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2012 Arthur Ross Book Award

Speaker: John Lewis Gaddis, Author, "George F. Kennan: An American Life"
Presider: Gideon Rose, Editor in Chief, Foreign Affairs
January 23, 2013
Council on Foreign Relations



GIDEON ROSE: Ladies, ladies and gentlemen, if I could have your attention please. One of the hallmarks of the council is that we try to start on time and wrap things up on time, so we're going to try and move this through efficiently. We have some great people today to have some great discussion, so welcome.

My name is Gideon Rose and I'm the editor of Foreign Affairs, and it is my extraordinary honor and privilege to preside today over this giving of an announcement of this year's Arthur Ross Book Awards. This is the 11th time we've given these awards and I want to note Ms. Janet Ross, who's here, along with others in the Ross family representing Arthur and his legacy, an extraordinarily generous man, an amazing success in many places, in many fields, and a great philanthropist. The Ross prize was established in 2001 to honor nonfiction works in English or in translation that merit special attention for bringing new information that changes our understanding of events or problems or issues in politics, foreign policy, and global issues.

It's been a touchstone for works of great accomplishment and distinction ever since and this year we had an extraordinary crop of submissions for it, making the choice even more difficult than usual.

There were hundreds of potential books and -- that we could have considered and the committee winnowed down this pool -- the staff here winnowed down this pool and finally sent 20 different books to our jurors to consider and then we had to winnow that down even further.

I'd like to thank at this point our jurors: Stanley Hoffmann, Bob Kagan, Mary Sarotte, Steve Walt. I myself took part in this as chairman. And as you can see from that list, you have a very diverse set of perspectives, a very diverse set of interests and all extremely talented and accomplished authors themselves, who really put their hearts into selecting the best stuff we could possibly find.

We narrowed down to five finalists: Frank Fukuyama for "The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution," John Lewis Gaddis for "George F. Kennan: An American Life," Frederick Kempe for "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth," Jason Stearns for "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa," and Daniel Yergin for "The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World."

This is an amazing group. Anyone of these could have won and in fact all got votes within our committee. After much deliberation, however, we picked three books for the top honors. In third place, with a $2,500 prize and Honorable Mention was Daniel Yergin's "The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World." This is a masterwork. Many of you have already read it. It really tells the story of energy security, one of the most crucial issues around in recent decades and then up into the future. Unfortunately, Dan can't be with us today to get his prize, but we have sent it to him and I encourage you all to read the book.

In second place, the silver medal, and a prize of $7,500, we selected Jason Stearns for "Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa." Please join me in congratulating Jason and Jason come on up here. (Applause.)

This is your -- we have a medal for you. I think we'll actually put this on you. (Laughter.) Somewhere Daniel Yergin is doing a McKayla Maroney impression. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

This is a fantastic book. Unfortunately, you don't get to talk too much about it, but why don't you say a word or two about -- what the book is about, what you wanted to achieve, and why we should read it?

JASON STEARNS: Well, first of all, I have no idea why I'm here today. I didn't think this book would ever get published, let alone win a prize. And if it did get published, it's in large thanks to my publishers who are here today and I'd like to thank as well because everybody else I submitted it to wanted me to write a different book and couldn't see why anybody would be interested in the collapse of the Congo and largely speaking, they wanted me to write a book about the white man in Africa, which was exactly the book that I didn't want to write. So thank you to Public Affairs for accepting the book as it was. (Applause.) I literally had to do almost nothing to change -- the book is -- it's a -- it's relatively simple, but you'll see why nobody wanted to accept it. It's about trying to understand the mindset of the people who were in charge of this Titanic, the Congo that was sinking ever so slowly since, I guess, independence, certainly or pre-independence, but very precipitously so since 1996, when the war started that has probably claimed the lives of 3 or 4 million people at least, probably more.

So the book really charts the story of this decline of the Congo since 1996, how it falls into war, and why it does so, and tries to understand the people who were in charge of those politics. So actually I start the book -- I'm not going to get too much into detail, but I start the book with Hannah Arendt going to Jerusalem trying to understand what drove the evil of the Nazis, this machine that was involved, I guess you could say, in the mass production of corpses, this industrial machinery of Nazi Germany.

And so I put myself in the position of a Hannah Arendt saying, well, if that was the evil of the second world war, how do we understand an evil of a very different nature, which is the Congolese war, where you do not have this industrial machinery, you do not have this overwhelming ideology, this Nazi ideology, and it was a more petty war, much more overlooked war, but no less disastrous in terms of how many lives it claimed.

So that was the outset of the book and -- and yeah, so nobody wanted to publish it except Public Affairs. (Laughter.) And I'm very happy and bewildered by being here today, so thank you very much.

ROSE: Thank you very much, Jason. (Applause.)

Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, he has to now go back to Yale and finish off his dissertation. Having learned how to write, he now has to unlearn it, so that he can pass muster with the Political Science Department for an entirely separate project.

For the grand prize, we have John Lewis Gaddis and "George Kennan: An American Life." Everybody here knows or knows of John Lewis Gaddis just as they know of or perhaps knew George Kennan. So there's not that much that I can or should say about it. What I will say is that John's output over the years, especially for those of us in similar or related fields of American foreign policy, national security, diplomatic history, is so remarkably -- you know, brilliant and so path-breaking and definitive with each new book that it would inspire in the first instance deep and abiding jealousy and hatred among all his fellows. (Laughter.)

I say it would do this -- and he told me I shouldn't say this because it didn't sound complimentary, but it's only honest and fair to say that's the issue, but in fact it doesn't bring us that because you can only really be jealous of somebody who you could imagine as being in one's own league. You're not jealous of Derek Jeter. You're not -- you know -- jealous of Yo-Yo Ma, if you happen to, you know, fool around musically. And in the same way, it seems inappropriate to be jealous of John Lewis Gaddis because he's turning out works on a consistent basis that sort of will last when all the products that the rest of us mere mortals churn out will be long forgotten.

