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An Interview with John Lewis Gaddis

John Lewis Gaddis is the Robert A. Lovett Professor of history at Yale University. A prominent scholar of Cold War history, Gaddis is the recipient of a 2005 National Humanities Medal. He is also the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for biography for his book George F. Kennan: An American Life.

The Politic:  How did the book come about?

It came about because as a young Cold War historian I had obviously worked on George Kennan and his influence, and because I wrote a book in 1982 about the idea of containment, called Strategies of Containment, for which I’d interviewed him once or twice. But I really did not know him at all, at that time. Then he sent me not just a complimentary letter, but a letter that I would characterize as fan mail. Handwritten: “Wonderful book. You have understood my views better than anyone else ever has.” I thanked him, but then they kept coming, and there were more and more of these. I finally caught on that maybe he was angling for a biographer, and I wrote him—this is all pre email days— and asked if anyone was doing his biography, and he said, it had never occurred to him, that anyone would wish to do his biography, but now that I had brought it up, we should talk about it. He was 78 at the time.

We agreed that I would have complete access to him, to his papers, diaries, and that he would never read a line of what I wrote, that I would have total independence to say what I wanted to say. There was no arguing about that, at all. He kept very, very strictly to that agreement. The only surprise was how long he lived—to be 101. The understanding had been that it would not be published, obviously, until after his death.

The Politic:  When did you actually finish the book?

He died in 2005. I had not wanted to start writing the book until after his death. Obviously I had done the research; I wanted to write it all at one time. I started in 2007 and finished in 2011, and the book came out at the end of 2011.

The Politic:  How did researching the Kennan book for all those years influence your other work?

I was doing other work— I think I must have published four or five other books in the course of that long period of time, so it was never a full-time project—but I did spend a lot of time on it, and particularly at the beginning of the project, running around with a tape recorder interviewing everybody that I could find—almost all of whom are dead now—to get them on tape before they died. Then I just set that material aside, and came back to it years later. Again, the agreement there was always that the interviews would not be used until after Kennan’s death—and he outlived almost everybody of the people that I interviewed. I was working through his papers and the diaries, and there were other things to do. I moved to Yale during that period. The Cold War ended during that period, so there was lots of new stuff to assimilate and to write about in connection to Kennan. It did not become a full-time writing enterprise until 2007.

The Politic:  Did you popularize George Kennan? How well known was Kennan before you started writing about him?

He was very well known at the time as one of the major Cold War strategists and public intellectuals. Since his death, obviously he’s become less well known. To some extent, he’s faded from view, though one of the things that surprised me when the book came out is how many people still remember him and regard him as having been very important. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “popularizing” him, because I wouldn’t call him a popular figure but he was a highly visible figure, intellectually. He was regarded as one of the major Cold War intellectuals in the last half of his life, through the 1950s to the time of his death. There’s no need to explain who he was or anything like that; he was very visible.

The Politic:  Which thinkers have overshadowed Kennan?

I’m not sure that we have great public intellectuals of the same weight as people like Kennan and Reinhold Niebuhr and others during the Cold War—Arthur Schlesinger for example. It’s partly because the Cold War is no longer the center of people’s attention. As far as international relations and the fate of the world were concerned, that was everyone’s concern; it was on everybody’s mind then. We don’t have things like that anymore.

The comparable figure is of course Henry Kissinger, who is still very active. He played a much more important role in government than Kennan ever did, but has contributed to the world of history and to the world of ideas as well, in a way that Kennan did, and still is a regular commentator on public affairs.

The Politic:  The subtitle of the autobiography is “An American Life.” But Kennan felt rather estranged from America, didn’t he?

One reviewer said, not only did Kennan feel rather estranged from America, but Gaddis made a mistake with his subtitle. I was a little bit peeved at that because you don’t take that long to write a book—30 years, or something like that—and make a mistake on the subtitle. The subtitle is very intentional. What it implies is that, yes, Kennan was a constant critic of American institutions and culture, but it was always from the standpoint that the country could be better than it is, and should be better than it is. It’s a matter of holding the country to standards much higher than the country was capable of achieving. That’s a kind of patriotism. It’s not unlike the way he regarded himself. He was immensely, and consistently, self-critical, in a way that some people would think of as pathological. But I think it was, again, demanding a great deal of himself, setting high standards and never living up to them—never coming close to living up to them. That was very much like his view of the country.

