In 1981, George Kennan agreed to cooperate with the eminent historian of the Cold War, John Lewis Gaddis, in the writing of the biography of his life. Little did Gaddis know then that he would have to wait for many years to see his volume published, since Kennan had one condition for Gaddis: that the biography could be published only after Kennan's death. In fact, Kennan died when he was 101 years old and now we can finally read this magnificent and brilliantly written book, which offers many insights into the mind and deed of one of the most famous Cold Warriors.
The book is extremely long and has 700 pages of text, followed by more than seveny pages of detailed notes. It is not an easy read but it captivates you from its very beginning.
After the first two chapters which describe Kennan's childhood and education, the author starts depicting in great detail the diplomatic life on Kennan. Most of the time Kennan did not live in the United States due to the nature of his work and career, which started in 1926. He married Annelise Sorensen in 1931 and had two prematurely appointments as Ambassador to the Soviet Union and then to Yugoslavia.
However, the best two reference points in Kennan's life would be the famous "Long Telegram" and the "Foreign Affairs" article signed "X". These two things brought him to the limelight of the Col War diplomatic world. The first one, known as the "Long Telegram" was indeed more than five thousands words long(but not eight thousand, as it was presumed hitherto) and came in five parts. This he did by dictating it to his secretary while he was ill and in bed. In it, Kennan explained to the State Department and to the whole world that Russia was always beset by a fear of the outside world. Paranoia, if you would like it. That was the main reason why Marxism came into being: it was an ideological belief whose main purpose was to undermine the West.
Kennan knew Russia very well and Gaddis describes the many travels of Kennan inside this vart country. As a result of this famous telegram, which had a tremendous impact on the Amerian psyche and policy makers, he was recalled to Washington where he was given a new job. This time he was appointed by George Marshall as chief of the Policy Planning Staff. Kennan was responsible writing and contributing to the new American foreign policy after the end of WW2. Kennan correctly predicted, for example, that the Soviet Union would not accept the Marshall plan.
But the highlight of his career was the second item mentioned before, namely: the famous article for "Foreign Affairs", which was published in the June/July edition of 1947. It was here whence the famous word "containment" had its origins. The title read: "The Sources of Soviet Conduct". He hid his true identity because he did no0t want it to be knwon that an employed diplomat is the one who was formulating the foreign policy .However, it took only some days to identify the author who, amazingly, concluded and predicted that the Communist regimes would actually collapse. This happened in 1989 and onwards. The policy of containment became the main pillar of the Americcan foreign policy until the days of the Reagan presidency.
In the sixties and seventies, Kennan became a strong critic of the American way of life. To quote from the chapter called:"Prophet of the Apocalypse", Kennan wote that the United States "is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope. They would arise from the familiar evils of industrialization, urbanization, commercialization,secularization, and environmental degradation".
The only rememdy would be "a much simpler form of life, a much smaller population, a society in which the agrarian component is far greater in relation to the urban component...In this sense I am, I suppose, an 18th-century person". Kennan despised many things about his fellows and the pornography shops in Washington were one of his targets. Juvenile delinquency and nuclear weapons were his adiitional targets.He objected the Vietnam war. He was a great intellectual who authored many books and articles and was one the Wise Men in the seventies. He enjoyed lecturing, despite many health problem which afflicted him and in 1989 was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President George Bush. He was inspired a lot by the writings of Edward Gibbon and many times made references to him.
In the coda of the book, Professor Gaddis asked Kennan to sum up his life in some words. Kennan expressed his wish to be remembered as a teacher:...."on understanding Russia; on shaping a strategy for dealing with that country (whose simple people he loved);on the danger that in pursuing that strategy too aggressively, the United Stated could endanger itself; on what the past sugested about societies that had donbe just this; on how to study history ;on how to write; on how to live".
This excellent volume, which used almost all the possible sources a historian could have at his disposal,including a 20000-page diary, a separate "dream diary" of reflections and the 300-boxex of additional papers at Princeton, is not only a great biography about a versatile man. It is also a superb history of the great ideological conflict which spanned almost half ot the previous century, written by a master historian about a unique American.