After thirty years of research, biographer John Lewis Gaddis reveals the humanity of the Cold War’s most famous diplomat.
The preeminent Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis has written a dense but entertaining biography of scholar, diplomat, historian, writer, strategist, and public intellectual George F. Kennan. Kennan is perhaps best known as the father of the containment strategy against the Soviet Union. Much of the information featured in the text was collected first-hand: Gaddis became Kennan’s authorized biographer some thirty years ago. The biography contains details from interviews conducted by Gaddis with Kennan, Kennan’s family, his colleagues, and his contemporaries. Kennan, who died in 2005, gave Gaddis access to his personal diaries, papers, and curiously, even a diary of his dreams.
International relations scholars likely know Kennan from his two most famous works. The first was the so-called “Long Telegram,” in which Kennan explained his broader views on Soviet culture and strategy. Kennan’s second and later work is now commonly known as the “X article,” a piece anonymously written for Foreign Affairs magazine. Far more prescriptive in nature, the article outlined concrete steps to combat the Soviet Union by containment.
A scholarly intellectual who wrote immense volumes of strategic and policy-planning documents, Kennan is quite the enigma. He was a man who read Russian literature and understood diplomacy well, yet remained woefully ill-equipped to navigate the political arena of the United States Department of State. Gaddis’s book begins by describing Kennan’s childhood in Wisconsin, and later details Kennan’s attempts to fit in at Princeton, where his middle-class background made him feel lonely and out of place. The book then details each of the assignments Kennan received throughout his career.
Several surprising new facts are revealed in the book. Among them is that Kennan was instrumental in the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert action program. Kennan also advised the development of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, and was called to assist in hiding Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph Stalin’s only daughter, after she defected from the Soviet Union.
Kennan appreciated the liberal arts and classical literature and had a particular passion for Russian culture, language, and history, especially author Anton Chekhov. This sharply contrasts with many of today’s ideologues, who fail to acknowledge the interdisciplinary nature of politics and tend to constrain foreign policy to simplistic labels of conservative or liberal. Kennan was intelligent and witty, yet volatile; diplomatic colleagues found him incredibly difficult to work with. Gaddis describes him as an emotionally insecure and conflicted man. He took attacks on his strategic views personally and suffered from frequent bouts of depression. Kennan most comes alive when Gaddis moves beyond his turbulent diplomatic career and discusses Kennan as a writer, father, husband, and common man, a portrait that includes allegations of infidelity.
George F. Kennan is not widely known outside foreign policy circles and is often overshadowed by contemporaries such as Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, or George C. Marshall, all of whom held higher government positions. This book is specifically designed for foreign policy specialists, historians, and academics, and the book’s length and depth may deter readers with only a cursory knowledge of Kennan or the early Cold War period. Despite these limitations, the biography remains a valuable, balanced view of George Kennan, a man whose remarkable foresight predicted the actions and eventual failure of the Soviet Union.
The ultimate lesson from the biography is that ideas matter, even if they come from people with deep flaws who are full of contradictions. In today’s world, filled with asymmetric transnational threats such as terrorism, some view Kennan’s thoughts on combating a rival superpower as outdated. However, new classes of scholars have begun to review Kennan’s works in hopes of finding a possible containment strategy to use against countries such as Russia, China, and North Korea.
A complex, independent man, Kennan defied easy labels. George F. Kennan: An American Life provides a fascinating account of the life of a forgotten voice from an important time in American diplomacy.
About the Book: John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life. (Penguin Press, New York) 800 pages.
Bradley Martin is a graduate student enrolled in the Master of Security Studies Program at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. He concentrates in national security affairs.