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The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian

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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Revenge of Geography comes a sweeping yet intimate story of the most influential humanitarian you've never heard of--Bob Gersony, who spent four decades in crisis zones around the world. "This graceful study of a courageous and humble man reminds us that history can be made, and lives can be saved, by diplomats who know how From the New York Times bestselling author of The Revenge of Geography comes a sweeping yet intimate story of the most influential humanitarian you've never heard of--Bob Gersony, who spent four decades in crisis zones around the world. "This graceful study of a courageous and humble man reminds us that history can be made, and lives can be saved, by diplomats who know how to reconcile the good with the possible."--Timothy Snyder, author of The Road to Unfreedom and On Tyranny In his long career as an acclaimed journalist covering the "hot" moments of the Cold War and its aftermath, bestselling author Robert D. Kaplan often found himself crossing paths with Bob Gersony, a consultant for the U.S. State Department whose quiet dedication and consequential work made a deep impression on Kaplan. Gersony, a high school dropout later awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam, conducted on-the-ground research for the U.S. government in virtually every war and natural-disaster zone in the world. In Thailand, Central and South America, Sudan, Chad, Mozambique, Rwanda, Gaza, Bosnia, North Korea, Iraq, and beyond, Gersony never flinched from entering dangerous areas that diplomats could not reach, sometimes risking his own life. Gersony's behind-the scenes fact-finding, which included interviews with hundreds of refugees and displaced persons from each war zone and natural-disaster area, often challenged the assumptions and received wisdom of the powers that be, on both the left and the right. In nearly every case, his advice and recommendations made American policy at once smarter and more humane--often dramatically so. In Gersony, Kaplan saw a powerful example of how American diplomacy should be conducted. In a work that exhibits Kaplan's signature talent for combining travel and geography with sharp political analysis, The Good American tells Gersony's powerful life story. Set during the State Department's golden age, this is a story about the loneliness, sweat, and tears and the genuine courage that characterized Gersony's work in far-flung places. It is also a celebration of ground-level reporting: a page-turning demonstration, by one of our finest geopolitical thinkers, of how getting an up-close, worm's-eye view of crises and applying sound reason can elicit world-changing results.


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From the New York Times bestselling author of The Revenge of Geography comes a sweeping yet intimate story of the most influential humanitarian you've never heard of--Bob Gersony, who spent four decades in crisis zones around the world. "This graceful study of a courageous and humble man reminds us that history can be made, and lives can be saved, by diplomats who know how From the New York Times bestselling author of The Revenge of Geography comes a sweeping yet intimate story of the most influential humanitarian you've never heard of--Bob Gersony, who spent four decades in crisis zones around the world. "This graceful study of a courageous and humble man reminds us that history can be made, and lives can be saved, by diplomats who know how to reconcile the good with the possible."--Timothy Snyder, author of The Road to Unfreedom and On Tyranny In his long career as an acclaimed journalist covering the "hot" moments of the Cold War and its aftermath, bestselling author Robert D. Kaplan often found himself crossing paths with Bob Gersony, a consultant for the U.S. State Department whose quiet dedication and consequential work made a deep impression on Kaplan. Gersony, a high school dropout later awarded a Bronze Star for his service in Vietnam, conducted on-the-ground research for the U.S. government in virtually every war and natural-disaster zone in the world. In Thailand, Central and South America, Sudan, Chad, Mozambique, Rwanda, Gaza, Bosnia, North Korea, Iraq, and beyond, Gersony never flinched from entering dangerous areas that diplomats could not reach, sometimes risking his own life. Gersony's behind-the scenes fact-finding, which included interviews with hundreds of refugees and displaced persons from each war zone and natural-disaster area, often challenged the assumptions and received wisdom of the powers that be, on both the left and the right. In nearly every case, his advice and recommendations made American policy at once smarter and more humane--often dramatically so. In Gersony, Kaplan saw a powerful example of how American diplomacy should be conducted. In a work that exhibits Kaplan's signature talent for combining travel and geography with sharp political analysis, The Good American tells Gersony's powerful life story. Set during the State Department's golden age, this is a story about the loneliness, sweat, and tears and the genuine courage that characterized Gersony's work in far-flung places. It is also a celebration of ground-level reporting: a page-turning demonstration, by one of our finest geopolitical thinkers, of how getting an up-close, worm's-eye view of crises and applying sound reason can elicit world-changing results.

