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George F. Kennan: An American Life

4.06 of 5 stars 4.06  ·  rating details  ·  760 ratings  ·  89 reviews
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
Hardcover, 800 pages
Published November 10th 2011 by Penguin Press (first published 2011)
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It's a pity, as with so many modern biographers who seek to be definitive, that Gaddis could not have done the short version for those of us with a job and a life. Having said that, I was engrossed from beginning to end, and couldn't bear to skip even one of the 700 pages, despite the book consuming all my free time for weeks. Gaddis writes well; Kennan wrote with a wonderful, powerful, novelistic excellence - even in his diary. And there's so much here: run-ins with Martha Gellhorn in Prague ju ...more
Fred R
Kennan's major claim to fame is to have anticipated by several years the American response to post-war Soviet expansionism, and to have given that response an intelligent and articulate high-brow exposition. On any given foreign policy issue, however, he was no more likely than chance to be correct, and his increasingly shrill denunciations of the folly and stupidity of American policy-making as the book progresses were born only out of an enormous vanity. Those presidents who consulted with Ken ...more
For those of us who are interested in global affairs, John Lewis Gaddis has written a marvelous biography of the diplomat George F. Kennan. A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Kennan, an expert on that country, died in 2005 at the age of 101, having served his country in various diplomatic posts, including Moscow and Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia.

We have almost forgotten how terrifying were the 1960's and other years in the long Cold War with the Soviet Union. The world came perilously close
I don't generally enjoy biographies, but Gaddis sure did a terrific job with this one.

It puts the spotlight on a key figure in American foreign policy. Even though Keenan was often critical of the United States and of particular political administrations, he has to be ranked as a dedicated public servant and statesman. It is not just a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, but of noting his life-long labors in foreign policy.

Gaddis provides us with a superb sense of Kennan's remarkable personality
Kennan was a curious creature - he was a diplomat with a historian's detached analysis, and a solitary artistic, almost melancholic, frame of mind. He devoured novels, composed poetry, and once, in a fit of despair, asked the Foreign Service to give him suicide pills. His diaries and memoranda are almost literary exercises.

Yet in turns, he was a brilliant, if curmudgeonly and distant figure in American foreign affairs. He was one of the first to recognize the discordant foreign actions of the So
This is a fabulous biography of one of the most influential US diplomats ever that was written by the best and most readable historian of the Cold War. That made me wait attentively for this book to come out. It is a long book - nearly 700 pages - but it reads easily and I ended up not wanting to quit. The book works on many levels.

First, on a personal level, it is the story of a middle class kid from Milwaukee, with language aptitude, who ends up at Princeton and then joins the State Department
Wittgenstein's Mistress
Strangely, most reviews of this book center on Kennan instead of Gaddis. In any case, the biography is informative and sympathetic, making allowances for Kennan's solipsism while never excusing his errors and misconceptions. It sits with American Prometheus as the best biographies I have had the pleasure or reading.
Justin Tapp
George F. Kennan: An American Life
I learned a lot from this authorized biography, the author was given "unrestricted access" to Kennan's journals, writings, and personal friends with the understanding that this book would be published after his death.

Kennan's thoughts and work have much to offer 2014 as we see an inter-Slavic conflict in Ukraine as well as the U.S. battling Islamic extremists in Iraq and Syria. Kennan would have understood very well Former Secretary of State Clinton's criticism
James Murphy
I came to this biography of George Kennan through my interest in international relations and the history of the Cold War but also as one who admires good biography. I expected satisfaction on both counts and got it first because Kennan is well-known as one of the more influential voices for the policy of containment which drove our actions in regard to the Soviet Union and secondly because Gaddis has written one of the handful of outstanding biographies I've read in recent years.

In describing Ke
Advice by and for the Middle-aged former Liberal Arts Major

Nobody warned me about growing older, which is to say, of course they did, I just didn't listen. In any case, I don't think any of the advice was very practical. I write you today in part to repair this lamentable situation.

When you reach a certain age you realize, on your way to your job at the Olive Garden, that you haven't thought about certain historical figures in months, even years. Soon after, you realize that your knowledge of sa
(FROM MY BLOG) "Norwegians don't enjoy, they endure." So replied a woman of Norwegian background when I asked her if she had enjoyed the experience she was describing to me.

