William Appleman Williams. Photo by Ira Gabriel (Oregon State University).

The Tragedy of American Diplomacy: A Rebuttal

Niranjan Shankar
Niranjan Shankar
15 min read


Williams, W. A. (1962). The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: Dell Pub. Co.

When the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) pinned Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine on NATO’s “imperialist expansionism,” many policymakers and journalists on both sides of the political spectrum lambasted the organization for its half-hearted condemnation of Russian aggression and equivocal display of solidarity with Ukrainians. Even some leftists felt compelled to push back against the statement and call out “tankies” for their reluctance to oppose Moscow’s belligerence.

But while the DSA’s stance is not representative of mainstream liberals, the same cannot be said for those further to the left. In fact, the DSA’s controversial position on Russia–Ukraine is directly in line with a conceptual framework that has long informed left-wing criticisms of American foreign policy.

This school of thought finds its roots in classical Marxism but was mainly applied as an interpretive scheme to U.S. foreign relations starting in the early 20th century. Among the opponents of U.S. acquisition of the Philippines and the controversial policies of the Roosevelt and Taft administrations was a faction that viewed capitalist expansion as the primary factor driving American involvement globally. This narrative was popularized in 1934 by Charles A. Beard, who later inspired a cohort of “revisionist” historians whose contributions considerably shaped criticisms of U.S. policy during the Vietnam War era, particularly among the emerging “New Left” movement.

One of the most influential of these works is The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, written by prominent revisionist historian William Appleman Williams in 1959. In Tragedy, Williams traces the foundations of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century to Secretary of State John Hay’s “Open Door notes,” formulated in 1899 to promote American access to Chinese markets. According to Williams, the Open Door Policy reflected an almost unanimous belief among leading economic and political leaders at the time that overseas commercial expansion was imperative to stave off economic dislocation and sustain American prosperity and democracy. In order to secure foreign markets for industrial and agricultural surplus production and ensure access to raw materials, U.S. elites embarked “for the next half-century” on a mission to establish an open-door “informal empire” of “free-trade imperialism”—not only in East Asia but throughout the entire world. Though American leaders “were not evil men,” Williams asserts that even their ideological and humanitarian efforts in developing nations were designed to harvest “the fruits of expansion.”

The cover of The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959) by William Appleman Williams

In the latter part of Tragedy, Williams turns his attention to the onset of the Cold War, for which he lays the blame squarely on Washington. Embracing the traditional pattern of Open Door expansionism, U.S. diplomats aimed to “economically penetrate” markets throughout Europe and Asia, and thus resisted the Soviets’ desire for “minimum natural and desirable frontiers in eastern Europe” and ignored Moscow’s postwar reconstruction and reparation needs. Williams takes issue with claims that the Soviet Union was a dynamically expansionist power analogous to Nazi Germany, and argues that Stalin’s ruthless Sovietization and Communization of Eastern Europe was a warranted response to America’s and Britain’s growing hostility. Similarly, the “rising tide of revolution” throughout the world was yet another sign that the U.S. needed to respect rather than resist left-wing radicals who, unlike America and its allies, offered a picture of “brutality and betterment.”

Though overall exasperating, Tragedy does have a few positive aspects that are worth noting. Williams sheds light on the importance of foreign markets and overseas investment to the American economy, which at the time was an underemphasized dimension of U.S. foreign policy. He is also generally correct about the interplay between economics, politics, ideology, and national security (though not about the exact causal mechanisms behind these relationships).

Additionally, Tragedy convincingly rebuts the traditional narrative of the U.S. being a historically “isolationist” power, pointing to episodes of westward expansion and interventions in Latin America, and provides thoughtful observations about the limitations of promoting American-style modernity in the developing world. Williams is not entirely wrong, either, that U.S. diplomats could have taken steps to mitigate the intensity of the Cold War at certain points. It is also important to note that some criticisms of Tragedy, particularly regarding the stability of the Soviet Union, can only be made in hindsight.

