Review: George F. Kennan: An American Life

Author: John Lewis Gaddis

Year published: 2012

Publisher: Penguin Random House

Reviewer: Stephen Howard



One of the founding thinkers of the international relations concept of “realism”, most people remember George F. Kennan for his theory of “containment” and think of him as “Mr. X”. But as this biography describes, this is hardly all that he was, nor was policy promulgation his true calling. George F. Kennan was by turns policy maker, politician, advocate, writer, poet, historian, and most importantly, teacher. The latter is strongly impressed upon the reader throughout the book, as the melodramatic Kennan seemed to find the most happiness and success while teaching others. The name George F. Kennan still holds an oversized role in foreign policy thinking today, and as Henry Kissinger implied, Kennan came the closest of any person in the history of the United States to single-handedly determining the course of the foreign policy agenda.

Somewhat a dreamer, Kennan was a visionary who functioned best when he had an intellectually strong team around him whom he could bounce ideas off of. This included further pioneering Realist Foreign Policy, single-handedly engendering the concept of containment, accurately interpreting the motives of the Soviet Union, and furthering the debate to eliminate nuclear weapons from the arsenals of both the US and USSR. Without such staff/team/students, he tended to drift into unreasonable and non-pragmatic policy positions. The unification of Germany right after WWII, proposals for getting rid of NATO throughout his career, and his views on how to deal with Asia in the 1950’s tend to fall into these regards. This drift was caused by his intuitive and somewhat emotional conception of policy creation, which more often than not opposed the more cerebral policy advocated by his contemporaries. Kennan could view the Soviet Union from the Soviets point of view, owing to the extended amount of time spent in the USSR and his love of the Russian people. Kennan’s advice and policy tended to be long range and un-provable in nature, and thus was never followed through to the letter. Melodramatically, Kennan completely undervalued how important his ideas and lobbying efforts were throughout the Cold War, bemoaning his supposed “ineffectualness” in government. This outlook led to doom and gloom spells right up to the end of his life for both himself and his country. Luckily, for both George and the United States, his amazing wife, Annelise, anchored him and kept him from true despair from the age of 27 through to the end of his life.

The 698-page book is worthy of the Pulitzer Prize it won, being both informative and very good reading at the same time. George Kennan: An American Life covers its subjects’ entire life, examining his personal, professional, and academic life. Further, the book is very fair, not lacking in its criticism of Kennan both personally and academically, but also analyzing everything from the perspective of the world that Kennan himself lived in, not the world that the author lives in. In total, Kennan’s brilliance, his vanity, and his continual sense of being out of place in society all contribute to the character of a book which brings the caricatured Kennan back down to the level of a flawed man, capable of great things.


Key Foreign Policy Concepts discussed in the book:

· Containment – both Kennan’s version of how internal developments within Russia would cause the USSR to fall and how it changed, both in how Kennan thought it should work and in implementation by government, over time.

· Soviet-American Relations – from the onset of the US recognition of the Soviet Union under FDR to shortly before its fall.

· Policy Making Process – the difficulties of making policy within the United States and the political pressures that it comes under.

· Communism – both the ideologies internal contradictions within Russia and how it changed to form different versions of a commonly regarded monolithic ideology.

· Conventional Deterrence – the marshalling of enough military power to make any sort of conventional war implausible to win

· Nuclear Deterrence – the creation of enough nuclear weapons to completely destroy the world, making war irrational