George F.Kennan was Scots-Irish in ancestry, but he married a Norwegian, spent holidays in Norway, and might as well have been Norwegian. As told by his biographer, John Lewis Gaddis, Kennan merely endured his 101 years of diplomatic service, historical scholarship, world travel,consultations with presidentsand secretaries of
Great biography that I highly recommend to anyone with an interest in U.S. foreign policy or diplomatic or Cold War history. Kennan was a career Foreign Service Officer when he wrote his long telegram on how to handle relations with the Soviet Union shortly after the end of WWII. He more than anyone else articulated what became the U.S.'s containment strategy that allowed us to successfully navigate the Cold War with only a few misadventures (most of which were contrary to Kennan's advice). He w ...more
Michele Weiner
A very interesting look at an American original- a diplomat who wanted to be a writer, a historian who couldn't help but meddle in world affairs, especially anything Russian. In his originality and universalism, as well as his love of women, he reminded me of Einstein, but while the latter was sunny of disposition, Kennan tended to be depressed, especially in writing. Kennan relied on history to teach him and often referred to the classics to explain current events, and in that way reminded me o ...more
David Fabrycky
fantastic portrait of one of the 20th century's most notable and quirky diplomats. must-read for anyone interested in the Cold War and American diplomacy. a long read - prob best on Kindle!
Rachel Bayles
Fabulous. I learned more from this book about people, human nature, international affairs, and myself, than from the accumulated wisdom of 50 others.
Drew Blake
I don't know - Kennan is so good at speaking for himself, that it's a bit hard to imagine the need for a non-auto biography. But I'm still interested. Maybe when I make it all the way through Kennan's own writings.
George F.Kennan: An American Life / John Lewis Gaddis. Exceptionally fine biography due in part to the author’s scholarship, access to people and all things Kennan and, more significantly, to Kennan’s immense correspondence and journals, plus his professional writings. Fascinating portrait of an important American thinker. Who is there of his stature as a thinker and “teacher” in society today? His life has to be read to be appreciated. (What other thinkers are at risk of drowning in the cacopho ...more
George Frost Kennan is one of the most prominent figures in Cold War diplomacy. Author of the “Long Telegram” and Foreign Policy’s “X article;” the State department and US presidents, scholars, and the international public strongly considered Kennan’s ideas and his chief contribution of the principle of Containment when confronted with the prospects of Soviet aggression and the spread of Communism. A prolific speaker and writer himself, Kennan’s authorization of John Lewis Gaddis’ biography of h ...more
This book has been erected as the monument of George Frost Kennan and that is how one should go into reading it. John Lewis Gaddis is attempting to make an authorized and impacting statement that would succeed the life of his subject. The fact that this has become a Pulitzer Prize winning book says that he has accomplished this task.

My personal interest in reading this book is simply that I wanted to read another full length bio on the life of a diplomat. 'Napoleon's Master' by David Lawday is t
Kennan was one of the most influential statesmen of the 20th century, a skilled writer and teacher, a politely curmudgeonly genius of diplomatic strategy, and the theoretic architect of the Cold War containment policy that guided American presidents from Truman to Reagan and ultimately led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain and European communism forty plus years after he laid the groundwork for resistance without a third world war. Kennan worked for the State Department for decades, served at ...more
Eric Emma
The first biography that I have read since Bruce Campbell's If Chins Could Kill in high school so it's a new genre to delve into. Gaddis does a wonderful job of painting who George F. Kennan is. He captures what catapulted him to greatness, but also what would keep him forever feeling isolated from the rest of the foreign policy world: his ability to see and understand the other side. The detriment of the book however is that Kennan was a thinker rather than a man of action. The most insightful ...more
Gerry Connolly
In Gaddis' monumental biography of George F Kennan the vastness of Kennan's career is striking (he dies at age 101),spanning the entire 20th century. Credited as the architect of containment and lauded as a prophetic voice of and for diplomacy Kennan gets a lot wrong. He opposes NATO, misreads Soviet intentions in Korea, fails spectacularly as Truman's ambassador to Moscow (lasting less than a year), and does little better as Kennedy's envoy to Tito's Belgrade. He is a better academic than pract ...more
George Kennan and his long telegram turn up sooner or later in any political science or international relations curriculum. Unfortunately, for most students, his legacy and life don’t become more than a few paragraphs on Cold War containment theory. John Lewis Gaddis has filled the gulf between man and mention with his masterful treatment of a foreign policy master who lived long enough to see his many of his forecasts and theories come to fruition and often to naught. Kennan grew from his Milwa ...more
Glenn Hyman

