Return of the Madman Theory?

Tom Warwick

“I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. 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” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace” – President Richard Nixon

On October 10th 1969, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff informed military commanders around the world that they were directed “by higher authority” to increase US military readiness “to respond to possible confrontations with the Soviet Union” (Sagan and Suri, 2003).  Almost immediately all combat training missions were canceled and B-52 bombers armed with nuclear weapons were placed on high alert.  Two weeks later, on October 27th, a series of these bombers, armed with thermonuclear weapons were ordered to fly oval patterns towards the Soviet Union on “eighteen hour vigils” over the North Pole (Sagan and Suri, 2003). The point of these missions was to covertly send a message to the Soviet Union: the President of the United States was a Madman and you can never be certain about how far he might be willing to go.

The events of October 1969 were the opening salvo to what President Richard Nixon referred to as “the Madman Theory.” At the time, the United States was bogged down in an unpopular, and seemingly unwinnable, war in Vietnam.  Nixon, who had campaigned on a promise to end the war, was becoming desperate for a way out. The Madman Theory, as he described it to Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman was his answer. He believed that it would be politically advantageous to appear irrational because if other nations believe your government is prone to impulsive violence they are more likely to behave passively towards that government in hopes of avoiding provocation.  Nixon hoped that by convincing the Soviets that he would do the unthinkable to end  the war, that it would result in the USSR prompting the Vietcong to the negotiating table. However, the theory did not play out as Nixon would have liked.  Rather than rushing to the negotiating table the Vietcong’s leadership entered a state of diplomatic paralysis and forced Nixon to continue to take increasingly aggressive steps, including the indiscriminate bombings of Cambodia and Laos. In the end Nixon got lucky.  The Soviets and Vietcong agreed to restart peace talks, but the aggressive steps Nixon took could have just as easily led to a nuclear first-strike from a frightened Soviet Union.

In the years following the end of the Cold War, the Madman theory has come to be adopted by states such as Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya.  Gaddafi built a reputation for eccentricity through actions like traveling with an all-female security detail, pushing for the abolition of Switzerland, and claiming that his country was “self-managed by the people” when in fact his security forces were quick to crush any hint of dissent. Gaddafi’s antics even earned him the nickname “Mad Dog of the Middle East.” Despite this outwards appearance of madness, Gaddafi was as calculating a political operative as they come.  He was a “conspirator” who thought it important that “nobody could guess what he could do next.” He exploited his unpredictability to keep his enemies off balance, and reportedly survived numerous plots and assassination attempts to become one of the longest-serving rulers in the world until his death in 2011.

Today, it seems like the Madman theory might once again be making its way into the Oval Office. US President Donald Trump seems to have adopted, if not all, some similar elements of the theory. During the campaign, not unlike Nixon, President Trump made it a point to highlight his “secret plan to defeat ISIS.” A position that, assuming there is a plan, keeps our allies and enemies guessing as to what could be involved; allowing each to imagine their own worst case scenario and complicating their own rational creation of strategy to react. Trump has also developed an almost Gaddafi-like reputation for not giving a damn about traditions, expectations, or stepping (stomping?) on the toes of world leaders, including our allies. His diplomacy by tweet has resulted in a questioning of the “one China” policy, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Japan, and a will-they-or-won’t-they on Chapter 11 NATO commitments.  The result of this is having much of the same effect as Nixon’s strategy: no one quite knows what Trump will do in any situation.

While there is still doubt as to whether or not Trump’s behavior is part of a grand strategy, or just what happens when someone with limited (no) experience is suddenly catapulted into our nation’s highest office, the Madman Theory of diplomacy is as risky a bet today as it was in Nixon’s time.  In international relations it is important that all actors know exactly how to interpret the actions of the other players. When you act unpredictably, the other side never know what is considered acceptable and you lose the most fundamental outcome of diplomacy: clear guidance.  Without this guidance the rules of the game are blurred and it becomes that much easier to unintentionally cross some war-provoking red line without even realizing it.  Trump’s actions may be a Machiavellian plot to pursue an America-first realpolitik agenda, or he might just be an idiot.  At this point, we have no idea, and I guess that’s the point.

Print Sources:

Sagan, Scott D., and Jeremi Suri. “The Madman Nuclear Alert: Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969.” Quarterly Journal: International Security, vol. 27. no. 4. (Spring 2003): 150-183

Photo Credit: The Washington Post

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