Customer Reviews: George F. Kennan: An American Life
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on November 11, 2011
What happens when one of the most gifted historians of the Cold War gains unprecedented access to the diaries and personal papers of one of the most influential statesmen of the twentieth century? Answer: A Pulitzer Prize worthy biography that sheds new light on George F. Kennan's life both in and outside of public service. There have been numerous other biographies of Kennan and his role in developing the Cold War policy of containment but no work to date has explored the connections between the public and private dimensions of Kennan's life with anything near the depth or insight of Gaddis's new biography.

Kennan was, in many ways, one of the most puzzling twentieth century statesmen. As an American diplomat stationed in Moscow at the dawn of the Cold War, Kennan wrote his famous "long telegram" that explained in detail the sources of Soviet conduct and laid out a plan for how the United States could counter Russian expansionism. The long telegram and Kennan's anonymously authored "X Article" both helped foreign policy makers to define and articulate a new approach to dealing with the Soviet threat. Yet despite his status as an architect of American containment policy, Kennan would eventually become a critic of many of the policies carried out in the name of the doctrine he had helped to create. Kennan argued strongly against crossing the 38th parallel during the Korean War and even more passionately against U.S. involvement in Vietnam both of which he saw as highly flawed applications of his doctrine.

Much of this has been covered before by other scholars, including John Lewis Gaddis. Indeed Gaddis's earlier work Strategies of Containment helped to illuminate both the depths and limits of Kennan's influence on American Cold War foreign policy. What is new here is the addition of Kennan's personal reflections on the critical events of the Cold War as they developed. Drawing on Kennan's personal correspondence, his diaries, and numerous interviews with Kennan and his family members, Gaddis demonstrates the relevance of Kennan the man to Kennan the statesman. The book shows Kennan to have been an insecure and in many ways deeply flawed human being whose neurotic nature helped to shape his view of international politics and effected his behavior as a statesmen. At times, his impatience led him to make poor judgments in his career. Much of Gaddis's previous work has focused heavily on broad historical trends and structural issues. I was pleasantly surprised by the tenderness with which he writes about his subject's personal life.

Gaddis is sympathetic toward Kennan but balanced. He rightly notes that Kennan played an invaluable role in shaping a policy that ultimately did contain the spread of communism and bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. In many ways, Kennan understood the limitations of the Soviet Union long before the vast majority of his colleagues in the foreign service or in Washington did. But despite his close relationship with Kennan, Gaddis does not shy away from pointing out his flaws. He describes Kennan's extramarital affairs, his ethnocentrism and even some of the strange, inexplicable episodes in Kennan's life such as his request for suicide pills when he was stationed in Moscow. This in depth coverage allows us to understand Kennan's character in a way that we previously could not.

George F. Kennan: An American Life will without question be the definitive work on the statesman for years if not decades to come. It will reshape our understanding not only of Kennan but also of American foreign policy during the Cold War in significant ways.
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During his long life, George Frost Kennan had insights into history, international relations, Soviet psychology and American foreign policy that were unmatched among his peers. He was a multifaceted individual who excelled at many things, among them diplomacy, history, writing and farming. And he had a complex relationship with a country whose national interests he did so much to delineate and channel. John Lewis Gaddis brings us a panoramic and definitive biography of this great American that excels in three ways.

Firstly, it does an excellent job of giving us the bare facts. For more than twenty years Gaddis was intimately connected to the Kennan family as a biographer and friend. This has allowed him to gather a mountain of information from Kennan's copious diaries, interviews with him and his family members, colleagues and friends, and foreign and domestic policy documents from the era that Kennan lived in. Added to this vast repository is Gaddis's own treasure trove of expertise, drawn from his long career as one of America's most important Cold War Historians. Thus he has accurate and well-written accounts of all important episodes in Kennan's life including his intimate familiarity with Russia, his famous long telegram and "Mr. X" article in Foreign Affairs leading to the strategy of containment, his increasing disillusionment with Cold War policy, his second career as a historian and his waning years as a sharp critic of American politics. Wherever possible Gaddis always lets Kennan speak in his own voice. He also gives us a real feel for Kennan's qualities including his vast intellect, his love and knowledge of foreign cultures and languages, his ability to pen magnificent and sensitive prose and most importantly, his marvelous sense of the tragic that allowed him to gain perspicacious insights into people, places and events. Just like his close friend Robert Oppenheimer, Kennan was "a man who was extraordinarily good at doing a lot of things but still maintained a tear-stained countenance". It would be hard if not impossible to top this huge stack of material on Kennan that Gaddis has gathered.

