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on April 4, 1998
The term "revisionist historian" has come lately to describe one who conforms to an ideology of "politically correctness". William Appleman Williams, however, embodies the true definition of a revisionist: one who examines the evidence from a new angle and breaks with the traditional interpretations. "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy" is such a text. Beginning with the Spanish-American War of 1898, Williams presents the United States as a tough and, at times, ruthless aggrandizer of its economic power and expansion. The traditional teaching of US history involves emphasis on American isolationist tendencies and stress on the nonexistence of an "American Empire." Williams challenges that presentation. While acknowledging that the US has never really had an empire on the model of the British or French empires, Williams argues that the US empire has always been economical. The Open Door Policy, generally associated with US-Chinese relations, actually formed a larger US economic philosophy adhered to in US relations everywhere. The American opposition and responses to Fidel Castro's revolution in Cuba (the culminating event in the book) stemmed largely from the loss of economic privileges, rather than the nebulous ideology of anti-Communism. Williams provocative analysis goes a long way toward altering traditional portrayals of US foreign policy and its goals, and inspired the careers of a whole generation of truly revisionist historians.
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on June 7, 2004
In the Tragedy of American Diplomacy, William Appleman Williams illustrates how America fails to honor its own principles when it approaches foreign policy. America believes in self-determination and the right to develop its own brand of democracy. Unfortunately, no other nation is afforded the luxury of self discovery. Other nations must conform to America's vision of democracy or face the terror of America?s military might. This, to Williams, is the tragedy.
Cuba is his first case. America wanted Cuba to adhere to American visions which meant wealth for the sugar planters and their American backers. When Cuba sought its own course and threw off a repressive regime, America objected. The rift has existed ever since as no American administration will ever acknowledge Cuba's right to govern its own affairs so long as Castro is in power.
Williams then systematically follows the years from 1898 through 1961 and paints a similar picture. It does not take the reader long to get the idea and carry the argument beyond Williams' parameters and show that everything from Grenada to Lebanon to Afghanistan to Iraq can be shown in the same light. American puppet governments are not granting freedom and democracy to their constituents as much as they are part of a ruling class dominated by the business interests that exploit their workforce and deny requests for reform until the entire population is ripe for rebellion (remember the Shah of Iran). One wonders if the Saudi government is the next great western ally to fall victim to a popular revolt of Muslim fundamentalists.
Williams is a master of detail and works his arguments creatively in an entertaining fashion. Neoconservatives of today will have the same objections as their predecessors from the 1950s in acknowledging Williams as a valid author. But Williams makes a strong case and if more people were exposed to his writing, our country might even find a way to avoid the same pitfalls. A Saudi revolution would disrupt oil markets and jeopardize world economies. Perhaps if some thought is put into policy such a scenario is avoidable and preventable. If people are willing to give Williams a chance American foreign policy might eventually reflect a broader American vision rather than the interests of a few.
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on April 8, 2006
Williams book explores paradoxical nature of US Foreign Policy.

Firstly author refutes orthodox view that accidental,inadvertent turn of events transformed America into a global power.Williams has argued market forces unleashed by private free enterprise economy dictated the growth of American power;it has also molded country's foreign policy and continues to do so.To comprehend this fully one has to understand the intricacies of Capitalism.

It goes without saying that Capitalism carries within it the seed of self destruction.Late 19th century American economy was convulsed by frequent bouts of economic depression which led to wide spread social unrest.Home markets saturated with goods which people find difficult to absorb as they had only limited purchasing power.'Frontier' had close down and country's leading intellectuals [William Jackson Turner,Brooke Adams,Alfred Thayer Mahan] frantically called for overseas expansion avert an impending economic doom

Thus economic considerations compelled successive American Presidents[Grover Clevland,William Mckinley,Thedore Roosevelt,Woodrow Wilson]to remake the world in America's image.Unfortunately this policy boomeranged because Afro,Asian,Latin American world refused to share American view

Iniquitous,unfair trade practised by US helped Washington to enrich in detriment to welfare of latter economies.This was closely followed by American tendency to externalise evil.It posits the view that other nations have a stake in America's continued,prosperous existence.This preposterous notion,according to the author, has been the starting point America's troubles.Actually problem lay in funamental nature of capitalist economy.Attempts to reverse this trend triggered counter revolutionary wars in Asia,Latin America.The above feature forms essence of this book;this idea continues to permeate the book.

