At a century's ending : reflections 1982-1995 /
George F. Kennan.
1st ed.
New York : W.W. Norton, c1996.
351 p.
More Details
New York : W.W. Norton, c1996.
general note
Includes index.
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One


The War to End War (1984)

Sixty-six years ago, on the 11th of November 1918, there ended that four-year orgy of carnage known as the First World War. When the shooting ceased, some 8.5 million young men lay dead and buried either in Flanders Fields or near the other great battle fields or the war. Over 20 million more had been injured--many of them maimed for life. Nearly 8 million were listed as missing or as having been takenìprisoner. Of those who survived, countless thousands were to return to their homelands shattered ("Shell-Shocked" was then the word), confused, and desperate, to face the problems of daily life in a society impoverished morally and materially by the enormous wastage the war had involved. And for every one of those who had died, there were now others, loved and loving, including outstandingly the parents, for whom a large part of the meaning of life had evaporated with the news of the particular death in question Europe, in short (and with it, in tar smaller degree, the United States), had perpetrated a vast injury on its own substance the sacrifice of the greatest capital it possessed, a flesh-and-blood capital--the cream of its young male manpower of the day, beside which the tremendous economic wastage of the struggle pales to insignificance.

No human mind will ever be capable of apprehending the magnitude of this tragedy The number exceed the individual capacity for imagination. The computer would not know what to make of the

Originally published (in a different form) in the New York Times, November 11, 1984.

The tragedy of each individual young soldier, cut off in the flower of his years, deprived of the privilege of leading a life through, carrying away with him into the agony and squalor of his battlefield death all that he thought he had been living for and all the hopes and love invested in him by others, was in itself immeasurable--infinite in its way. And then--8 million of them?

The only hope that could have given solace to these men in their final moments and in the hardships endured before those moments (for service at the front, even where survived, was seldom fun) was that there was some sense in this great effort of destruction--that it would be, as people then depicted it, the war to end war, that the triumph of one's particular cause would assure the emergence of a more hopeful, more promising civilization.

Were these comforting assumptions vindicated? Not a bit of it. The war merely shattered what little unity Western civilization had to that point achieved. The Russian Revolution--a direct product of the war (although not without other causes as well)--estranged one great portion of the Western heritage from the remainder of it for more than half a century to come, and probably much longer. The vindictiveness of the British and French peace terms; the exclusion of Germany and Russia from the peace conferences; the economic miseries of the postwar years; the foolish attempts to draw the blood of reparations and war debts from the veins of the exhausted peoples of the continent--these phenomena all direct consequences of the war, assured that only twenty years after its ending, Europe would stand confronted with the nightmare of Adolf Hitler at the peak of his power, and with the imminence of the Nazi-Soviet pact, which would usher in a second vast military conflagration, comparable in its tragic dimensions to the one that had just occurred. Where, in all this sordid and tragic story, was the meaning of victory? Millions lost. Civilization itself the loser. Where were the victors?

What is one to make, in retrospect, of this self-destructive madness? one searches through the dusty archives of the prewar years for its reasons--for the failures of understanding and of foresight that made it possible. One finds that, as is usual in the causality of great events, the reasons were multiple and complex. There was, as has been often pointed out, the failure of the statesmen of the time to realize that another war might be long and unduly exhausting. Many were still bemused by the misleading example of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71: the mirage of the glamorous little war, quickly and dramatically won by "our brave boys" and followed by triumphant victory parades in the capital city of the deservedly defeated opponent. But there were, of course, deeper failures of understanding than this. There was, the extreme romantic nationalism of the time (and not, alas, of that time alone): this mass escapism through which people unsure of their personal identity seek reassurance by identification with an idealized national collectivity. But equally serious, and equally unnoted the time, were developments in the military field: the professionalization of the military career; the rise of great military bureaucracies; the growing separation of military and political thought; the abandonment of the concept of limited military operations conducted in pursuit of limited war aims and the embracing in its place of the vain-glorious dreams of total war, unconditional surrender, and the total victory that was supposed to make all things possible.

