Richard Nixon sent 18 bombers, loaded with thermonuclear payloads, to threaten the borders of the Soviet Union. They flew aggressive patterns for three days. For Nixon had an idea. He called it his “Madman Theory.” And he believed it could win, or at least end, a war in Vietnam that had stretched nearly five years. “I want the North Vietnamese [and their Soviet backers] to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war,” Nixon told his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman. According to his “Madman Theory,” if the Soviets and the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh thought Nixon crazy enough to start a total nuclear war, Nixon believed he could scare Ho into a peace deal.
Lest we think the “Madman Theory” a dangerous anachronism that died with the trials of Richard Millhouse Nixon, an apparent, new pair of adherents are just weeks away from moving into the West Wing. President-elect Donald J. Trump’s controversial chief strategist Steve Bannon recently spelled out Nixon’s theory to a tee. Bannon preached that the key to besting one’s opponents is instability and the threat of malice. You must keep your adversaries off-balance so that they cannot predict how far you will go, to what extreme you might act, how mad you might be. “Darkness is Good,” Bannon pontificated in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter. “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power. It only helps us when they (liberals) get it wrong. When they’re blind to who we are and what we’re doing [only then do we gain true power over our enemies.]” Nixon couldn’t have said it better himself. Or perhaps worse.
Trump agreed most pithily with his advisor. As he told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, “I want to be unpredictable.” And to the New York Times, “there’s such, total predictability of this country, and it’s one of the reasons we do so poorly.” He continued, “the problem we have is…democracy…[W]e have to be so open.” He didn’t want China “to know what my real thinking is.” Like Nixon, Trump prefers “secret plans.”
For most of the Cold War, the assumption among the American people was that the superpowers aimed for more predictability in international relations. The idea was that war would be less likely if each superpower knew how and why the other was acting. In 1963 a direct “hotline” was set up between the White House and the Kremlin for just such purpose. Honest relations bred trust. And trust bred peace. The Soviets would be less likely to act belligerently if they knew in advance the mighty deterrence the United States had in store.
As Ronald Reagan once asked the American people, “just suppose with me for a moment that an Ivan and an Anya could find themselves, oh, say, in a waiting room, or sharing a shelter from the rain or a storm with a Jim and Sally, and there was no language barrier to keep them from getting acquainted…Before they parted company, they would probably have touched on ambitions and hobbies and what they wanted for their children…They might even have decided they were all going to get together for dinner some evening soon. Above all, they would have proven that people don’t make wars.”
But by acting unmoored, Nixon believed he could succeed where his predecessor had tragically failed. To complete his bomber plan, to end the Vietnam War, Nixon told his chief of staff that “we’ll just slip the word to [the Soviets and Vietnamese] that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button.” Nixon promised that “Ho Chi Minh himself w[ould] be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”
Ho and the Soviets didn’t flinch. The plan that Nixon had named Giant Lance went nowhere, and Nixon recalled the 18 bombers, having been willing to dangle the threat of Armageddon, to play the “madman,” but not to act on it. Instead, he began to shift toward incremental withdrawal and “Vietnamization” of the war.
Nixon may have been its first high-level adherent, but he did not invent the “Madman Theory.” It was in the air in the late-1950s as prevailing minds in American foreign policy debated the utility of and necessary abstention from nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In an earlier form President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles called for “brinksmanship” and a deterrence of “massive retaliation.” The ambiguity that would be at the heart of the “Madman Theory” lay implicitly in the question of how Eisenhower would react to Soviet aggression. Would he really one-up his opponent with “massive retaliation,” escalate his response, cross the Rubicon and order an all-out nuclear war?
A group of strategists including the Nobel Prize-Winner in Economics Thomas Schelling and Nixon’s National Security Advisor and future-key-confidant Henry Kissinger gathered to debate the merits of “ambiguity” in the new field of game theory and international relations. They mainly studied or worked at Harvard and the Rand Corporation. They became known as the “whiz kids” of the nuclear age. Schelling called their field the “strategy of conflict.” They debated such dilemmas as whether “the Soviets [would] be more [or less] likely to attack Western Europe if [the US] kept missiles there or if [they] didn’t.”
Kissinger scoffed at Eisenhower’s “massive retaliation” strategy. Would Ike really break the “nuclear taboo” if the Soviets fed arms to Communist insurgents in the Philippines? While the Americans remained bound to their giant nuclear deterrent, the Reds would undertake “salami tactics,” Kissinger believed, carving out slices from the Americans’ sphere. The Americans, armed only with one option, “massive retaliation,” would be paralyzed to act against relatively trivial Soviet tactics.
Eschewing “massive retaliation,” John F. Kennedy’s administration adopted a strategy of “flexible response.” It was pragmatic. Act small against a threat that was small; respond with force against a larger opponent. The “Madman Theory” was a reaction to the predictability and stability of this doctrine of proportional force. To coerce peace, to retain a respected deterrence, for true intimidation, Kissinger explained to one Defense Department official, “the other side…[must] think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further.” Nixon and Kissinger played on the cliff’s edge. One could not judge grand strategy from sheer madness.
