The Good American: The Epic Life of Bob Gersony, the U.S. Government's Greatest Humanitarian - book cover
Leaders & Notable People
  • Publisher : Random House Trade Paperbacks; Reprint edition
  • Published : 15 Feb 2022
  • Pages : 544
  • ISBN-10 : 0525512314
  • ISBN-13 : 9780525512318
  • Language : English

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

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.

"One of the best accounts examining American humanitarian pursuits over the past fifty years . . . With still greater challenges on the horizon, we will need to find and empower more people like Bob Gersony-both idealistic and pragmatic-who can help make the world a more secure place."-The Washington Post

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.

Editorial Reviews

"One of the best accounts examining American humanitarian pursuits over the past fifty years . . . With still greater challenges on the horizon, we will need to find and empower more people like Bob Gersony-both idealistic and pragmatic-who can help make the world a more secure place."-Daniel Runde,The Washington Post

"[Gersony's] story is inspiring because it affirms the possibility that facts, objectively researched and dispassionately presented, can change policy for the better. . . . Having seen firsthand how Mr. Gersony improved policy and saved lives, I am grateful that this book will make his example better known. May it become an inspiration for others."-Paul Wolfowitz, The Wall Street Journal

"A book to remind us that America has been, and can be again, a force for good in the world . . . Time after time, [Gersony] shows how doing good-curbing human rights abuses, aiding refugees, providing relief supplies-turned out to be in America's interest."-Max Boot, The Washington Post

"Reading Kaplan's account of smart, quiet, unsung heroism, readers will come away hopeful. If Bob Gersony can spend a life going out and really listening to other people, so can we."-The Christian Science Monitor

"For anyone who has stopped believing that one person can make a difference, or that government service is still a noble calling, or that facts still matter, or that the American brand can still hold fast to practical idealism, this book is the antidote to those fears."-Jim Mattis, general, U.S. Marines (ret.), and twenty-sixth secretary of defense, author of Call Sign Chaos

"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 an era in which public service is often belittled and the State Department is being hollowed out, Robert D. Kaplan offers a powerful rejoinder. It is a timely argument for why humanitarian issues deserve renewed emphasis."-Ambassador William J. Burns, pre...

Readers Top Reviews

L.A. Galerie Lothar
Como todos los libros de Kaplan: ¡excelente! (Aún sería deseable un poco más barato)
Si tratta di un libro straordinario scritto da un grandissimo giornalista come Robert D. Kaplan che ha saputo raccontare la vita do Bob Gersony, un uomo straordinario che con il suo coraggio e la sua determinazione ha salvato migliaia di persone, vittime dei conflitti ignorati o negati in tutto il mondo. Una storia epica, ricca di spunti e di storie inedite, che potrebbe diventare una formidabile serie televisiva! Libro decisamente consigliato, da non perdere!
Joel D. Hirst
I’ve never met Bob Gersony. That probably doesn’t seem strange to you. But it is to me. Gersony was a humanitarian, and “The Good American” is his story. It is not an epic story, despite the title. There was nothing epic about what Gersony did with his forty years. He did not achieve remarkable feats of policy – no peace deals; no Nobel Prizes; no nighttime marches of the unfortunate. No clandestine airfields at twilight or discoveries of mass graves. He did not spend fifteen years living in the Congolese camps or caring for those with severe mental deficiencies or running an orphanage of war-children. He is not Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandela. Bob Gersony did assessments for USAID; and some for State. That’s what we call them, the trips around the world to talk to residents of a refugee camp in the Sudan or of the slums above Rio in Brazil. There are a lot of assessment-takers; consultants – a cottage industry living in Vienna Virginia or Bethesda Maryland. I am not trying to denigrate Gersony, or Robert D. Kaplan’s book about him. On the contrary. Kaplan’s representation of Gersony made me think of a line in Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”: “Time had passed indeed: it had overtaken him and gone ahead. It had left him hopelessly behind with a few poor gifts: the iron-grey hair, the heavy fatigue of the tanned face, two scars, a pair of tarnished shoulder-straps; one of those steady, reliable men who are the raw material of great reputations, one of those uncounted lives that are buried without drums and trumpets under the foundations of monumental successes.” As I said I never met Gersony, which is strange. We worked in many of the same places. The difference is the timing; Gersony from the 1970s to the early 2000s – while I started my career in 1999 till now. The sad thing is, as I said, the places are the same. Northern Uganda; Eastern Chad; Honduras; Nigeria; the Balkans. I’ve worked all these places. And I knew so many of the people that fill the pages of Kaplan’s book – but I knew them at the end. Andrew Natsios and Elliott Abrams – people who are the epic characters of the 1980s and 1990s – because that is when Gersony worked. Now the book itself – as I’ve said before it was not an epic story. But I think that was Kaplan’s point. There are of course those tales – even just these days with the fall of Kabul a thousand new stories were written (and yet to be penned – I was involved in a few). Stories of violence and espionage and terrorism and explosions. Kaplan wanted instead to highlight the importance of the steady goodness of an ordinary man. This is Kaplan’s hidden message in a book which – unlike his other works – drips with contempt and exhaustion at America’s modern State Department and USAID, institutions which no longer serve the purpose which they did a generation ago staffed by people who no...
Brian D. Rudert
US Embassies around the World are more oblivious than ever as to what is going on around them. They could use a thousand Gersonys and are more reliant than ever on the Beltway bandits to feed them the information they want to hear. A typical US Embassy or USAID Foreign Service Officer assigned to Afghanistan lands at the airport, flies in a helicopter to the Embassy, and a year later flies back out to the airport after completing his/her assignment. The only contact they have with the local population is breathing the same air or sharing the same weather. Kaplan is no Chernow in terms of a biographer and is certainly an avid admirer of Gersony. Perhaps Gersony should write his memoirs to benefit others who may have the courage and incentive to go beyond the Embassy fortresses. I had the opportunity to see his work first hand in Nicaragua. It was perhaps the most cost effective, efficient, and focused effort I've ever seen that delivered the support the local population needed and got them back on their feet.

