Wayne Lord, Ph.D.
President, World Affairs Council of Atlanta Professor, International Executive Education
Robinson College of Business Georgia State University
Book: George F. Kennan: An American Life
Author: John Lewis Gaddis
A someone with a keen interest in Russia and the Cold War, I was drawn to John Lewis Gaddis’ 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of George F. Kennan, which chronicles the extraordinary life and remarkable contributions of one of the most influential diplomats and geo-strategic thinkers of the 20th century.
Gaddis’s masterful writing weaves together an engaging collection of stories over more than 30 years of friendship and countless conversations with Ambassador Kennan. Based on a mountain of primary documentary evidence, the book details the career of the strategic architect of what came to be the centerpiece of American Cold War policy toward the Soviet Union: containment based on a complex network of military and diplomatic alliances.
Beyond analysis of Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” of 1946 and “Mr. X” article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1947 that articulated the containment strategy, Gaddis chronicles Kennan’s experiences as a diplomat in wartime Germany, his role in creating the Marshall Plan, his role as U.S. Ambassador to Russia and later to Yugoslavia, and his many years as scholar and political commentator.
What is most powerful, however, is Gaddis’ description of the deep understanding of Germany and Russia Kennan possessed through his robust study of German and Russian languages, literature, and history. That perspective in large measure shaped Kennan’s foreign policy prescriptions and, later, allowed him to become a renowned historian based at Princeton. Kennan’s razor sharp critical thinking skills were well honed through experience at very high levels of the American diplomatic profession and through a ceaseless quest for understanding the psychology of the world leaders and national cultures he encountered.
On a personal level, the book was especially meaningful since I had, in an earlier phase of my professional career, the opportunity to meet Ambassador Kennan and to hear him discuss a wide range of his experiences and some analysis of the evolution of his own thinking about geo-politics and the role of America in the world. What comes across so clearly in the book, as it did in person, is the power of Ambassador Kennan’s use of language and literary references to present his analysis and his arguments. In his speaking and his writing, Kennan displayed a rare gift of persuasive argument coupled with an unusual elegance in wording, logical sequence, and cadence.
I highly recommend this book not only because of the excellence of the biographic craft of Professor Gaddis, but also because of the central role George F. Kennan played in American geo-strategic planning and politics across the critical and dangerous middle decades of the last century.