The Foreign Service Journal, May 2021

74 MAY 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL One Man’s Service The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian Robert D. Kaplan, Random House, 2021, $30/hardcover, e-book available, 544 pages. Reviewed by Peter F. Kranstover Robert D. Kaplan has written 19 books on a variety of global issues, but his latest, The Good American , may be the first in which he takes the liberty of describing his studied protagonist, Bob Gersony, as somewhat like himself. Kaplan and Gersony share several characteristics: Both are New Yorkers with personal, unorthodox approaches to contemporary international crises. The book makes for a revealing read, as it follows Gersony’s work ethic and frenetic travels for more than four decades to obscure, conflict-ridden parts of the globe. Told in Kaplan’s patented declarative style, this is the story of an American original, a contemporary and friend of the author’s who served in Vietnam after leaving school, overcoming an early and natural sense of disquiet about the world and himself. Through brains and willpower, Gersony would fundamentally shape and affect several major U.S. foreign policy initiatives on four different continents. For this reviewer, it confirms the power of vision, rooted in a clear sense of right and wrong, and underlines the importance of the United States remaining engaged internationally. Gersony crafted through his own investigative methodology a specialized niche in the world of refugees, foreign aid, disaster relief and international affairs. After Vietnam, he rein- vigorated a language school in Antigua, Guatemala, before being thrown into relief work there following the devastat- ing earthquake in February 1976. This led to a 40-year career as a government contractor for the State Department, USAID and the United Nations. His scope of work could have said, and maybe did: “Resolve intractable problems in faraway places, and other duties as assigned.” Relying on a simple modus operandi of posing fundamental questions to ordinary people—the marginalized, the displaced and the refugee—and showing them some basic respect, Gersony wrote credible narratives about those caught in the thick of humanitarian crises. His information, gleaned from assiduously focused interviews in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Balkans, invariably became invaluable to U.S. embassies, even essential to their efficient func- tion, however uncomfortable it was for Washington. Debates over our role in the world are salient these days, much more so than during the Cold War, when we enjoyed a certainty about ourselves and were untroubled by our motives. Critiques of our country’s motives and role, from Vietnam to Iraq, emerged during the course of his long professional career. He nonetheless found his place as a “lowly contractor,” whose work was embraced by Secretary of State George Shultz and senior policymakers, both career and political, in the State Depart- ment and USAID, often in real time. His work made a significant and positive difference to many people, as Kaplan shows. The Good American shows us how large the human factor looms in suc- cessful humanitarian work. Yes, one needs a bureaucratic framework, an efficient use of funds, wise counsel and honest colleagues, but results require a keen sense of the area and the bravery to speak truth to power. Having some knowledge of the way power functions in Washington does not hurt either, as Kaplan illus- trates with complimentary and helpful profiles of a number of Foreign Service officers who represent the best of gov- ernment service. Instructive—but also chilling and dramatic—are his chapters on Ger- BOOKS His scope of work could have said, and maybe did: “Resolve intractable problems in faraway places, and other duties as assigned.”