The Politic:  How did he fail himself?

He always said he could have had more influence in government if he’d have done this or that; or he could have made this lecture clearer if he’d taken more time to write; or if he was going to write a great work of history, it was to teach some kind of grand strategic lesson, and he had not. Then there were personal failings as well, which I talked about in the book. The extramarital affairs. His own health, which was shaky throughout his life. He regarded these all as personal failings—including, at the end, his failure to die, which delayed the biography. He was very critical of himself to me personally and apologized constantly for not having died so that the book could come out. This is someone who held himself to much higher standards than most of us do.

The Politic:  Kennan was a historian and a policymaker. How could he balance the two?

He saw a connection. I’d say he was three things. He was first a career Foreign Service officer, which does not normally mean making policy. Policy was the second stage of his career, and he got there due to the convincing nature of his diplomatic reporting during World War II. The policymaking position was as the first head of the Policy Planning staff in the State Department, from 1947 to 1949. It’s a brief period of influence, but mostly he took the view that he had failed as a policymaker, because policy did not evolve in the ways that he wanted it to. That was partly because he could not control it himself from that position. It was partly because there were a lot of people who had very serious disagreements with him as to what containment really meant. Did it mean the defense only of very specific, vital interests, or did it mean defending everything out there in the world? I    f it meant that we were going to defend, were we going to do it by economic assistance to endangered countries? Were we going to do it by building up Rapid Deployment Conventional Forces? Were we going to do it by building up a huge nuclear arsenal, which obviated the need to build up a lot of conventional forces? But certainly that seemed to him to be immensely dangerous. He was a great early environmentalist, but also deeply religious. He was saying, isn’t it at the height of arrogance that these people would take it upon themselves to risk the fate of the world with the weapons that they’re developing, knowing that if they were to ever use them civilization would not survive?

The Politic:  You yourself balance academia and political influence to some degree. Do you think there’s a conflict between the two?

First of all, I could debate your question, because I do not regard myself as having political influence.

The Politic:  Well, you advised George W. Bush…

Only in a very superficial way. I was involved in Bush’s history seminars, because he organized that out of his own interest in history and meeting with historians. And that was the chief role that I played with five or six other people, including professor Don Kagan from Yale. But I was never a policy advisor.

The Politic:  What about helping out with Bush’s second inaugural address?

I may have contributed a phrase to that, here and there. I always have been much more of an academic than a policymaker. I’ve written some commentary on public policy issues, but most of it has been wrong, so I’ve really gotten to where I write less of it these days. I’m much more an academic than Kennan was. It’s also interesting that Kennan, though a very effective writer and teacher, was never a professor anywhere. He would teach for a semester here, semester there. He taught here at Yale for a semester in 1960, but he never held a regular academic appointment. I asked him why, at one point, and he said it was because of the moral dilemma of deciding what was a C and what was a C+. Which shows how far we’ve come— with grade inflation we no longer have that moral dilemma.

The Politic:  A few of the reviews commented on how, in the last years of his life, you and Kennan disagreed about the Iraq War. How did that come into play in your relationship?

There were things we disagreed about all the way through. It was never implied in the relationship, the notion that we would agree on political issues. I always disagreed with him about the degree of the nuclear danger—I didn’t think it was as great as he regarded it. I certainly disagreed with about the direction of Reagan administration policy and where it was going. There were all kinds of things that he and I disagreed about. We talked about them, off and on. I would send him some things that I had written, and he would disagree, and he would send me some things he’d written and I would disagree back to him, and so on. It was a mutually respectful relationship. I’m rather astonished at some of the book reviews that seem to imply that the only way an authorized biographer can function is to agree in all respects with the subject of the biography. I don’t think that makes any sense at all, and certainly it was not the expectation on the side of either of us that it would work that way.

Yuval Ben-David is a freshman in Silliman College