The Good American
The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian
Random House, New York, 2021, 544 pages
Book Review published on: July 29, 2022
The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government’s Greatest Humanitarian explores the connection between U.S. national security and humanitarian assistance in the late- and post-Cold War period, through the eyes of a man who detailed it on the ground from Central America, Asia, Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Foreign affairs reporter and renowned author Robert Kaplan expertly details the life of Bob Gersony, an independent consultant whose locally focused, on-the-ground interviews and research steered U.S. foreign policy from behind a self-imposed curtain of secrecy.
Moving from one disaster to the next, The Good American reminds readers that the Cold War was only “cold” in Europe and North America, with the rest of the globe pulled into dynamic struggles between the super-powers while dealing with locally grown megalomaniacs and natural disasters. Kaplan powerfully details how Gersony’s simple but effective interview methods improved the lives of millions, by capturing the personal impact and needs of those most familiar with the events, the common citizen living through them. The Good American provides readers with a new perspective of America’s actions (and inactions) directly from those who lived it.
A high school dropout and son of Jewish refugees escaping the Holocaust, Gersony’s early life did not portend significance. Yet a decision to serve in Vietnam with the Army and his introduction there to the writings of Franco-American war correspondent Bernard Fall changed his life’s trajectory.
With a business-oriented mind, a non-ideological humanitarian heart, and the knowledge that truth comes from those most intimately involved, Gersony became an accidental humanitarian and language school owner in 1970s Guatemala. After the 1976 earthquake, his ability to connect with locals and understand their needs caught the eye of USAID, the United States’ primary humanitarian support and development organization. From that point on, he spent his life crisscrossing the globe from one warzone and disaster to the next, often at extreme danger from both the combatants and their tyrannical strongmen.
From hurricane relief in Dominica, to civil war in Central America and Africa, and off to assist terrorized Vietnamese boat people in Thailand, Gersony demonstrated a unique ability to pry ground-truth out of government deception, resulting in significant changes to U.S. policy. His methods uncovered Ugandan genocide, discovered Mozambique Renamo rebels’ atrocities, and exposed unseen retribution genocides between Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus.
While the end of the Cold War brought a conclusion to the global power struggles between the United States and the USSR, Gersony finds it also reduced our need for humanitarian assistance as an arm of national power. Without the global power competition, the country’s international development perspective shifted from a realistic and pragmatic approach to one of idealism and, Kaplan argues, pseudoisolationism.
The world Gersony experienced in the second half of his career was much different than the first, but his ground-level, interview-based research method held true. In postwar Bosnia, South and Central America, North Korea, Nepal, and even Iraq, Gersony demonstrated the need to engage locally, plan rationally, and prioritize projects based on achievable simplicity rather than grandiose dreams.
While Kaplan’s writing occasionally turns to an “I was there, too” narrative, along with a noticeable political view of more recent events, it does not substantively detract from the story. The Good American reminds readers of the disasters and atrocities that occurred under the surface during the “good old days,” while highlighting the humanitarian and national security benefits provided by global engagement through smart, effective, and locally focused international development, along with the unseen, yet global impactful life of Bob Gersony, the Good American.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Aric J. Raus, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas