Gaddis says his goal was to present his subject fully and fairly, with flaws and virtues accounted. Kennan had much to offer on each side. He was a tireless seeker of knowledge and a first-rate prose stylist who won two Pulitzer Prizes. His influence far outweighed his rank; Kennan was a member of the foreign service who never held a high-level position.
But as a member of the diplomatic corps in Moscow, his intimate knowledge of the Soviet present and the Russian past gave him near-prophetic powers. He anticipated that Marxism was just a phase in the country's history. He was an architect of the Marshall Plan, which helped revive the economies of Western Europe after World War II and helped undermine Stalin's belief that the West would turn against itself. He believed early on that that the Soviet Union and China would quarrel despite a shared belief in Communism.
Kennan was also the most human of visionaries. He had several extra-marital affairs. He was highly sensitive and impatient and once wrote in his diary that he dreaded "any occupation that implies any sort of association with, and adjustment to, other people." His call in 1946-47 for "containment" of the Soviet Union was a victory for anti-Communists who doubted that the U.S. could remain on good terms with its World War II ally. Yet Kennan found himself to the left of Washington for decades after, whether on Vietnam or the nuclear arms race.
"He came up with the most influential post-World War II strategy and within a year of having done so began to repudiate it," Gaddis says. "Kennan was one of those people who felt his ideas were not working unless he was personally putting them into effect."
"George F. Kennan" has an ironic subtitle: "An American Life." Kennan lived abroad for long periods of time and seemed out of place when he returned. He disdained American culture and had limited taste for electoral or office politics. His sensibility was not of a campaigner, but of an artist. He wrote poetry and played guitars. His great dream was not to become president, but write a biography of Chekhov.
"Your understanding of the subject of any biography is broadened and deepened and complicated by any act of biography," Gaddis says. "I've always seen the word 'critical' as having both a positive and negative meaning. To be a critic is to praise and to complain. But I still came out of this book extremely impressed by George and with an increased admiration and respect for him."
Over the past 40 years, the 71-year-old Gaddis had written several books on Cold War policy. But prior to "George Kennan," he had never written about an individual life.
As he researched and wrote Kennan's story, the historian decided to educate himself by offering a class in biography — not a lecture, but one centered on discussion.
During a recent class at Yale, the assigned book was Robert Caro's "Means of Ascent," the second and most controversial of Caro's series on Lyndon Johnson. "Means of Ascent" portrayed a politician so boorish and unscrupulous that former LBJ aides accused Caro of trying to destroy Johnson's reputation.
But Gaddis, a low-key instructor with an even, probing style, notes that the book is prefaced by Caro's vivid portrait of one of Johnson's noblest moments — the 1965 civil rights speech he gave as president, when he brought tears to the eyes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others by invoking the title of the protest movement's anthem, "We Shall Overcome."
So what kind of man was LBJ, Gaddis asks 20 undergraduates seated around a conference table? And what kind of system did he work in? Could the achievements of his presidency have been possible without the misdeeds of the Senate race years earlier? Is life ever without compromise? The students reach no conclusion, and Gaddis wasn't expecting one. After the class, he explains that of all the lessons he's taken in as a biographer, none is more important than leaving some questions unanswered.
"A really good biography does not have to resolve all issues," Gaddis says. "It can leave contradictions there. It can just say these contradictions were there and were important and the subject of the biography never completely resolved them." The subject of the biography himself was torn by contradictions. And this is certainly true of George Kennan."
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