Some historical figures are remembered for their actions (Alexander of Macedon, Napoleon), while others are remembered for their intent (Charles de Gaulle). Which historical figures are remembered for consequences that contradict their intent?

For instance, one could argue that Hitler is responsible for the establishment of a modern-day Jewish homeland in the Holy Land. That certainly was not his intent, but he did much more to further that goal then Theodor Herzl or Haim Weizmann ever did. However, we do not traditionally celebrate Hitler for this accomplishment. Which historical figures are celebrated (or hated) for an accomplishment that was contradictory to their intention?

  • I suppose we ought to exclude people remembered for failures? Otherwise, there'd be a whole host of people who led their armies to defeat.
    – lins314159
    Jul 16, 2012 at 9:45
  • Are there people who we remember for their failures? Tesla, maybe?
    – dotancohen
    Jul 16, 2012 at 10:27
  • Your point about Hitler is highly debatable. Had there not been a Holocaust, there would have been 6 millions more Jews - that would have also been helpful for the establishment of Israel. Dec 8, 2012 at 0:59

6 Answers 6


Nixon is of course known for Watergate.

Benedict Arnold is known for his betrayal.

Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with the intent of dominating the Middle East in the name of Arab nationalism and Islam. He believed the US would not wish to get involved. Yet, it united the UN including Egypt and Syria against him, leading to his defeat. Instead of being renown for bringing forth Arab nationalism, his actions set forth a chain of events which eventually would not only lead to his own end but the ends of fellow Arab nationalists.

Marie Antoinette is a perfect example. With France in decline, the king became depressed from the pressure, and she became more involved in the politics partly to help ensure a future for her children in the French monarchy. Yet nearly every thing she tried to do resulted in the opposite. She was an easy target for rumor and criticism and as a result she is remembered today for things which historically she didn't do and didn't say. And ultimately not only did her children not rule, but the monarchy itself was abolished.

My favorite though is Hippias, the last tyrant of Athens. He was so disliked that his opponents invented Democracy in order to avoid someone like him becoming the dictator.

  • Thank you. Despite the hoover*-isms, I don't think that today we associate Hoover with poverty. As for Dewey, I don't think that "Dewey defeats Truman" quite makes him memorable, nor memorable for reasons other than what he intended. Nixon is borderline, and as for Hussein what intentions of his do you suspect that were misinterpreted or misrepresented? Benedict Arnold was quite the traitor due to spite, so his reputation is deserved. Regarding Marie Antoinette, like Hussein, what intentions do you suspect as forgotten today? Please elaborate! Thanks.
    – dotancohen
    Jul 16, 2012 at 10:54
  • I agree with dotancohen here, Saddam Hussein was the leader of Iraq but known for the Iraq War? I link that to GWB, so I disagree with you there. Dewey defeats Truman is more a mark on newspapers not getting their facts right, ask many people who Dewey is and they can't tell you. I think you could rework this a bit more to make it an appropriate answer worth an upvote.
    – MichaelF
    Jul 16, 2012 at 12:15
  • @MichaelF, keep in mind that GWB wasn't even president when Hussein invaded Kuwait.
    – Joe
    Jul 16, 2012 at 19:29
  • 1
    The paragraph on Hussein seems dead on to me. However, I'd probably need some more convincing that Hussein was motivated cheifly by Arab nationalisim and not his desire for personal power. The international Baath Party certianly isn't doing so hot these days.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 16, 2012 at 20:06
  • @Joe The way the answer is now I'd agree, GWB was president when the US invaded Iraq the Elder Bush was President when the US only went into Kuwait to remove the Iraqi Troops.
    – MichaelF
    Jul 17, 2012 at 10:07

I'd put forth Lyndon Johnson, 38th President of the United States.

His primary objectives coming into office were progress in Civil Rights, and the eradication of poverty in the USA.

He did actually manage to get the Civil Rights Act passed, and did some good work on poverty. However, he then got sidetracked by the escalating fiasco in Vietnam, so his poverty program never really got off the ground. Even most Civil Rights leaders ended up railing against him over the war. It became so unpopular, he didn't even bother running for a second term.

