Prophet With Honor

At a Century's Ending:Reflections, 1982

by George F. Kennan
Norton, 351 pp., $27.50

George Kennan’s ninety-two-year life spans a century with which he has grown progressively uneasy. On the first page of his new and absorbing collection of essays he calls the twentieth century “a tragic one in the history of European (including American) civilization.” Kennan is a historical and cultural pessimist who laments the hierarchy and order destroyed by World War I. To that war he traces the Bolshevik Revolution (“a calamity of epochal dimensions for the peoples upon whom it was imposed”), the rise of Nazism, World War II, the disintegration of Europe’s colonial empires, the introduction of nuclear weapons, and the cold war.

The career of this majestic and brooding figure abounds in contradiction. In 1946 Kennan invented the doctrine calling for the “containment” of the Soviet Union, but he then lost little time in rejecting it. A supreme stylist among foreign affairs writers, he carelessly expressed himself, on several occasions, in language that was grossly misinterpreted. Though acclaimed as a “realist,” he has been contending for fifty years that nuclear weapons—in his new book he extends the argument to all modern weapons—have ceased to be serviceable instruments of national policy. The most brilliant analyst of the Soviet Union ever to have come out of the American Foreign Service, he has been oddly tone-deaf when it came to politics in his own country. Even when wrong, he is usually more interesting than those who are right.

Whatever history’s ultimate view of Kennan—if a final verdict is possible on such an enigmatic man—he is sure to remain one of the dominant figures of the cold war period. His influence endures today. Four decades in the confines of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study have not slaked his appetite for analysis, prescription, and verbal combat. In At a Century’s Ending diverse subjects including the militarization of civil life, human rights, immigration, the nation-state, popular diplomacy, unrestrained freedom, universal democracy, and modernity itself come in for critical discussion in prose that has lost none of its sharpness.

Into his tenth decade, Kennan is still an international force. When Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Henry Kissinger’s strategist on Europe during the Nixon presidency, visited China early this year, he found several Chinese foreign policy experts poring over and annotating Kennan’s early works. They explained that containment had been the basis of American policy toward the Soviet Union; now that the United States was turning containment against China, they wanted to learn how it had started and evolved.


Though Kennan was the author of the containment strategy, after fifty years his views on it are still controversial. His famous “X” article, which unveiled the doctrine publicly in Foreign Affairs in 1947, combined a masterful analysis of hostile Soviet intentions with the recommendation to threaten to use force against Moscow’s expansionist designs. “X” urged “a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.”

Kennan soon defected from…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.