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Criticism of Bush actually helped lead to Gaddis‘ meeting the president. In 2004, he published a brief book, “Surprise, Security, and the American Experience,” which defended the right to “preemptive war,” but also faulted the administration’s “shock and awe” military campaign. Condoleezza Rice, then national security advisor and an old acquaintance of Gaddis‘, asked the historian to meet with her staff.

According to Rice’s memoir, “No Higher Honor,” Gaddis encouraged her to take a more diplomatic approach to the country’s allies. As Rice would acknowledge, “repair work” was needed. When they were done, she surprised Gaddis by bringing him to the Oval Office to meet the president.

“I was thinking it would be a photo op,” Gaddis says. “But he had read the book. He underlined it. He had taken notes on it. … We kind of hit it off at that point.”

Some of Gaddis‘ former students have gone on to careers in Washington. Chris Michel became a White House speechwriter under Bush and later worked with Bush on “Decision Points.” Keith Urbahn was an aide to former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who now runs Javelin Group LLC, a communications and book firm based in Washington.

Urbahn recalls taking Gaddis‘ “Grand Strategy” class at the height of the Iraq war’s unpopularity: “He saw his role as raising larger questions that you had to grapple with. He cultivated a generation of students to think in terms of practical decision making. He didn’t have this air of knowing sophistication that I felt with a lot of other professors.”

“I don’t think of him as a conservative,” Michel adds. “But anyone who has nice things to say about George W. Bush is going to stand out among the Yale faculty.”

Gaddis was born in Cotulla, Texas in 1941. The community was small, and personal. During his biography class, the historian asked his students to imagine a man on a tractor, age 25, working in a Texas field in the 1920s. It’s hot, the land is flat and dusty. The man spots a Model-T pulling up and a young stranger getting out, dressed in a blue serge suit. He climbs through a barbed wire fence and approaches.

“Hi, I’m Lyndon Johnson and I’m the new high school teacher.”

“The hell you are,” is the reply.

Adds Gaddis: “The man on the tractor was my father.”

He credits teachers in high school with inspiring him to become a history major. Gaddis was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin and remained there for his master’s and Ph.D. He specialized in the Cold War in part out of “ambition” and out of awareness that it was a relatively new field, a story just beginning to be told.

As an author, he established himself with his first book, “The United States and the Origins of the Cold War,” published in 1972. At the time, Cold War scholarship had been shaped by such New Left historians as William Appleman Williams, who had written that economic reasons, especially the need for markets overseas, were a principle force behind U.S. foreign policy. Gaddis countered that capitalism was just one part of a conflict that included domestic politics, Marxist ideology and the personalities of Stalin, Mao and other leaders.

“I found some of the New Left views valuable: the emphasis on the economic dimensions of foreign policy, and, flowing from that, their insistence that there’d been more continuity in it throughout the 20th century than older historians had perceived,” Gaddis says. “What I did not find convincing was their argument that the need to export drove the Americans into an aggressive foreign policy, and that had it not been for this, the Russians would have continued to be allies. The New Left’s greatest weakness was always its lack of interest in, or curiosity about, the USSR.”

Gaddis‘ scholarship has been a story of revision. In the 1970s, historians had no access to Soviet or Chinese documents, and the world itself seemed deadlocked between rival superpowers. Within 20 years, the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union had broken up. Secrets once vital were now expendable; Gaddis and others could finally learn what Stalin and other Eastern bloc leaders were thinking.

In “We Now Know,” published in 1997, Gaddis revisits such Cold War topics as why North Korea invaded South Korea (Stalin encouraged it, assuming the United States would not respond), how frightened the Soviets might have been by the atom bomb (more than they let on) and the assumption that Stalin and others valued survival above all and never really thought Marxism would defeat and destroy capitalism.

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