Walter Laqueur was the most influential neoconservative intellectual you may never have heard of. He does not always figure in the roster alongside Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, and other luminaries. But he should; for decades he was one of the most prolific, insightful, and instructive among this list of thinkers and advocates who were defined by their concerns about naïveté (and worse) at home and gathering threats abroad.

Like some other American intellectuals of his generation, Laqueur was a refugee from foreign turmoil. He was born and raised in Breslau in eastern Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland), and starting at the age of 11, he navigated the increasingly fraught life of German Jews under Nazi rule. He emigrated alone, late in the game, in 1938, dodging a threat that his parents did not survive. He made his way to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he did some further schooling, picked up languages like Arabic and Russian along the way, and began work as a journalist.

But he quickly became an essayist and researcher who was a better fit with academia. Not all academics agreed. Because Laqueur never had a settled enough life to earn advanced degrees (and possibly not the patience either), some university faculties resisted hiring him. But Tel Aviv University and then Brandeis and finally Georgetown embraced him.

Instead of the one research specialty to which scholars tend to apply themselves, he eventually developed a number of them: Russia, totalitarianism, political violence, the Arab-Israel conflict, Jewish culture and politics, Zionism, 20th-century European society and politics, and U.S. foreign policy. From his pen would flow an impossibly large volume of work on these subjects.

In London, he founded two academic journals, one on modern history and the other on foreign policy and international affairs. The pairing nicely sums up what he made his daily work: bringing modern history to bear on international issues and debates. He did so to combat the foolishness and error to which people are vulnerable when they are ignorant even of the last few decades of their own history. Laqueur commented in one of his books that “human memory is notoriously frail,” because its knowledge evaporates unless studied, talked about, and taught.

If people weren’t learning the needed history in school or on their own, he would teach it to them in books and magazine articles that dredged up the crucial facts and showed readers their implications. For instance, Europeans habituated to a quarter century of political peace reacted with panic to the terrorism of the 1970s that they considered new and horrifying. Laqueur wrote a string of works calmly noting that terrorism had deep historical roots and was unlikely to destabilize confident democracies. When the ordeals of Vietnam led some to think that well-intended people could craft international rules and organizations that could ensure peace, Laqueur refreshed their memories about similar ventures in the 1920s and 1930s that ended in tragedy. When many of the same people interpreted the leaders of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s in increasingly charitable terms, he analyzed the Soviet story and came to very different conclusions. When the collapse of the USSR in 1990-91 raised hopes that a new Russia might be a good global citizen, Laqueur warned that if the country’s history were any guide, Russians were just as likely to be national chauvinists and authoritarian populists. That proved as prescient as any of his forecasts. Laqueur used history to offer these lessons not because he believed history repeats itself rigidly, but because being ignorant of history is the surest way to repeat the mistakes of our predecessors.

These and other of Laqueur’s warnings have in common a pessimism that he acknowledged, including in the title of one of his books, Reflections of a Veteran Pessimist. This was no doubt partly a product of his personal story. When sympathizers hailed the radical student movements of the 1960s and early 1970s as idealistic and inspirational, he pointed out that the German youth movements of the 1920s were idealistic but also malevolent. He had lost his family, his home city and country, and later even the peculiar pluralistic character of the mandatory Palestine in which he had matured. He knew a huge number of people who had died violently. It would have been hard to maintain simple optimism through all that.

But by the same standard—he survived, after all—his pessimism was not a sense of doom. He worried that Western Europe was a region in decay, with a gaping chasm between its economic might and its political mousiness. But he drew strength from the élan and vitality he detected in the United States, Israel, and other places. He just believed those energies would prosper in a society that was clear-eyed and levelheaded. He wrote about the “West in retreat” not because he thought retreat inevitable but because he knew it was not, which is why he was part of an effort to rally the West, starting with its resolve.

Running through his work like a river, most emphatically in the pages of Commentary magazine, was a series of assumptions, lessons, and traits that characterized what came to be called neoconservatism. These included realism about imperfect politics, an appreciation of the scarcity of time and other resources, a conviction that thugs can and should be deterred and that fanatics need to be called out instead of indulged, and a belief that our ideological hopes and dreams should not write checks that human nature cannot cash.

These views led him to vigorously defend liberal democracies. This was not because he romanticized their citizens. He believed corners of the American New Left were more sinister than naïve. He also had no love for right-wingers of the traditional or populist type. And he repeatedly insisted that Israeli Jews were insufficiently attentive to the Palestinian question, from the Mandate period right up through what he considered the ill-advised settlement policy.

If Laqueur is too often overlooked in the roster of the founding generation of neoconservatism, it might be because he deliberately spoke to policy and intellectual elites more than to mass audiences. Maybe, too, it’s because he did not define himself as the world’s greatest expert on any single issue, instead spreading himself thickly across a dozen topics. And maybe it’s because he was not actually a conservative, situated instead in the liberal wing of the movement, along with Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Finally, Laqueur considered himself a European instead of an American. It is symbolic that he shuttled for decades between homes and workplaces in the United States, Britain, and Israel. He once remarked that learning several languages “was one of the side effects of being uprooted.” He was uprooted so much that he never settled into any single identity. That made him unlike, say, Henry Kissinger, who had a thicker accent but a simpler self-conception as an American.

But Laqueur deserves to rank with the greatest intellectuals of his generation. During a dangerous period in Western history he worked furiously to communicate to anyone who would listen the crucial lessons that history can teach us about the international threats we face, what strategies are likely to work in confronting them, what tempting mistakes to avoid along the way, and why an imperfect America is well worth fighting for. Sometimes immigrants see that most clearly.