This book, which I'm sure many of you have already read and certainly everybody who hasn't should read, is -- it has been one of the most eagerly and long-awaited texts in the field. Everybody knew that Kennan had chosen Gaddis as his authorized biographer. And so sort of like, that subject, that was touched. Now, we couldn't stop working on Kennan in the meantime, and of course, there were an entire shelf already of books on Kennan, but it kind of slowed down a little bit because everybody knew that there will be this big one coming along. And then Kennan kept living and living and living. (Laughter.) And some people forgot about him. Some people forgot about the Gaddis biography. I'm sure -- there's John -- whether he sort of, you know, got a little -- you know, wondered whether he would actually be able to complete it himself. (Laughter.)

But when it was about to come out, I actually wondered -- I had the temerity to wonder whether there was still that much that could be said. We know so much about Kennan, every aspect of his life and his policies and his times has been scrutinized so often that, you know, you think to yourself, gee, even Gaddis can't possibly come up with all that new and interesting things to say about Kennan. How can he possibly resell the same product again and again and again?

And yet -- and then you read the book and this entire era comes alive in a fresh, direct, novel way that penetrates right to the heart of the subject. And you think to yourself, gee, I thought I knew what was going on, but I didn't, and now, I see -- now, I see what was there. And all I can say is that the best -- the best compliment you can give this book is it deserves a place right next to Kennan's own memoirs on the shelf. The only person who could conceivably write better than John Gaddis might be George Kennan himself and tell an even more interesting tale. We now know of course that the tale of Kennan told in his memoirs wasn't exactly the correct or fully honest tale, and we now have the complement to that as well.

But it gives me great pleasure and pride to have John come up here and present him with this year's gold medal, the Arthur Ross Book Award gold medal, and $15,000 to John Lewis Gaddis for "George F. Kennan: An American Life." (Applause.)

Now, we're going to -- now, we're going to put our lavalieres on and talk a little bit.

OK, so the way this will work is we're going to -- I'm going to speak -- interview John for about 20-25 minutes, and then we'll turn it over to general discussion between him and all of you and we'll wrap up by 2:00.

So John, let me start by saying you started work on this project back in the '70s.


ROSE: 1981. And you decided not to write until Kennan himself had died.

GADDIS: That's correct.

ROSE: And you finally, therefore, started writing in --

GADDIS: In 2007.

ROSE: 2007. What were you thinking during those 20 years? (Laughter.)

GADDIS: That's a good question. There were one or two other things that were going on, Gideon, like the end of the Cold War, so I'm just thinking about that, doing some writing on that. There was plenty to think about with regard to my students. Some of them are actually here today. I'm amazed always when students voluntarily come. (Laughter.)

There were plenty of other -- and there was the research on the book, so a lot of that research was done in that long period: interviews with him, working in the notes, the diaries, the papers. The whole thing was ready to go years before he died. But the understanding was that I would not publish until after his death. And I interpreted that to mean I really didn't want to start writing until after his death because I wanted to write it all at once. It seems to me that a book, set aside -- a book one portion of which is written and then set aside, is just going to have to be rewritten when you get back to it. You have to do it all at one time.

So I just cleared the decks, did nothing but teach and write this for about four years. And I was surprised at how fast it went once I got going with it. But that's why I did it that way because I really felt I would just have to go back and rewrite the things that I had set aside.

ROSE: How did the book differ from the book that you would have produced had he died in 1986, 1996?

GADDIS: Oh, gosh, good question. I think it's more critical. I know it's more critical. I think I had the confidence to be more critical than I would have been had I done this 20 years earlier. I knew him better with all of that passage of time. It's not as though I was around constantly. And he liked that. He said it's nice that you're not always around and underfoot. But I sort of did know him better with that passage of time as a person. And I think that's very important in doing a biography. It's a privilege in doing a biography. Most biographers don't get to know personal the subject of the biography.

My own thinking on a lot of different issues had also changed, as is normal in the course of an academic career. So really, I -- it's a different book. It's more critical. Maybe it's better. I don't know. There's no way to be sure about that. But I found it very natural. I found it easy to write, which surprised me after all that time. It was not a book that I agonized over. And I do agonize over most books. And this one really just kind of flowed. And that was a big surprise.

ROSE: You mentioned the end of the Cold War. Did the passage of -- did the change in international eras affect how you looked back on the origins of the Cold War era in this book?

GADDIS: Well, of course, it always does. One of the things that we learned, although George always knew this, was that ideology was of huge importance in motivating the Soviet and Chinese and other foreign policies of other Marxist countries.

Many of us had, I think, underplayed the role of ideology in the Cold War, but the documents, as they began to come out, really confirmed what George had always said was very important. So it was interesting. It was significant to be able to say that, to be able to say that George was right on that, Soviet documents confirming these things. But of course, there were a lot of things that I say that he was wrong about. He was wrong in almost everything he said about Germany during the Cold War, one time or another. It's a remarkable record of being wrong on that issue or being right on the Soviet Union.

And somehow, doing this after the Cold War had ended was very useful to me, I think, in having that perspective, not just the end of his life, but long before the end of his life, the end of the big historical event with which he had been most associated. So there was closure in two different senses, I think, in this regard.

ROSE: You documented, as you say, a lot of cases where you think he was wrong and where you think he was not necessarily influential. I think you make your case for his, perhaps even world historical significance by arguing that in his brief extraordinary moment in the sun, the height of American foreign policymaking circles in the late '40s, he legitimized and helped conceptualize a middle path between war and appeasement that ultimately turned out to be the course that the United States followed for several decades and that charted a way through the Cold War.

