No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Carl von Clausewitz? Dwight D. Eisenhower? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Anybody who is attempting to accomplish a major project must be flexible. Planning is important, but adaptability is essential. Here are two versions of a pertinent adage from the domain of warfare and competition:

  • No plan survives contact with the enemy.
  • No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

This saying has been attributed to Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1871 Helmuth von Moltke wrote an essay about military strategy that included a lengthy statement that was essentially equivalent to the concise adage. Here is an excerpt in German followed by an English translation. Boldface added to by QI: 1

Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus. Nur der Laie glaubt in dem Verlauf eines Feldzuges die konsequente Durchführung eines im voraus gefaßten in allen Einzelheiten überlegten und bis ans Ende festgehaltenen, ursprünglichen Gedankens zu erblicken.

No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces. Only the layman believes that in the course of a campaign he sees the consistent implementation of an original thought that has been considered in advance in every detail and retained to the end.

Over time Moltke’s statement was condensed to yield the currently popular adages.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy


  1. 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

Plans Are Worthless, But Planning Is Everything

Dwight D. Eisenhower? Winston Churchill? Richard M. Nixon? 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: 1

. . . 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: 2

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.

Continue reading Plans Are Worthless, But Planning Is Everything


  1. 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)
  2. 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

Suffering from Delusions of Adequacy

Who was speaking: Walter F. Kerr? Michael Foot? Erskine Johnson? Charlton Heston? David Brin?

grandeur08Who was criticized: Jay Robinson? Dwight Eisenhower? Charlton Heston?

Dear Quote Investigator: The complaint that someone is exhibiting “delusions of grandeur” has become a cliché. However, a clever modification of the phrase was memorably employed by a theater critic who was unhappy with an ostentatious performance:

The actor was suffering from delusions of adequacy.

Would you please reveal the name of the critic and the performer?

Quote Investigator: In 1951 the Pulitzer-winning drama critic Walter F. Kerr writing in the “New York Herald Tribune” reviewed a play on Broadway called “Buy Me Blue Ribbons”. Kerr noted that the main actor in the production had recently been dismissed from another key position, and the thespian’s reaction was eccentric: 1

Jay Robinson producer and virtually star of “Buy Me Blue Ribbons,” is a young man of twenty-one who was last season dispossessed of a leading role in a play which he had himself financed. Mr. Robinson is apparently not bitter about this. He has had Sumner Locke Elliott write a play for him a comedy about a young man who is similarly thrown out of his own production, and he is offering it, for his mortification and for ours, at the Empire Theatre.

Kerr’s critical judgement was harsh, and he employed the phrase under investigation to lambaste Robinson. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

Mr. Robinson is not up to the course he has set for himself. In the play, the character concludes by giving up his dreams of overnight stardom and deciding to learn his trade from the bottom up. All Mr. Robinson can honestly do now is to take his own advice. At the moment, he is suffering from delusions of adequacy.

The passage above contained the earliest instance located by QI; hence, Kerr was probably responsible for its coinage.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Suffering from Delusions of Adequacy


  1. 1951 October 18, New York Herald Tribune, The Theaters: Won’t Win Any Ribbons by Walter F. Kerr, Note: “Walter F. Kerr, drama critic of “The Commonweal,” will be the guest critic of the Herald Tribune during the fall season”, (Review of the play “Buy Me Blue Ribbons”), Quote Page 20, New York, New York. (ProQuest)

What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent and What Is Urgent Is Seldom Important

Dwight D. Eisenhower? John Le Carré? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular time management scheme called the Eisenhower Decision Principle or the Eisenhower Matrix which is named after U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Every task is evaluated based on two axes: important/unimportant and urgent/not urgent. There are different rules for each type of task. For example, if a task is urgent but unimportant then it should be delegated to someone else.

The inspiration for the method comes from a saying attributed to the famous military and civilian leader. Here are two versions:

(1) What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

(2) Most things which are urgent are not important, and most things which are important are not urgent.

