George F. Kennan at Age 100

Historians in the News

Douglas Brinkley, in the NYT (Feb. 17, 2004):

While most Americans were celebrating Presidents' Day yesterday, a very different holiday was being honored in Princeton, N.J. George F. Kennan, who formulated the policy of "containment" of the Soviet Union during the early cold war, turned 100. Surrounded by his wife and four children the frail Mr. Kennan — diplomat, historian and sometimes Cassandra — had reached a birthday he never imagined.

"The last thing he ever expected was to live so long," said his biographer, John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of history and political science at Yale. "As a young man he was often sick. During his freshman year at Princeton he had scarlet fever and was forced to drop out. He never felt himself to be healthy. Ulcers were a constant problem."

Though pleased at Mr. Kennan's longevity, Mr. Gaddis also finds himself stymied. In 1982 he agreed not to publish his biography of Mr. Kennan while the diplomat was alive.

Mr. Gaddis first met Mr. Kennan in 1974 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, when Mr. Gaddis, teaching at Ohio University, was considered a rising star in the field of the history of American diplomacy, having already published "The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947."

Mr. Kennan had joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton after quitting the diplomatic service in 1953. In 1977 Mr. Gaddis interviewed him for an essay for Foreign Affairs, on the 30th anniversary of Mr. Kennan's famous "Sources of Soviet Conduct" analysis, known in countless history books as the Mr. X article, since Mr. Kennan remained anonymous at the time.

But their relationship jelled in 1982 when Mr. Gaddis published "Strategies of Containment," judging Mr. Kennan to be the pivotal foreign policy analyst in post-1945 America. "He wrote me a couple of generous letters about that book," Mr. Gaddis recalled. "He basically said that I properly understood his strategic thinking."

Mr. Gaddis asked Mr. Kennan if anybody was writing his biography; the response was self-deprecating: "No. It never occurred to me that anyone would want to."

An admirer of Ronald Steel's biography, "Walter Lippmann and the American Century" (1980), Mr. Gaddis struck a deal with Mr. Kennan modeled on the one Mr. Steel had arranged with Lippmann: he would be his authorized biographer, have access to all of his papers, but publish his book only after his subject had died.

"The agreement was made in 1982," Mr. Gaddis recalled. "He was 78 years old. Neither of us envisioned he would be around in 2004. In fact I was thinking the other day about Boswell's relationship with Samuel Johnson, which went on for 20 years. It's hard to believe, but this one has gone on longer."

Mr. Gaddis is not complaining. His friendship with Mr. Kennan has deepened, and his subject's historical prominence continues to rise. Besides regular access to Mr. Kennan, Mr. Gaddis has had the rare privilege of reading all of his unpublished diaries, which he says are "classic American literature," an eloquent successor to John Quincy Adams's voluminous effort a century earlier.


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