In August 1958, University of Wisconsin-Madison Associate Professor of History William Appleman Williams (b. 1921– d. 1990) filled out a faculty information sheet for the University News Service. In these standardized forms, faculty members were asked to submit biographical information detailing their publications, honors, military service, membership in professional societies, and even their hobbies and interests.
In lieu of filling out much of the form, the 37-year-old historian attached his lengthy curriculum vitae instead. But his CV did not indicate that his most recent work was forthcoming, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. In a stapled addendum, Williams, perhaps playfully, notes “It just might catch on.”
Catch on it did.
Williams’ book became, in the words of his biographers Paul Buhle (Ph.D.’75, History) and Edward Rice-Maximin, “probably the most important book ever to appear on the history of U.S. foreign policy” for the way its “dissenting wisdom … helped frame the public discussion” of U.S. actions in Southeast Asia. It also became one of the New York Times‘ 100 best books of 1959. Through his incisive critiques and layered arguments, the genial Bill Williams became the country’s leading diplomatic history revisionist and foremost critic of American empire.
Over the past five decades, the touchstone book went through more than seven editions, and in 2009, a 50th anniversary of Tragedy was printed, followed by numerous retrospectives by both admirers and critics.
Williams enjoyed a long relationship with the University. He studied under some of the great historians of the era, including Fred Harvey Harrington and Merle Curti, and earned his M.A. in 1948 and Ph D. in 1950. He returned to Madison in 1957 and taught here until 1968. Troubled by the campus turmoil of the late 1960s, Williams left for the Pacific Northwest and finished his career at Oregon State University, where he continued to write prolifically. The man the New York Times called the “gadfly of foreign policy” authored a dozen books by the time he passed away in 1990.
“It just might catch on.” By definition, historians lay claim to an expertise about the past. Sometimes they can be wonderfully prescient about the future.