Ryan's Reviews > George F. Kennan: An American Life

George F. Kennan by John Lewis Gaddis
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's review
Apr 01, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: pulitzer, biography, non-fiction, war, history, national-book-award-winner
Read from August 30 to September 19, 2012

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 thermonuclear, age. The long telegram and the x article began to outline containment, a sphere of influence strategy, and to curb the broader, perhaps untenable, idealism of the Truman doctrine's goal of intervening wherever freedom was threatened. But more interesting than the "what" was the "how". Kennan believed in "style" - a personal style that was rather genteel as well as a literary style that turned policy into prose and, occasionally, approached the poetic. He also believed that the roots of real understanding and good policy wouldn't come through studying law, international relations, or some other professionalized academic branch that promised to churn out polished diplomats, pundits, and advisers, but through a study of history, literature, the arts. I hesitate to put psychology in this bucket, but, ultimately, through these channels, Kennan's subjects were culture and mankind.

Finally, and again, maybe more interesting, is that this is a true biography. Gaddis' accomplishment is as much about penetrating and revealing the man, pulling him out of his time - and Kennan was insistent that he was a man out of time, an anachronism - instead of seating him at a banquet of the ages great men. The indelible flaws and how they come to shape the man. I read biographies to understand myself first, to gain a greater empathy for others second. In aggregate, to see how the isolation of experiencing yourself directly as something unique is undermined by common currents. I see a great deal of myself in his flaws - the stylized rambling that obscures points you'd hoped it would elucidate, the intimate coupling of self-assurance and insecurity, the unerring ability to do the right thing at the wrong time, an unsettled nature that leads to passionate curiosity at best and despondent distraction at worst. The question, then; how to mold a life as useful?

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