GADDIS: I do say that. And one of the questions that I've been asked has been, well, wouldn't somebody else had come up with that middle path? Wouldn't somebody else have figured out that there was some third option between war and appeasement? And I think the answer is certainly yes, but it would not have happened as quickly and it would not have happened with the authority that George Kennan was able to bring to that. The very fact that the idea took on -- took hold so quickly within the U.S. government was a reflection of his reputation as a Soviet expert, which was unparalleled in the aftermath of the Long Telegram, for example, in his career.

So it seems to me that this very subtle idea of the middle path got injected into the policy process much faster thanks to Kennan than it would have if we'd had to wait for somebody else to come up with it. It would have taken longer. So I think that's the -- where I'd come down on this.

ROSE: In retrospect, this -- you could look at American policy from the late '40s through the early '90s as embodying or following this middle path and avoiding either, you know, a war (or Charybdis ?) of surrender and so forth. During the time, it seemed both more iffy to which way things would go and it seemed to be more variable perhaps. In retrospect, do you now look at this whole era as one that was more constant than we realized at the time?

GADDIS: I do, but I think that is often what historians tend to see. Historians tend to see continuities that are not so visible at the time. When you're actually living through events, they are messy. You don't see the longer trends. And of course, George himself did not see the longer trends. One of the big arguments that I had with George, after the Cold War ended, and this went on for years, because he lived so long after it was over, I said to him, you've been vindicated. He said to me, in no way have I been vindicated. This has not come out the way I wanted it to. The whole concept of containment was corrupted as soon as I left government, meaning 1949, and everything since then has been downhill. And the United States has, through most of this period, been the greatest danger to world order, not the Soviet Union itself. He said that in public. He said it to me many times.

And so it is extraordinary for someone who deserves so much credit to be so reluctant to take the credit. And this is one of the things that I think really was distinctive about the psychology and personality of George Kennan.

ROSE: Just like Woody Allen not liking to be remembered for his comedies?

GADDIS: Something like that, although I think he -- that's the first time anybody has ever compared George Kennan to Woody Allen. (Laughter.)

ROSE: You raised the question of Kennan's own repudiation of what he was considered to be responsible for. Whenever people do that, they always say, you know, I didn't change, the world changed, or I was not understood. Were there many George Kennans and did he change or did he -- was he indeed sort of misrepresented and so forth?

GADDIS: No, there were many George Kennans, of course. And there were many George Kennans in two different senses. There were many George Kennans in terms of professions or careers because it was the diplomat, but there was also the historian. There was the writer. There was the public intellectual. There was the anti-nuclear activist. There was the critic of the Vietnam War, all of these things. But this man had five or six or seven different careers in his long lifetime. So there was -- there were different Kennans in that regard.

But there were different Kennans also in the evolution, the trajectory of his thinking with regard to the Soviet Union. And so there are people who say, well, the George Kennan of 1979 is not the same as the George Kennan of 1949. And in some ways that's correct. I think that the real issue here was the thermonuclear revolution. George, in the late 1940s said openly and said in his famous Foreign Affairs article that what we had to do was to restrain the Soviet system, but do it responsibly and peacefully, so that they would see the contradictions that existed within it.

That's not far from what Ronald Reagan was saying in the 1980s, but did that mean that George Kennan aligned with Ronald Reagan? No way, totally the opposite.

I think the great difference for George was not so much the atomic revolution, but the development of thermonuclear weapons, the civilization-ending weapons that came into arsenals of the great powers in the 1950s. And what that meant was that trying to exacerbate the strains under which the Soviet System operated was too dangerous. Rocking the boat was too dangerous. And I think that's the key to understanding George's critique of American foreign policy through that entire period of the Cold War and it's also the key to understanding why he didn't understand Ronald Reagan, who actually in his thinking and in his policies and in his policy planning papers even, probably was closer to the George Kennan of the late 1940s than any other American president.

ROSE: Putting pressure on this policy set of questions for a little bit, one of your very significant insights, which I think hasn't gotten the attention that deserves, not so much in this book about Kennan, but more generally about the Cold War, was about the significance of Korea in setting the pattern, the template for the decades that followed. Everyone thinks that Vietnam is hugely important and significant, but in fact geopolitically and in terms of American Cold War history in general, Vietnam's not that significant, but Korea, which people don't -- tend not to forget -- tend not to remember -- was hugely significant, both in militarizing containment and giving sort of a backing to it, but also in teaching the superpowers that you had to limit things.


ROSE: So would you say that -- would you extend the period of this genesis of American Cold War strategy, not just in Kennan's era, but also into the Korean War, which set the pattern of militarized formal contention with the Soviets in proxy areas, but limited wars that didn't go nuclear and that kept the powers very modest.

GADDIS: Well, the answer, of course, is yes and no. You know, this is what historians always say. (Laughter.) Yes, in the sense that certainly Korea made the Cold War global, it seems to me, and it made it global in a military sense. If you look at the European implications in the Korean War, the decisions to rearm West Germany, the decision to station troops permanently there, that's all the outcome of the Korean War. And the Korean War got NSC-68 approved, so the tripling in the defense budget that occurred as a result of that.

But I've argued for a long time the most important effect of the Korean War was what did not happen in the Korean War, and this is the fact that atomic weapons were not used in the Korean War. I don't think anybody in 1945 or '46, if you had taken a poll of knowledgeable people and said there will be some war that will break out in which the United States will suffer the most humiliating military defeat since the American Civil War and it will not use its atomic weapons, you would have been considered crazy. That's pie in the sky stuff. But the fact that it came out that way is I think really quite extraordinary.