And we of this age? How about us? We are now at a distance of sixty-six years from Armistice Day 1918. We have before us the example not just of that war but of a second one no less destructive and even more unfortunate in its consequences. How fine it would be if it could be said of us that we had pondered these ominous lessons and had set about, in all humility and seriousness, to base our national conduct on a resolve to avoid the bewilderments that drove our fathers and grandfathers to these follies. How nice if we could say that we had all recognized the silliness of entire peoples seeing themselves as more virtuous, deserving, and generally glorious than others, and waging self-destructive wars in the service of this fatuous illusion. How encouraging if we had developed an awareness of the unwithstandable momentum of vast military preparations, and if we had recognized the unreality of the very idea of victory in armed encounters between great industrial powers in this age of advanced technology. If civilization is to survive, these perceptions must come, ultimately, to the governments of all great nations. The question is only: will they come soon enough? The time given to us to make this change is not unlimited. It may be smaller than many of us suppose.

Copyright © 1996 George F. Kennan. All rights reserved.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1996-01-29:
In one of the best pieces in this miscellany of essays, speeches, lectures and reviews, Kennan sketches a series of vivid autobiographical flashbacks: living in a wooden cottage with his wife in independent Latvia in 1932 and in Moscow in 1937, at the height of Stalin's purges; his banishment from the Soviet Union by Stalin in 1952, ending his Foreign Service career. In another provocative article, he dismisses as "intrinsically silly and childish" the claim that the Reagan administration decisively influenced the breakup of the U.S.S.R., thereby winning the Cold War. Drawing on six decades of experience as ambassador to Moscow and as State Department policy maker, Kennan offers a magisterial overview of our tragic century, marked by two world wars and a Cold War that in his opinion has led the U.S. into a wasteful, draining military buildup. Several selections comprise a running commentary on the breakup of the Soviet Union; there's also a comparison of the recent Balkan war with the Balkan fracas of 1913. Analyzing Russia's current relations with new surrounding states, Kennan concludes that fears in the West that Russia is imperialistic and aggressive are unwarranted. History Book Club and BOMC selections. (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Appeared in Library Journal on 1995-10-15:
Reflecting on the collapse of the Soviet Union, political insider Kennan argues that we should abandon Cold War assumptions that military might is the way to bring down totalitarian regimes. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Appeared in Choice on 1996-09-01:
George F. Kennan is now 93 years old; this book is likely to be among the last of his thoughtful, wise, useful gifts to his country. Judiciously chosen, these recent essays, reviews, and addresses reprise the lessons of his distinguished careers as diplomat, historian, and commentator on public policies. But this exquisite anthology also stands as a cautionary tale for benefit of those who, after Kennan, will shape America's foreign and domestic agendas. Beginning and ending with two Russian revolutions and the aftermaths of two world wars, these intelligent commentaries consider the still-potent militarism, jingoism, bureaucratism, and technocratic arrogance that may yet plunge the West into a new dark age. Kennan calmly and cogently argues for a courageous reorientation of American minds and spirits toward the true perils of the coming era--cynical and corrosive armaments programs and lethal environmental deterioration, conditions for which the US bears a major responsibility. This wise patriot's outlook is optimistic even as he ponders his country's constitutional and spiritual inadequacies in the face of great threats to its historic character. Highly recommended to all intelligent adults. L. J. Mahoney Spokane Community College
This item was reviewed in:
Library Journal, October 1995
Kirkus Reviews, January 1996
Publishers Weekly, January 1996
Choice, September 1996
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.

This information is provided by a service that aggregates data from review sources and other sources that are often consulted by libraries, and readers. The University does not edit this information and merely includes it as a convenience for users. It does not warrant that reviews are accurate. As with any review users should approach reviews critically and where deemed necessary should consult multiple review sources. Any concerns or questions about particular reviews should be directed to the reviewer and/or publisher.

  link to old catalogue

Report a problem