At a Century's Ending Essay - Critical Essays

At a Century’s Ending

Looking back on the twentieth century from a period near its end, George Kennan considers it a cruel century, but one that has sustained a great civilization. He views the period’s major history as beginning in 1914 with the onset of World War I and ending in 1989 with the fall of communism in Russia, with World War II and the Cold War intervening.

The book is a collection of miscellaneous papers, addresses, reviews, and other occasional pieces, largely dealing with diplomatic history. A major concern is the onset of the Cold War and its continuance for more than four decades. Kennan, who is critical of both Russia and the United States for their Cold War policies and rhetoric, thinks that conflict might have been much less costly than it was. Although he believes that the United States often followed a correct course, for example in implementing the Marshall Plan, he believes that people learn more from their mistakes and thus devotes more attention to blunders instead of successes.

The book represents a thoughtful, elegantly written, and wise commentary on a turbulent period of history. Kennan frequently reflects upon larger issues that concern him for the future: overpopulation, the degradation of the environment in the northern hemisphere, the threat of nuclear war, and the multiplicity of nationalistic movements that threaten peace and stability. These challenges seem all the more difficult for the future because mankind has had little precedent for dealing with them. Their solution might be less difficult if Kennan’s profound understanding of issues, his balanced views, and his cautious, conservative solutions were brought to bear upon them.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, February 1, 1996, p. 898.

Chicago Tribune. April 14, 1996, XIV, p. 6.

Commentary. CI, June, 1996, p. 59.

Foreign Affairs. LXXV, July, 1996, p. 145.

The New York Review of Books. XLIII, August 8, 1996, p. 4.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, April 7, 1996, p. 6.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, January 29, 1996, p. 93.

The Times Literary Supplement. July 12, 1996, p. 27.

The Wall Street Journal. February 26, 1996, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 25, 1996, p. 3.