Short Excerpt Teaser


February 1988

She was a displaced farmer from Chemba, near to the border of Sofala and Tete provinces, in central Mozambique. Her village was at the intersection of the great Zambezi River and one of its tributaries. She spoke to him through a translator in Sena, a Bantu language of the Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe border areas. He had found her wearing a black kerchief and blue blouse. She appeared as "quite self-possessed," crouching on the dirt floor of the hut, and beckoning him to sit beside her on a chair. The government troops of FRELIMO had fled her village, she explained to him, and RENAMO soldiers closed in from several directions, forcing the villagers to the bank of the Zambezi. FRELIMO, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique, had come to power as an anti-Portuguese guerrilla group, with some support from Cuba and the Soviet Union. But it couldn't control the countryside where RENAMO, an indigenous African, anti-communist insurgency supported by apartheid South Africa, was on the rampage. RENAMO soldiers executed her niece, and soon afterward her niece's nursing daughter died of hunger and exposure. The woman told him she saw half a dozen bodies up close: of two young boys and other women and children. There were more bodies still, but she didn't have the courage to look at them. The woman and her own seven-year-old daughter then began to run but were chased into the big river by more RENAMO troops who had just arrived and were shooting at them, spraying the water's surface with bullets. People drowned, trying to escape the barrage.

She told him that "she tried as best she could," but exhausted, made the split-second choice to save herself and in a panic let go of her daughter, "who was swept away by the current and drowned." She said that "God helped me to an island in the river," where people from Mutarara, on the far side of the river, came with boats to evacuate them. She remained in Mutarara as a displaced person for five months. But then RENAMO attacked it and she fled again, helped by the cover provided by the outnumbered FRELIMO troops. She then walked roughly twenty miles north to a refugee camp across the border in Malawi. She remained at Makokwe camp in southern Malawi for three months. But "there was no future there," she told him. So she crossed the border back into Mozambique, where she stayed in a transit camp by a railway yard in Moatize, which was mortared by RENAMO. Then she escaped to a displaced persons camp in Benga, in Changara district, west of Moatize. She had been in Benga four months when he interviewed her on Monday, February 29, 1988, the third person he had interviewed there, according to his diary.

He remembered each person he interviewed by a distinguishing characteristic that he marked down in his notes. That way he could remember them as individuals, and thus preserve their humanity. This interviewee was "the woman with the black kerchief."

"The various expressions on her face, and the way she pronounced the words, were powerful and full of emotion. The moment she told me of letting go of her seven-year-old daughter's hand in the great River, her hand slowly waved in the air, as if she were letting go again, and again."

He had no children of his own yet, though he was already forty-three. But he was torn apart by the image of the woman's decision between surviving herself and letting her own daughter drown. He never got used to the stories he heard.

She was the 143rd of 196 refugees and displaced persons of the Mozambique civil war he interviewed, traveling between camps that were separated by hundreds of miles in war zones in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, and Mozambique itself. He was eating one meal a day, interviewing people like her during all the daylight hours, concentrating hard so as never to ask a leading question. He lived out of a tent with a sleeping bag and mosquito coil, writing in his lined notebook and typing by candlelight as there was no electricity, remembering each voice through his fingertips.

It was merely another day of work for him, just another assignment, like all the others in war and disaster areas of the developing world: assignments which continued-literally one after another-for four decades, on several continents. He was often lonely, depressed, but lived in fear of being promoted out of what he was doing. He was truly calm only while interviewing and taking notes. It was in such moments that he attained the quality of an ascetic, inhaling the evidence almost. For him,...