NEW HAVEN, Conn. — In the five months since his biography of Cold War diplomat George Kennan came out, John Lewis Gaddis has been toasted as a master historian, and roasted as a conservative who minimized Kennan's liberal tendencies.
Now he's won the Pulitzer Prize — and he'd like readers to just take in the story.
"I didn't have any particular agenda in mind," Gaddis says. "My hope is, and I think it has been borne out, that people would respond to the book on its own merits."
Gaddis was widely acknowledged as the obvious choice to tell the story of Kennan's life. A published author for more than 40 years, he has been called the dean of Cold War thinkers by Harvard historian Priscilla McMillan. Evan Thomas, whose book "The Wise Men" includes a chapter on Kennan, says Gaddis is a "master" who makes an "honest effort to cut through cant and ideology." In 2005, Gaddis received a National Humanities Medal for "his incisive examination" of the epic conflict between the capitalist West and communist East.
But while Gaddis is an insider — a popular teacher at Yale University, winner of numerous awards, a guest at the White House — he's an outsider to many colleagues in New Haven and elsewhere. He has kind words for Ronald Reagan and became close enough to George W. Bush to advise him on his second inaugural address and on his memoir "Decision Points," which Gaddis includes in a class he teaches on biography. Henry Kissinger is a supporter of the "Studies in Grand Strategy" course Gaddis helps teach and wrote a highly favorable review of the Kennan book for The New York Times.
So while the Pulitzer board praised "George F. Kennan" as "an engaging portrait" of the quintessential Cold War diplomat and the times he lived in — and the National Book Critics Circle cited Gaddis' "profound understanding of U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century" in awarding him its biography prize — Gaddis has been criticized for omitting or disregarding some of Kennan's more liberal opinions. Eric Alterman of the liberal weekly The Nation labeled the book "Strategies of Disparagement."
"It's fair to say I am more conservative than most of the Yale faculty," Gaddis observes during a recent interview at his Yale office, where pictures of him with Bush and Kissinger hang on the walls. "I'm used to it, but certainly it's not always a popular position. Universities are rather intolerant places and there are orthodoxies within universities. Political correctness is not what it once was, but it does still exist."
Kennan himself had differences with his biographer. Gaddis thought Reagan was a visionary who ended the Cold War and the nuclear arms race; Kennan worried the president would blow us all to Kingdom Come. Gaddis supported the Iraq war, Kennan opposed it. Kennan, a born brooder, wondered whether Gaddis was the right man.
"I think he got a little nervous at times because I was a little more to the right of him on the current political issues than he was," Gaddis says. "I was more sympathetic to Ronald Reagan, for example, and later to George W. Bush, for sure. But we never got to the point where he said, 'Because of your politics you are no longer qualified to write the biography.' He never did, and never came close to it."
And Kennan had a long time to second-guess his choice. Gaddis first met Kennan in the mid-1970s and felt enough of a rapport to send some pages from an upcoming book about the Cold War. They became friendly and agreed in the early '80s that Gaddis write his story. Gaddis would be granted full access to Kennan, his family and friends and to Kennan's papers. Kennan, in his 70s at the time, sought no editorial control. But he did ask that the book not be released until after his death.
Kennan lived to 101.
"Poor John Gaddis has seen his undertaking being put off for years while he waits for me to make way for it," Kennan, who died in 2005, wrote in his diary.
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