In This Review

At a Century's Ending: Reflections, 1982-1995
At a Century's Ending: Reflections, 1982-1995
By George F. Kennan
W. W. Norton, 1996, 351 pp

The graceful essays collected in this volume embrace a wide variety of topics but mostly trace the author's growing horror at the direction of American foreign policy in the final stages of the Cold War. Kennan is normally regarded as the architect of America's containment policy toward the Soviet Union. For the greater part of the Cold War, however, he was a critic, and an increasingly severe one, of the policy he helped found. He came to regard the militarization of the conflict as both a colossal waste of resources and a source of infinite peril, themes to which he continually returns in these essays. The almost religious intensity with which he rejected U.S. policy gives many of his judgments an unbalanced character. "Never," he wrote in 1987, was American security "more endangered than it is now." So, too, his depictions of the outlook of U.S. political and military leaders in the 1980s are reminiscent of the very one-sidedness and proclivity toward demonization he found objectionable in U.S. attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Despite these flaws, there is much in Kennan's overall outlook that remains appealing. His warnings about the readiness of American leaders to convert intractable conflicts of national interest into profound moral dramas and his emphasis on the need to direct moral criticism to the redress of failings at home are wise counsels.