- George F. Kennan: An American Life
It may at first glance seem odd to the casual reader of the Mediterranean Quarterly to see a review of the recently published magnum opus of John Lewis Gaddis — a full biography of the American Cold War diplomat and historian who made a name for himself as an expert on the Soviet Union and all things Russian, George F. Kennan. This book, however, about the man who originated the US strategy of containment — which Kennan came to disavow because of later misinterpretations — is really about Kennan’s impact on US foreign policy and the truly global dimensions of his work as a diplomat, policy planner, ambassador, lecturer, author, historian, radio commentator, teacher, and critic, among many of his titles.
This dense and weighty 784-page tome is the result of Gaddis spending the past thirty years carefully researching and painstakingly piecing together the 101-year life of arguably America’s most influential twentieth-century diplomat. While some might claim Gaddis’s book is long overdue, it is well worth the wait and shows how truly global and widely influential Kennan’s life work really was.
The book is organized chronologically and broken into five main parts: Kennan’s childhood, education, and the beginning of his foreign service career; the development of the intimate knowledge of European affairs he acquired during the painful run up to, and the US prosecution of, the Second World War; his central role in developing US grand strategy during the early stages of the Cold War; his slow and controversial transition to academia and private life; and finally, his extended twilight years as a writer, critic, and elder statesman. [End Page 115]
George Frost Kennan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on 16 February 1904 to Kossuth Kent and Florence James Kennan, who — George was told growing up — died in childbirth, but in fact had died two months later of a ruptured appendix that was not handled properly. He was not especially close to his father, who remarried and left George to be raised by nannies and, more important, his three sisters — all of whom remained close to him, as did his younger step-brother. Kennan was characterized throughout his life as a kind but sensitive individual who at times could be accused of being thin-skinned or even capricious.
As Gaddis correctly points out, Kennan was able to balance his personality with a natural talent to pick up foreign languages (for example, he was bilingual in English and German and spoke Russian better than most native Russians) and, more important, the ability to write elegantly, eloquently, and at length — probably because the circumstances of his early life led him to confide his innermost thoughts, ideas, and even dreams to a diary, which he maintained on and off for the better part of his long and adventurous life.
Much of Gaddis’s biography covers many parts of Kennan’s life that are already well known. Certainly the author’s earlier works on the origins of the Cold War and US containment policy have already contributed to our historical understanding of the world Kennan helped to shape. What comes out of this biography most strongly is how much Kennan was intellectually, emotionally, physically, and personally challenged to understand his own circumstances and, in turn, report to Washington and support (or, as was often the case, criticize) US foreign policy objectives — both in and out of government.
What Gaddis very effectively highlights is that Kennan was unusually gifted in working under great pressure, rising to meet the unique challenges that were placed before him, talents that had made his reputation not only as a Russian expert but also as a highly effective US Foreign Service officer. Several key officials in the US State Department, and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, took note of Kennan’s many diplomatic successes, including the reopening of the US embassy in Moscow from 1933 to 1935 after the United States and Soviet Union agreed to...