Nonetheless, there are significant flaws with Tragedy’s core arguments. Williams grossly overstates the role that economic interests play in U.S. foreign policy and gives short shrift to other geopolitical and ideological motives that informed the drive for openness and free trade, particularly after World War II. His insistence on linking every major decision made by U.S. policymakers throughout the 20th century to the Open Door Policy is forced and, at times, contradictory (particularly when it comes to loan policies toward the Soviets), and he often resorts to roundabout logic and speculative rants to connect the dots.

Moreover, Williams lazily throws complex and diverse personalities such as Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Harry Truman into the category of overseas economic expansionists, despite considerable differences between free-traders and protectionists during this era. Finally, Tragedy downplays the Soviet Union’s expansionist vision and often mischaracterizes the relationship between the U.S. and its overseas allies.

Starting Points: The Spanish–American War to World War II

Though Williams is mistaken in attributing America’s declaration of war against Spain to business sentiment, which in reality was overwhelmingly opposed to intervention in the buildup to the conflict, he is nonetheless correct that European advances in China around this time influenced the decision to retain the Philippines—even dovish business leaders started to regard the islands as crucial naval bases for defending their financial interests in Asia. A widespread desire to expand American commerce also shaped the hard-nosed diplomacy of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

However, it is inaccurate to assume a continuation of this approach under the Wilson administration. Tragedy predictably portrays the American entry into World War I as a crusade to protect Wall Street’s financial stake in an Allied victory. But as economic historian Adam Tooze summarizes in The Deluge, “Lenin may have declared imperialism to be the highest stage of capitalism, but Wilson had other ideas.” To curtail the bankers’ influence and pressure the Allies to make a peace compromise, Wilson urged the Federal Reserve in November 1916 to issue a strongly worded warning to both member banks and private investors against increasing their holdings of British and French securities. Much to J.P. Morgan’s alarm, the Fed’s statement temporarily paralyzed the Entente’s entire financing effort. To Wilson, who would continue maintaining his distance from the British and French even after the publication of the Zimmerman telegram the following year forced him to enter the war, the ideal outcome was not an Allied victory but a “peace without victory” under the auspices of a neutral world order led by the U.S. His “open-door” vision of free trade, hardly a ploy for commercial expansion, was part of his broader ambition to use America’s emerging financial power to foster peace in Europe and suppress foreign imperial rivalry, which he regarded as the principal cause of the war in the first place.

Wilson’s wariness towards Wall Street and foreign economic competition manifested in other policies, such as his progressive domestic reforms, termination of “dollar diplomacy,” refusal to recognize the Huerta regime in Mexico (despite it’s being favorable to Western business interests), rejection of protectionism, initiation of the process towards Philippine independence, and his sincere attempt to respect Chinese sovereignty by withdrawing official backing for the participation by American banks in the controversial “Six-Power Loan.” Of course, Wilson was by no means perfect, and his racial views and ideological convictions did, at times, get in the way of his “moral diplomacy.” But his overall legacy would set the foundation for an internationalist outlook that would eventually become a cornerstone of American diplomacy.

Though Wilson’s Republican successors, who all linked American prosperity with events overseas, may at a first glance seem to better fit Tragedys framework, other diplomatic historians have explained why this wasn’t necessarily the case. Republican officials during this period primarily saw the home market and domestic economy as the main determinants of American well-being and believed the U.S. could insulate itself from troubling global developments. Thus, they approved war debt policies that were inflexible towards the country’s debtors, as well as several protectionist measures, to satisfy domestic economic and political concerns, even though business leaders protested that such courses of action would impair foreign purchases of American goods. Of course, U.S. foreign exports and investments nonetheless increased notably in the 1920s, but this was more the result of World War I’s disruption of existing trade patterns than a concerted effort by the American government. Moreover, the relative importance of exports to overall economic growth began to decline, and the U.S. actually ran an unfavorable balance of trade with the non-European world (made up for by the surplus with Europe) despite being self-reliant in most basic resources. Surprisingly, even the attitude of American businessmen towards China—the main focus of the Open Door Policy—eventually shifted from interest to indifference.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was initially also skeptical of the importance of foreign markets to the American economy. But Secretary of State Cordell Hull eventually convinced him that lowering tariffs and reviving reciprocal trade relations were crucial for escaping the Great Depression. Hull did view the expansion of international trade as a means of offloading excess production and increasing employment rates, but he also saw free trade as a potent tool to eliminate the causes of potential conflict by promoting economic interdependence, financial stability, and global prosperity. By depicting the push for multilateral trade in the buildup to World War II as a self-serving strategy to advance corporate interests, Williams dismisses the salience of these other diplomatic concerns after the outbreak of World War II. However, there is little evidence that a desire to expand U.S. trade and investment had any noteworthy impact on postwar planning, which regarded increasing imports as more crucial for international economic recovery. As American policy during the Cold War demonstrates, these global aims were paramount compared to supposed open-door expansionist schemes.

