Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, George F. Kennan — An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis is a weighty biography of a great man. But more than a biography, it is a well-researched look at the evolution of U.S. foreign policy, especially its policy towards the Soviet Union, in the years before and just after the World War II.
While presenting the larger story, the book illuminates the rise, setbacks, struggles and complexities of a gifted American. Kennan was truly an extraordinary diplomat, adviser, policy maker, teacher, author, historian and grand strategist. He was both a witness to and participant in historic events at critical moments. At the same time, he was susceptible to human frailties, coping with fame, failure, ulcers and a roving eye.
At 800 pages, this is a substantive volume that took time to materialise. The author began writing it in 1981 and finished the task in 2011. The long gestation period was due to an understanding between Kennan and the author that the book would appear after the former’s death. Kennan lived for 101 years from 1904-2005. He once remarked, referring to the author: ‘Perhaps I should do him the favour of dying immediately.’
Gaddis, who is Robert A. Lovett Professor of History at Yale University and author of several books, showed exceptional courage and dedication in producing this work. Already at least a dozen biographies and even an autobiography of the subject existed. Gaddis’ book is a definitive analysis of the man, his work and times. Kennan did not read the manuscript (except one paragraph), but he gave to the author ‘the greatest gift an authorised biographer can receive’, as Gaddis put it, ‘which was the complete freedom to say what I pleased.’
A Midwesterner and product of Princeton, Kennan joined the U.S. Foreign Service in 1926 and trained to be a specialist in Russian language and Soviet affairs. He served in the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 1930s and in Berlin in 1940s where he was, together with the entire diplomatic team, subjected to internment by Nazi Germany, after the U.S. entered the war. He returned to Moscow in 1944. From there, as chargé d’affaires , he sent in February 1946 the celebrated diplomatic communication — ‘the long telegram’ — containing over 5,000 words. He advised Washington on how to deal with Stalin’s Soviet Union, arguing that normal peace time relationship with it was not possible, given the reasons rooted in Russian history, Marxist-Leninist ideology and the fact that ‘Stalin’s regime required external enemies.’ He suggested that beyond appeasement and a third world war, there was an alternative strategy for the West i. e. to be tough with the Soviet Union in order to curb and contain its expansionist tendencies. This essentially led to the U.S. adopting the policy of ‘containment’, although later Kennan, for a variety of reasons, emerged as its critic. Nevertheless, as Henry Kissinger observed, Kennan came ‘as close to authoring the diplomatic doctrine of his era as any diplomat in our history.’
Subsequently transferred to Washington, Kennan played an influential role as the first Director of Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, advising U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, his successor Dean Acheson and President Truman. Kennan’s article in Foreign Affairs in July 1947, which appeared anonymously from one Mr. ‘X’, is considered a classic.
The book has a fascinating account of Kennan handling a sensitive interaction with General McArthur. What, however, truly captivated this reviewer was the book’s chapter entitled ‘Mr. Ambassador: 1952.’ Having been denied the chance to be U.S. ambassador to Britain on the ground that he could not afford the position, Kennan got the job of heading the Moscow embassy for which his life’s training (until then) had prepared him so well; alas, he could not keep it for long. Surprised and anguished by the hostile environment in which he found himself, he did not request a call on Stalin, and the latter never invited him for a meeting. After a trap devised by the Kremlin failed and following an ambiguous romantic episode, Kennan was under enormous emotional pressure; he made adverse public comments against the host government. This led to his being declared a persona non grata and instant expulsion, the first time an American ambassador faced such an ordeal in ‘230 years of Russian-American diplomatic relations.’
How Kennan dealt with this setback is a lesson in courage and resilience. Much later, President Kennedy appointed him as ambassador to Tito’s Yugoslavia. Even after the Moscow setback, he had so many accomplishments to score in the following decades; just to name a few: two National Book awards, two Pulitzers and a Bancroft Prize for his writings.
Gaddis explores the nature of ‘greatness’ of his subject, reviewing the latter’s contribution to grand strategy and noting how Kennan’s ideas, eventually transferred to the hands of a leader like President Reagan, led to the demise of Soviet Union. He claims, perhaps with a touch of exaggeration, that ‘only Kennan foresaw the possibility — Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Clausewitz would have approved — that the United States and its allies might in time get the Soviet Union to defeat it.’ The list of realists should have included Chanakya.
Kennan also performed well as a historian. He had a gift for communication. ‘There was passion, luminosity, vigor, and originality in almost all of his prose...’ He wrote poetry too.
The author recalls how Philip Ziegler, the biographer of Lord Mountbatten, became so angry with his hero that he placed a sign on his table that read: “Remember, in spite of everything, he was a great man.” Gaddis did not copy Ziegler, stating that ‘the experience did convince me that “greatness” takes multiple forms.’
The work is meant for serious students of international affairs, but it has enough material of a lighter kind to hold the attention of those interested in insights about World War II and the Cold War. The publisher, I suggest, should consider bringing out an abridged paperback edition.
Kennan advised Washington that normal relations with Soviet Union were not possible