Secondly, Gaddis provides us with a superb sense of Kennan's remarkable personality and especially drives home the fact that George Kennan was a man of contradictions. Throughout his life Kennan held resolute opinions about the events he observed and orchestrated, yet he could be troubled by self-doubt and uncertainty. He went to great lengths to make sure his government and people understood their relations with the world. Yet he always remained deeply ambivalent about America and especially the young generation which he sometimes saw as superficial and self-centered. He alternated between professing a love for his country and constantly considering himself as an outsider who was more comfortable among foreign peoples. This dichotomy between being intimately familiar with the internal workings of the system and preferring to remain on the outside also carried over into Kennan's role as a diplomat and advisor. Kennan probably knew more about Russian culture and history than any other American of his generation and his insights were incalculably unique. But although he was instrumental in charting the course of American policy during the early Cold War and seemed like the ultimate insider, in some sense he remained the perpetual outsider, never at ease in the corridors of Washington and always convinced of the flaws in his government's policies. Personally too Kennan displayed contradictions. He was a family man devoted to his wife for seventy years, yet had affairs. He suffered from ulcers throughout his life and could be easily stressed, yet he was a remarkably hardy individual who used to work long hours on his farm and traveled to inhospitable places alone. And he could be an intellectual elitist who could still shun the trappings of influence and wealth (as an undergraduate he stayed out of all the elite clubs at Princeton for instance) and who could understand the pain, hopes and suffering of the common man.

Finally, Gaddis leaves us with a prescient set of reasons why George Kennan's life and work is still as relevant to this country's interactions and character as it always was. Gaddis tells us that Kennan's key philosophy of understanding other cultures (and especially "enemy" cultures) as deeply as we can and engaging with them with a gentle but firm hand is key to foreign policy. For most of his life Kennan opposed military engagement and nation-building and while he believed in displays of strength, he always believed they should be in the form of diplomatic policy, strength of character and moral force. This is a lesson that should guide us far into the future.
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on December 12, 2011
In 1981, George Kennan agreed to cooperate with the eminent historian of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis, in the writing of the biography of his life. Little did Gaddis know then that he would have to wait for many years to see his volume published, since Kennan had one condition for Gaddis: that the biography could be published only after Kennan's death. In fact, Kennan died when he was 101 years old and now we can finally read this magnificent and brilliantly written book, which offers many insights into the mind and deed of one of the most famous Cold Warriors.
The book is extremely long and has 700 pages of text, followed by more than seveny pages of detailed notes. It is not an easy read but it captivates you from its very beginning.
After the first two chapters which describe Kennan's childhood and education, the author starts depicting in great detail the diplomatic life on Kennan. Most of the time Kennan did not live in the United States due to the nature of his work and career, which started in 1926. He married Annelise Sorensen in 1931 and had two prematurely appointments as Ambassador to the Soviet Union and then to Yugoslavia.
However, the best two reference points in Kennan's life would be the famous "Long Telegram" and the "Foreign Affairs" article signed "X". These two things brought him to the limelight of the Col War diplomatic world. The first one, known as the "Long Telegram" was indeed more than five thousands words long(but not eight thousand, as it was presumed hitherto) and came in five parts. This he did by dictating it to his secretary while he was ill and in bed. In it, Kennan explained to the State Department and to the whole world that Russia was always beset by a fear of the outside world. Paranoia, if you would like it. That was the main reason why Marxism came into being: it was an ideological belief whose main purpose was to undermine the West.
Kennan knew Russia very well and Gaddis describes the many travels of Kennan inside this vart country. As a result of this famous telegram, which had a tremendous impact on the Amerian psyche and policy makers, he was recalled to Washington where he was given a new job. This time he was appointed by George Marshall as chief of the Policy Planning Staff. Kennan was responsible writing and contributing to the new American foreign policy after the end of WW2. Kennan correctly predicted, for example, that the Soviet Union would not accept the Marshall plan.
But the highlight of his career was the second item mentioned before, namely: the famous article for "Foreign Affairs", which was published in the June/July edition of 1947. It was here whence the famous word "containment" had its origins. The title read: "The Sources of Soviet Conduct". He hid his true identity because he did no0t want it to be knwon that an employed diplomat is the one who was formulating the foreign policy .However, it took only some days to identify the author who, amazingly, concluded and predicted that the Communist regimes would actually collapse. This happened in 1989 and onwards. The policy of containment became the main pillar of the Americcan foreign policy until the days of the Reagan presidency.
In the sixties and seventies, Kennan became a strong critic of the American way of life. To quote from the chapter called:"Prophet of the Apocalypse", Kennan wote that the United States "is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope. They would arise from the familiar evils of industrialization, urbanization, commercialization,secularization, and environmental degradation".
The only rememdy would be "a much simpler form of life, a much smaller population, a society in which the agrarian component is far greater in relation to the urban component...In this sense I am, I suppose, an 18th-century person". Kennan despised many things about his fellows and the pornography shops in Washington were one of his targets. Juvenile delinquency and nuclear weapons were his adiitional targets.He objected the Vietnam war. He was a great intellectual who authored many books and articles and was one the Wise Men in the seventies. He enjoyed lecturing, despite many health problem which afflicted him and in 1989 was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George Bush. He was inspired a lot by the writings of Edward Gibbon and many times made references to him.
In the coda of the book, Professor Gaddis asked Kennan to sum up his life in some words. Kennan expressed his wish to be remembered as a teacher:...."on understanding Russia; on shaping a strategy for dealing with that country (whose simple people he loved);on the danger that in pursuing that strategy too aggressively, the United Stated could endanger itself; on what the past sugested about societies that had donbe just this; on how to study history ;on how to write; on how to live".
This excellent volume, which used almost all the possible sources a historian could have at his disposal,including a 20000-page diary, a separate "dream diary" of reflections and the 300-boxex of additional papers at Princeton, is not only a great biography about a versatile man. It is also a superb history of the great ideological conflict which spanned almost half ot the previous century, written by a master historian about a unique American.
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on January 28, 2012
A man who was an exceptionally prolific writer and lived an unusually long life does not so much require a biographer who uncovers hidden inner secrets and reconstructs obscure events from the life of the subject, but rather demands a firm editor who separates the significant from the insignificant and chooses the best and most worthwhile statements from the subject himself. George Kennan (1904-2005) was such a man, and John Lewis Gaddis is such a biographer, who also brings to this book an admiring, gently sympathetic, yet also appropriately critical attitude toward Mr. Kennan. Out of rich source material, Professor Gaddis has created a good old fashioned "The Life and Times of" biography that is revealing and a pleasure to read. Readers will find useful discussions of big events such as Kennan's involvement in the Marshall Plan as well as precious nuggets, such as Kennan's response to scholarly criticism of his through the lens of gender analysis (p. 684). After 700 pages, one still wishes for more.