And in the previous book, not in this book, but in "The Short History of the Cold War" that I published about six years ago, I felt strongly enough about this that on page 49 or something like that I go through the Chinese intervention in Korea. I go through Truman's statement at the press conference that atomic weapons are under consideration, and then I say, at the bottom of the page, and on the next day, five were used by General MacArthur. And then I go on to lay out a scenario which ends with the incineration of Detroit and Hamburg or something like that on the next page. And then I say that's what could have happened. That's what you would have expected to have happened, but it did not happen.

You'd be amazed at the number of people who stopped reading at the bottom of that page. Students come to me and say, we weren't taught this in high school. (Laughter.) Yale alumni come to me and they say, I had no idea of how far Alzheimer's had set in that I forgot. They just stopped. It's still going on.

ROSE: In the mid-'80s, you wrote a major article for IS called "The Long Peace." And you were trying to explain the durability of this period without great power war, without confrontation. What do you think caused this incredible stability? Was it just the middle course or were there other things like the nuclear thing? How do you adjudicated theoretically among different potential causal factors?

GADDIS: Well, that was back in my political science phase, Gideon, so I was trying to be theoretical and I came up with about five or six different theoretical explanations.

ROSE: The historian version of --

GADDIS: I was told that's over-determination. I was told this is -- you got to be parsimonious. This did not impress my political science colleagues. But I think there were several different things. Obviously, the new technology of nuclear weapons was a really big one. But there were other more subtle ones like the simplicity of bipolarity, something Ken Waltz was writing about in that period.

I think hugely important but little written about at that time was the advent of reconnaissance satellites and the elimination of the dangerous surprise attack for the most part with that technology and from. And then there's no question. We were lucky we did not have madmen on either side running things.

So I -- you know, like any historian would say, I think there are complex causes for something that's as complicated and as important as that. And I don't think it can be reduced to a single theoretical determinant.

ROSE: Kennan, as you say, later on tried to take a more dovish interpretation of what he had meant by containment.


ROSE: There are indications, as you say, that he would have favored a more hawkish approach towards other regimes that he felt were more aggressive and dangerous than the Soviet Union, such as Hitler's Germany.


ROSE: So he didn't think that the middle road was the universal solution for all problems.

GADDIS: Right. Well, the distinction he made was that the middle road would work for the Soviet Union, for Russia. And what the middle road meant was that you have time, that if you can simply demonstrate to the Soviet leadership that its policies that are going in this direction are not working, then sooner or later they will come to see that and they will change them. And he drew the distinction with Hitler who thought on a much shorter timescale. Hitler really believed that he had to conquer the world in his lifetime. Stalin never believed anything like that.

What really fascinated me is where Kennan got the idea of the third way as applied to Russia and I was astonished to find that it really comes from reading the Russian literature. It comes out of Chekhov primarily and Chekhov's stories about peasants who had been told by their owners to build a school and they find ways to sabotage this effort, as peasants always do. But one of the stories talks about how if you're just patient, if you just persuade them that they want the school, then they will, in a period of time, begin to do that.

The first lecture Kennan gave at an American university was at Yale, in 1946, and he used it to tell this Chekhov story, which I'm sure must have puzzled the Yalies completely, but it's a key to understanding his view of the third way. It's a key to understanding how he felt that he's tied to Russian national culture. It's a key really to something that we encourage our students to do, which is to think about the relationship between literature and grand strategy, to think very broadly about these kinds of things.

And I think it's an astonishing intellectual feed that only George could have plausibly carried off because only George would have had that artistic sensibility -- sensitivity to literature which paralleled his sense of the great historical forces.

ROSE: If the third way was plausible and even sensible as a policy response to Stalin's Soviet Union, to Mao's China, is it plausible and sensible as an approach to dealing with contemporary Iran?

GADDIS: I don't know.

ROSE: Would Kennan --

GADDIS: I think that --

ROSE: -- Kennan think so.

GADDIS: Kennan probably would think so because he would be temperamentally inclined to seek the less dangerous option. He would not have thought so, however, from any particular expertise on Iran or on the Middle East at all. So his knowledge base would not have been anything like what it was for Russia. I think this is the critical question. This is the judgment that we really have to make with Iran right now. Do we have time? Containment is what we have been trying. But the question is is there time? And I don't think anybody knows the answer to that for sure.

ROSE: You've been -- some people have felt that the subtitle is incorrect because he was a very unusual American, and therefore to call it a distinctively American Life seems odd. And your response, I've read, has been to say, well, he represented the America of a different and earlier age, and that's why I gave it that subtitle.

GADDIS: Well, the subtitle is "An American Life" and given all the bad things that George Kennan said about America, a couple reviewers actually said it must have been mistake, this subtitle, which highly offended me because you don't -- you don't spend 25 years writing a book -- (laughter) -- and have the subtitle be a mistake. You just don't do that.

So what I meant by that is that he was a very American character. His roots were deeply in the Midwest. His -- Milwaukee, his boyhood was of that period -- early 20th century, his nostalgia, his emotional connection, his patriotism, all of these things were deeply, deeply felt. But he held his country to extraordinarily, indeed, impossibly high standards in terms of how it should work. He had no patience for domestic politics. He had no sense of checks and balances, constitutional checks and balances. He wanted the policy planning staff run by him personally to run the country. And in his old age, some of you who knew him may remember him talking about the Council of State, which was going to be the policy planning staff writ large and would run the country - totally impractical idea.

So all of this was done with the sense that this country deserved the very best, had to be held to high standards, but very much in the way he treated himself, very much in the way of his attitude toward himself. He set the standards so high that they could not possibly be met. And so he reproached his country, but no more than he reproached himself personally for not living up to the standards that he thought he as a person should be living up to. So there's a connection between these two things, it seems to me.

