Madmen With Nuclear Codes — An History of Unpredictable Foreign Policy
Richard Nixon’s madman theory increased the risk of nuclear war — and now it has an imitator in Donald Trump
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
Would being officially and strategically unpredictable make America safer? The question, once academic, is now deeply urgent — for one simple reason.
President-elect Donald Trump.
“We have to be unpredictable,” Trump said in April 2016. “We have to be unpredictable, starting now.”
That’s a terrible idea, and we have the data to prove it. Political scientists have actually studied the unpredictability question by modeling the so-called “prisoner’s dilemma.” They used computer algorithms to test the outcome of interactions between two parties that can choose to either cooperate … or betray each other.
One set of simulations found that the most successful strategy was to start out friendly, reciprocate cooperation — and promptly retaliate when betrayed… but without holding a long-term grudge.
In other words, reliability and consistent signaling amount to a safer and more rewarding strategy than inconsistency and aggression do.
Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, however, championed a different school of thought known as “madman theory.” He even persuaded Pres. Richard Nixon to actually apply the theory in the early 1970s.
Nixon’s priority was a peace treaty with Hanoi that would allow him to withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam. Internal memos reveal that Nixon and Kissinger were under no illusion that the South Vietnamese government would survive very long following a American withdrawal. Nixon and Kissinger just wanted a “decent interval” between the U.S. departure and South Vietnam’s collapse.
“Within Vietnam, we must worry the Soviets about the possibility that we are losing our patience and may get out of control,” Kissinger wrote in a March 22, 1969 memo.
“I call it the madman theory, Bob,” Nixon aide Bob Haldeman recalled Nixon saying in his memoir The Ends of Power. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them 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.”
“Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace,” Nixon said, according to Haldeman.
Nixon wanted Soviet leaders to think he was irrational and volatile — and willing to embark upon a self-destructive course of action in single-minded pursuit of his goals. This, Nixon believed, would leave the Soviets no choice but to make concessions … or face mutual destruction.
In October 1969, Nixon placed U.S. forces around the world on alert, initiating a series of maneuvers he intended to scare the Soviet Union. This culminated in Operation Giant Lance on Oct. 27, when Nixon dispatched 18 U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear weapons to circle just outside of Soviet airspace for 36 hours in an attempt to rattle Moscow into pressuring Hanoi to join peace talks.
Nixon did succeed in convincing Soviet ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin that he was mad. “Nixon is unable to control himself even in a conversation with a foreign ambassador,” Dobrynin reported.
But the ploy failed to extract any concessions. So Nixon escalated, launching an illegal bombing campaign targeting Viet Cong positions in Cambodia.
When India and Pakistan went to war in 1971, Nixon again tried to demonstrate his “madness” — this time by sending an aircraft carrier group to the Bay of Bengal. He hoped to impress China and pressure the Soviet Union into making India back off.
Again, the Soviets called Nixon’s bluff.
The Vietnam War still raged in May 1972 when Nixon instructed Kissinger to convey to Dobrynin that Nixon was ready to “destroy the God-damn country [Vietnam], believe me — I mean destroy it, if necessary. And let me say, even [use] the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn’t necessary, but you know, what I mean, that shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go.”
Kissinger agreed. “The more reckless we appear, the better,” he said, “because after all, Mr. President, what we’re trying to convince them of is that we are ready to go all the way.”
The United States and North Vietnam signed the Paris Peace Accords in December 1972, resulting in a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam. Nixon and Kissinger considered their madman theory to be successful, although in fact there is little evidence that it affected Moscow’s decision-making.
Twenty-eight months later, North Vietnamese troops captured Saigon.
Today North Korea and Russia both pursue versions of Nixon and Kissiner’s madman strategy. Pyongyang oscillates wildly between peace overtures, nuclear threats and acts of overt conventional military aggression such as its artillery bombardment of Yeongpyeong Island in 2010.
In a speech on Jan. 11, 2016, Trump expressed his grudging admiration for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “If you look at North Korea — this guy, he’s like a maniac, okay?” Trump said. “And you have to give him credit. How many young guys — he was like 26 or 25 when his father died — take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden — you know, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it.”
“How does he do that?” Trump continued. “Even though it is a culture and it’s a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss. It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin is also known for his doctrine of strategic ambiguity. Under Putin, Russian troops seized Ukraine’s Crimea region and intervened in the civil war in Syria with little forewarning. Putin has also deployed intermediate-range nuclear-capable missiles near Poland, promulgated a doctrine of using nuclear weapons as a “de-escalatory” move and has threatened the vulnerable Baltic states.
Putin’s boldness has drawn Trump’s praise. “He’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said when the hosts of Morning Joe asked him about the killing of journalists in Russia.
