Tragic Figures of History: Men Who Could Have Averted Disaster (Had They Been Listened to)

I am struck by how many horrible world disasters could ahve been averted, had the people in power listened to their advisors. Kings, emperors, dictators,presidents, etc., always have experts to advise them on matters of policy-why are these guys ignored?
Take Philip II of Spain, with his attempt to invade England (with his “invincible” armada). Both Admiral Medina Sidonia and his army commander (the Duke of Parma) advised Philip NOT to attempt it-they both forcast diaster…of course, Philip didn’t listen.
Or WWI- the Kaiser ignored von Bethmann-Hollweg’s plea not to go to war…or the Czar of Russia (he was advised by a very smart guy, Count Sergei Witte-who begged him not to enter the war).
More recently, Lyndon Johnson-he ignored the CIA’s forcasts that backing the corrupt south Vietnam government would be futile-Johnson went ahead-with results that we all know.
What is it that makes people in high places so arrogant and unwilling to consider wise counsel? Is this a good argument against single heads of state? Would committee rule be better (and less prone to errors)?

For every person giving disaster averting advice, there are plenty more advisors working the other way.

Its rarely obvious which is the better course to take until after the event.

Part of the make up of any bunch of selected advisors will always be heavily biased to advising what the decisionmakers want to hear - some call it teamwok, others call them ‘yes’ men.

You also have a certain amount of confirmation bias, how many times were good decisions made that did not make headlines?

The most significant one of recent times seems to me the one to invade Iraq - despite all the advice about the cost, in money and life, and the rubbish spouted about the ‘weapons of mass destruction’, the decision was made to divert resources from Afghanistan - an action for which there was general worldwide support - to a half assed occupation of both countrries which has resulted in a massive loss of goodwill around the world, and a far greater widening out of the terrorism that was largely bottled up in Afghanistan.

This was widely predicted, the mythical WMD were not there, and it appears that all the US leaders knew it.

They should be put up against a wall and shot, along with some of the leaders of their allies.

Out of a group of people there will always be someone who disagrees. 9 times out of 10 it wouldn’t matter. 1 time out of 10 they turn out to be right and go down in history as geniuses.
In my group of friends there is one guy who poo-poos every idea for what we could do. 95% of the time we do something and have fun, his negativity is never mentioned again. 5% of the time we try to do something fun and it doesn’t quite work out, he feels is justified “knowing” we should have never tried.

You don’t rub that statistic in his face and tell him to STFU?

As stated, which is the wise counsel and which is the mistake? Hindsight is 20/20, but foresight is less certain.

Bill Clinton used to hold weekly meetings on terrorism and potential terrorist threats, and towards the end of his presidency, he was actually planning a preemptive strike against al-Qaeda. All that came to end when GWB was “voted” into office, with the ultimate result of…well, you know.

Rebuilding Iraq will only cost $1.7 billion.


You should read Barbara Tuchman’s book, The March of Folly.

Well, General Longstreet didn’t want to press ahead with Pickett’s Charge. But you gotta admit Gettysburg wouldn’t have had the same luster without it.

All the people the OP is likely to be thinking of are people who either came to power by a long successful climb up a very competitive ladder, or where born and raised to believe they where superior, mabe even ordained by God to be deciderers. It’s not that suprising that arrogance ensued.

And look at Lord Halifax. He told Churchill that Britain couldn’t win the war and they should accept German peace terms. But did Churchill listen? No, and look how it all turned out.

My point, in case I was too subtle, is that nobody knows until after the fact which experts are right and which are wrong.

Johnny I can only assume you are trying to woosh me with that quote from 2003.

Here is one from 2005

rather larger figures than yours. If you want to talk of rebuilding Iraq, you must also take into account the cost of knocking it down in the first place.

Here’s a fun little site

not that I would consider it an authorative source, but amusing all the same.

This is a bit more reputable

We could go on, but I am going to assume this was a woosh attempt on your part.

How many disasters were averted because they DID listen to counsel? How many disasters happened BECAUSE they listened to counsel that turned out to be wrong? How many disasters were averted because they IGNORED counsel that turned out to be wrong?

Your question is a perfect example of selection bias and 20/20 hindsight.

I take it you’ve never sat on a committee. Or even attended meetings at work.

Clinton had TWO opportunities where bin Laden would practically be delivered into his hands. And he rejected them. He had 6+ YEARS after the first WTC bombing to DO something. With the ultimate result of…well, you know.

And you blame BUSH because Clinton was PLANNING something at the end of his term?

Note that there is a positive bias built in to the universe for underlings to play naysayer.

In an enterprise of great moment, no-one can know how it will play out. If it goes well, the underling can proudly claim he was part of it, and his negative advice can be spun as merely admirably cautious crossing of Is and dotting of Ts. If it fails, he can avoid responsibility say he knew all along it would and tried his best to prevent it, but no-one would listen.

Leaders (I suspect military leaders in particular) get used to this sort of failure of moral courage by underlings, but part of their job is to recognise when there is some substance to it and when it is merely the background noise of arse-covering that is part of life. And they don’t always get it right. But for every successful enterprise it will be possible to go back and find any number of naysayers who said it would never work. The same for every unsuccessful one.

Seriously? You think there’s an institutional bias for underlings to tell their boss he’s wrong?

Somebody needs to explain the concept of yes-men to you.

Well, you have to understand that I was the token L.A. liberal working in Reagan Country and arguing that attacking Iraq was a bad idea. :wink:

That would be Czar Nicholas Romanov? If so, Nicholas listened and trusted completely in another adviser- namely Grigori Rasputin, the legendary Mad Monk. Except for his last prediction (‘I am going to be killed soon. If my fellow peasants kill me, it means they love you and you will have a long reign. If the scheming nobles kill me, it means there will be revolution and you’ll be dead in a year tops’) Grigori seems to have had no special insight into the future.

Actually Rasputin strongly adviced Nicholas against going to war in 1914.

Count Witte was a genius-if any man could have saved Imperial Russia, it was him; some of his acomplishments:
-he negotiated the end of the disastrous 1905 Russo-Japanese War; He was so skilled a negotiator, that Russia (the loser) emerged the winner! (He also advised the Czar Nicholas NOT to pick a fight with Japan-a war that saw the loss of most of the Russian Navy).
-he put Russia on the gold standard-having a stable currency enabled Russia to borrow abroad at low rates.
-he reformed the bureacracy, and put capable civil servats inchare of the government
-he completed the Trans-Siberian Railroad-which put the riches of Russia’s far east at the countries disposal-this shored up the almost bankrut government
In short, had Nicholas follwed Witte’s wise advice, most likely Russia would have been spared the horror of WWI, and the curse of communism.
Alas, Nicholas was not a man to follw wise counsel-he let his idiot wife advise him.

Well then I’m confused. Usually the explanation for Nick doing something truly stupid was Rasputin

I don’t see how Nicholas had any choice as to entering World War I, other than commiting an act of the most craven appeasement. Austria-Hungary and Germany were hell-bent on war. Germany declared war on Russia merely for mobilizing, not for attacking.

To avoid war, Nicholas would have had to tell Austria-Hungary, “Do as you please in Serbia. Even though they’re our traditional ally, you may invade and occupy the country and reduce it to an economic satellite.” This would have been the end of Russia’s traditional influence in the Balkans, and would probably have caused France to take a long second look at the usefulness of Russia as an ally.

And you can bet that such appeasement would have invited further attacks. Germany knew Russia was industrializing and growing stronger, and wanted the reckoning to come sooner rather than later. If they were denied war (via appeasement) in 1914, they would have provoked it via other means in 1915 or 1916.