Williams provide fresh interpretation on the onset of Cold WarHe holds Truman administration accountable for the coming of iron curtain in Eastern Europe.Firstly in immediate postwar years US taking advantage of its economic might tried to extend its 'open door'policy into Eastern Europe.Further exploiting atomic monopoly the President tried to reverse political order which emerged in areas under Soviet control.

We may pause here try to establish reasons behind America's post war hostility toward Soviet Union.Unlike Britain which during the days of the empire could invest and dominate worldwide, America upon the end of World War II inherited a divided world

Soviet economy wth its emphasis on industrial self sufficency apart from shutting the door US investment was in the process of curtailing imports substantially.With the success of Communist revolution 1/3rd of world's population had wrenched free from capitalist sphere influence.With so much production capacity lying idle,US by the end of World War II was haunted by a spectre of another depression.Challenge before America -challenges her still-wheather market will shrink.

Marshall plan leading to massive post war reconstruction Western Europe must be seen from this angle.Rebuilding war-ravaged economies stimulated economic growth in US.Thus in my opinion Marshall plan must not be construed as a manifestation of American altruism;it was motivated by economic self interest.

Author's stress upon market forces dictating the American destiny

broadly agrees with Marxian interpretation of History.Perhaps this was reason why Williams was dubbed Marxist,Stalinist by conservative,liberal elite of his country.This book deserves to be read by those whio believe current anti American sentiment sweeping the world stems from sheer envy for American prosperity.
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on September 28, 2014
Excellent book. Foreign policy of U.S. Presented in clear concise easily understood terms. My opinion (as 8 year Viet Nam era USN vet who was at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station during Bay of Pigs invasion), should be required reading at high school level and read by every citizen with honest drive to understand the development of American political ego. If one really wants to understand U.S. involvement in economic expansion (including use of war and economic power to acquire resources for American enterprises) a must read. Copyright 1959, 1962, 1972, and this 50 year anniversary edition will take the reader from American Frontier" expansion to "Global Frontier" expansion. The discerning reader will understand the use of "Democracy and Freedom", "Self Determination of other nations", "Altruistic motives", and yes, FEAR, and DEMONIZATION as CARROTS to obtain public support for policies (destructive ones) that are totally ECONOMIC drivers to preserve the U.S system for global expansion. The "Open Door Policy" clearly defined from end of 1800s through TODAY regardless of political party in power. Must be willing and desire to understand. Even more relevant today as in the 1800s, 1959, and beyond Not for BLIND patriots, BLIND nationalists, or that 48% that goes to extremes to ignore the true methods and consequences of our foreign policy. This knowledge would be beneficial if there was actually a WILL to use it to change.
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on December 31, 2009
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.
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on September 17, 2011
In The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, William Appleman Williams argues that U.S. foreign policy has, from the late nineteenth century, been guided primarily by the drive for economic expansion. According to Williams, this drive resulted from an emerging, American Weltanschauung, or world view, which interpreted foreign affairs through the lens of domestic economic prosperity. He argues that the perceived link between domestic prosperity and the need for economic expansion was the primary motive behind every U.S. foreign policy, trade agreement, and military excursion since the Spanish-American War. Williams asserts that the Open Door Policy, though originally intended to assure all nations equal trade rights in China, was the embodiment of America's twentieth-century economic-policy-as-foreign-policy modus operandi.

Tragedy examines American foreign relations from the 1890s up through Vietnam and the Cold War, and uses the recurring theme of the American push for economic expansion to interpret international affairs. Williams uses quotes from speeches, newspapers, diaries, and various publications and communiqués to reveal U.S. policy makers' firm assumption that finding foreign markets for America's surplus goods secured domestic prosperity, happiness, peace and, ultimately, political stability. The tragedy, according to Williams, is that while claiming to uphold the right of all nations to free trade and to choose what kind of cultural, economic, and political systems it desired, American economic expansion and diplomacy, in practice, undermined these ideals by instituting a new, economic form of colonialism.