U.S. National Security Policy during the Cold War

To Williams and other New Left intellectuals, the Soviet Union was not an inherently expansionist power with global ambitions. Furthermore, they contend that Washington didn’t resist communism and other revolutionary movements due to the ideological and military threat that they posed but because they “challenged and limited such [commercial] expansion” by nationalizing industries and closing off their markets to foreign exports and investments. Some critics have gone so far as to allege that American diplomats intentionally fabricated the communist threat in developing countries to justify interventions that were actually aimed at defending profits of American companies.

This interpretation is riddled with inaccuracies. Firstly, it is essential to understand that the Soviet Union was an expansionist power. As Stephen Kotkin, John Lewis Gaddis, Anne Applebaum and numerous other historians had made clear, the Soviets sincerely believed it was their international mission to achieve worldwide communist revolutions, first in Europe and then in the overseas colonies, and lead a new civilizational order rooted in Marxism–Leninism. Moscow’s numerous international initiatives—initially through the Comintern and then through other institutions—and establishment of “united fronts” with Third World revolutionaries were part of a broader strategy to weaken the West, project Soviet power, and, over time, steer developing nations towards advanced socialism. While the Soviet Union may not have commanded an influence and presence abroad that America enjoyed, this was not because it was more limited in its global ambitions, but because it lacked the military, technological, economic, and diplomatic advantages necessary to achieve them.

Though Stalin and his successors were more cautious than Hitler in avoiding direct military confrontation with the West, this should not be mistaken for any “isolationist” sentiment on their part. Not only was the Sovietization of Eastern Europe in the late 1940s largely independent of U.S. and Western “hostility,” but Stalin had also expected inter-imperialist rivalry among capitalist states to eventually pave the way for communist and Soviet domination of Western Europe. When this failed to materialize, Stalin turned his attention to opening a “second front” in the East with the help of the Chinese Communists. Nikita Khrushchev would go on to intensify Moscow’s support for third World struggles, and Russia’s worldwide operations were significantly expanded under Leonid Brezhnev. Certainly, Washington may have exaggerated the communist threat at times, but one shouldn’t overlook how Stalin’s blatant violation of the Yalta agreement, the Red Army’s brutality in Eastern Europe, and Moscow’s hegemonic aspirations elsewhere hardened the U.S. approach towards Russia after World War II.

Additionally, Williams’s claim that American anti-communism can be traced to “open-door” expansionism simply does not hold up to scrutiny. Other historians have pointed out that U.S. economic interests in Eastern Europe were marginal at best, and rapprochement with the Soviet Union, as opposed to containment, would have better served American profit interests. Moreover, Washington’s willingness to forge ties with social democratic, socialist, or even communist regimes to achieve Cold War objectives demonstrates the relative insignificance of business interests. Even among Washington’s allies in the developing world who embraced market economics, American private investors were often reluctant to invest in their growth, regarding it as too risky compared to opportunities within the U.S. and in Europe and Canada.