But the madman theory is problematic. First, if a country’s leader is inconsistent or exaggerates, adversaries and allies won’t be able to tell when a genuine crisis is at hand.
Consider North Korea, which trafficks in hyperbolic threats, troop-mobilizations and nuclear and ballistic missile tests. These do increase tensions and sometimes provoke military responses from Seoul and Washington, but North Korea has yet to extract any major concessions as a result of its strategy.
Pyongyang’s provocations have become so routine that outside observers might have a hard time telling if the North Korean regime really were ready to go to war.
The reverse reaction could be even worse. An adversary may misinterpret aggressive, erratic moves as indications of an imminent attack — and launch a preemptive strike.
In his first term in office, Pres. Ronald Reagan’s significantly heightened tensions with the Soviet Union. In 1983, NATO held one of its most ambitious military exercises ever. Able Archer involved simulated nuclear attacks that, from the Soviet perspective, were hard to distinguish from the real thing.
Alarmed by the coded signals traffic, the Soviets wondered if the war game might in fact be cover for a NATO attack. Moscow mobilized its own nuclear forces in response, bringing the powers the closest they’d been to nuclear war since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
In 1967, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser troops deployed forces along the Israeli border and closed the straits of Tiran. Anticipating an Egyptian attack, Israel launched the devastating preemptive attack, seizing the remainder of the Sinai Peninsula and the West Bank — the so-called Six-Day War.
Decades later, there’s still no consensus on whether either side had initially intended for tensions to escalate into a full-scale war. Some sources, including the memoirs of Israeli leaders, suggest that Nasser ordered the mobilization simply to drum up domestic political support. A miscalculated provocation may have radically redrawn the map of the Middle East.
Acting recklessly to achieve short-term objectives can jeopardize a country’s long-term interests by convincing adversaries and allies alike of its unreliability.
North Korea’s erratic politics has left it economically isolated and impoverished, locked in perpetual conflict with South Korea and increasingly at odds with its long-time ally China. Putin’s incursions into Ukraine have triggered crippling sanctions that have forced the Russian economy into recession.
Bold moves without regard for consequences can result in short-term victories that incur terrible long-term costs. Clear communication, consistency and cool-headed leadership are particularly important when it comes to nuclear arms.
Many people assume that the political and technical safeguards against nuclear war are ironclad — simply because no one has actually used atomic weaponry since World War II. In fact, history is punctuated by frequent nuclear close-calls. Devastating atomic warfare remains chillingly possible.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, U.S. military leaders urged Kennedy to authorize air strikes on Soviet ballistic missile sites in Cuba. It was later discovered that Soviet troops in Cuba had more than a hundred tactical nuclear weapons at their disposal — and which they were authorized to fire in response to an American attack.
Had Kennedy simply followed the unanimous advice of his generals, Florida might be an irradiated wasteland today.
Meanwhile, Cuban leader Fidel Castro had grown so convinced a U.S. invasion was inevitable that he asked the Soviets to launch a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States. Fortunately, Khrushchev saw things differently.
As the crisis ground on, Soviet submarine B-59 lost communication with Moscow. U.S. ships surrounded her and dropped a signaling depth charge. Assuming war had broken out, the captain and political officer of the sub authorized the launch of a nuclear torpedo at the American ships.
Only the veto of a higher-ranking of officer who wasn’t a regular member of the crew prevented World War III from erupting in the Caribbean.
On Sept. 26, 1983 — shortly before the Able Archer exercises — Soviet early-warning satellites reported the launch of five ballistic missiles from the United States. In fact, the “missiles” were merely sunlight reflecting off of high-altitude clouds. The only thing that prevented a retaliatory strike by the Soviets was the cool-headed assessment of a colonel named Stanislav Petrov.
In 1979 and 1980, the North American air-defense system also malfunctioned, causing it to falsely report nuclear attacks. In 1995, a missile arcing toward Moscow compelled Russian president Boris Yeltsin to open the briefcase with the nuclear codes — and ready his submarines to launch a retaliatory strike on the United States. The missile turned out to be a Norwegian scientific rocket.
Only the level-headed judgment of soldiers and national leaders prevented these incidents from triggering apocalypse. Does Trump seem level-headed? Consider his Twitter wars with Fox News host Megan Kelly, Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan and former Miss Universe Alicia Machado.
Rather than letting go of their justified criticisms of him, Trump escalated the spats with insults on social media.
Trump’s impulsiveness didn’t cost him electoral votes on election day. However, the United States could pay a price — an existential one — if the president-elect responds to some international crisis the same way he responds to minor irritations in the media.
A madman might make for entertaining tweets. But we cannot trust such a person with America’s foreign policy. Or its nukes.