Williams also challenges the traditional American notion that America was isolationist until world leadership was thrust upon it, and that America has always been anti-colonialist and therefore unswerving in its distain for empire. Instead, Williams explains how, under the banner of free trade, America deliberately, though not maliciously, sought economic hegemony over weaker countries resulting in an informal type of imperialism. This informal empire, according to Williams, has allowed the U.S. to dominate the political structure, economy, and foreign relations of other countries, and accounts for the United States' rise to global power.

Williams' reading of international history follows closely with that of Karl Marx's Materialist Interpretation. Unfortunately, that fact combined with some sensationalist language--such as occasionally referring to American diplomacy as the Great Terror--will likely alienate more conservative readers. In addition, at first reading Williams appears to be sympathetic to Stalin and Soviet Cold War policies. Yet a closer, dispassionate examination will reveal that he is simply showing how the central philosophy of the Open Door was so deeply embedded in American political thought that it precluded any possible compromises between Russia and the United States after World War Two. The same conflict, according to Williams, reemerged with Ho Chi Minh, was on-going with Fidel Castro, and would continue with any nation that would not remake itself in the image of the United States.

While Williams' argument is thought-provoking and persuasive, the fact that there is scant analysis of specific U.S. policies or trade agreements hurts his case. Today's scholars will no doubt frown at his reliance on excerpts from speeches and magazines and many quotes that come from unnamed sources. And while the excerpts and quotes from U.S. policy makers convincingly reveal an attitude towards economic expansion, without the examination of specific documents Tragedy lacks the hard evidence to prove its case that these attitudes translated into actual policies. Furthermore, there is no bibliography, all but two of Williams' notations at the end of the book reference his own works, and no contrary views are acknowledged.

