Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence.
As Nicholas Thompson writes in his review of a new biography of the scholar-diplomat, "George F. Kennan had two really big ideas. The ﬁrst was containment, which he presented in the 'X' article, published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, but which he had been reﬁning for years in speeches. The idea was that there is a middle ground between diplomacy and war. If the former fails, the latter is not inevitable. ... Kennan’s second big idea wasn’t original, but it was important. The word some political scientists use to describe it is 'realism'; another way to put it is that Kennan was skeptical about American competence in foreign affairs.”
It's never been easy to represent the United States in Moscow, especially if you're a Russian-speaking public intellectual who has criticized the Kremlin. The story of two U.S. ambassadors to Russia, George Kennan and Michael McFaul.
The 2012 Arthur Ross Book Award event honors gold medal recipient John Lewis Gaddis for his book George F. Kennan: An American Life, as well as silver medalist Jason Stearns for Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, and honorable mention Daniel Yergin for The Quest.
The first book to complicate the reputation of George Kennan came out in 1967. It was 600 pages long, and the cover would show a forlorn young man staring right at you. The tale was of an awkward boy from the Midwest who never quite fits in. He gains knowledge in the Foreign Service and becomes the United States' wisest Soviet analyst. Then, for a brief -- but crucial -- moment, he serves as the head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff under President Harry Truman, helping remake the world after World War II. Along the way, he writes the "Long Telegram" and the "X" article, which laid out a strategy forever known as containment, and he plays a central role in designing the Marshall Plan. He writes beautiful memos that anticipate the dangers of keeping Germany divided and starting an arms race. But soon he grows irritated with Washington, and Washington grows irritated with him. He becomes as bitter as he is brilliant, as frustrated as he is farsighted. The story ends with him out of power, despairing for the republic. The book hints that its subject might be anti-Semitic, depressed, and professionally inept.
The author of that book, Memoirs 1925-1950, was Kennan himself, as self-critical and personally reflective an autobiographer as his century had seen. More books followed (including one by the author of this review), peeling back the onion further and further. Each new round of discovered documents and diaries has reinforced what was known before. And now there is John Lewis Gaddis' magisterial, authorized account, George F. Kennan: An American Life. It is based on intimate interviews with Kennan and access to all of his diaries, including the one in which he jotted down his dreams...
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