Such was the case for George Kennan, the legendary U.S. diplomat and scholar who, after World War II, helped inspire the Truman Doctrine and write the Marshall Plan. Kennan wrote what he considered his most important paper, “Russia—Seven Years Later,” which profoundly analyzed the condition of the U.S. ally at the time; a country he foresaw, correctly, not as a friend but as a future menace.
Like many masterpieces, Kennan’s paper was virtually ignored. Even now, historians give short shrift to his insights, including his idea that the purges of the 1930s happened not because Stalin was a Marxist but because he was just another czar. Kennan foresaw the Russian conquest of Eastern Europe. He also foresaw that helping the Soviet Union enter the United Nations would only put off solutions to important problems.
Instead, U.S. leaders latched onto Kennan’s 1947 “X” or “containment” article, in which he recommended “containing” the Soviet Union to the territory it already held. This became the main U.S. strategy for dealing with the Soviets in the second half of the 20th century.
Lesson: Even if your ideas are received in unexpected ways, don’t conclude, as Kennan did, that you are a pest with no business doing the work of a leader. The fact is that leaders are found everywhere. And if your first idea doesn’t get through, your second one might.
—Adapted from George Kennan: A Study of Character, John Lukacs, Yale University Press.