‘We are a nineteenth century people. Our minds are our great, great mother’s minds. We aren’t a twentieth century people. Our ideas are inherited ideas.’ (Dean Acheson, This Vast External Realm)
In 1989 George Kennan was eighty-five years old. His prestige had reached its zenith. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The head of the Soviet Union recognised him as one of the architects of a Cold War order that was fast coming to an end. Kennan, modest as ever, took little or no interest in this adulation. He saw something else, writes his biographer John Lukacs: that he was a man of a century – the twentieth, which was now irredeemably past. ‘I was ten years old in 1914, and eighty-five in 1989,’ he wrote at the beginning of yet another book, At a Century’s Ending. ‘While each of the last few centuries of European history seemed to have a certain specific character of its own,’ the twentieth century was a short one. It began with the First World War and ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Not that Kennan’s active life came to an end at that point. He continued writing almost up to his hundredth birthday. Except for some expected vicissitudes his body remained by and large unbroken. His mind weakened not at all. He wrote two entirely new books, a dozen articles and several