioners as providing the dual benefits of democracy/civilization/order and a developed capitalist economic system that would bring financial properity to all. However, there were implicit contradictions in this approach. First, the capitalism imported or brought to such peoples inherently benefited US manufacturers over all others, while keeping the state under “informal empire” in a dependency status. No laissez faire economy could develop. Second, though by WWI, this policy claimed to be exporting self-determination, the U.S. role in each region’s economic and political affairs clearly undermined this goal. American business leaders in this period continue to play a key role. For example, the need for large scale capital accumulation which was needed in order to invest in developing markets remained out of reach for many, however, financiers and industrialists lobbied the state for loans and grants for such economic development. Some favored an international consortium, which scholars might take for early multilateralism, but in reality, US business leaders assumed they would dominate such a consortium revealing a long thread related to U.S. international action . Thus, by the WWI period, Americans had developed “an all encompassing conception of the world. Americans could not only conquer nature, but they could put their self interest to work to produce the well being and harmony of ht world. Their theory not only held that they could do these things; it asserted the natural necessity of action. Any other course violated natural law and thus subverted the harmony of interests.”

The period between 1912 and 1921 did alter conceptions. The emergence of social revolutions threatened U.S. imperialist structures. Since the relationship between foreign markets and U.S. domestic prosperity had been naturalized these uprisings represented a direct threat to U.S. policy/beliefs. As such, the U.S. developed a heightened fear of such revolutions that would infect its decision making for decades afterward including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War.

Appleman’s work reframes not only American historiography but leading individuals and programs within it. For example, Appleman rehabilitates Herbert Hoover, illustrating that FDR more or less adopted Hoover’s foreign policy of development which argued U.S. expansionism must raise the economic forturnes of all peoples not just one class. As such FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy envisioned a similar goal thus they extended Hoover’s idea to developmental loans to Latin America. New Deal trade policies illustrate the continuity of the Open Door thesis i.e. 1) it reinvigorated, extended, sustained the tradition “view of overseas economic expansion 2) “the emphasis on trade expansion, and upon the Open Door Policy, served to define the nature and the causes of danger and conflict in international affairs …by externalizing good, so also was evil externalized: domestic problems and difficulties became issues of foreign policy …” 3) “it sustained and even deepened, the pattern of free trade imperiliasm or informal empire that had evolved out of British economic policy in the nineteenth century.” Note that another problem created by this policy was the creation of pockets of “modernism” such that U.S. “colonies” featured centers of economic development surrounded by areas of economic depression highlighting U.S. interference and its unequal benefits.

One of the key aspects to his reframing of U.S. foreign policy involves his use of the Open Door Policy as a continued force on US diplomacy. For example, he argues the US already contemplated war with Japan and Germany prior to Pearl Harbor b/c of the belief that the U.S. needed to continue expanding its markets. The influence of corporate leadership within FDR’s administration and outside of it remained a potent force. Similarly, the Cold War containment policies were actually an expression of U.S. economic superiority such that American policy makers believed that they could create footholds in Eastern Europe allowing for economic dominance which in turn led to political control. Appleman contends few feared real war with the USSR, “The emphasis on open door exapansion and the assumption of the inevitable downfall of the Soviet Union again indicated that American leaders were not motivated by fear of Russian military attack” . Moreover, according to Appleman, U.S. anti-Soviet propaganda poisoned relations and the public view of the USSR, contributing to its repressive policies in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Here, Appleman illustrates one his main points, U.S. policy failed to view events from the perspective of its fellow nations. This extended to the American public. An inability to conceptualize the difficulties of other nations while focusing excessively on the needs of the U.S. created a diplomacy that lacked diplomatic awareness. This led to the U.S. overplaying its hand with the leaders of the USSR who in turn took increasingly rigid positions against U.S. intentions. The threat of nuclear annihilation by prominent American diplomats toward their Russian counterparts did little to ease such concerns. Moreover, U.S. propaganda portrayed the USSR as totalitarian before the fact meaning the public already ascribed to it a brutality it had not yet achieved. one might quibble since Appleman wrote the original work in 1959, one wonders if he might change some of his tone toward the USSR which seems a bit pollyanish in spots … which is not to say it invalidates his critiques of US policy … its only to say the USSR was probably neither as evil as its harshest critics maintain nor as good as some of its defenders suggest Again, in relation to the 1920s, policy makers of the 1960s mirrored their predecessors mistaken evaluation of social revolutions, “The United States not only misunderstood the revolutions in economics, politics, color, and anticolonial nationalism; it asserted that they were wrong or wrong headed and that they should be opposed in favor of emulation of the American example.” As such, Americans blamed all that was wrong in the world and sometimes domestically on the USSR without assessing their own contributions to such problems, especially the Open Door policies effects. Even policymakers like George Kennan had so internalized the Open Door policy that it seemd natural, “perhaps the greatest is the fact that he had so internalized the assumptions and principles of the Open Door Policy that he thought he was proposing a radically different program. This indeed is the final act in the transformation of a utopia into an ideology.”

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