I have just finished John Lewis Gaddis’ George F. Kennan: An American Life. Normally, when the cover blurb is a glowing review by noted war criminal Henry Kissinger, I write off the book immediately. However, Kennan was a giant in the field of foreign relations, and his history is the history of the Cold War. Gaddis is a biographer of the highest caliber, and the prose jumps at the reader. In this, the book represents its subject well, as Kennan was well known for his pungent writing.
What I took away from all this is that Kennan (who was the half brother of the composer Kent Kennan, he of Counterpoint text fame) succeeded as a diplomat and planner because he recognized early on that nations were more than just governments. Kennan read Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Chekhov; the latter had a tremendous influence on him outside of diplomacy as well. Because he understood Russian culture and heritage, he was able to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union some 40 years before it happened. Kennan saw the diplomatic corps, politicians, and military leaders miss opportunities to solve many of the problems of the Cold War before they even started, and in a peaceful manner.
Kennan was also a human being with all the foibles thereof. He could be bullheaded and was prone to bouts of serious depression. He often took diplomatic and professional setbacks personally, and when he missed something, he missed it big. In this, he was very much like the great writers he loved as well. When out of government service (and sometimes while in), he worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, producing historical scholarship and interacting with some of the greatest minds in human experience.
Gaddis knows his subject and his times backwards and forwards, and is also known as a historian of the Cold War, so it makes sense that this book is put together well. He had the full participation and approval of George and Annelise Kennan before they died, and spent decades with both of them to get the material. If this is an era of interest to you, get this book.