Overall, the book is a significant contribution to the history of U.S. diplomacy and is useful for understanding America's current relationships with many of its international neighbors. As Dr.s Lloyd C. Garner and Andrew J. Bacevich note in the new foreword and afterword, Williams, writing in 1959, was one of this first historians to reinterpret foreign policy through the lens of economics. According to these authors, Tragedy reframed the debate and caused a paradigm shift in the field. These historiographical reasons alone make Tragedy a must-read for students of U.S. foreign relations, but in combination with other vetted scholarship on the subject, Tragedy is worthwhile reading for anyone interested in basic American history.
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The Tragedy of American Diplomacy holds a unique place in the annals of foreign policy and diplomatic history. As the veritable grand-daddy of revisionism in this field, its influence has been pervasive. As proponents worked to produce revisionist studies in the same vein and opponents set out to debunk those new arguments, a postrevisionist synthesis of sorts has emerged. Williams' focus on economics in the determination of American diplomacy has compelled other historians to take better take economic factors into account and in so doing to gain more understanding of the subject. While the field of study has benefited from the influence of this book, the arguments of the book itself are often questionable.
I found this book to be fascinating, sometimes insightful and sometimes propagandistic. As Bradford Perkins says in his essay on the book's influence, this is a manifesto rather than a monograph. The politics of the author appear clearly on the very first page, as he condemns the American invasion of Cuba and holds the policy behind that move up as a shining example of the tragedy of American diplomacy in his eyes. Williams' acknowledged radical views are spread liberally throughout the book, and they often serve to disrupt my own interest in some of his arguments. Basically, he says the drive for economic expansion, as espoused in the Open Door Doctrine of the late 1890s, determined American foreign policy from that time on, that it became a veritable axiom of American political thought. In Williams' eyes, the intensive desire to expand America's market and sell her surplus products throughout the world led to a problematic form of economic imperialism and inevitably did much to start the Cold War. His discussion of economic policy as foreign policy in the wake of the depression of the 1890s and up until the end of World War II struck me as very insightful and even compelling. While he says that America's intentions were indeed humanitarian, the policy caused other nations to resent America's dominating influence in their societies and further fueled the revolutions of the first half of the twentieth century. Williams' argument diminishes in impact, however, when he comes to discuss the origins of the Cold War. His portrait of the U.S. is one of an economically aggressive, imperial power seeking to remake the world in America's image. He contends that America was in fact the opposite of isolationist in its policies and that its steps forced the Soviet Union into a corner and brought on the Cold War.
William's intense radicalism thwarts his own efforts. He goes out of his way to defend the Soviet Union and its policies. He describes Stalin as a man who had no intention of spreading communism, only wanting to secure his own borders after World War II. America is the bully that "forces" Stalin to take over Eastern Europe and install the iron curtain there. His U.S.S.R. is one always looking to compromise and to live in peace with the terrible Americans. It is easy to see why some critics labeled Williams a Stalinist tool and dangerous Marxist intellectual. Williams pleads that he is not saying economic determinism is behind his theories, but the fact that his arguments are largely Marxist and all but solely economic in nature leads me to believe he only wanted to avoid being labeled as the socialist he was. I often found Williams to destroy what were valid arguments by slipping in snide political remarks--the most galling of which was that America's efforts to penetrate the Chinese market in the 1930s led the U.S. to go to war with Japan (as if America was the belligerent and not the victim of Japanese attack).
I do want to emphasize the fact that Williams does present some interesting and compelling ideas about economics and foreign policy. While I disagree completely with his overall view, I have to praise parts of the book for effectively making points worthy of consideration and of great value in understanding America's history of diplomacy in the 20th century. Anyone deeply interested in the subject almost has to read Williams because this book has affected the nature of the debate; if you are a conservative such as myself, you may have to grit your teeth through some sections, but you will reap definite rewards from reading this book.
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on July 13, 2009
William Appleman Williams critique of Pax America was a brave intellectual opening on the heals of McCarthyism. One only needs to read the soft & measured tones of his sentences in Tragedy Of American Diplomacy to feel the anxieties he must have had...not knowing of the future consequences of his personal well being. As a student, I became aware of William Appleman Williams through Sidney Bell. Bell recieved his PHD from the University of Wisconsin. So many WAW proteges such as Gabriel Kolko which have refined WAW's work.

As a student of History and seeker of truth, kudos to William Appleman Williams and the intellectual foundation he built.
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on May 19, 2014
Tragedy broke with the traditions of exceptionalism that is still strong today. Even half a century later it is still a challenge to to scholarship of American foreign relations.
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VINE VOICEon May 15, 2008
"The Tragedy of American Diplomacy" was an important book when it was published in 1959 at the height of the Cold War. It offered a critical, leftist narrative of American diplomatic history that offset the America-As-Global-Savior mythology then dominating American intellectual life. It opened minds and founded a whole school of thought -- the New Left "revisionist" approach to U.S. foreign relations.

Unfortunately, the book was just as unbalanced as the mindset it critiqued. It was written in the grip of one (and only one) idea: that American foreign policy had been driven since the late 1800s by the goal of imposing an "Open Door" on the entire world in order to faciliate American economic expansion. That might have explained some U.S. policies in Latin America and China, but it was laughable as an exhaustive explanation of our diplomacy in World Wars I and II or the Cold War. The author, William Appleman Williams, oversimplified too much.

And if he did research in official archives, it barely shows in the book: footnotes and bibliography are non-existent; many episodes are recreated from speeches or magazine articles; and only evidence that supports his thesis is presented. Bizarrely, for a book that argues that economics determined foreign policy, there is almost no discussion of economics or analysis of trade negotiations! Instead, Williams repeatedly cites the political economy musings of American politicians and thinkers, as if these explained actual negotiations and diplomatic maneuvers.

Even sympathetic readers would admit that the opening of archives since 1959 has made "The Tragedy of American Diplomacy" seriously outdated. To its credit, the book was intellectually provocative and inspired a great deal of productive historical research. However, the field has moved on since Williams wrote. Not recommended.
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