ROSE: You mentioned the Council of State advisers. I mean, it's always puzzled me that that gets such derision, not because this being the Council on Foreign Relations, we all think we should be on such a council, but because we accept that thinking because of a certain kind of epistemological brainwashing in other areas of life. We accept an independent central bank and say that gee, technocratic experts deserve to be given control over monetary policy without direct political involvement or public approval. Why is foreign -- why is monetary policy different from foreign policy or foreign policy different from monetary policy?

GADDIS: I think the answer is the founding fathers didn't think very much about monetary policy. They didn't know much about it, but they knew something about checks and balances and they deliberately set up an antagonistic government, an antagonistic constitution, which would be a struggle for power and not with power residing in any one place. They profoundly distrusted power. And that's the problem.

So Madison, Jay, Hamilton would not have approved of Kennan's Council of State.

ROSE: Kennan was instrumental in getting the CIA into active covert measures. How would he feel about the drone war?

GADDIS: Well, I've wondered about that. I mean, the story is that the CIA, set up originally as an analytical agency, was fairly quickly given a covert capability, and George was one of the people who suggested that. And I think probably he thought it through and wrote the critical memos more than anyone else did in 1948. This was the context of the Italian elections and that kind of thing.

But his view of covert operations was always that they would be rare. They would be precisely targeted. They would not leave footprints on the ground. They would be an alternative to the maintenance of a massive conventional force. So this idea of precision would be there.

What would he have thought about drones? I don't know, of course, but I would not rule out the idea that he might have approved of them because he would see them as an alternative to going in with major military forces, as we did in Iraq and as we did, most disastrously, from his point of view, in Vietnam.

ROSE: Let me just take one more before throwing it open.


ROSE: You say that Kennan was almost a kind of anachronism. He was a representation of an earlier era in American life and he lived so long. And, in retrospect, the era from the '40s onward seems to be this extraordinary and continuing era of American power and primacy and global dominance, the emergence of this amazing liberal order of cooperating democratic regimes in many, many places, while backed with American military supremacy, continuing long after the Soviet Union's particular threat sort of had faded.

Is Kennan's grounding in a multipolar global system, a limited American power system relevant to an era of American primacy? And is it -- or is it something that really is a historical document from an earlier time that we should read for its own sake but not necessarily for guidance into the world that we're living in today?

GADDIS: That's the most complicated question you've asked all afternoon, Gideon. (Laughter.) It's a very good question. A couple of points that I would make on this.

First of all, I think it's very important to remind ourselves that American primacy did not feel like it, like that, at the time. We did not feel in a hegemonic position. We felt rather desperate, meaning the imbalance -- the delicacy of the balance of power, the fragility of the balance of power in Europe. So it's very easy for us to go back and say, oh, this was a period of American dominance.

But I think we have to distinguish between how it looks in hindsight and how it looked at the time. And if you want to get a sense of how it looked at the time, read Orwell, read Tolkien, read C.S. Lewis. Read Whittaker Chambers, perhaps most dramatically, to get a sense that Western civilization is really on the skids, and that's very different from this retrospective view of self-confidence and hegemony that historians tend to give us. So that's -- that's one perspective on this.

I also think, though, that -- and indeed I say somewhere in the book -- that Kennan had the fortune or misfortune, depending on how you would characterize it, actually to live at the intersection, the interface between a traditional multipolar order that went all the way back to Westphalia, and the advent of a bipolar order. And I think he had trouble adjusting to this. I think he was nostalgic for the multipolar order. I think he felt that that was the more natural order. In the end, he was right, because we were moving back to that at this point. He saw the artificiality of multipolarity.

And I think that informed why it was, for example, that he favored an independent, unified German state and going against all conventional wisdom in the West in that point, the late 1940s, the early 1950s, because he said the division of Germany is simply artificial. The Germans will never accept it. Sooner or later, Germany will unify. Germany will become a great power again and we might as well build it as such.

Well, he was right in all of this. It's just that he was about 40 years ahead of his time in this regard, it seems to me. So I think he was torn in this regard. And I think that explains a good deal about some of the contradictions or apparent contradictions in his thinking.

ROSE: Would he ever accept something like the democratic peace?

GADDIS: I think he'd be profoundly skeptical of the democratic peace, partly because he was profoundly skeptical of democracy in the first place, partly because he was profoundly skeptical of theory along the way, and partly because implicit in the whole notion of the multipolar world order is that it's not necessarily and in all respects peaceful. It's going to be antagonistic. There are conflicts that will happen. They have to be managed. They have to be contained. So I think he would have -- I would say properly -- been skeptical of democratic peace theory.

ROSE: OK. Thank you very much. With that, let's turn it over to all of you and bring you in. Yes, over here.

QUESTIONER: I'm Jim Nathan from --

ROSE: Please wait.

QUESTIONER: I'm Jim Nathan from --

GADDIS: Hi, Jim.

QUESTIONER: Hi. From Auburn University. One of the striking things about Kennan's memoirs is his view of race and class. And my question is if he reflected on these views later, because they become so much -- they were so antiquated and so shocking when you read them in his -- at least shocking to me -- when you read them in his memoir. I wonder if he had second thoughts.

GADDIS: It's an interesting story. The memoirs, the first volume of the memoirs published in 1967 -- and there are things that George says, particularly about Jews in Czechoslovakia in 1938, but -- I mean -- well, that was what caused the big ruckus. There are other things that he left out about women and blacks, which he also said in 1938 he had the sense to leave those out. But this one made it in.