In terms of U.S. intervention in the Third World, a detailed analysis by political scientist Dr. Mi Yung Yoon confirms that communist presence and involvement of a Soviet ally were the main precipitators of U.S. involvement, whereas “the change in the values of imports, exports, and foreign investment shows a negligible effect on the probability that the United States will intervene”—hardly a surprising conclusion given that Afghanistan, Angola, Nicaragua, and other intense theaters of the Cold War were of little direct economic importance to Washington. Even notorious covert operations, while certainly objectionable from a moral standpoint, were ultimately motivated by anti-communism rather than a desire to protect American investments. For instance, though the CIA-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954 is often linked to the United Fruit Company, the company was subject to antitrust rulings by the Eisenhower administration shortly after the operation, which eventually led to its downfall.

To be sure, as the world’s largest economy, the U.S. did want access to overseas markets and favorable trade conditions. But rather than as the raison d’être for American diplomacy, these motives should be understood as one of many goals and, if anything, ones that often took a back seat to other priorities. More importantly, as historian Odd Arne Westad illustrates in The Global Cold War and A Cold War: A World History, even when Washington did pursue certain economic interests, it was in a much broader, systemic sense. U.S. foreign policy in the postwar era was primarily directed towards the success of global capitalism as a whole rather than the defense of particular American businesses or their interests. Through institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, aid programs like USAID, and a worldwide network of military bases, the U.S. promoted a global capitalist economy that would stabilize the international financial system and act as a bulwark against the Soviets and other challengers. This internationalist outlook faltered slightly in the 1970s after Nixon effectively destroyed the Bretton Woods system to give a boost to struggling American companies, but as globalization took off in the following decades, the U.S. found itself returning to its traditional role of safeguarding an interconnected capitalist system.

Take the American preoccupation with controlling Middle Eastern oil supplies, which “blood for oil” theorists often strip from its global context. Until the 1970s, the U.S. was primarily self-sufficient in terms of domestic oil consumption, but Western Europe and Japan desperately needed energy sources from the Greater Middle East to restore production and rebuild their economies after World War II. Aware of this dependence, the Soviet Union aimed to bolster its position in the Persian Gulf to slow—perhaps even halt—such supplies to trigger a “crisis of capitalism” and weaken NATO. Thus, as part of its Cold War grand strategy, Washington sought to prevent the Soviets from expanding their influence in the Middle East. Over time, America’s own energy interests would become wedded into this picture, though post-9/11 interventions had other reasons, but the U.S., nonetheless, continued acting to ensure adequate supplies for the capitalist world as a whole. Maintaining a strategic presence in the region also enabled Washington to deny Moscow additional oil supplies that could potentially be used for offensive military purposes.

Though people bearing the brunt of superpower intervention may understandably see this as a distinction without a difference, these nuances offer critical revelations of the underlying nature of American diplomacy. Tragedy and other revisionist works mainly depict the ideological, reformist, and geostrategic motives of U.S. policymakers as means of facilitating the expansion of the domestic economy. But, as the post-revisionist scholar John Lewis Gaddis neatly countered, “economic instruments were used to serve political ends, not the other way around as the Leninist model of imperialism seems to imply.” Indeed, American economic policies were often directed towards advancing the nation’s long-term national security by preventing another breakdown of international order, fostering liberalism abroad, and maintaining a global balance of power that favored the “Free World.”

U.S. reconstruction efforts in Western Europe are a good case in point. Though some postwar planners occasionally stressed the disastrous impact Europe’s deterioration could have on the American economy, the actual prosecution of the Marshall Plan and other aid initiatives demonstrates that far more pertinent concerns were at play. Understanding the link between poverty and communist agitation, U.S. policymakers proved remarkably flexible in allowing Europeans themselves to decide how funds should be allocated, much of which proved indispensable to funding social service programs and building robust welfare states, and in the case of the Nordic countries that participated, establishing numerous state-owned industries. In West Germany, Washington’s willingness to peg the Deutsche Mark to the dollar at a low exchange rate (which was unfavorable to American exporters) helped enable the miraculous economic revival known as the Wirtschaftswunder.

