George F. Kennan: An American Life
John Lewis Gaddis's biography is an important examination of a man who shaped the current American way of life.
If there were one word to encapsulate the life of George Frost Kennan, it would be “conflicted.” Starting with his youth in Milwaukee in the first decades of the 20th century, and throughout a career that stretched from a foreign service position with the Coolidge administration, on through to the latter years of the Reagan presidency (when the president, as biographer John Lewis Gaddis laments, “had little need of Kennan"), Kennan was often conflicted in his world view, though indeed ahead of his time – in his thoughts, actions, and policy positions.Skip to next paragraph
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Gaddis, a Cold War scholar at Yale University and prize-winning author of several books on the subject, has provided an important, if not indispensable biography of Kennan in George F. Kennan: An American Life. Kennan was a figure alternately admired and reviled, but he was nonetheless an influential foreign serviceman, ambassador to both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and a foreign policy strategist. In this context, it is not an overstatement to say that Kennan – through the formulation of his Cold War “Containment” strategy, his role as an architect of the post-World War II “Marshall Plan”, and his passionate opposition to “McCarthyism” – was a central figure of the 20th century who alternately mirrored and molded our modern American way of life.
Gaddis’s account is refreshing in the sense that his interpretation of Kennan, his personality and beliefs, and his writings, is seemingly free of the ideological taint, sophistry, and hagiography that has so invaded political discussion in this early part of the new millennium. It is a very frank and open account. Gaddis undertook this project 30 years ago at the request of Kennan himself, with the provision that it not be published until after his passing. Within this tome’s nearly 1,000 pages, Gaddis has provided an extraordinary portrait of Kennan, which includes not only a wide range of Kennan’s views on political topics, but also throws light on his internal struggles and confessions about such deeply personal topics as morality and mortality, sex, loneliness, depression, and many others. Kennan does not hold back and Gaddis is both very faithful and fair to his subject.
In the earlier pages, Gaddis speaks about his methodology and his own philosophy about writing biography. In one instance, Gaddis discusses views of Kennan that could be viewed today as anti-Semitic. “Biographers have an obligation … to place their subjects within the period in which they lived: it is unfair to condemn them for not knowing what no one at the time could have known.” That sense of obligation extends to other characterizations of Kennan as well. Although Gaddis notes instances of solipsism and self-indulgence – seasoned with occasional histrionics – in Kennan's writing, Gaddis also makes clear that Kennan was likewise possessed of a powerful intellect, disciplined rectitude, and a remarkable prescience that produced, among other documents, the so-called “Long Telegram” – a dispatch Kennan sent to soon-to-be US Atomic Energy Chairman David E. Lilienthal from Moscow in March of 1946. This was the single most important document that formulated America’s post-war Cold War policy toward the Soviet Union.