Why We Must Listen To Contrarian Thinkers

Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice (1845 – 1927), the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, was a distinguished British statesman who held senior positions in both Liberal Party and Conservative Party governments. He had served as the fifth Governor General of Canada, Viceroy of India, Secretary of State for War, and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He was a pillar of the British aristocracy, steeped in the values of the establishment.

In November 1917 the First World War had raged for three savage years with millions dead. Lansdowne, whose son had been killed in action, became convinced that the war was a threat to civilisation itself and that the total destruction of Germany was not a worthwhile objective. Impelled by his conscience, he circulated a paper to the Government, in which he called for an end to the bloodshed and a negotiated peace with Germany. His proposal was summarily rejected by his colleagues. He invited the editor of The Times, Geoffrey Dawson, to his house and asked him to publish a letter expounding his case. Dawson was “appalled” and refused. Lansdowne then offered the letter to The Daily Telegraph, which published it on 29 November 1917. It stated.

We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it...We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power ... We do not seek to impose upon her people any form of government other than that of their own choice... We have no desire to deny Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world.”

Condemnation was swift and almost universal. Lansdowne became a pariah who was shunned and vilified by politicians, commentators and military leaders. His letter was condemned as a “deed of shame”. It was completely at odds with popular opinion which wanted nothing less than the annihilation of Germany. His career was over and he was seen by many as a traitor. In the face of such opprobrium he maintained his views but to no avail.

Most likely he was right. His views should have been considered. If peace could have been negotiated with Germany countless lives would have been saved. Furthermore the onerous reparations forced on Germany after the Treaty of Versailles would have been avoided. Many historians believe that the terms of this treaty laid the seeds for the rise of Hitler and the horrors of WW2.

A parallel story occurred half a century after Lansdowne wrote his letter. Konrad Kellen (1913 – 2007) was a German Jew who studied law before emigrating to the USA in 1935. He had a brilliant mind and became an intelligence officer working for the US army and later for the RAND Corporation, an influential think tank started by the Pentagon to perform high-level defence analysis. In the 1960s he studied interviews with hundreds of captured Vietcong fighters in order to interpret the morale and intentions of North Vietnam. Conventional wisdom in the Pentagon was that the morale of the Vietcong forces was low and that additional US forces and bombing would shortly bring about Vietcong collapse.

Kellen’s painstaking analysis led him to conclude that, contrary to prevailing assessments, enemy morale was high and that the war was not winnable. In 1965 he and others wrote an open letter to the U.S. government urging withdrawal of troops.

His arguments were disregarded by the U.S. Administration which maintained its optimistic view that the war was winnable because of low enemy morale. With hindsight we can see that Kellen was right and many lives would have been saved if his approach had been adopted. Why did he get it right and so many other advisors get it wrong? Author Malcolm Gladwell notes that Kellen was a truly great listener who could listen objectively without filtering what he heard through biases or predispositions.

We can easily forget how difficult it is to voice an opinion contrary to the universal view. There has been many cases where whistle-blowers in government bodies, hospitals and large organizations have faced tremendous hostility and opposition even when acting in the public interest.

It takes great courage to challenge the powerful and the popular. We need that courage time and again. We should not disdain and ignore contrarian thinkers like Lansdowne and Kellen. They should be encouraged to speak up and their views, however unpopular, should be examined with dispassion.

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