He had a tin ear when it came to the reception of what he wrote and he said. And this was true throughout his life. He constantly misjudged how people were going to respond to what he wrote or said. Things that he did very casually sometimes became the conventional wisdom. Things that he spent great amounts of time on were completely neglected. And so he was never very good at assessing this.

And the composition for the memoir is remarkable in its discussion of the Germans taking over Prague in 1939, because George writes about turning away Jews from the American legation, writes about it in kind of a cynical, almost anti-Semitic way, but does not say that he was helping Jews escape from Czechoslovakia while this was going on. He just leaves that out totally, for reasons that I have no idea and I never really got a chance to ask him. But it's a much more complicated story than he himself presents it as in the memoir.

The one other thing that I would say about race and class, Jim, is that we always have to judge it in context. Attitudes towards race, class and gender have changed profoundly in this country since the 1930s and 1940s, as we all know. So we do have to make some allowance: was what was said by anyone -- whether it's Kennan or anybody else -- was it the normal thing? Was it the standard, the default position at that time, even if it is not now, even if it's politically incorrect now?

Some things were politically incorrect then too. And George said some things like that. But there are a lot of other things for which George has been condemned that are now politically correct but would have been considered quite correct back in those days. So I think we have to make judgments along the lines of that somewhat complex standard in assessing things like this.

ROSE: Yes. Over here.

QUESTIONER: Okay. Thank you. Lucy Komisar. I'm a journalist. You said that Kennan believed that the Russians and Chinese leaders were motivated by ideology. Did he believe that the American leaders were also motivated by ideology?

GADDIS: I don't think he had a clear notion of an American ideology. As I said earlier, he did not understand American domestic politics. He did not understand the American commitment to democracy for sure. He deeply believed in an American sense of values, but these were, as he said himself once, they were the values of the early 20th century. They were the values of his father. They were the values of the Century Magazine he said. Does anybody remember the Century Magazine? They were the values of the old Atlantic and so on.

The idea that values might change over the years, the idea that one set of values for one generation of Americans might be considered retrograde, or antiquated, or even unjust by subsequent generations of Americans, he didn't get that. He was very much stuck in his own time, and his own time was the America -- really pre-World War I America it seems to me.

And then, finally, American ideology is different from Soviet ideology. Soviet ideology and to some extent Chinese ideology is pretty well defined. You can pull a book off a shelf and read it -- Marx, Lenin, Mao. It doesn't work that way in this country, it seems to me. We don't have such easily characterized ideologies. And so there would always be a debate, it seems to me, in trying to compare the American ideology to something that is much more precise and articulate like Marxism and Leninism. So that would be a problem also.

ROSE: Yes. Bill. Hold one second, Bill.

QUESTIONER: John, congratulations on this award, Arthur Ross ribbon.

GADDIS: Thank you.

QUESTIONER: Very proud.

ROSE: Bill, can you identify yourself?

QUESTIONER: Bill Lourdes (ph). I'm interested in the person, as you know. I presume you read his diaries before you -- before he died.


QUESTIONER: And so you've had opportunity to talk about them.


QUESTIONER: So you knew about these -- the self-doubt and this --


QUESTIONER: This terrible uncertainty, insecurity is spread throughout his entire life, including his questions of whether he really should stay alive.


QUESTIONER: Did you ever talk to him about that?

GADDIS: Oh, yes.

QUESTIONER: And so, how did it come out?

GADDIS: Yes. We talked very early on about that. In fact, one of the first conversations, one of the very first conversations that I had with George and Lisa together -- and Lisa talked about that. And she said, you have probably looked at enough of the diaries to know how depressing they are. And you must make allowances for this.

And that was really how the biography shifted from what the original intent that George and I had for it, which was that it would be a political, diplomatic biography, to becoming such a personal biography. She wanted this. She insisted on this. She told both of us that it had to be this way.

And the reason for that was that the diaries she felt were misleading. She felt that he was a much more well-rounded personality than the diaries would suggest. And that's true. He was -- those of you who knew him. You knew him and certainly I think agree with that. So you got the sense in the diary of someone who is not only suffering from depression but right on the verge of a crackup pretty much all the way through.

And I think the way to understand that is that the diaries were his therapist basically. He used them to unload things. And he was actually psychologically much healthier than you would think from reading the diaries. He was medically much healthier than you would think from reading the diaries. The diaries of the last 30 years or so are a chronicle of aches, pains, illnesses, and whatnot. You cannot imagine who this person is going to survive even until next week, much less the next 30 years. So it's misleading in that sense as well.

I think it raises a very interesting question as to why people keep diaries in the first place. And I think it's often for therapeutic, self-analytical purposes. And it certainly was in this -- in this case.

So part of the privilege, part of the luck that I had as an authorized biographer who actually knew my subject is that I could make allowances and I could just say -- and I do say at some points, certain points in the book -- I may quote a passage, but I may just say this is typical of George blowing steam in his diary and it shouldn't be taken too seriously. I mean, if you took his diary really seriously, really literally, he would have been psychologically paralyzed at the age of 21 or something like that.

ROSE: On this note, let me do a follow-up on that.

GADDIS: Yeah. Sure.

ROSE: Explain the dedication.

GADDIS: The dedication to Annelise? I say that it's for Annelise Sorensen Kennan, who made it all possible. And I meant that in two ways. I meant -- she made the biography possible in the form that it finally took, which I think is much better than if it had been just a political, diplomatic biography.

But, more significantly than that, she made George possible. She made George's career possible. She was the anchor. She was the stabilizing force through all of this period. And I think he really would have flown apart or lost it in one form or another if it hadn't been for her. I think she, in that sense, is far more important than a diary.

