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73 Foreign Aff. 142 (1994)
The Tragedy of Cold War History: Reflections on Revisionism

handle is hein.journals/fora73 and id is 150 raw text is: Review Essay

The Tragedy of Cold War History
Reflections on Revisionism
?fohn Lewis Gaddis

It has been well over three decades now
since the historian William Appleman
Williams first called upon his colleagues
in the profession to undertake a search-
ing review of the way America has
defined its own problems and objectives,
and its relationship with the rest of the
world. In The Tragedy ofAmerican
Diplomacy, surely one of the most
influential books ever written about the
history of U.S. foreign relations,
Williams rejected the celebratory tone
that had characterized earlier scholar-
ship, insisting that the record of this
nation's foreign policy had been a
tragedy because of the gap Americans
had allowed to develop between aspira-
tions and accomplishments. We had
preached self-determination but objected

when others sought to practice it; we had
proclaimed the virtues of economic free-
dom even as we sought to impose eco-
nomic control. The result, Williams
concluded, was that America's humani-
tarian urge to assist other people is
undercut-even subverted-by the way it
goes about helping them.
The classical definition of tragedy is
greatness brought low by some funda-
mental flaw in one's own character.
When one considers the difficulties the
United States created for itself through
its own hubris and arrogance during the
Vietnam War era, it is hardly surprising
that Williams' tragic view of American
diplomacy seemed, to a great many peo-
ple at the time, to make sense. To a good
many even today, it still does.

JOHN LEwIs GADDIS was President of the Society for Historians of Amer-
ican Foreign Relations in 1992. This essay was the 1992 presidential address
and has previously been published, in a different form, in Diplomatic History,
with whose permission it appears here. Gaddis is also the author of The United
States and the End ofthe Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations and Provoca-
tions, (Oxford, 1992).


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