At a Century’s Ending

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

At a Century’s Ending consists of a wide variety of papers, most previously published, written by George Kennan from the years 1982-1995. Although they concern a limited number of themes, the papers are diverse in form. They include addresses, articles, forewords to books by others, reviews, letters, and even one journal entry. Most selections concern East-West relations, though there are a few on other topics. The book’s thirty- nine selections are arranged under five general headings: “Background,” “The Cold War in Full Bloom,” “Cold War, Its Decline and Fall,” “Reviews and Introductions,” and “Miscellaneous.”

To Kennan, the century’s most important history began in 1914 with the beginning of World War I and ended in 1989 with the fall of communism in Russia and the breakup of the Soviet empire. The great intervening events were the Russian Revolution in 1917; World War II, which he considers a continuation of World War I; and the Cold War, a result of the victors’ failure to settle issues encountered in the conflict satisfactorily. The years before World War I and those after the fall of communism amount to prologue and epilogue to what Kennan perceives as a brutal, cruel century, yet one that permitted the continuance of a great western civilization.

George Kennan’s career as diplomat and ambassador with the state department was not without its ironies. The best informed American statesman on Russian history and the Soviet Union, he knew personally many of the Soviet leaders from the 1930’s through the early 1950’s. During World War II, he served at the Moscow embassy as assistant to the American ambassador, W. Averell Harriman, and was ambassador himself during a brief period in 1952. Ironically, it was Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin who effectively ended his career by declaring Kennan persona non grata, primarily it seems because of his contacts with ordinary Russian citizens. When the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower found no place for him in government service, Kennan joined Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study and put his expertise as a Russian historian to work. Except for a brief period as ambassador to Yugoslavia during the Kennedy administration, he has remained in that position, producing highly acclaimed volumes concerning the foreign relations of the United States, Russia, and Europe.

A further irony arises from his influence upon American policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1946, at the request of James Forrestal, secretary of defense, Kennan wrote a paper explaining what he expected Soviet behavior to be during the postwar period and how America might best meet the challenges it promised. In 1947, the paper, entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and written by “X,” was published in the journal Foreign Affairs. The effort at anonymity failed, for shortly after publication its true authorship became widely known. In the article, Kennan depicted a Soviet Union ideologically driven, with leaders who were insecure, secretive, and highly suspicious. He pointed out that the Soviets would exploit any opportunity to advance communist ideology, particularly in Western Europe and Japan, and that it behooved the United States to remain involved in the foreign arena in order to counter those efforts. Kennan’s paper became the most influential guide to the formation of America’s policy of “containment,” a word he first applied to the East-West rivalry. For his work, Kennan was appointed to the policy planning committee of the state department and was instrumental in formulating the Marshall Plan to provide aid to Europe following World War II.

Yet Kennan points out that his message concerning Russia became grossly distorted in the process of implementation. Never did he think that the Russians wished to become involved in a war against the West, or for that matter, even in minor wars on the fringes of their empire. Russia was too drained of manpower by the war and too depleted economically to risk another world war. The territories it had gained during the war were, for the most part, populated by citizens with no enthusiasm for communism, and all remaining world powers were allied with the United States. The Soviet threat was ideological, political, and perhaps economic, if the American-led West did nothing. Yet in the minds of Western political leaders, so little removed in time from the struggle against Nazi Germany, Russia appeared another dangerous aggressor led by a dictator who resembled Adolf Hitler. The perceived threat became a military one, and this view of the conflict triggered the dangerous and expensive arms race which Kennan deplores. Among its more costly and most dubious results was a massive build-up of military strength in Western Europe designed to counter a Russian threat that never materialized—the specter of Russian tanks sweeping into the West by the thousands.

Although he takes pains to distance his historical perspective from that of Arnold Toynbee, one...

(The entire section is 2069 words.)