John Lewis Gaddis on George Kennan


Mar 06, 2012
George Kennan Main Image

What "The Father of Containment" Can Teach Us About Today's Challenges

Henry Kissinger, writing in the New York Times, had this to say about John Lewis Gaddis' epic biography of George F. Kennan: "His magisterial work, George F. Kennan: An American Life, bids fair to be as close to the final word as possible on one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants."

Long before his death, Kennan selected Gaddis to be his biographer. And when Kennan died in 2005, Gaddis gained unprecedented access to personal diaries and other documents that helped him create a vivid portrait of the man considered by many to be the most influential foreign policy theorists of the Cold War era. In his New York Times essay, Kissinger said that, "no other Foreign Service officer ever shaped American foreign policy so decisively or did so much to define the broader public debate over America’s world role," than did George Kennan.

We spoke to John L. Gaddis not only to learn about Kennan's life and work, but also to find out if his world view was relevant to understanding today's foreign policy challenges.

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale University and is considered to be the nation's preeminent Cold War historian. In fact, the New York Times has called him, the "Dean of Cold War Historians." He is also the official biographer of the seminal 20th century statesman George F. Kennan.

How did you come to be Kennan's biographer and what was the nature of your relationship?

Did your sense of who he was and what motivated him change after reading through his personal diaries?

With the benefit of hindsight, what is most impressive about George Kennan's understanding of the Cold War?

On the flip side, what did he get wrong?

What can we learn from Kennan that is most relevant to today's world?

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  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
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