“Our leaders are following the wrong rainbow.” So remarked the historian William Appleman Williams on April 1, 1965. The occasion was a “teach-in” organized by students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin to protest against the Vietnam War.

Both the war and the phenomenon known ever since as “the Sixties” were just then kicking into high gear. At that moment, in ways that are today difficult to recall, American history and historians of the United States mattered. Among those historians, Williams was then achieving prominence (or notoriety) for challenging the conventional narrative of American statecraft and more specifically the origins and conduct of the Cold War.  

The essence of that conventional narrative, as Williams later wrote, was that the “American Empire just grew like Topsy.” According to this interpretation, the United States became a superpower reluctantly, almost inadvertently, as if through the workings of Providence. Its rise to preeminence ostensibly occurred despite the inclinations of the American people who viewed the outside world with suspicion and disdain and who wanted nothing more than to keep to themselves.  

Williams argued otherwise, crediting American statesmen with having pursued a sophisticated, if opportunistic strategy of expansionism. Over the course of nearly two centuries, the United States had sought power and had succeeded spectacularly in acquiring it. Furthermore, Williams dared to suggest that this longstanding penchant for expansionism was essential to understanding the ongoing Cold War.  

For students in Madison (and elsewhere) who found Lyndon Johnson’s justification for bombing North Vietnam and ordering U.S. combat troops into the South unpersuasive, here was an alternative framework that seemed to make sense. Williams’s critique of orthodoxy meshed neatly with events unfolding before their eyes. Here, in short, was a rendering of the past that illuminated the present.

In our own day, the purpose of history is less to illuminate than to entertain or reassure. More or less like poetry, history serves at best an ornamental function. Today the only American historians enjoying a significant public profile are those like Michael Beschloss or Doris Kearns Goodwin who specialize in repackaging colorful stories. Innovative, critical, probing history does not lack for practitioners;  yet beyond the confines of the professoriate, it commands minimal attention.  

The writings of Professor Williams commanded plenty of attention. Members of that amorphous coalition known as the New Left lionized him. Critics of the New Left intent on discrediting Williams called him every name in the book: economic determinist, communist fellow-traveler, and purveyor of anti-American propaganda.  

Williams was an unapologetic radical. Yet he was by no means unsympathetic to conservatives. Nor did he lack for patriotism. Indeed, viewed in retrospect, he was one of those American intellectuals who bridge the divide between left and right, thereby representing some distinctive amalgam drawing from both camps. (Among Americans, Randolph Bourne, Charles Beard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christopher Lasch offer other twentieth-century examples).

So the remarks that Williams made some fifty-two years ago included the following reflection, worth pondering by present-day conservatives. “If we justify our intervention in Vietnam on the grounds that it is crucial to our national security,” he said, “we will soon be able to justify using our power for whatever we happen at the moment to want, or against whatever at the moment we do not like.” Furthermore, “That kind of moral arrogance—that kind of playing at being God—will destroy any chance we have to construct a good society.” Then Williams added:

Notice that I said good society. We already have a great society, and I think that may be the source of much of the trouble with our leaders. For greatness has primarily to do with size, strength, and power. But we citizens who are gathered here are primarily concerned with quality, equity, and with honoring our potential for becoming more fully and truly human.

In 1965, confusion about the distinction between great and good found American leaders “following the wrong rainbow.” President Johnson was promising Americans a “Great Society.” What he was actually delivering was an unnecessary war destined to cost the country dearly and leave it bitterly divided.

Today, in the era of Donald Trump, that confusion has returned with a vengeance. Trump for his part vows to “Make America Great Again,” with greatness measured in quantitative terms: jobs, income, profits, stock prices, and trade balances. For those ordinary Americans left behind or dispossessed by the economic and social changes that have swept the United States in recent decades, the appeal of Trump’s promise of greatness restored is understandable. Their resentment handed him the White House.

Yet Trump’s first hundred days in residence there offer precious little evidence that he will deliver on that promise. Neither he nor anyone else in the Republican leadership has demonstrated the requisite competence or political savvy. Furthermore, nothing that Trump has said or done since taking office suggests that he possesses the capacity or even the inclination to articulate a unifying conception of a common good. The real, although unarticulated slogan of his presidency, is one that looks to “Deepen American Divisions,” with members of the fiercely anti-Trump Left, his ironic collaborators. On all sides, resentment grows.  

Meanwhile, to judge by Trump’s one-and-done missile attack on Syria and the fatuous deployment of the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan, our president’s approach to statecraft makes Lyndon Johnson look circumspect by comparison. Trump assured his supporters that he was going to break the hold of the foreign-policy establishment. In fact, he has embraced the establishment’s penchant for “using our power for whatever we happen at the moment to want, or against whatever at the moment we do not like.” U.S. national-security policy has become monumentally incoherent, with the man in charge apparently doing whatever his gut or his latest visitor at Mar-a-Lago tells him to do.

This defines the nation’s current predicament: Whatever agreement once existed on what it means to be either great or good has pretty much disappeared from American political culture. Our fragmented society pursues any number of illusory rainbows. Restoring some semblance of a common culture thereby poses a daunting challenge, even larger today than back in the Sixties when everything seemed to be coming apart at the seams. I will refrain from offering any glib advice for how to promote that restoration.

If hardly less challenging, imparting a modicum of coherence to U.S. policy abroad may actually qualify as more urgent. After all, the impetuous Trump appears more likely than Lyndon Johnson to blow up the world.

In that regard, the views expressed by Professor Williams back in 1965 in explaining the rationale for the “teach-ins” offer at least a place to begin. “We are trying to bring our Government back into a dialogue with its own citizens,” he explained.  

We are trying to encourage Congress to meet its responsibilities and to function as a full partner in governing the country. We are trying to change our foreign policy so that it will be closer to the realities of the world and far more in keeping with our best traditions and highest ideals—and thereby make it pragmatically more effective.  

To align foreign policy with American values and with “the realities of the world,” Williams believed, offered a first step toward something even bigger. Williams understood the intimate linkage between the way the United States acts abroad and what it is at home—each expressing the other. To correct the defects in U.S. foreign policy, especially its misuse of force, could “generate the kind of changes that could transform America into a more humane and creative country.”  

As a place to begin, it was good advice then. It remains good advice today.

Andrew J. Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.