Kennan and the Classics

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Kennan and the Classics

Cullen Nutt

Grand strategist George F. Kennan found inspiration in unlikely places.

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John Lewis Gaddis labored as George F. Kennan’s authorized biographer for more than 30 years. And that was while Kennan, who died at age 101 in 2005, was still living. Appearing last week at the Wilson Center to discuss George F. Kennan: An American Life, Gaddis marveled: “I was Kennan’s Boswell longer than Boswell was Johnson’s Boswell.”

Gaddis spent another six years finishing what became a 784-page tome. In his review for The Wilson Quarterly, Martin Walker called it “as near a definitive biography as we are likely to get of one of the most singular and significant Americans of his century.”

Gaddis, a former Wilson Center fellow who is Robert A. Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale, focused in his talk on the surprising impact of classic works of literature and scholarship on the prolific Kennan’s ideas. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), for example, figures in Kennan’s famous article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” which proposed an American strategy of containment vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The article appeared under the byline “X” in July 1947, only to have Kennan’s name attached to it in very short order. How did Kennan’s secret get out? The answer, his secretary Dorothy Hessman told Gaddis, was obvious enough: “Of all the people in Washington, only Kennan would have cited Gibbon.”

Watch the entirety of Gaddis's appearance here.

Photo: John Lewis Gaddis at the Wilson Center