John Lewis Gaddis

National Humanities Medal


Over the past for decades, John Lewis Gaddis has made a name for himself in academic and policy circles for his incisive examination of the Cold War.

Interested in the intersection between current events and history--and the process by which current events becomes history--Gaddis gravitated toward diplomatic history early on. "I started working on the Cold War when the Cold War was still very much current events," he says. Gaddis used the first release of documents from the early years of the conflict to write what he calls "the first draft of history." The resulting book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, won the Bancroft Prize.

He followed it up with Russia, the Soviet Union, the United States: An Interpretive History, which traced the relationship between the two powers from Catherine the Great through Mikhail Gorbachev. Next came Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy, which urged historians to look beyond political, economic, and military factors to understand America's role in the Cold War.

For Gaddis, part of the attraction of working on the Cold War has been the ongoing reassessment of the conflict as a result of the opening of the archives in the former Communist bloc. "I never expected to be in a position to draw on Soviet, Chinese, and East European documents, but it is now possible to do that. It really requires going back and rethinking many of the things that we thought we knew before the Cold War ended." In 1991, he helped launch the Cold War International History Project, which translates and publishes documents, encourages governments to allow archival access, and supports scholarship using previously untapped archives.

Gaddis encouraged his students, first at Ohio University, and then at Yale, which has been his home since 1997, to write "second drafts and third drafts" of history. As their assessments piled up, he sensed the need for a synthesis, leading him to write We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. "It was very much a book that stands on the shoulders of my students who were doing this work," he says.

The sea of new archival material has resulted in Gaddis being revised by his students more than once. Rather than feeling threatened, he sees it as part of his job as a teacher. He professes to love "that spark that you see, when students start talking back at you, when you know that you have not produced clones, but you have produced thinking people who have their own independent thoughts and will be courageous enough to say them in front of you. I think that's very important."

Teaching students how to be historians, however, is not an easy task. Looking for an explanatory framework, Gaddis found himself drawn to geology, paleontology, and astronomy, fields in which scientists theorize, account for complex factors, and assess the role of time. These observations became the basis for Landscapes of History: How Historians Map the Past.

The attack on the United States on September 11 prompted many to reflect on the course of American foreign policy and Gaddis was no exception. In Surprise, Security, and American Experience, he considered other instances, such as Pearl Harbor, in which American assumptions about the nation's security were altered by a surprise attack. President Bush read the book and invited Gaddis to the White House to talk with policymakers.

The next few years will give Gaddis the opportunity finally to work on what he calls his "dream project," a biography of diplomat George Kennan. "I didn't want to do it unless I could do it as a posthumous biography because good biographies cannot be written with the subject looking over your shoulder," Gaddis says. "It turns out that he felt the same way." But neither of them anticipated that Kennan, who died in March 2005, would live to be 101. "In the last decade of his life it became a joke between us, because he would call up and apologize for delaying the biography."

By Meredith Hindley

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.