Today he's cheifly known for the Vietnam war. His anti-poverty campaign is almost completely fogotten. Even those who give him a little credit for the Civil Rights Act generally proceed to mention how passage of it nearly destroyed his party. Before Johnson, the South used to vote solidly for Democrats. After the Civil Rights Act, the entire South deserted the Democrats, and Republicans held the White House for 20 of the next 24 years.

If we just look at his poverty goals, he perhaps was successful during his tenure. However, the fact that later presidents didn't share his goals had effects that can be easily seen on a simple graph.

enter image description here (You could make various cases for various blips, but the overall trend is clearly a turn-around of the previous downward trend into an upward trend)

  • Thank you, this is rather interesting. It also demonstrates a flaw in my question, which shall be the basis of another question if I can't google it. Thank you T.E.D., your answers are always informative.
    – dotancohen
    Jul 16, 2012 at 16:00
  • 2
    Of course it was simply the fact that LBJ cared and the following presidents didn't. Let's ignore the fact that poverty has multiple and complicated causes, or that many economists argue that "War on Poverty"'s methods are long-term negative (promotion of permanent welfare families and most importantly, single motherhood in poor strata which is super strongly correllated to negative long term outcomes); or that USA's definition of "poverty" basically includes people whose absolute level of life is far above that enjoyed by most Soviet citizens materially.
    – DVK
    Jul 21, 2012 at 9:23
  • @DVK or by most middle class people in the EU, not a poor area at all...
    – jwenting
    Jan 29, 2013 at 7:08
  • @jwenting - give EU another couple of years and it'll be a poor area as well. Sooner or later Merkel will run out of bailout money.
    – DVK
    Jan 29, 2013 at 7:12
  • @DVK or else Hollande will be elected president for life and use it all to build himself a new Versaille, yes, sadly.
    – jwenting
    Jan 29, 2013 at 7:14

General Dyer thought that the Amritsar massacre would secure British rule in India for a long time. Instead, it contributed a lot towards shortening that rule.


This question is missing the most obvious - to my mind - answer: Mikhail Gorbachev! He was the last General Secretary of the USSR, and introduced the policies of glasnost and perestroika.

His goal was to arrest and reverse the backslide of the Soviet economy, but increased liberalization just took the lid off the brouhaha brewing underneath all the repression. Just 6 years after he came into power, the USSR disintegrated and the Cold War ended.


On 9 Nov 1989, Günter Schabowski intended to announce an easing of restrictions on travel between East and West Germany. These were intended to ease growing tensions and demands for greater freedoms in East Germany.

However, due to confusion and inept handling, he mistakenly told people that all restrictions would end immediately. Unprepared and uninformed border guards were overwhelmed by the numbers of people who wanted to cross over. This led the end of restrictions, the fall of the Berlin Wall and ultimately the end of his own government and the East German regime.


Narasimhavarman Pallavan 1- South Indian King (Great Wrestler)

Rajendra Cholan 1 - South Indian King (Built up great navy and Conquered almost south east Asia 1014CE)

Raja Raja Cholan 1 - South Indian King (Father of Rajendra Chola 1 - introduced voting system in villages to select the village leaders )

  • Thank you, my Indian history is rather lacking. I'm reading the Wikipedia articles now, but why do you suppose that these kings are known for things that are contradictory to their intentions?
    – dotancohen
    Jul 16, 2012 at 13:16
  • pallava kings were Buddhist. The buddhist monk Bodhidharma who created zen buddhism was belonged to pallava dynasty. They wanted to spread buddhism all over the country. But later pallava changed their religion to Hinduism.Now every one thinks that they were hindu kings.And they almost forget their intention towards Buddhism.
    – Veera Raj
    Jul 17, 2012 at 5:15
  • Thank you Veeraraj. Are these kings well-known to the common Indian today? If I mention them to an Indian could I reasonable expect them to be familiar with these kings? Thanks!
    – dotancohen
    Jul 17, 2012 at 14:14
  • 1
    hmm. probably you should ask only to south Indians. For information about mohalaya kings, Rajputh kings you should go for north indian.
    – Veera Raj
    Jul 17, 2012 at 16:00
  • Welcome dotancohen..:)
    – Veera Raj
    Jul 17, 2012 at 20:05

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