‘The Good American’: One man struggled to make the world right

As America stepped into conflicts across the world in the late 20th century, one bureaucrat took on the thankless task of tallying up the human cost.

Penguin Random House
“The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian” by Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, 544 pp.

George Packer, in his 2019 biography “Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century,” characterized Holbrooke as an avatar of America itself – an embodiment of the country’s arrogance, hubris, heroism, and fatally flawed morality in the latter half of the 20th century. 

It was a challenging gambit, and journalist Robert D. Kaplan uses one similar to it in his latest book “The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian.” It’s an unexpected and entirely winning biography of Gersony, who worked as a U.S. foreign policy consultant during the “golden age” of American diplomacy. The book is “the story of a man who epitomized the American Century more than anyone I know or was ever aware of,” Kaplan writes in the prologue. “His story is that of the Cold War and the Post Cold War, of America’s vast moral responsibilities in this world and its total immersion in it, which grew out of both America’s geopolitical necessities and its aspiration to be an exemplar of humanity.” 

Kaplan dispenses with the contrast between Gersony and people like Holbrooke immediately, drawing a sharp distinction between a vain headline-grabber like Holbrooke and the far quieter and less well known Gersony. “They made legends out of other people; not out of [Gersony],” he comments. Instead, he compares Gersony to “an emotionally tortured character straight out of a Saul Bellow novel.” 

Gersony was born in 1945 in New York; his parents were “modern orthodox” Jewish refugees from Central and Eastern Europe. Decades later, when he was in Vietnam, he became inspired by the writings of war correspondent Bernard Fall (“Fall made me really think for the first time in my life,” he tells Kaplan). Under that influence and compelled by an inner humanism, Gersony went on to become what Kaplan refers to as “the ultimate field worker.” Traveling to a long series of international natural disaster and conflict hotspots like Rwanda, the border areas of Mozambique, Uganda’s Luwero Triangle, and occupied Iraq, he conducted extensive interviews with the ordinary people whose lives had been torn apart. “He was often lonely, depressed, but lived in fear of being promoted out of what he was doing. He was truly calm only while interviewing and taking notes,” Kaplan writes. “It was in such moments that he attained the quality of an ascetic, inhaling the evidence almost.”

Kaplan’s book follows Gersony all through the rolling ambit of his world travels, and thanks to Kaplan’s own considerable narrative gifts, those journeys are as vivid and compelling as any travelogue. Throughout it all, Gersony is surrounded not only by the indifferent waste and violent cruelty of the modern world but also, thankfully, by other good-hearted people who share what we could grandiloquently refer to as his vision of a kinder and more just society. Whether the setting is Mozambique, Chad, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, El Salvador, or Nepal, Kaplan’s writing is unfailingly vivid.

The book’s moral tone is equally vivid, although far more iconoclastic when read in the harsh squinty-cynical light of the early 21st century. Realism never dies because it always involves hard choices, Kaplan writes, but idealism likewise never dies, because it has a fundamental appeal to the human spirit. “The path forward requires mingling the sensibilities of both,” he continues. “That is the ultimate lesson of Bob Gersony’s life.”

Scattered along the path of this narrative, there are other, more tangible lessons. Gersony’s interview-based reports on the ground-level realities of the places he visited could often have real-world practical effects. Kaplan points out that Gersony’s reports on the misery and deprivation of occupied Iraq “constituted one small element” in the eventual firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2006, for instance. The full extent of Gersony’s influence on decades of American foreign policy decision making – always working to make those decisions gentler, smarter, more humane – will likely never be known.

Kaplan does a much more thorough job at showing the extent of Gersony’s personal impact on the countless people he met in his travels. A driver he hired in Uganda sounds a faintly astonished note that crops up often in the book. “I never met someone from far away who said matter-of-factly that he needed to go to this very dangerous region where even government soldiers were afraid to go,” the man tells Kaplan, adding simply: “And I never met someone like him again.”

“The Good American” appears at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies are under unprecedented scrutiny, and this broader import of his subject is never far from Kaplan’s mind. “The Bob Gersonys ... of this world are gone,” confesses an official from the United States Agency for International Development. “We’re outsourcing our assessments to consulting groups now. We assume because of Twitter that we know what’s happening on the ground in distant places, even if we don’t.” Even so, reading Kaplan’s account of smart, quiet, unsung heroism, readers will come away hopeful. If Bob Gersony can spend a life going out and really listening to other people, so can we.

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