Indeed, coverage is one of two criticisms I have. Since the politically most significant part of Kennan's life was the period covering 1933 to 1960--the pivotal event of course being Kennan's Long Telegram from Moscow in February 1946--Gaddis lingers here the longest. But given that Kennan would live another 40-plus years after the end of his public service in 1963, it is rather disappointing that Gaddis only devotes 1/7 of the book to this long time period. As a result, the book rushes through the end of the Cold War, the Clinton years, and 9/11 (we never find out what Kennan thought when he heard either that the Berlin Wall or the Twin Towers had come down) and what exactly Kennan criticized about George W. Bush's disastrous, criminal invasion of Iraq. That Kennan did feel compelled--in his late nineties--to voice public criticism of the planned Iraq War Gaddis dutifully notes, but that's it. Readers will not find out just how right Kennan was once again at the end of his life in warning U.S. policy makers not to commit a major blunder. For more information, see here. [...]

Maybe--and that is my second criticism--Gaddis could not help but downplay as much as permissible Kennan's acerbic attitude toward policies that Gaddis himself publicly supported, going so far as publishing a book that justified preemptive war as something deep in the American tradition. Gaddis wants us to believe that Kennan's famous penchant for relentless self-criticism explains why he harshly condemned the Vietnam War, the Reagan administration, or the extension of NATO in the 1990s. That is too much psychology and too little policy analysis. Gaddis is also puzzled why Kennan failed to see that Ronald Reagan's saber rattling and adventurous anti-communism were in the tradition of containment as envisioned by Kennan. To many readers this is not so mysterious. Archival findings of recent years do show that Reagan was sincere in his desire to abolish all nuclear weapons, as was Kennan. They also document the shocking degree of bureaucratic hostility in the U.S. policy-making establishment against Reagan's summit diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev. These findings will improve Reagan's standing among diplomatic historians (see Michael Mann's book "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan"). But they don't contradict the fact that the Reagan administration--with emphasis on administration--did not have a coherent policy of containment as Gaddis wishes to see it, and that in the end it was not Washington--and certainly not grand-standing speeches by the president--that brought down the Iron Curtain, but the self-implosion of the communist system, which Kennan had foreseen, and the actions of Gorbachev, about whom we also don't learn much in this biography, other than the fact that he had two brief encounters with Kennan and apparently knew who Kennan was.

