28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
"He saw what others saw, but in different colors",
This review is from: George F. Kennan: An American Life (Hardcover)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.