53 review for The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian

  1. 4 out of 5

    Donna Boyd

    Thank you to #NetGalley, Robert Kaplan and the publisher for providing me with a digital copy of this book prior to publication in exchange for my review. The Good American is the story of Bob Gersony. Gersony dropped out of high school, served in Vietnam where he was awarded a Bronze Star and spent more than 40 years as a humanitarian working in crisis zones around the world on behalf of the American people. During this time he worked as a special contractor for the State Department, USAID and Thank you to #NetGalley, Robert Kaplan and the publisher for providing me with a digital copy of this book prior to publication in exchange for my review. The Good American is the story of Bob Gersony. Gersony dropped out of high school, served in Vietnam where he was awarded a Bronze Star and spent more than 40 years as a humanitarian working in crisis zones around the world on behalf of the American people. During this time he worked as a special contractor for the State Department, USAID and the UN. He was sent to numerous countries including Vietnam, Uganda, North Korea, Nepal, Iraq and Guatemala to talk to people on the ground, the refugees, the displaced people, and gather the facts and develop a plan to make US foreign policy "a bit smarter and a bit more humane", working within ever changing constraints. While interviewing people, Gersony would always pick out a characteristic of the person he was interviewing that set him apart from others so that he could later remember that person as special, as an individual. Even though this book is the biography of Bob Gersony, it reads like an exciting adventure novel. It is a testament to the difference that one man can make in the lives of millions as he conducted interview after interview, wrote report after report and helped presidential administrations do the right thing. I highly recommend it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Bookreporter.com Biography & Memoir

    If there was a category of travel known as Hell Tourism, Bob Gersony would be one of its most avid practitioners. From war-torn regions of sub-Saharan Africa to hurricane-ravaged countries in Central America, for more than four decades, Gersony has devoted his life to bringing relief and hope to people residing in these benighted lands. Robert D. Kaplan’s THE GOOD AMERICAN is the fascinating account of Gersony’s work. Both informative and inspirational, it’s a testimonial to how much good one sm If there was a category of travel known as Hell Tourism, Bob Gersony would be one of its most avid practitioners. From war-torn regions of sub-Saharan Africa to hurricane-ravaged countries in Central America, for more than four decades, Gersony has devoted his life to bringing relief and hope to people residing in these benighted lands. Robert D. Kaplan’s THE GOOD AMERICAN is the fascinating account of Gersony’s work. Both informative and inspirational, it’s a testimonial to how much good one smart, empathetic, dedicated person can accomplish in the world. It would be hard to find a more unlikely candidate for the role of humanitarian hero than Bob Gersony. A high school dropout who worked briefly as a commodity trader (the business in which his Holocaust refugee father made and lost a fortune) before serving in a noncombat role in Vietnam, Kaplan describes his subject, who bears a certain vague resemblance to Larry David, as “a character out of a Saul Bellow novel trapped in settings depicted by Joseph Conrad.” An introverted man of abstemious habits, including eating only one meal a day, he was stalked by anxiety and depression and yet somehow vanquished his psychological demons to place himself constantly in positions of physical hardship and extreme peril to gather, and then share, the stories of the oppressed and the victimized. After a period of several years in Guatemala, where he established a network of Spanish language schools, in 1976 Gersony went to work as a freelance contractor for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a bureaucracy established during the Kennedy administration that “was essentially the Third World development arm of the State Department,” with whom it existed in a sometimes tense equilibrium. From then until the early 2010s, in more than 50 assignments, Gersony’s fieldwork made him an indispensable, if publicly almost anonymous, figure. From his first posting in Central America, Kaplan literally follows Gersony around the world (the two met in Sudan in 1985 and frequently crossed paths after that) from one trouble spot to the next as his career “charted the history of humanitarianism since the Vietnam War.” Whether he was developing an ingenious plan to combat piracy against Vietnamese refugees in the South China Sea in the mid-1980s, working episodically on development projects in Central and South America, or engaging with a politically explosive crisis like the Rwandan genocide in 1994, Kaplan explains how Gersony, "a moderate conservative with moral convictions, lacking the ideological blinders that would later destroy conservatism,” developed a unique yet highly effective technique for going about his work and rigorously applied it to better the lives of countless suffering people. How Gersony almost obsessively applied that methodology becomes one of the themes of Kaplan’s book. In what he estimates were more than 8,000 exhaustive interviews, recorded with the pen Gersony always carried on a strap around his neck, and then transcribed during long, lonely evenings in cheap hotels, as 12-hour work days stretched into seven-day work weeks, he displayed a gift for connecting with ordinary people, painstakingly gathering their stories and then building effective responses to their plight out of that humble material. “The whole point of his investigations was always to be in firsthand contact with the evidence, while at all costs avoiding groupthink,” Kaplan writes. Approaching each new situation without preconceptions --- notably any deeply ideological ones in the period when geopolitics shifted from the Cold War to the new complexities of life in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union --- allowed Gersony to bring a refreshing objectivity to his arduous, and often dangerous, tasks. Another beauty of his method, as Kaplan’s account demonstrates, is that it was infinitely adaptable to the unimaginable variety of difficult situations he encountered across the globe. It also enabled Gersony, in masterly briefings of State Department and other government officials that often stretched for hours, to disrupt the conventional wisdom of bureaucrats and politicians who never would have had the courage to set foot in some of the terrifying places he dared to venture. Kaplan’s book, which sometimes reads like an adventure story, is thick with detail, and though the glossary of some 50 acronyms he provides is helpful, he recognizes that even the most patient reader may at times succumb to a feeling of bewilderment. At one point in his description of Gersony’s work in Ethiopia and Somalia in 1989, he admits that “[i]f the reader is overwhelmed by all of this, he or she is supposed to be.” Yet out of this welter of foreign places and people, a compelling story of Gersony’s dedication and effectiveness emerges. “We cannot hide from the world,” Kaplan writes, in summing up this admiring portrait of Bob Gersony’s consequential life and work and its constant tension between realism and idealism. As the United States makes the transition from an administration whose foreign policy was based on intentional disengagement with that world to one in which the country will play something that more resembles its traditional role, THE GOOD AMERICAN is a frank reminder of the challenges and benefits of being part of the global community. Perhaps it also will serve as a useful guide, and something of a prod, to future generations of Bob Gersonys who will have the responsibility of carrying on his vital work. Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg

  3. 4 out of 5

    Judie

    Should be read by all high school seniors - Robert Kaplan has presented Bob Gersony and his life as high adventure - but his work is the example of what can be done by one person who respects humanity.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Carol White

    I have been a fan of Robert Kaplan’s books about international events, particularly those affected by cold war politics, effects of imperialism, and comparing successful states with failed states. Although I dont share his realpolitik anticommunist views, I appreciate his grasp of facts on the ground, with more of a reportorial eye than a ideological one. As with this biography, Kaplan is a fan of boots on the ground assessment of countries in crisis. Gersony personified this approach and, as so I have been a fan of Robert Kaplan’s books about international events, particularly those affected by cold war politics, effects of imperialism, and comparing successful states with failed states. Although I dont share his realpolitik anticommunist views, I appreciate his grasp of facts on the ground, with more of a reportorial eye than a ideological one. As with this biography, Kaplan is a fan of boots on the ground assessment of countries in crisis. Gersony personified this approach and, as someone familiar with many approaches to refugee work, I liked Gersony’s unorthodox and unpaternalistic approach. My only criticism is that Kaplan repeats his main points endlessly and unnecessarily. He needed a better set of editors. Still, a great review of the major upheavals from 1978 to 2012.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Andrew

    Bob Gersony travels to disaster zones around the world focused on a mission for information. Some of these stories are almost beyond reality. Epic is an understatement for Gersony's impact on the humanitarian efforts. Robert D Kaplan puts together a great biography of Gersony and setting the scene of each disaster. I hope more people learn and expand on Gersony's mission to help people around the world. Bob Gersony travels to disaster zones around the world focused on a mission for information. Some of these stories are almost beyond reality. Epic is an understatement for Gersony's impact on the humanitarian efforts. Robert D Kaplan puts together a great biography of Gersony and setting the scene of each disaster. I hope more people learn and expand on Gersony's mission to help people around the world.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Eddy Van Den Eede

    Goed geschreven, best met atlas bij de hand lezen.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Dianne

    I will be surprised if this is not ending up to be my favorite non fiction read of 2021. Yes, it is really heartening to read about a good American and also to read about the real work of USAID. There are lots of lessons for anyone in government service because I think that listening at the ground roots turned out to be fate changing. Looking back at the history of US involvement in crises around the world reminds me of how little I know.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Johnny Waco

  9. 5 out of 5

    Parker

  10. 5 out of 5

    Joe Stevens

  11. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  12. 5 out of 5

    Roeland Terpstra

  13. 5 out of 5

    David Hunsicker

  14. 5 out of 5

    Robot72

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bill

  16. 4 out of 5

    Henry

  17. 5 out of 5

    Mauricio Santoro

  18. 4 out of 5

    Nathan Brooks

  19. 5 out of 5

    Miss M

  20. 5 out of 5

    Helen Andrews

  21. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

  22. 4 out of 5

    Aloysius

  23. 4 out of 5

    Dawn

  24. 5 out of 5

    Abi Otamias

  25. 5 out of 5

    Kristen

  26. 5 out of 5

    KeBOBster

  27. 5 out of 5

    Atul

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tara

  29. 4 out of 5

    Valerie Mahaffey

  30. 4 out of 5

    Michael Kovan

  31. 5 out of 5

    Martha Allen godin

  32. 5 out of 5

    Randall Evans

  33. 4 out of 5

    Peyton McCardwell

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    Richard Waymire

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    Hannah

  36. 5 out of 5

    Erwin

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    Eugene

  38. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Price

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    Wouter Goossenaerts

  40. 5 out of 5

    Dante

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    Stlk

  42. 4 out of 5

    Marko

  43. 4 out of 5

    Shaunterria

  44. 5 out of 5

    Jennifer Stringer

  45. 4 out of 5

    Shana Yates

  46. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

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    Emrys

  48. 5 out of 5

    Simon

  49. 4 out of 5

    michael walsh

  50. 5 out of 5

    Simon

  51. 5 out of 5

    Martin Schutrups

  52. 5 out of 5

    Catie

  53. 4 out of 5

    Jan Pertijs

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