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Gaddis’s Kennan: Strategies of Disparagement

Intent on blaming the cold war simply on Soviet perfidy, John Lewis Gaddis does a disservice to the subject of his biography—and to his readers.  

By Eric AltermanTwitter

March 14, 2012

Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis, awarded the 2005 National Humanities Medal by George W. Bush and the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, shares with the late political scientist James Q. Wilson the quality of being more influential in “the real world” than within the academy. Scholars who fall into this category tend to share two primary attributes: their arguments can be communicated in sound bites, and they can be put in the service of conservative causes. The former is necessary for them to be heard at all, and the latter, because they come from liberal academia, gives their arguments a newsworthy “man bites dog” quality. (Think “broken windows.”)

Gaddis jumped to the top of the heap of cold war historians forty years ago with his first book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947. In the book, published in the face of an ideological challenge by “revisionist” historians emphasizing US global ambitions above simple Soviet perfidy as the root cause of the conflict, Gaddis argued that it was America’s democratic system that exonerated its statesmen. After all, the dictator Joseph Stalin could have compromised whenever he felt like it, but the Americans were restricted from doing so by having to face honest elections.

In the ensuing decades, Gaddis’s views have drifted further rightward, to the point where responsibility for the cold war rests on the shoulders of “one man”: Stalin. The chain of causality that led the United States and the USSR to 1945 had many links, Gaddis explained. But “it took one man,” he wrote, “responding predictably to his own authoritarian, paranoid, and narcissistic predisposition, to lock [the conflict] into place.”

These are decidedly minority views. “A majority of historians,” notes Melvyn Leffler, who recently co-edited the three-volume Cambridge History of the Cold War, “assign much, much greater complexity to the origins of the Cold War than does John.” But Leffler has also noted that Gaddis’s arguments resonated “with the triumphalism that runs through our contemporary culture.”

American diplomat and Russian scholar George F. Kennan undoubtedly made any number of mistaken decisions during his 101 years, but what may have been the worst of them was his accession to the request that Gaddis be allowed to become his official biographer. Kennan was no doubt flattered, in 1982, when Gaddis’s Strategies of Containment argued that Kennan’s theory of “containment” was “the central preoccupation of postwar national security policy,” not only for Truman but for all administrations to follow. Kennan was already feeling slighted by his former colleagues in government as well as by the direction of history itself. He had long ago disavowed the manner in which his ideas had been implemented, but he could only have been pleased to be placed at the intellectual center of debate by America’s most influential cold war historian.

Had Kennan not lived so long, Gaddis might have done a fair job as his biographer. But as Kennan, despite remaining an old-fashioned conservative in the tradition of Walter Lippmann and Hans Morgenthau, moved further and further to the dovish/diplomatic wing of foreign policy debate, his biographer rushed headlong in the opposite direction. Kennan, for instance, strongly opposed Bush’s Iraq adventure, while Gaddis sounded like Dick Cheney on steroids during this period. Cautioning Democrats not to take issue with intellectual currents underlying Bush’s foreign policy, Gaddis argued: “The world now must be made safe for democracy, and this is no longer just an idealistic issue; it’s an issue of our own safety,” later adding, “A global commitment to remove remaining tyrants could complete a process Americans began 232 years ago.”

The result, sadly, is a biography, George F. Kennan: An American Life, in which the author not only sides emotionally and intellectually with his subject’s adversaries but, in many instances, does not even try to do justice to his subject’s arguments. In an eye-opening review in The New York Review of Books, Frank Costigliola, who is editing Kennan’s diaries, offers example after example of Gaddis’s refusal to engage Kennan’s arguments against America’s proxy wars and nuclear arms procurement policies. Kennan noted in his diary in 2000 (at age 96) that he feared Gaddis “had no idea of what was really at stake” in the “long battle I was waging…against the almost total militarization of Western policy towards Russia.”

These issues were largely skirted in a jocular hourlong interview broadcast recently on C-Span. Gaddis told Susan Glasser, editor of Foreign Policy, that “the astonishing thing about this one is how little criticism there has been, how it has pleased people on both sides. The greatest moment I think for me was the day that The Weekly Standard and The New Republic came on the same day. Both had rave reviews and I thought that was quite astonishing.” This is kind of sad. Gaddis must be well aware that the two magazines share not only a neoconservative foreign policy orientation but also many of the same reviewers (though he could not bring himself to admit it when Glasser gently informed him that “The New Republic is much closer to The Weekly Standard than perhaps it used to be”). Even more bizarre, Gaddis insisted that he “kept waiting for the flak and the artillery, and mostly it has not come. My fellow historians have yet to come down on this, you know, because it takes historians a long time to write reviews.” Gaddis cannot be unaware of Costigliola’s review; nor is it possible he does not consider him a “fellow historian.” What is possible, however, is that Gaddis does not care. He is telling a story that resonates with America’s self-congratulatory cold war mythology: one that has little room for a principled dissenter like George Kennan and the inconvenient truths a more balanced telling of his life would have brought to light. A pity that Kennan will likely never get the biography he so richly earned.

Eric AltermanTwitterFormer Nation media columnist Eric Alterman is a CUNY distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, and the author of 12 books, including We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel, just published by Basic Books.

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