And now, in Trump, we seem to have a new adherent. He takes telephone calls from the president of Taiwan without consulting the State Department. He blasts tweets regarding unsubstantiated, mass voter fraud. He invites Kanye West to meet him at Trump Towers. He preaches “America First” to thousands at his rallies. Has he lost it, or does it all fit in one master plan? Is he the grand strategist, following in the footsteps of Nixon and Kissinger, or is he an irresponsible political naïf who can’t control his unhinged excesses?
Perhaps Trump wants to upend the United State’s relationship with China as he has been advised to do so by Senator-turned-Presidential-candidate-turned-Taiwanese-lobbyist Robert Dole. Or perhaps Trump does not understand the ramifications of cozying up to the Taiwanese for a little business favor. Perhaps he is a master tactician, using his trail of loony tweets and outlandish accusations to distract the media from what could be a maelstrom brewing over his international business conflicts of interest. Or perhaps Trump is truly a mad-tweeter, unable to control himself, sending out missives before his staff can convince him otherwise. Trump has left us with the fundamental question: is he a “madman” or a mad man?
Maybe he hob-knobs with celebrities like Kanye in order to get a beat on the millennial generation. Or maybe he is scratching an itch, a pathological insecurity, aching for attention and adulation, wasting precious hours of his transition to try to prove that he is a part of a glitterati who so long rejected him.
Trump may be play-acting the racist, chanting “America, First” at rallies to woo white supremacists while having no intention of furthering their cause. Or he may harbor the maniacal bigotry contained within the sloganeering. (Or perhaps either is too generous an interpretation. Perhaps he does not understand the incendiary with which he plays. Perhaps he does not even know the history of “America First,” Charles Lindbergh, the isolationist, the anti-Semitic, the fascist and pro-Nazi movement of 800,000 members who joined together in the run-up to World War II.)
Trump even has a direct connection to Nixon in Roger Stone. Stone, a Nixon operative, “Watergate dirty trickster” and former partner of Lee Atwater has acted as an informal confidant and part-time conciliary to Trump for 36 years. Like Trump, he prefers New York, dye jobs and spreading scandalous rumors to eliminate his opponents. Like Bannon, he gets a thrill from his nickname the “Prince of Darkness.” (His lobbying firm represented Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos.)
Stone prefers the “Nixonian hardball” to “Sunny Reaganism.”
Stone also purportedly quit (or was fired, depending on the account) over Trump’s slandering Megyn Kelly, Politico reported in August. Stone warned against the name-calling campaign tactic, but Trump only escalated his attacks. Trump had gone too far even for Stone who bristled that “Trump’s campaign was feeding his bad habits: megalomania and peevishness.” Finally Stone believed Trump had gone beyond the theory of the madman. “He is losing his grip on reality,” Stone told close confidants. “He has these yes-men around him. And now he’s living in a parallel world.” (Not to worry, Stone and Trump have broken up with great sturm und drang before, and they always find a way to break bread again.)
It was Joseph McCarthy’s infamous henchman Roy Cohn who introduced Stone to Trump. And now Stone has connected Trump with Alex Jones, the scandal-mongering firebrand who promotes conspiracy theories on his radio and web-streaming program. From his perch in Austin, Jones airs his show in a “semi-secret location” that he calls “The Central Texas Command Center and the Heart of the Resistance.” The Washington Post names Jones “America’s foremost purveyor of outlandish conspiracy theories.” He calls the elementary-school shooting in Newtown, CT a “hoax” and proselytizes that the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11th attacks were carried out by the United States government. To great success, he sold “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts. “It’s not that Jews are bad,” Jones explains. “It’s just that they are the head of the Jewish mafia in the United States.”
A year ago, in the midst of the Republican primary, Trump gave a half-hour interview to the Alex Jones Show. The two hit it off over their determination that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the September 11th attack. Stone imagines that Jones can act as the liaison between his unruly followers and the Trump presidency, a “valuable asset—somebody [who can]… rally the people around President Trump’s legislative program.” Scheming and spinning a web of dirty tricks, Stone carries the Nixonian torch. Nixon liked to play with fire. But in Jones, Trump may not realize, he’s not playing. In Jones, Trump has found himself a real, authentic madman.
There is a hubris buried at the heart of the “Madman Theory”. At its core, the “madman” must consider himself the wiser man, confident enough to outwit his opponent while maintaining supreme control as he minutely gauges the risk of his perilous behavior. What is more, both the key and the conundrum of the theory is the difficulty for onlookers to determine whether the “madman” persona is an act for strategic advantage or if the actor is truly mad. In 1969, was Nixon playing a part when he sent those 18 bombers? Or was he truly unmoored from reality to take such a chance on nuclear war? Even at the time opinion was split.
In 1969-70 Nixon expanded his secret bombing in Cambodia. It was another example of his employment of his “Madman Theory”. Nixon instructed Kissinger to tell the North Vietnamese that if they didn’t sue for peace, the president would “take measures of the greatest consequence” (i.e. go nuclear). Ho called Nixon’s bluff, and the war continued. While we do not have exact figures, approximately 6,000 Cambodian civilians died because of Nixon’s failed ruse. It is a lesson for Trump. For when one acts madly, mad acts tend to ensue.
– Zachary Jonathan Jacobson, PhD