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“George Kennan: An American Life” by John Gaddis


John Lewis Gaddis provides an engaging and elegant biography of George F. Kennan. In the book, George F. Kennan: An American Life, Gaddis presents a lucid and masterfully researched account of Kennan’s life as a diplomat, policy mover, and a scholar of world history. Gaddis is a professor of History at Yale University. This chef-d’oeuvre book offers a definitive biography of Kennan as an interesting personality who wrote ‘the long telegram’ and ‘the X article’. The two articles served as the impetus upon which the United States’ policy of containing the Soviet Union developed. In this biography, Kennan is accredited for his role in the United States’ eventual victory in the Cold War and the stability of the ensuing foreign policy. Gaddis purpose in this book is to present the major theme in Kennan’s life including his insight into diplomatic issues in the Cold War, his capability to predict the outcome of the war, and his role in designing the containment policy. This paper supports the claim that Kennan was, in different ways, one of the most influential personalities of the twentieth century who helped the US to design and implement a new model to counter the Soviet problem.

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Summary of the previous work

Gaddis’ previous book is Security Surprise and the American Experience, which was written in 2005. In this book, Gaddis offers a detailed account of how the US was once again caught by surprise following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He shows how the Americans’ assumptions about the efficacy of the national security agencies were shattered leading to a re-evaluation of the American security strategy. The terrorist attacks meant that the grand strategy of collaboration with like-minded nations against authoritarianism was inadequate to ensure a secure United States. The Bush administration designed new approach based on preemption and hegemony on an international coverage. Given the challenges of the 20th Century, Gaddis questions the success of this grand strategy. This provocative work is acquainted with past encounters and it reflects what is happening coupled with predicting what might be expected in the American security experience. The book is useful to the larger field of political science as it offers an informed critique about past decisions made pertaining security agencies in the US. This work relates past encounters to the evolving challenges and it predicts future expectations on security matters, thus serving as a guide for policymaker.

Structure and overview of the book

The book is extremely voluminous and it contains a text of seven hundred pages. In addition, the book has detailed notes occupying about 70 pages. Although it is a long read, it is captivating right from the beginning, thus motivating the reader to delve deeper into the text. In the opening two chapters, Gaddis offers a deep description of Kennan’s early life and education. From the very beginning, the author tries to show how Kennan’s diplomatic mastery started to manifest during his early age. From 1926, the author shows that most of Kennan’s life developed outside the US due to the nature of his work and career aspirations. The setting of the book revolves around Kennan’s life as an ambassador to several states and particularly the Soviet Union. During his long career, Kennan gained insights into the history, diplomatic relations, and the Cold War politics that magnified his success in many ways (Gaddis 43). Gaddis excels in the way he brings forth the account of this brilliant character. The fact that Gaddis had a long engagement with Kennan allowed him to compile first-hand information from Kennan through interviews and work mates coupled with international and domestic policy papers during his career. In such a magnificent writing, Gaddis gives the reader the actual feel for Kennan’s abilities such as his proven intellect and expertise to predict outcomes.

As the thesis shows, Kennan’s leadership strategies were brilliant and they influenced the shaping of the Cold War. This book provides an accurate and organized data of all crucial experiences in Kennan’s life ranging from his encounters with the Soviet Union to his informed critique of the American political ideologies. In addition, Gaddis gives the audience unwavering understanding of how Kennan tirelessly worked towards ensuring that the American government and public understood how to relate to the world. The most critical aspect is how Gaddis addresses the audience with informed reasons why Kennan’s work and experiences still inspire the United States’ foreign policy and history to date. Kennan’s major philosophy of relating to foreign countries is depicted as engaging and cautious. Kennan discouraged military force and argued that any show of strength should take the form of diplomatic talks, moral force, and character. This book shows that Kennan emphasized the need for democracy as transcribed in the Bill of Rights and deviating from misguided search for superiority. The book reckons Kennan’s appeal to the masses to spend much time to understand fundamental and complex matters. Gaddis offers the necessary lessons to guide the United States to the desired future and in the most favorable way.

Strengths of the book

Gaddis’ work provides one of the most definitive accounts about a diplomat whose life and career help in understanding the spread of communism and the subsequent fall of the Soviet Union. The strengths of this book support the purpose of this article since they retaliate that Kennan made thoughtful choices and ensured that he did not stumble in his roles. The book delves into various levels starting with the personal life and education of Kennan. It evolves to cover Kennan’s role as a diplomat and the subsequent development of his career. Third, it explores the growth of Kennan as a critical thinker and an opinion mover in the US. Lastly, Gaddis covers Kennan’s wider political engagements and shaping of the American foreign policy both as a public servant and after retirement. This unique organization shows that Gaddis has a clear understanding of his subject. Gaddis does not restrain from indicating the insecure character of Kennan and his flaws. Despite their undisputed relationship, Gaddis goes ahead to refute Kennan’s extramarital affairs and his impatience, which led to poor decisions at times. This widespread coverage gives the audience a better understanding of Kennan’s behavior that could have been overlooked by many authors.

This account is rich with information that helps individuals understand the American international policy from Kennan’s perspective. This informative book has used relatively all the available references that a historian could access on a given topic. These sources include personal diaries and one-on-one interviews coupled with foreign and domestic policy documents that were available during Kennan’s time as well as opinions from his family and peers. Gaddis depicts a magnificent account of the major ideological differences, which persisted for almost the entire second half of the 20th Century. Generally, this book is uniquely written and it is explicitly thoughtful, hence worth the read for anyone interested in the politics of international relations.

Weaknesses of the book

This book is very long, hence tiresome to read. Although it is lucid, its length is discouraging to many readers. It would have been more approachable and cultivating if Gaddis compressed the book a little bit coupled with avoiding some of the notable repetitive sections. Students and scholars seeking fingertip information about Kennan might ignore it because it requires deep reading and analysis of details to make informed generalizations. The author devotes relatively much space to Kennan’s personal life and without analyzing the subject since Gaddis reveals much of what could have been spared of a prominent person like his subject. Gaddis comes out as a self-acclaimed historian who does much to criticize Kennan’s perspective based on his own assumptions. For instance, Gaddis comments bitterly on Kennan’s statement that the modern United States is doomed to fail following the decadence of the American society. Gaddis claims that this statement was a self-constructed nonsense (Gaddis 211). Such response is non-scholarly and it undermines the credibility of the book.

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The author demonstrates great character as an American historian, despite his close relationship with Kennan, Gaddis does not shy from disagreeing with his subject’s opinion. The author does not disguise or mold justifications to cover his subject’s flaws. This aspect hugely raises the credibility of this biography. The audience gets the right message about Kennan’s public and personal life. Gaddis’ ability to challenge some of Kennan’s ideas outwardly and credit his role towards the American foreign policy makes him the best-suited author to provide a biography for Kennan. Generally, the book points out that the tensions coupled with Kennan’s role as a diplomat whilst seeking to impact policy despite the bureaucracy were critical in defining the modern US.

Works Cited

Gaddis, John. George F. Kennan: An American Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Print.

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StudyCorgi. (2020, November 6). “George Kennan: An American Life” by John Gaddis.

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"“George Kennan: An American Life” by John Gaddis." StudyCorgi, 6 Nov. 2020,

1. StudyCorgi. "“George Kennan: An American Life” by John Gaddis." November 6, 2020.


StudyCorgi. "“George Kennan: An American Life” by John Gaddis." November 6, 2020.


StudyCorgi. 2020. "“George Kennan: An American Life” by John Gaddis." November 6, 2020.


StudyCorgi. (2020) '“George Kennan: An American Life” by John Gaddis'. 6 November.

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