Cold War historian finishes epic on George Kennan

By Hillel Italie

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, April 19 2012 11:15 a.m. MDT

Some critics allege Gaddis turned against his subject. In The New York Review of Books, Frank Costigliola's analysis was titled "Is This George Kennan?" He called the book "monumental and absorbing" but worried about the "perspective and balance," noting Gaddis never mentioned that in 1968 Kennan endorsed an anti-war Democrat, Eugene McCarthy, for president.

"The biography suffers from this neglect," Costigliola writes.

Gaddis acknowledges that he could have included Kennan's support for McCarthy, but said he found it more important to write about Kennan's televised Senate testimony in 1966, when he called the Vietnam commitment "unsound" and chastised the United States for acting like "an elephant frightened by a mouse." The book, Gaddis emphasizes, does not fit any political category.

Conservatives think highly of Gaddis, and liberals disapprove, but he says he's a registered independent who has voted for Democrats and Republicans, from Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Bill Clinton in the 1990s to Ronald Reagan in 1984 and George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. (He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but remains undecided for this year).

During his seminar, Gaddis spoke warmly about the New Deal and the civil rights movement. In his books, he has expressed great skepticism about the Vietnam War, dismay at the "outright deception" of Kissinger and Richard Nixon and disappointments about the Iraq war. He says during his interview that it "was a great failing of the Bush administration" not to know more about the culture of Iraq before invading and for relying on bad intelligence.

"These were big mistakes," he says.

Criticism of Bush actually helped lead to Gaddis' meeting the president. In 2004, he published a brief book, "Surprise, Security, and the American Experience," which defended the right to "preemptive war," but also faulted the administration's "shock and awe" military campaign. Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor and an old acquaintance of Gaddis', asked the historian to meet with her staff.

According to Rice's memoir, "No Higher Honor," Gaddis encouraged her to take a more diplomatic approach to the country's allies. As Rice would acknowledge, "repair work" was needed. When they were done, she surprised Gaddis by bringing him to the Oval Office to meet the president.

"I was thinking it would be a photo op," Gaddis says. "But he had read the book. He underlined it. He had taken notes on it. ... We kind of hit it off at that point."

Some of Gaddis' former students have gone on to careers in Washington. Chris Michel became a White House speechwriter under Bush and later worked with Bush on "Decision Points." Keith Urbahn was an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who now runs Javelin Group LLC, a communications and book firm based in Washington.

Urbahn recalls taking Gaddis' "Grand Strategy" class at the height of the Iraq war's unpopularity: "He saw his role as raising larger questions that you had to grapple with. He cultivated a generation of students to think in terms of practical decision making. He didn't have this air of knowing sophistication that I felt with a lot of other professors."

"I don't think of him as a conservative," Michel adds. "But anyone who has nice things to say about George W. Bush is going to stand out among the Yale faculty."

Gaddis was born in Cotulla, Texas in 1941. The community was small, and personal. During his biography class, the historian asked his students to imagine a man on a tractor, age 25, working in a Texas field in the 1920s. It's hot, the land is flat and dusty. The man spots a Model-T pulling up and a young stranger getting out, dressed in a blue serge suit. He climbs through a barbed wire fence and approaches.

"Hi, I'm Lyndon Johnson and I'm the new high school teacher."

"The hell you are," is the reply.

Adds Gaddis: "The man on the tractor was my father."

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