Plans Are Worthless, But Planning Is Everything

Dwight D. Eisenhower? Winston Churchill? Richard M. Nixon? Helmuth von Moltke? Mike Tyson? Anonymous

Dear Quote Investigator: The World War II leader and U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower apparently made a paradoxical statement about preparation. Here are two versions:

1) Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
2) Plans are worthless, but planning is essential.

Would you please explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: In 1950 Dwight Eisenhower wrote a letter to a U.S. diplomat in which he ascribed a military-oriented version of the saying to an anonymous soldier. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1984, The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, Volume XI: Columbia University, Editor Louis Galambos et al, Letter from: Dwight Eisenhower, Letter to: Hamilton Fish Armstrong, Date: December 31, 1950, Start Page 1516, Quote Page 1516, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified with hard copy)[/ref]

. . . I always remember the observation of a very successful soldier who said, “Peace-time plans are of no particular value, but peace-time planning is indispensable.”

During a speech in November 1957 Eisenhower employed the saying again. He told an anecdote about the maps used during U.S. military training. Maps of the Alsace-Lorraine area of Europe were used during instruction before World War I, but educational reformers decided that the location was not relevant to American forces. So the maps were switched to a new location within the U.S. for planning exercises. A few years later the military was deployed and fighting in the Alsace-Lorraine:[ref] 1958, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1957, Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, Remarks at the National Defense Executive Reserve Conference, Date: November 14, 1957, Start Page 817, Quote Page 818, Published by the Federal Register Division, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

I tell this story to illustrate the truth of the statement I heard long ago in the Army: Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of “emergency” is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

The details of a plan which was designed years in advance are often incorrect, but the planning process demands the thorough exploration of options and contingences. The knowledge gained during this probing is crucial to the selection of appropriate actions as future events unfold.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A thematically similar statement was crafted by Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder in 1871. Here is the original German form together with an English translation:[ref] 1900, Moltkes Militärische Werke: II. Die Thätigkeit als Chef des Generalstabes der Armee im Frieden. (Moltke’s Military Works: II. Activity as Chief of the Army General Staff in Peacetime) Zweiter Theil (Second Part), Aufsatz vom Jahre 1871 Ueber Strategie (Article from 1871 on strategy), Start Page 287, Quote Page 291, Publisher: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus.

No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces.

Over time Moltke’s statement evolved into a concise adage that circulates widely today: No plan survives first contact with the enemy. A separate Quote Investigator article on this topic is available here.

In 1877 a war correspondent for the British newspaper “The Daily News” remarked on the limited value of plans:[ref] 1877 October 25, The Birmingham Daily Post, The Battle of Yagnilar by, Special Correspondent of the Daily News, Quote Page 6, Column 6, West Midlands, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]

Possibly, such movements did not enter the original plan; but plans are worthless when the fighting is once begun, and all depends on the inspiration of the moment.

In 1941 Winston S. Churchill published “A Roving Commission: My Early Life” which included a passage about writing that employed a military simile:[ref] 1941, A Roving Commission: My Early Life by Winston S. Churchill, (New American Edition), Chapter 16: I Leave the Army, Quote Page 212 and 213, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Writing a book is not unlike building a house or planning a battle or painting a picture. The technique is different, the materials are different, but the principle is the same. The foundations have to be laid, the data assembled, and the premises must bear the weight of their conclusions. . .

The whole when finished is only the successful presentation of a theme. In battles however the other fellow interferes all the time and keeps up-setting things, and the best generals are those who arrive at the results of planning without being tied to plans.

In 1950 and 1957 Eisenhower made statements about the dual nature of planning as presented previously.

In November 1957 “The New York Times” reported on the speech by Eisenhower:[ref] 1957 November 15, New York Times, President Draws Planning Moral: Recalls Army Days to Show Value of Preparedness in Time of Crisis by William M. Blair, Quote Page 4, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” he said he had heard in the Army. In an emergency, he went on, the first thing to do is “to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window.”

“But if you haven’t been planning you can’t start to work, intelligently at least,” he said.

Also in 1957 an editorial in “The Wall Street Journal” reprinted the quotation:[ref] 1957 November 19, The Wall Street Journal, Meeting the Unknown, Quote Page 14, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

The other day President Eisenhower dusted off an old Army aphorism—“plans are worthless but planning is everything”—and some of his hearers reacted as if he were talking in riddles.

But there is a sound bit of wisdom buried in this paradox and it will be helpful to keep it in mind as we debate the problems of the budget, of military strategy and of foreign policy in the wake of Sputniks I and II.

In 1962 future president Richard M. Nixon published the book “Six Crises”, and he attributed a version of the saying to Eisenhower:[ref] 1962, Six Crises by Richard M. Nixon, Chapter: Khrushchev, Quote Page 253, A Cardinal Edition: Pocket Books, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

There could not have been a more dramatic demonstration of the truth of this maxim—one of President Eisenhower’s favorites—than my meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow in July 1959.

In 1975 “The Christian Science Monitor” credited Richard Nixon with a version of the saying:[ref] 1975 November 21, The Christian Science Monitor, How They Manage Their Times: Celebrities, How Presidents Manage, Start Page 20, Quote Page 21, Column 5 and 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Richard Nixon’s hint: “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

In August 1987 the Associated Press news service published a piece containing the following thematically related quotation from professional boxer Mike Tyson: “Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time”. A separate article about this saying is available here.

The 2012 reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” included an entry for this saying; the 1950 citation was the earliest evidence.[ref] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 200, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

In conclusion Dwight Eisenhower used an instance of the saying in 1950 and helped to popularize it in 1957; however, he disclaimed credit by ascribing the words to an anonymous soldier. Nixon also popularized the expression, but he credited Eisenhower.

Image Notes: Illustration of Allied battle plans for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Official photo portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower circa 1959. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and re-sized.

Special thanks to Jay Lund who suggested adding Moltke’s statement.

Update History: On May 4, 2021 the citation for Moltke’s statement was added to this article. On October 28, 2021 a crosslink to the Mike Tyson quotation was added.

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