William Appleman Williams, the most influential U.S. historian since Charles an Mary Beard, was also a most curious socialist thinker. While keenly interested in Marx, he remained a romantic “socialist of the heart” who favored a decentralized, regionalist cooperativism. In the absence of socialism, however, he preferred “enlightened conservatism,” a la Herbert Hoover, to the corporate liberalism of Woodrow Wilson or Harry Truman. Much like his fellow (unacknowledged) Christian socialist Michael Harrington, Williams aspired to reach “middle America” with radical ideas. But his impact remained essentially scholarly. Indeed, he was rarely an activist, and never joined any left-wing group.
This summary barely begins to indicate Williams’s paradoxical qualities. He practically launched the great wave of “revisionist” or “New Left” history, yet he broke sharply with student antiwar-militants for being too inclined toward campus confrontations and toward what he viewed as escapist anti-intellectualism. Unlike the radical social historians of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Herbert Gutman, who wrote heavily about the poor, Williams focused on elites....
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