Still, as a biography this book is a success. In the Epilogue, we find out that both Kennan's friends, Kennan himself, and professor Gaddis recognized the appropriate paradigm for Kennan's life: that he was a teacher, first and foremost: a teacher of grand strategy, history, writing, and philosophy. As such, George Kennan's life can teach us a lot. This biography makes for a wonderful lesson.
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on July 21, 2012
I found the more positive and lengthy reviews of this book to be helpful in supplementing my own thoughts. The importance of George F. Kennan, the scholarly achievement of John Lewis Gaddis (who netted a Pulitzer for this work), and the survey of America's Cold War through the lens of one of the primary architects are all duly noted.
Here are the positive points I would list about the book:

1. It puts the spotlight on a key figure in American foreign policy. Even though Keenan was often critical of the United States and of particular political administrations, he has to be ranked as a dedicated public servant and statesman. It is not just a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, but of noting his life-long labors in foreign policy.

2. It balances the diplomat with the man. Kennan's own Presbyterian heritage would affirm that we are all sinners and human. Keenan slipped on many occasions. He fell into marital infidelity on several occasions, and he suffered from lots of personal angst over his views, his political relationships, and other areas of life. The survey of his life as a totality is what matters.

3. This book's subject pretty much parallels all the major events of the twentieth century. Quite often, Keenan was in or near the center of major events. He had an impact on every Presidential administration from Truman to Clinton. Some he praised and some praised him.

4. As Gaddis notes, Keenan totally misunderstood Ronald Reagan. This part of the book is somewhat funny. Reagan was often acting more Kennan-esque than other Presidents, but Keenan underestimated the man and his mission.

On the negative side, I will say the following:

1. While Keenan's importance earns him the right to a 700 plus page biography, and while we have to be hesitant about quarrelling with a Pulitzer Prize winning book, this work was a long, slow read for me. Much of Keenan's life was spent at a desk writing memos (such as his famous Long Telegram, lecturing in various settings, and attending policy meetings. Know at the beginning that this is the life of a policy wonk and not a soldier or politician.

2. I think a shorter follow-up to this book would be good. I am thinking of something geared more to the reader who might want a bit more of the historical events that Gaddis assumes the reader understands. Perhaps a book with a focus on Keenan's role(s) in the Cold War would serve the purpose well.
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on February 5, 2015
Gaddis is well know to have an Encyclopedic knowledge of the Cold War. He also had Kennan's blessings in writing this biography. Gaddis does an adequate job of reviewing Kennan's life - but then tends to be more of a perfunctory emotional quality to this work than should have been present with someone as dynamic as George Kennan. This is the official biography by the official biographer - but many of the qualities of Kennan's spirit seem to me missing. I strongly suggest that folk actually read Kennan to pick up these missing pieces.

