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George F. Kennan: An American Life Hardcover – November 10, 2011
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We can be grateful to John Lewis Gaddis for bringing Kennan back to us, thoughtful, human, self-centred, contradictory, inspirational - a permanent spur as consciences are wont to be. Masterfully researched, exhaustively documented, Gaddis's moving work gives us a figure with whom, however one might differ on details, it was a privilege to be a contemporary. -- Henry A. Kissinger * New York Times Book Review * Kennan's life maps right onto twentieth-century political history, and no one is better qualified than Gaddis to lead the way through it ... Gaddis has written with care and elegance, and he has produced a biography whose fineness is worthy of its subject. -- Louis Menand * New Yorker * Well worth the wait. George F. Kennan: An American Life works brilliantly as a piece of intellectual history, and as a biography of a fascinating and complex man. Fortunately, both Gaddis and Kennan write beautifully. -- Gideon Rachman * Financial Times *
About the Author
John Lewis Gaddis (born 1941 in Cotulla, Texas, U.S.) is a noted historian of the Cold War and grand strategy, who has been hailed as the "Dean of Cold War Historians" by the New York Times. Cold War (Allen Lane, 2006) was Waterstone's Book of the Month. He is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University.
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Mr. Gaddis does an excellent job in, not only explaining Mr. Kennan's importance and how he became indispensable, but also the full measure of the man. Warts and all. The author rightly had concerns about taking on a biography about such a thin-skinned man while the dude was still alive. Mr. Gaddis explains the conditions which were put in place for him to attempt the biography. His intimate access to Mr. Kennan's boatloads of written arguments; the man's family, friends and foes; and most importantly exclusive use of Mr. Kennan's life-long personal diary culminates into not a gushy lovefest but a very balanced, absorbing biography. Mr. Gaddis's book certainly deserved the Pulitzer Prize. Like everyone else, Kennan had qualities that were admirable and other aspects of his personality that were either annoying or made him a good candidate for being hit on the side of the head with an iron skillet.
The story is about a brilliant wonk whose ability to right cogent, poetic assessments that influenced policy makers is what separated him from the other bright bureaucrats. Man oh man, the guy rubbed elbows with the big guys; Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Bush 41, and Clinton as well as General MacArthur, Secretary of States George Marshall, Dean Acheson, and George Shultz. Then there's Robert Oppenheimer, Mikhail Gorbachev... look, my fingers are getting tired in listing all the power brokers. You get the picture. Also, his love of Russian history and culture and ability to speak perfect Russian made him a cut above the rest. At his core, Mr. Kennan had an oddly wonkish heart and the unstable emotions of your stereotypical artist. The man was completely, laughably clueless about contemporary American culture.
In the week I was reading "George F. Kennan," not one person who asked me had any idea who he was. That's a shame. Mr. Kennan strongly believed that style was as important as substance. He joined the two and made himself into a valuable asset. Mr. Gaddis seems to have taken the same attitude while writing his Kennan biography and the result is an outstanding work which deserves a wide readership.
Aspects of Kennan's personal life are less familiar, but treated with great attention to detail --- the importance of his relationship with his wife Annelise, his devotion to his older sister and her role as a confidante, and his somewhat tenuous relationships with his children. Kennan's human failings are also aired and dissected, above all his vanity and his sensitivity to any criticism or contestation. Gaddis has written the definitive (and the only authorized) biography of one of the most influential American thinkers about foreign relations of the 20th century.
John Gaddis, one of the country's most accomplished students of the Cold War, is exceptionally able to write the definitive biography of Kennan. Professor Gaddis had the sole access to Kennan's papers and, over a period of twenty years, to Kennan himself. This has given him the ability to know the living man, to explore his thoughts - many of which changed substantively over Kennan's unusually long life -- in great detail, and to interview the major people in Kennan's life, his family, his friends, and many of the most important government officials in the United States and Europe who dealt with Kennan.
I found this biography to be one of the finest biography I have ever read for several reasons. I emerged with an understanding of the great role played by Kennan in teaching the United States government how the Soviet Union worked, what its objectives were, the methods that would be used by the Soviets, and how the United States should deal with this threat. He described what had to be done to contain the Soviet ambition, as it subverted and dominated almost all of Eastern Europe. He did this in the form of a long telegram to the State Department, sent in February 1946, only six months after the end of World War II. The thoughtfulness, perceptivity and clarity of the telegram had an effect on American policy for the remainder of the Cold War, up to the dismantlement of the Russian domination of Eastern Europe, beginning in the Reagan administration more than 30 years later.
Kennan was not an easy man; he had his faults, which Professor Gaddis discusses with the same evenness as he discusses his unique talents. Kennan was intensely insecure, an egotist, prickly, and at times arrogant. He had a difficult family life, although he deeply loved his wife, Annelise; their marriage incredibly lasted 74 years. Despite the fact that Kennan lived to the age of 101, he was almost continuously ill. His views changed many times, diverging entirely from earlier viewpoints and then frequently doubling back to the original pattern of thought. His attitudes and knowledge of the United States - its culture, its politics, its people - were crabby and dismissive. In fact, in some cases they were outright strange. At one point he decided that the United States should be divided into two countries, one comprising the Southern and Western states and the other made up of the Eastern and Midwest states. His knowledge of the Russian mind was, in fact, far more delicate and nuanced than his feel for the American mind.
This biography is just plain great. In every respect, I admired it. Gaddis' book treats the long scope of Kennan's life fairly and honestly. It is extremely well written, both in its clarity and, even more, in its ability to probe deeply into how Kennan's mind worked. Parts of the book, particularly those that deal with Kennan's inner thoughts, many of which are expressed in verse, are unbelievably moving. Although the book is long, at almost 700 pages, I only put it down with reluctance. I wanted to hear Gaddis tell me more about Kennan and his times.