I haven’t been able to determine when this was said by Eisenhower. Would you please examine this adage?

Quote Investigator: In 1954 Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and delivered an address to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches. He spoke a version of the adage, but he did not claim credit for it. Instead, he attributed the words to an unnamed “former college president”. In the following excerpt Eisenhower used the phrase “President Miller” while referring to Dr. J. Roscoe Miller who was the President of Northwestern University. Note that Eisenhower was not ascribing the saying to Miller who was a current president and not a former president. Boldface has been added: 1

Now, my friends of this convocation, there is another thing we can hope to learn from your being with us. I illustrate it by quoting the statement of a former college president, and I can understand the reason for his speaking as he did. I am sure President Miller can.

This President said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Now this, I think, represents a dilemma of modern man. Your being here can help place the important before us, and perhaps even give the important the touch of urgency. And you can strengthen our faith that men of goodwill, working together, can solve the problems confronting them.

The above citation is the earliest relevant evidence known to QI. This instance of the expression did not use a qualifier such as “seldom” or “most”. But the next citation suggests that at least one listener added the word “seldom” to his memory of the remark.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent and What Is Urgent Is Seldom Important


  1. Website: The American Presidency Project, Speech delivered by: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Speech number: 204, Title: Address at the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, Location: Evanston, Illinois, Date: August 19, 1954, Website description: The American Presidency Project was established in 1999 as a collaboration between John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Archives contain 104,855 documents related to the study of the Presidency. (Accessed on May 8, 2014) link

Don’t Just Do Something; Stand There

Elvis Presley? Dwight D. Eisenhower? The White Rabbit? Clint Eastwood? Martin Gabel? Adlai Stevenson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some humorous quotations are created by cleverly transforming prosaic expressions. Most people are familiar with the exhortation:

Don’t just stand there, do something.

However, occasionally inaction is preferable, and the following rearranged sentence has been employed:

Don’t just do something, stand there.

I have seen these words attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower, Clint Eastwood, and Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit. Any idea who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in the popular syndicated gossip column of Leonard Lyons in 1945. The phrase was used by an actor and producer named Martin Gabel: 1

At the first rehearsal of Irwin Shaw’s play, “The Assassin,” Producer Martin Gabel noticed a young actress gesticulating wildly instead of remaining motionless. Gabel shouted: “Don’t just do something; stand there.”

This quip has been used by many people over the years including politician Adlai Stevenson and Hollywood star Clint Eastwood.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Don’t Just Do Something; Stand There


  1. 1945 August 31, Amarillo Daily News, The Lyon’s Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Amarillo, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

Things Are More Like They Are Now Than They Have Ever Been

Dwight D. Eisenhower? Gerald Ford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: President Dwight D. Eisenhower is commonly credited with making a comical statement that is almost a tautology. Here are a few different versions of his supposed remark:

Things are more like they are right now than they ever have been.
Things are more like they are now than they ever were before.
Things have never been more like the way they are today in history.

Oddly, President Gerald Ford is credited with making the same remark. Did they both make this nonsensical comment? Could you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this expression located by QI was printed in 1948 in a classified advertisement for real estate in an Amarillo, Texas newspaper. The words were ascribed to “some crazy guy” and that label was also used as the title of the advertisement: 1 2

Stuck his head in our office door and said!!! Things are more like they are right now than they ever have been. (Silly, wasn’t it?) but not any sillier than the idea that some people have about waiting a year to buy a $10,000 home for $4,000. If things get that cheap you won’t have the money. Remember?

Dwight D. Eisenhower was President of the United States between 1953 and 1961. So this absurdist statement was already in circulation before he started his term of office.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Things Are More Like They Are Now Than They Have Ever Been


  1. 1948 October 21, Amarillo Daily News, (Classified advertisement from Gordon Creamer Realtor), Quote Page 18, Column 7, Amarillo, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1948 October 21, The Amarillo Globe, (Classified advertisement from Gordon Creamer Realtor), Quote Page 22, Column 7, Amarillo, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)