Pulitzer Prize Winner Delivers Vance Lecture
By Katie Dembinski '13, Staff Writer
On May 1, Kent students had the honor to hear Professor John Lewis Gaddis of Yale University give the Cyrus R. Vance ’35 Lecture. The Vance Lecture usually addresses the broad topic of the prevention and resolution of violent conflict but also focuses on a more specific area of the speaker’s expertise. Professor Gaddis, a specialist in Cold War history, spoke about George F. Kennan, one of the principle architects of the Cold War foreign policy of containment. Gaddis won the Pulitzer Prize in early April for his biography on Kennan, a man whom he knew personally and had the opportunity to interview for the work.
Gaddis began his lecture by talking about George Clooney to emphasize that when a younger generation hears “George,” they instinctively think of a celebrity rather than a significant 20th century foreign policy maker. Because Kennan could not interact with the Soviets before the opening of diplomatic ties, Gaddis explained, Kennan instead read a great deal of 19th century Russian literature. The works of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy comprised the reading list that led to Kennan’s deeper understanding of Russian culture and consequently enhanced his comprehension of the Soviet Union. Kent School history teacher Rob Ober said that Professor Gaddis’s explanation about Kennan’s views stuck with him after the talk: particularly the idea that if you “want to understand a community, you should start with their literature.” Ober also stated that he “had no idea that Buddenbrooks (Thomas Mann) influenced Kennan’s views on the Soviet Union.” The book is about a family living in a mansion that maintains the same fresh and imposing exterior as the day it was built, but an interior in which the family is falling apart—a situation Gaddis says that Kennan likened to that of the Soviet Union. Because of this literary enlightenment and nuanced understanding of Soviet behavior, Kennan wrote the “Long Telegram,” the letter in which he outlined his containment theory and cemented his lasting influence on world politics.
Professor Gaddis’s stimulating speech impressed faculty and students alike; in response, audience members shot out question after question during the Q and A. “He talked so admiringly about Kennan,” says Stephanie Morales ’13, who dubbed the event as “interesting and informative.” What resonated with him the most, says Mr. Ober, was the idea that just “one person can make a difference,” because “history books today emphasize larger forces more.” It was certainly an illumination for all to hear the prizewinning Professor Gaddis speak.
To find out more about Dr. Gaddis and his recent Pulitzer, please visit: http://www.yale.edu/history/faculty/gaddis.html and http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/apr/16/gaddis-wins-pulitzer-kennan-biography/