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above: William Appleman Williams c. 1980 (courtesy of the Trustees of Indiana University)

Society & Culture

The Prairie Populist Historian

William Appleman Williams (1921-1990) was dean of the New Left School of American diplomatic history. As one of the most influential American historians in the ’60s and ’70s, he gained a national audience for his anti-war, anti-globalist, and anti-imperial views. Odd as it might seem, it would be more likely these days that Patrick Buchanan would embrace Williams’ views, while today’s left would have little idea who he was.

Williams’ arguments were gradually adopted by libertarians such as Murray Rothbard, and by a number of anti-war conservatives, beginning around 1961. Williams’ central theme was the American Empire, which he rejected as unnecessary and bad for our country and the world. That earned him a reputation as a controversial scholar.

As an enemy of imperialism, Williams advocated decentralization and local self-government—stuff that naturally resonates more with the right these days than a left committed to futile moral crusades and crazed abstractions. Even Williams’ “socialism” was meant to be local and practical, owing more to Midwestern populism than to Marx.

Williams grew up in Atlantic, Iowa, and attended Kemper Military School in Missouri. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, he served in the Pacific theater during World War II. A painful back injury would see him discharged from the military, and he went on to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison,...

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