The Contradictions of George Kennan

George Kennan presents a study in paradox. With penetrating scholarship, John Lewis Gaddis explores Kennan’s complex psychology and provides an intellectual history of the Cold War in his comprehensive and wonderfully written biography.

Issue: Jan-Feb 2012

John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: Penguin, 2011), 800 pp., $39.95.

GEORGE F. KENNAN—diplomat, foreign-policy analyst, historian, social critic, memoirist—has been the focus of much scholarly attention. But it seems safe to say that Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis’s comprehensive biography comes as close as any book ever will to being the final word on Kennan. Based in part on extensive interviews with his subject over a quarter century, George F. Kennan: An American Life provides a rich, warts-and-all (and warts there were) portrait of a man widely regarded as the author of America’s grand strategy of containment at the dawn of the Cold War. Meticulously researched and wonderfully written, Gaddis’s opus works on two levels: it penetrates Kennan’s complex psychology and personality with deep insight, and it offers up an intellectual history of the Cold War, seen through the prism of how Kennan’s views influenced, and failed to influence, American foreign policy during that tension-filled epoch.

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