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Is the man behind the Marshall plan relevant? | Book Insight

George F. Kennan: An American Life works brilliantly as a piece of intellectual history, and as a biography of a fascinating and complex man. Fortunately, both Gaddis and Kennan write beautifully.

— Gideon Rachman Financial Times

A reader’s review

The Magnum Opus of a Master Historian, November 11, 2011
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This review is from: George F. Kennan: An American Life (Hardcover)

What happens when one of the most gifted historians of the Cold War gains unprecedented access to the diaries and personal papers of one of the most influential statesmen of the twentieth century? Answer: A Pulitzer Prize worthy biography that sheds new light on George F. Kennan’s life both in and outside of public service. There have been numerous other biographies of Kennan and his role in developing the Cold War policy of containment but no work to date has explored the connections between the public and private dimensions of Kennan’s life with anything near the depth or insight of Gaddis’s new biography.

Kennan was, in many ways, one of the most puzzling twentieth century statesmen. As an American diplomat stationed in Moscow at the dawn of the Cold War, Kennan wrote his famous “long telegram” that explained in detail the sources of Soviet conduct and laid out a plan for how the United States could counter Russian expansionism. The long telegram and Kennan’s anonymously authored “X Article” both helped foreign policy makers to define and articulate a new approach to dealing with the Soviet threat. Yet despite his status as an architect of American containment policy, Kennan would eventually become a critic of many of the policies carried out in the name of the doctrine he had helped to create. Kennan argued strongly against crossing the 38th parallel during the Korean War and even more passionately against U.S. involvement in Vietnam both of which he saw as highly flawed applications of his doctrine.

Much of this has been covered before by other scholars, including John Lewis Gaddis. Indeed Gaddis’s earlier work Strategies of Containment helped to illuminate both the depths and limits of Kennan’s influence on American Cold War foreign policy. What is new here is the addition of Kennan’s personal reflections on the critical events of the Cold War as they developed. Drawing on Kennan’s personal correspondence, his diaries, and numerous interviews with Kennan and his family members, Gaddis demonstrates the relevance of Kennan the man to Kennan the statesman. The book shows Kennan to have been an insecure and in many ways deeply flawed human being whose neurotic nature helped to shape his view of international politics and effected his behavior as a statesmen. At times, his impatience led him to make poor judgments in his career.

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