Brilliant book. Gaddis does a masterful job of combining Kennan’s personal and public life. On the personal side, he was complicated, and his ego often got the better of him. He was married to an extraordinary woman, yet could not remain faithful to her. The book does not say what his kids thought of him, but they were very likely shortchanged and did not receive the attention children need because he was involved in so many things. Family life must surely have suffered. On the public side, his
It feels strange to me actually to have read this book. The author was a professor of mine in college, and I took his (excellent) seminar on the art of biography, a class he was teaching in preparation for writing this book. Now the book is written and it's won the Pulitzer, and I couldn't be happier for Professor Gaddis.
The book was intriguing -- Kennan's long life provides an excellent lens through which to view the Cold War from its prehistory to its aftermath. As a top-notch writer and faith
Yes, it's essential reading for students of mid-20th Century American History, foreign policy, the cold war, and post-war Europe. Kennan's fabled "long telegram" and "x article" were critical in forming a coherent US approach to Russia that navigated a course between appeasement and confrontation - poles that had twice in the preceding years proven fruitless with dire consequences; poles that cast a longer, darker shadow as the sun rose, and threatened to set, on a nuclear, soon to be thermonucl ...more
Herb Hastings
Excellent biography of an interesting man.
Kennan was a throwback to the well read, deeply thoughtful public servant. He worked as a foreign service officer and later in his career as an Ambassador. He was considered as the US's leading expert on Russia and was a top adviser to General Marshall when he was Secretary of State. He is credited as the intellectual father of the Marshall Plan and the policy of Containment. After falling out of favor he retreated to academia and wrote histories of the
Without meaning to, this year I am reading biographies of great American Presbyterians. First James Laughlin, now George F. Kennan.

It is difficult to imagine today that such a genius and reactionary occupied a major place in American political and academic life well into the 1990s. And make no mistake, he was a real reactionary: Kennan hated automobiles and televisions. He detested Reagan largely for his involvement in the entertainment industry... and his being from California. He was an elitis
Skuli Saeland
Í sannleika sagt var ég við það að leggja bókina frá mér eftir fyrstu kaflana.
Þetta er hins vegar góð umfjöllun um George Kennan sem segja má að hafi verið áhrifamesti einstaki aðilinn í að móta utanríkisstefnu BNA í kalda stríðinu.
Höfundurinn John Lewis Gaddis skrifar söguna línulega og byrjar á mjög ítarlegri umfjöllun um barnsæsku Kennans og þar sem bókin er mikil vöxtum þá var ég að gefast upp á óáhugaverðu efninu. Þetta skánaði þó mikið eftir að Gaddis komst í umfjöllun um sérsvið sitt se
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“His months of teaching experience were now a lost age of youth and innocence. He could no longer sit in his office at Fort McNair, look out over the elm trees and the golf course, and encompass the world within "neat, geometric patterns" that fit within equally precise lectures. Policy planning was a very different responsibility, but explaining just how was "like trying to describe the mysteries of love to a person who has never experienced it."

There was, however, an analogy that might help. "I have a largish farm in Pennsylvania." had 235 acres, on each of which things were happening. Weekends, in theory, were days of rest. But farms defied theory:

Here a bridge is collapsing. No sooner do you start to repair it than a neighbor comes to complain about a hedge row which you haven't kept up half a mile away on the other side of the farm. At that very moment your daughter arrives to tell you that someone left the gate to the hog pasture open and the hogs are out. On the way to the hog pasture, you discover that the beagle hound is happily liquidating one of the children's pet kittens. In burying the kitten you look up and notice a whole section of the barn roof has been blown off and needs instant repair. Somebody shouts from the bathroom window that the pump has stopped working, and there's no water in the house. At that moment, a truck arrives with five tons of stone for the lane. And as you stand there hopelessly, wondering which of these crises to attend to first, you notice the farmer's little boy standing silently before you with that maddening smile, which is halfway a leer, on his face, and when you ask him what's up, he says triumphantly 'The bull's busted out and he's eating the strawberry bed'.

Policy planning was like that. You might anticipate a problem three or four months into the future, but by the time you'd got your ideas down on paper, the months had shrunk to three to four weeks. Getting the paper approved took still more time, which left perhaps three or four days. And by the time others had translated those ideas into action, "the thing you were planning for took place the day before yesterday, and everyone wants to know why in the hell you didn't foresee it a long time ago." Meanwhile, 234 other problems were following similar trajectories, causing throngs of people to stand around trying to get your attention: "Say, do you know that the bull is out there in the strawberry patch again?”
“But when Christopher mentioned that he and Talbott had been trying to package post-Cold War policy in a single phrase, Kennan said they shouldn't. "Containment" had been a misleading oversimplification; strategy could not be made to fit a "bumper sticker." The president laughed when Talbott told him what had happened: "that's why Kennan's a great diplomat and scholar but not a politician.” 0 likes
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