George F. Kennan: An American Life

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award

Selected by The New York Times Book Review as a Notable Book of the Year

Drawing on extensive interviews with George Kennan and exclusive access to his archives, an eminent scholar of the Cold War delivers a revelatory biography of its troubled mastermind.

In the late 1940s, George Kennan wrote two documents, the "Long Telegram" and the "X Article," which set forward the strategy of containment that would define U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union for the next four decades. This achievement alone would qualify him as the most influential American diplomat of the Cold War era. But he was also an architect of the Marshall Plan, a prizewinning historian, and would become one of the most outspoken critics of American diplomacy, politics, and culture during the last half of the twentieth century. Now the full scope of Kennan's long life and vast influence is revealed by one of today's most important Cold War scholars.

Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis began this magisterial history almost thirty years ago, interviewing Kennan frequently and gaining complete access to his voluminous diaries and other personal papers. So frank and detailed were these materials that Kennan and Gaddis agreed that the book would not appear until after Kennan's death. It was well worth the wait: the journals give this book a breathtaking candor and intimacy that match its century-long sweep.

We see Kennan's insecurity as a Midwesterner among elites at Princeton, his budding dissatisfaction with authority and the status quo, his struggles with depression, his gift for satire, and his sharp insights on the policies and people he encountered. Kennan turned these sharp analytical gifts upon himself, even to the point of regularly recording dreams. The result is a remarkably revealing view of how this greatest of Cold War strategists came to doubt his strategy and always doubted himself.

This is a landmark work of history and biography that reveals the vast influence and rich inner landscape of a life that both mirrored and shaped the century it spanned.

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography

Winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

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Editorial Reviews

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
Library Journal
One of our most significant diplomats, George F. Kennan was responsible for this country's four-decades-long policy of containment regarding the Soviet Union. Gaddis, the Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University, began interviewing Kennan almost 30 years ago, also plunging into his personal papers with plans to write a definitive biography. But since these papers covered not only politics but deeply personal matters, including Kennan's struggle with depression, the two men agreed that the work would not appear until after Kennan's death. Should be an eye-opener,
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594203121
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/10/2011
  • Pages: 800
  • Sales rank: 478,127
  • Product dimensions: 9.46 (w) x 6.58 (h) x 1.61 (d)

Meet 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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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Part I

1 Childhood: 1904-1921 3

2 Princeton: 1921-1925 23

3 The Foreign Service: 1925-1931 39

4 Marriage-and Moscow: 1931-1933 60

Part II

5 The Origins of Soviet-American Relations: 1933-1936 79

6 Rediscovering America: 1936-1938 99

7 Czechoslovakia and Germany: 1938-1941 120

8 The United States at War: 1941-1944 147

9 Back in the U.S.S.R.: 1944-1945 172

10 A Very Long Telegram: 1945-1946 201

Part III

11 A Grand Strategic Education: 1946 225

12 Mr. X: 1947 249

13 Policy Planner: 1947-1948 276

14 Policy Dissenter: 1948 309

15 Reprieve: 1949 337

16 Disengagement: 1950 371

Part IV

17 Public Figure, Private Doubts: 1950-1951 407

18 Mr. Ambassador: 1952 439

19 Finding a Niche: 1953-1955 477

20 A Rare Possibility of Usefulness: 1955-1958 506

21 Kennedy and Yugoslavia: 1958-1963 538

Part V

22 Counter-Cultural Critic: 1963-1968 577

23 Prophet of the Apocalypse: 1968-1980 613

24 A Precarious Vindication: 1980-1990 647

25 Last Things: 1991-2005 676

Epilogue: Greatness 693

Acknowledgments 699

Abbreviations to Notes and Bibliography 701

Notes 703

Bibliography 751

Index 763

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