The Buzz

Gaddis Mind Meld

Thousands of words have been written about John Lewis Gaddis’s seminal biography of George Kennan, and by now there wasn’t much reason to anticipate anything particularly fresh on the topic. But Jordan Michael Smith turns the trick with a refreshingly insightful review in the January issue of The American Conservative, "Kennan’s Opposite." Whereas previous reviews took the occasion of Gaddis’s book to explore the life and thought of Kennan, Smith devotes much of his review to an exploration of the biographer.

Smith traces the evolution of Gaddis’s thinking as new post–Cold War evidence suggested, as Gaddis put it in an interview with Smith, "that ideology was a lot more important on the other side than I had thought it was." This new thinking led Gaddis to conclude, as he put it in his 2005 book, The Cold War: A New History, that Stalin’s goal "was not to restore a balance of power in Europe, but rather to dominate that continent as thoroughly as Hitler had sought to do." Hence Smith demonstrates that Gaddis moved further and further away from Kennan’s own skepticism during the years following the Cold War’s end.

But Smith didn’t stop there. He interviewed Melvyn Leffler, the University of Virginia scholar of Cold War history whose stature rivals that of Gaddis. Leffler flatly disputes Gaddis’s latter-day interpretations and suggests most historians of the period "assign much, much greater complexity to the origins of the Cold War than does John in his writings of the last 10-15 years." Smith explores the significance of all this in noting that Gaddis’s Cold War interpretations have led him to a messianic view of America, as reflected in this 2008 pronouncement: "A global commitment to remove remaining tyrants could complete a process Americans began 232 years ago." Writes Smith: "[T]hese arguments are notable not just for their audacious scope and crusading spirit but for their timing. By autumn 2008, most American intellectuals were attempting to figure out how to retrench from commitments overseas, not opting for dramatic new challenges."

An excellent review – in fact, smart.