One of the difficulties for a biographer is to capture the nature of a marriage and particularly where the other partner in the marriage is so different and does not herself keep a diary, rarely writes letters. There are at least letters that have survived and that yet, at the same time, you know the day-to-day importance of her in his -- in his life.

And that was something I was privileged to see only a little bit of, but it was enough to tell me how important it was. So the dedication -- there was never any question in my mind about who this would be dedicated to.

ROSE: Yes. Here.

QUESTIONER: Roswell Perkins. Roswell Perkins. The phrase "end of the Cold War" has been used often today. And I just wondered whether George Kennan had an event or group of events that he would have regarded as the end of the Cold War.

GADDIS: No. I don't think so. George never really acknowledged, to be honest, that the Cold War had ended. I said earlier that late in life, he really considered the U.S. to be the greater danger to world order than the Soviet Union. The Cold War for him became the risky behavior of the U.S. morphed into that.

ROSE: So American primacy became the Cold War?

GADDIS: American primacy became in some ways the Cold War. Yes. He had no clear sense of the end of the Cold War. He took no satisfaction in it. Famously, many of you have heard this, when asked how he explained the coming down of the Berlin Wall in 1989, he said it was simply lustful East German teenagers lusting after the fleshpots of West Berlin, he said. (Laughter.) Very George Kennan statement. So he missed -- whatever.

But that's one of the incredible things about him is someone who understood the great historical forces that had led to the Cold War, to the origins of the Cold War had no sense of the great historical forces that were bringing the Cold War to an end.

And, once again, I come back to his -- this great nuclear fear as the thing that blinded him to this. He was so preoccupied with the danger of nuclear annihilation that his critical faculties and, to some extent, his historical sense, I think was weakened by that -- by that preoccupation.

ROSE: Yes. Over here. Ben Steele (sp), who I should note has a fascinating new book on Harry Dexter White coming out--

GADDIS: Oh, good.

ROSE: Which you can read about in the next issue of Foreign Affairs as well.

QUESTIONER: Thanks for the plug, Gideon. Ben Steele. I'm struck by how dramatically the U.S. foreign policy vision changed in just three short years, from 1944 to 1947. In 1944, particularly as it emerged from the U.S. Treasury, there was this view that the British Empire could be peaceably dismantled, Germany could be even profitably dismembered, and the Soviet Union could be permanently or at least indefinitely co-opted. By 1947, those three pillars had been completely overthrown.

So my question to you is: to what extent could George Kennan and his ideas have achieved such prominence under FDR if he had been healthy and had been able to continue on as president into 1947?

GADDIS: Well, these are great hypotheticals. And I think FDR is the person probably in the 20th century about whom one must be most careful in generalizing because he left us so little behind but because his mind was so subtle and so complex, and his behavior was so devious, which made him one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. Absolutely. (Laughter.)

So I'd be very careful about this. I don't buy the argument that FDR was complacent about the role of Russia, the role of the Soviet Union in the post-World War II period. At the same time, he still had to win the war, and that was the big urgency, so he didn't show his concern. You have you dig it out from various things.

I'm inclined to think, and I'm not alone in this, that if he had lived, he would have been tougher sooner than Truman for sure in that regard. Whether FDR would have been as receptive to someone like George Kennan, I don't know. Probably he would, because one of the little known stories that is in the memoir, that it's in my book, is that on two occasions, FDR was receptive to the young George Kennan who went to him on the issue of -- (inaudible) -- basis and also the European Advisory Committee during the war. Kennan, twice as a junior Foreign Service officer, went over the heads of everybody and went and wound up explaining things to FDR. So I can see that FDR might have been receptive to him.

So these are all fascinating hypotheticals. The one that really particularly fascinates me is one that I've gotten into a sort of a debate over in the last month or so, which I still think has not been written about enough. What if FDR had not dumped Wallace from the ticket in 1944? And then Henry Wallace becomes president of the United States? And Soviet sources are pretty interesting on that issue.

ROSE: Let's follow that up actually and relate your book to Ben's book in that regard.


ROSE: What -- there's a comment about Wallace in the embassy and so forth, later on -- like '48 or something like that?

GADDIS: Oh, yeah.

ROSE: But what did Kennan know and think in real time about fellow travelers inside the U.S. government as Soviet agents?

GADDIS: He took them -- he took them very, very seriously indeed.

ROSE: Did he know that someone like White was --

GADDIS: He had his doubts. He had his suspicions for sure. He was not moving in the same circle or dealing with the same issues as White. He really was more -- on something like the Morgenthau Plan, he was convinced that there were fellow travelers who were buying that.

He was suspecting the existence of some kind of spy ring as early as the late 1930s. And with good reason, because the spy ring got one of his documents and sent it to Stalin in 1938 or so and it wound up on Stalin's desk.

He had no use whatever for Henry Wallace on two grounds. One was that Wallace was so incredibly naive and the other was that he really suspected Soviet influence on Wallace. And when, in 1948, the very secret Kennan-originated feeler that went out to Moscow, can't we negotiate an end to tensions, the Smith-Molotov exchange was blown out of the water first by the Soviets. But then, in very, very short order, an open letter to Stalin by Henry Wallace, which appeared to be coordinated. I'm still not sure one way or another that it was, but I have a student working on it. Kennan was absolutely convinced that this was -- all of this was Soviet penetration.

ROSE: Is he friends with Hess?


ROSE: Kennan.

GADDIS: Kennan, no. They met once or twice, but he had a great doubt about Hess' involvement, Hess' deal. I think you ought to call on the one Kennan biographer that I see sitting back there, in the back of the room.

ROSE: Author of a previous excellent book on Kennan.

GADDIS: I think we ought to give Bart Gellman a chance to say something. Bart.

ROSE: First you have to mention your book now, which is well worth reading. I agree. It certainly is.

