If Only They Had Listened

Konrad Kellen, Rand Corporation photo, found at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23037957

We have all been told we need to listen more. Perhaps we seek solace in contrasting ourselves to the one we know who talks way too much and listens way too little. However, the Bible doesn’t let us off the hook so easily, instructing us to be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger,” James 1:19 (NASB). 

So, I introduce you to a tale of two men. One is Konrad Kellen and the other is Leon Goure. One would be listened to while the other would be ignored. That choice may have proved unwise as you will see in a few minutes.

In 1913, Konrad Katzenellenbogen (his full last name) was born into privilege to one of the Jewish families that lived near Berlin’s Tiergarten, German for “animal garden.” Konrad’s father was an industrialist while his stepmother was the subject of a painting by Renoir, a friend of the family.

Leon Goure was an immigrant from the Soviet Union. His parents were Menshevicks, otherwise known as the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ party that opposed the Bolsheviks. In the heat of one of Josef Stalin’s purges, the Goure’s escaped with their lives.

Tall, good-looking and charismatic, Konrad had a lot going for him. He was also very intelligent, able to quote from memory large passages of Thucydides. For those who don’t know, Thucydides was a Greek historian and Athenian general who is best known for his work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, the war between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century B.C.”

Also intelligent and charismatic, Leon Goure was known for his charm. Yet he was also described as ruthless. These two men were destined to meet and work on the same project, coming to completely opposite conclusions from one another. As I already mentioned, to one the powers that be would listen and to the other they would turn a deaf ear.

To escape the persecution of the Jews, when Hitler became chancellor in Germany, Kellen packed up, moved out of the country and headed for New York. He didn’t return to his homeland until after World War II was over. His reason for leaving when he did, while so many others stayed to their own peril, was that he had a feeling. Turned out that Hitler wasn’t the only one that Kellen demonstrated remarkable perception concerning.

Upon arriving in the United States, Konrad met Thomas Mann, a Nobel prize-winning author, who also fled Nazi Germany. He became Mann's research assistant. Later, during World War II, he entered military service with the United States Army, where he served as an intelligence officer and was awarded the Legion of Merit.

When the war was over, the U.S. army sent him back to Berlin as a political intelligence officer with the occupation forces. They wished for him to interview German soldiers to find out why they continued to fight for Adolf Hitler even when it became obvious that they were headed for defeat. For Radio Free Europe, he would perform similar work, interviewing defectors of the Iron Curtain to get a sense of what it was like to live under Soviet dominion.

By the 1960’s, he was employed with the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, a well-known and reputable think-tank begun by the Pentagon. There he was a defense-analyst and the worlds of two immigrants would collide: that of Konrad Kellen and Leon Goure.

Leon Goure led a project called the Vietnam Motivation and Morale Project. The project was born out of a problem. Though the United States bombed the North Vietnamese mercilessly, the North Vietnamese never broke from their desire to oppose the United States and help the Viet Cong of South Vietnam. Goure’s project was to figure out what the North Vietnamese were thinking in hopes that such knowledge could win the war in Vietnam.

Saigon was the logical choice for Goure’s research to be based. From there he sent out Vietnamese nationals to interview captured Viet Cong guerrillas. In a few years, Goure’s team accumulated over 61,000 pages of transcripts. These were translated into English and then poured over in an effort to come to a conclusion.

Goure’s conclusion was that the Viet Cong’s morale was terribly low. His interpretation of the research was that they were about to give up. All the big-wigs in Washington needed to do was keep bombing, keep pushing and, before long, the enemy would retreat back to Hanoi and the war would be won.

It seemed that everyone believed Leon Goure. Important people would come to Saigon to listen to Goure inform them about this exotic enemy that they didn’t comprehend but he seemed to understand perfectly well. Military leaders from Washington would seek him out for briefings on the subject. Even President Johnson was rumored to have Goure’s analysis in his pocket. The war would be won, they believed, because Goure said so.

In contrast to the powers that be, Konrad Kellen did not see things the way Goure did. He also poured over the data but came to the opposite view. Like Goure, Kellen read that a Viet Cong captain who was interviewed did not think the Viet Cong could win the war. What Goure failed to see, or at least understand the implications of what he read, was that the same captain said that he didn’t believe the United States would win either. To Kellen, that second answer provided a much needed context to the first answer and to the mindset of a people that so puzzled Westerners. Kellen’s conclusion was that the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese would not be deterred by the U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnam and that made them a very dangerous enemy.

With this observation, Kellen tried to tell people, very important people, that Goure got it all wrong. The enemy wasn’t going to quit, they were far from demoralized and the United States would not win, not today, not tomorrow, not ever. Yet nobody listened.

As the political and military leadership of the United States put its faith in Goure, they became absolutely deaf to reality. Despite detailed reports written by Kellen, the VIP’s of America would raise their glasses in toast to Goure and impending victory even as the war wound on and victory was always outside of arms reach. The years ahead continued to provide evidence that Kellen was right and Goure wrong but the leadership of the United States had itching ears and Goure was the charmer who could and did tell them what they wanted to hear.

It is said that Kellen, who retired to a picturesque location overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Los Angeles, would wake up in the middle of the night in terror. The Nazis were coming for him. It was in Los Angeles that he died on April 8, 2007 at the age of 93 (ironically, Leon Goure died just weeks before on March 16 in Virginia at the age of 84). It was the sad end of a man who may have changed history if someone had listened.

Thank you, Lord, for this great lesson in listening. Too often, our biases filter out the truth and lead to a distorted idea of things and people. We rush to judgment and fail to listen completely. May we not be so smug as to think we understand another people, looking down on them as if we are superior. Keep us humble, Lord, quick to listen, slow to speak and most especially, slow to anger. In the name of Jesus, we pray, Amen.



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