American trade policy in East Asia also challenges the revisionist argument. In the 1960s, Japan’s economy began growing rapidly through its export-driven approach, and soon the “Four Asian Tigers''—Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong—and China under Deng Xiaoping would eventually follow suit. According to Westad, U.S. administrations not only provided crucial economic aid but also facilitated its East Asian allies’ access to Western markets (primarily the U.S.) to promote their export-led development. In other words, it was not America’s “open door” to Asian (and other developing) nations but, rather, their access to Western capital and markets that ultimately mattered during the Cold War. For Washington, the strategic benefit of having powerful and wealthy East Asian allies far outweighed any short-term disagreements over trade practices.

These examples expose two other major flaws with Tragedy’s thesis. Firstly, they demonstrate that the future did not lie with the Soviet Union and other left-wing revolutionaries. Third World radicalists failed abysmally to promote meaningful change in their societies, and the human cost of their ideological crusades was simply appalling. True, Western intervention also often had devastating consequences, and not all allies benefited equally from their relationship with Washington. But the final outcome of the Cold War speaks for itself. Overall, the nations integrated in the U.S.-led capitalist order not only delivered far better for their populations economically, but also proved more amenable to political liberalization than their revolutionary counterparts.

Additionally, the bilateral nature of these relationships brings into focus the agency of actors outside the U.S.—a peculiar omission for an “anti-imperialist.” Many leaders actively sought ties with the U.S. (or in their rivals’ case, the U.S.S.R) to further their own economic growth and receive security guarantees against adversaries, internal and external, whom they opposed for their own reasons. This is especially true for Europe and East Asia and also applies to many (though not all) countries in the developing world. Williams curiously cites Saudi Arabia as one of the victims of U.S. economic exploitation, overlooking how the Kingdom and other partners in the Middle East shared with Washington a mutual desire to preserve the status quo in the region. Even “non-aligned” states that fiercely opposed the bipolar international system eventually found it unsustainable to meet their regional or domestic goals without engaging either Washington or Moscow. While it is true that American policymakers pursued regime change to bring about certain leaders more favorable to Western Cold War interests, critics generally fail to mention the major, if not decisive, roles that indigenous forces had in those operations.

Thus, rather than as an American (or Soviet) imposition, the Cold War is better understood as being part of a longer, global struggle between capitalism and communism.

Conclusion

Though Tragedy and the other revisionist works that followed have now largely been discredited by more recent, holistic accounts of the Cold War, the revisionist interpretation persists nonetheless. It can be found in the publications of Noam Chomsky, Glenn Greenwald, and numerous other left-wing “anti-imperialists." As their response to Putin’s belligerence, along with a track record of justifying communist and Islamist violence in the past shows, these revisionists are often motivated not by a principled aversion to non-aggression, but rather by a reflexive opposition to American hegemony. Like Marx, Lenin, and Williams, they interpret imperialism as a direct consequence of capitalism instead of state power.

The aggression of non-capitalist hegemons like the Soviet Union demonstrates otherwise. So does the interplay of forces influencing intervention in market-oriented nations such as the United States. One of the lessons of the Cold War and the preceding decades appears to be that while economic interests are important, it is misleading to portray them as the leading motivation behind American diplomacy or take them out of context. Today, as in the past, special interest groups, business elites, and corporations (including defense contractors) may influence certain foreign policy decisions, but other ideological and security motives seem to be more pertinent. More often than not, their role seems to be an eagerness to cash in on policies made for other reasons rather than directly bringing about those policies in the first place.

While there is no doubt that American foreign policy deserves its fair share of criticism, cynicism will do more harm than good. A major challenge for the United States will be to continue playing a constructive role abroad and contain revisionist challengers while learning the appropriate lessons from its failures in the past. Tragically, that’s an undertaking to which the works of Williams, the New Left, and their modern-day offshoots have almost nothing to contribute.

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Niranjan Shankar is a software engineer and independent writer based in New Jersey who is interested in foreign policy and history. His pieces have also appeared in The Bulwark and The Geopolitics