Gaddis though has written some fine work on the Cold War, although I strongly disagree with his take on the Truman Doctrine.
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VINE VOICEon November 15, 2015
With how large the Federal government has grown since the New Deal and World War II, it has become very rare for any bureaucrat working in that system to be able to make any kind of significant impact on policy without credit being taken by more senior officials or work being lost in the milieu of democratic and bureaucratic politics. George Kennan, with his years of service in Russia with the State Department's Foreign Service, his legendary Long Telegram and "Mr. X" article in Foreign Affairs , and his creation of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, is one of those few legendary figures. But Mr. Kennan could also be incredibly inconsistent and self-flagellating over the years, making it difficult to get at the heart of what he truly believed. Thus, any biography on Mr. Kennan would be difficult under the best circumstances. However, Mr. Gaddis does an impeccable job of weaving Mr. Kennan's life, career, writings, and thoughts together. But the best thing about this biography is that Mr. Gaddis never divorces Mr. Kennan from his historical and personal context. For example, Mr. Kennan was notoriously declared persona non grata as American Ambassador to the Soviet Union by the Kremlin in 1952 due to some incredibly bone-headed remarks he gave about life in Russia while visiting Berlin. Many of Kennan's contemporaries had no idea why he would say something so outrageous and others may have dismissed it as a public relations snafu. But Mr. Gaddis shows how Mr. Kennan's brief and frustrating tenure as ambassador opened the door for such remarks and how it was more where he said it than what he said that irritated the Kremlin. This is just one small example of how Mr. Gaddis weaves Mr. Kennan's life with the his historical & personal context. This is probably due to the fact that Mr. Gaddis had access to Mr. Kennan, his papers, diaries, letters, and family members for such a long period of time before the subject's death and the book's publication (He became Kennan's biographer in 1981, Kennan died in 2005, and this book was first published in 2011). One interesting oversight(?) though is in regards to Kennan's infidelities. It is clear from this book that one of Mr. Kennan's weaknesses was a wandering eye towards the opposite sex, a fact that Mr. Kennan flogged himself over throughout his life. And it does seem clear that Mr. Kennan had at least one affair, but Mr. Gaddis never goes into details about it, nor does he dig any deeper into other potential affairs Mr. Kennan might have had. In a day and age where there seems to be no shame about uncovering the intimate details about a person's life (ex. we now know Presidents Harding and Johnson had nicknames for their penises), this is rather unusual and, dare I say, refreshing. After all, not everything needs to be exposed to the light of day. In short, this is a fine biography that deftly weaves its way through the life, work, and thoughts of a most complicated, but important, public figure in American history.
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on April 16, 2012
With several books out by Cold Warrior George Kennan himself, one might wonder why we need another, yet Gaddis' work, as reviewed elsewhere by former Ohio University colleague and Truman and FDR biographer Alonzo Hamby, is a gem. Written with Kennan's cooperation and blessing, it is readable, comprehensive, and true to the facts. This book was worth waiting for.
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on April 15, 2015
Free at last! If you get very far into this 697 page book, you'll continue, but it took me two weeks of part-time very determined reading. Based on 30 years of research, and much more research behind that, it could have been better edited. Two admittedly cherry-picked examples: a paragraph dealing with a day in 1983, 22 years before Kennan's 2005 death, begins, "He had long known, or thought he knew, the day on which he would die." And, two paragraphs later: "In Washington one evening a few months after the day his death did not occur, he dined alone ...." One "grand strategy" for attacking this book would be to start (pp. 201-308) with the chapters on the peak of his diplomatic life: "A Very Long Telegram: 1945-46", "A Grand Strategic Education: 1946", "Mr. X", and "Policy Planner". Then you could turn back to his early lonely years and his Foreign Service education as a Soviet Russian language and culture expert. There are many facts you pick up along the way, including the somewhat surprising revelation that Kennan was originally taken in by the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s. Past page 308, several of Kennan's accomplishments are adequately reviewed and assessed, including his role in opening negotiations to end the Korean War, his voice in opposition to the Vietnam War, and his consistent and partially influential voice against nuclear weapons. But the last half of the book is very, very long for what you get out of it. Most of Gaddis' key analytical points are repeated throughout the book in different contexts. There is also a lot of Gaddis late in the book, as his view of ideal American grand strategy diverged sharply from that of Kennan, particularly Gaddis' "appreciation" of Reagan and his support for the Iraq War. Gaddis' heroic repetitive efforts to assay Kennan's personal life also gets old rather fast. I would recommend reading this book along with the excellent "New York Review of Books" review of this book, available on line by Googling "New York Review of Books Kennan."
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VINE VOICEon November 26, 2011
This eight hundred page work aspires to being the standard text yet eliminates much of what would seem essential for knowing this world figure. We lose here, for instance his Farewell Address, as telling as Washington's, as prophetic as Eisenhower's farewell military industrial warning, or of FDR's unbroadcast final televised address to the nation calling for a new Bill of Rights including the Rights to Work, Housing, Education and Health Care with economic security, an address unseen until the Catholic Documentarian unearthed in in his prophetic Capitalism: A Love Story [Blu-ray]

We lose his endorsement of Senator Eugene McCarthy as a demonstration of his outrage at the escalation in Vietnam.

And we have Gaddis unsupportably calling Ronald Reagan a new FDR, while Reagan's avaricious business cronies's grand strategy unrolled all the just and equitable programs FDR fought so hard to establish, bringing on the disposession of the vulnerable under which we now suffer, among the 99%, Gaddis censoring Kennan's actual assessment of the Reagan administration as "ignorant, unintelligent, complacent and arrogant: worse still is the fact it is frivolous and reckless."

Much of Gaddis here, little of the great and multi-faceted Kennan, reduced unsympathetically to a merely superficial American life.

Heck. Might as well waste time reading Civilization: The West and the Rest
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