George F. Kennan: An American Life

George F. Kennan: An American Life

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by John Lewis Gaddis

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Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Biography

Widely and enthusiastically acclaimed, this is the authorized, definitive biography of one of the most fascinating but troubled figures of the twentieth century by the nation's leading Cold War historian. In the late 1940s, George F. Kennan—then a bright but, relatively obscure American

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Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Biography

Widely and enthusiastically acclaimed, this is the authorized, definitive biography of one of the most fascinating but troubled figures of the twentieth century by the nation's leading Cold War historian. In the late 1940s, George F. Kennan—then a bright but, relatively obscure American diplomat—wrote the "long telegram" and the "X" article. These two documents laid out United States' strategy for "containing" the Soviet Union—a strategy which Kennan himself questioned in later years. Based on exclusive access to Kennan and his archives, this landmark history illuminates a life that both mirrored and shaped the century it spanned.

Editorial Reviews

Henry A. Kissinger
…John Lewis Gaddis…has brought again to life the dilemmas and aspirations of those pivotal decades of the mid-20th century. His magisterial work, George F. Kennan: An American Life, bids fair to be as close to the final word as possible on one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants…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.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
No one is better suited than Gaddis to write this authorized biography of George F. Kennan: the noted Yale cold war historian had total access to Kennan’s papers as well as to his family members and associates—Kennan so trusted his biographer that he remarked, “write , if you will, on the confident assumption that no account need be taken of my own reaction... either in this world or the next.” Through his privileged relationship with Kennan, Gaddis reveals the man behind the public persona as an agonized and fragile individual who often felt alienated from the U.S. and his fellow citizens, despite his tireless service to his country. In addition to the intimacies of the work, Gaddis offers critical analyses of Kennan’s key roles as diplomat, policy maker, and scholar of Russian history. Unsurpassed in his strategic vision during the cold war, Kennan is credited with being responsible for much of America’s eventual victory, and therein lies the impetus behind this remarkable biography. Adroitly managed (if occasionally barnacled with extraneous facts), Gaddis’s work is a major contribution to Kennan’s legacy and the history of American foreign policy. (Nov.)
The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Gaddis's admiration for Kennan is obvious, but it does not stop him from portraying his subject's flaws— an immense ego, a deep insecurity, a volatile temperament. "George F. Kennan: An American Life" is a major achievement. One senses that Kennan himself, at his best a bold truth-teller, would have been pleased.
The Financial Times
Gaddis clearly has much more sympathy with Reagan's policy than with Kennan's critique. Indeed it is one of the strengths of his book that while the author is a huge admirer of Kennan, he does not attempt to disguise or excuse his failings. Kennan was a reserved and scholarly man who found himself increasingly disgusted with what he saw as the decadence of modern America - and the west in general. At times he even seemed to despair of democracy itself. In 1976, he predicted gloomily: "I think this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope." Part of him seemed to believe that modern America deserved to fail. In the same interview, he remarked: "I can see very little merit in organising ourselves to defend from the Russians the porno shops in central Washington." Gaddis comments tartly: "This and much else in the interview was self-indulgent nonsense."
The Chronicle Review
Kennan's combination of brutal self-examination and thin-skinned responses to critics (be they policy makers or historians) gives the impression that he hoped to have a monopoly on Kennan criticism. Surely aware that even a sympathetic scholar like Gaddis would have points of disagreement, Kennan protected himself by insuring the biography wouldn't appear in his lifetime. While some books put an end to the study of a subject, it seems more likely that Gaddis's monumental work marks only the beginning. We can now read Kennan not just for his powerful but fleeting influence on foreign policy, but also for social and psychological insights from one of the most introspective figures of modern American life. And who can predict what the future generations will make of the 20th century's most influential 18th-century man?
New York Times
George F. Kennan: An American Life" turns out to be not only an epic work —probing, engrossing, occasionally revelatory — but also a well-timed one. It appears just as its subject has been nearly forgotten and long enough after the 20th century has passed to appreciate his towering significance.
Library Journal
George F. Kennan (1904–2005) exerted a profound influence on the conduct of American foreign policy, especially during the years of the Cold War. His famous 1947 Foreign Affairs article, "Sources of Soviet Conduct," published under the pseudonym X, laid the theoretical groundwork for "containing" the Soviet Union in those hectic and dangerous postwar years. As Kennan's authorized biographer, Gaddis (The Cold War: A New History)—himself one of our most distinguished diplomatic historians—had unfettered access to Kennan's diaries and personal papers. The result is a nearly 800-page book with by far the most sophisticated and nuanced examination of Kennan's remarkable contributions to our nation during his lengthy life. Gaddis's portrayal of Kennan's personal life is more workmanlike, with less nuance. VERDICT Gaddis has crafted an in-depth study of Kennan as a thinker and practicing diplomat. The focus on Kennan as foreign policy maker will not trouble most scholars of the diplomatic arts, but for the average reader the level of detail may prove more burdensome. Highly recommended for Cold War scholars and for all library collections, alongside Nicholas Thompson's more personal The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. [See Prepub Alert, 5/2/11.]—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames

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Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
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Product dimensions:
8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft
"George Kennan was the great architect of the Cold War strategy of containment, but in later years he became one of its most vociferous critics. John Lewis Gaddis, perhaps the Cold War's greatest living historian, explains this remarkable journey in fascinating detail, reckoning brilliantly with the life and meaning of one of the great thinkers and characters of our age and, indeed , of the history of American diplomacy. For all who struggle to achieve some larger perspective on world events, the example of George Kennan, in John Lewis Gaddis's hands, makes for inspiring and engrossing reading." --(Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, USAF (Ret.); former National Security Advisor; and President of The Scowcroft Group)
George P. Shultz
"When a great historian writes about a great man, the result is bound to be outstanding. This book exceeds even that high expectation." --(George P. Shultz, author of Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State; former U.S. Secretary of State; Distinguished Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University)
Walter Isaacson

"In this magisterial and authorized work, based on complete access to private diaries and papers, Professor Gaddis gives us a deeply personal look at George Kennan and shows how his personality, philosophy and policy ideas wove together. The result is the definitive biography of one of the most influential and fascinating foreign policy thinkers of the 20th century—a triumph of both scholarship and narrative writing."--( Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein and Benjamin Franklin; President and CEO of The Aspen Institute)

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