QUESTIONER: Bart Gellman. I -- you may regret this. (Laughter.) So further to the question of lust, neither you, nor Kennan in his private writings shy away from sex, and he goes so far as to sort of write a letter of advice on the kind of --

GADDIS: What did you mean, Bart, is that I do not shy away from the issue of sex as I treat it in the Kennan book? Is that what you meant to say?

QUESTIONER: I can't comment otherwise. (Laughter.) I'm interested in your choice as a personal biographer not to pursue the identity or identities of the people that he had affairs with. Maybe you did and you've decided that they're irrelevant. But, if not, and just to take a wild supposition, it's -- you know, the widow of Buchanan or the wife of Solzhenitsyn or Khrushchev, you might consider that to be important in a biography. So what -- what did you think of --

GADDIS: The wife of Khrushchev? (Laughter.) Yeah. Well, that whole business, it has an interesting and complicated history. There -- I had noticed references in the diaries that suggested some kind of affair and certainly self-reproach over affairs. And that went back from when I first began to read the diaries and it goes back as early as 1940 and 1941.

I was rather bashful at that point. And I decided rather than ask George, what is this all about, because it was something that was clearly an embarrassment to him, I decided to leave him a very small zone of privacy. And I just never brought it up with him. And I found other evidence, you know, later on. And I treated it much the same way.

Then, after his death -- and this was one of the benefits of waiting to write until after his death, various people were willing to be more candid about this or give me background on it. And so that fleshed out -- sorry to use that term -- (laughter) -- what was -- what was dimly reflected there in the diaries.

So then I had a choice. Did I try to pursue who these people were and establish identities? And I made the choice not to do that, partly because I had no leads. Names are never mentioned. I could surmise. I could come up with people that I knew him to be friends with or correspondents with the women. But I had nothing that really pointed in that -- in that direction.

I faced the problem that if I did identify one friend, and there were others, as I know there were, would I not be inconsistent and irresponsible by only singling out one and not the other? And so I decided in the end it wasn't very important. I have no evidence that any of these friends were all that famous, although I could be wrong about that.

But I was really thinking, how far did the responsibilities of the biographer go? And some of the reviewers said, Gaddis was completely irresponsible in not meeting the obligations of the biographer by failing to name the mistresses. Well, I think there are some places where you can stop.

But I will tell you that since the book came out, I have had about four letters that have come. They all tend to be on blue scalloped stationery, handwritten, often very loopy handwriting, kind of like this and beautifully -- and they say things like, oh, Professor Gaddis, you did so well in capturing the complexities of George Kennan. One of them even says, you captured so beautifully his priapic character. (Laughter.) And almost all of them end in the same way. They almost all say, all four of them, what we most -- or what I most admire about your book, sir, is its discretion. So I just left it -- I just left it at that.

ROSE: Will future --

GADDIS: And I'm really -- what I feared is that, you know, somebody will stand up and say, I was one. But nobody has.

ROSE: What will -- what will future books on Kennan -- what did you leave for others, if anything?

GADDIS: You know, there's quite a lot that can be said so I don't doubt there will be other biographies of Kennan. Frank Costigliola is editing the diaries right now. And I have no idea where Frank will go. He's going to have to make some very tough choices because the diaries are far too voluminous to publish all of them so he will only publish probably maybe a tenth or so of what's there. He'll have to make some choices. He'll have to make some editorial decisions. So he will face dealing with this issue too. And I have no idea. He may handle this in a completely different way. And I don't doubt that I will learn a lot of things that I don't know from Frank's work on the -- on the diaries.

So I think you just have to draw lines in this -- in this regard and do the best you can with what you have. But I don't think a biography should be held to the standard of covering everything or revealing everything because it becomes unmanageable. It becomes unreasonable. Encyclopedic biographies are often that way.

Again, naming no names, but I take pride in the fact that there is one other biography that has taken longer than mine to complete, and it's now in volume four, and there's one more to come.

ROSE: As a -- as a biographer, you taught a course on biography for a long time now.


ROSE: Like a painter doing a portrait, you were making choices of what to put in, what to leave, and how to portray.

GADDIS: Always.

ROSE: What painter would you be like in your portraiture? Since we know you're not Lucian Freud, but what it is that you're --

GADDIS: Well, you could -- you could make a choice. You could want to be Van Eyck or somebody with great, great photographic detail or you could be -- I think I make this comparison in another book. You could be Picasso in broad strokes like that. I think you can come in somewhere in between.

The broad strokes are there and necessary because you don't want to bog down in detail. One of the things I've been criticized for in the reviews is not citing and discussing every speech that George made against the Vietnam War or against thermonuclear weapons, and whatnot. I didn't, because that gets boring. I mean, he made so many speeches and he said the same things so many times that I felt I had no obligation just to catalogue each of these to discuss one speech, which is representative of the whole, I thought was better. And so that would be kind of the Picasso approach to this, with the general outline of what's there, but without -- without the detail.

But the other thing, of course that you, do in a biography -- and Virginia Woolf is very eloquent on this. We read her as we read Orlando as the first text in my junior -- (inaudible). She talks about the need to regard biography as a kind of accordion, where you expand some areas so that you -- for critical moments like the X article or the long telegram. You know, these deserve a whole chapter or so. And then there are other chapters that cover maybe 20 or 30 years which are not as critical, where there's not as much that's dramatic that's happening.

And the biographer has to have the self-confidence to get beyond what she calls the desk calendar method of biography. It was November, followed by December, followed by January. And so you have to get beyond that.

ROSE: John Lewis Gaddis, Jason Stearns, Janet Ross, thank you very much. (Applause.)

(C) 2013 Federal News Service






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