Nixon’s MadMan Theory – So Crazy it Just Might Work. UPDATE: It Didn’t
During the midst of the Cold War, the decades long tension between the US and Russia, President Richard Nixon came up with a foreign policy idea that some would call reckless and others would call…mad.
It was deemed MadMan theory (1969-1974) and here’s how it works. The US would start feeding lies to the Soviet Union and the North Vietnamese, that Nixon was unstable. He was mad-as-a-hatter, had his finger on the nuclear button, and would not take anymore Communist aggression – even if it meant WWIII – and the loss of millions of lives. If this sounds like a bridge-too-far for a US President, you’d be in the majority opinion.
“I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that 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 is 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 Nixon
Despite putting the US military on high alert for 3 days in October of 1969 (why is it always October with these things?) and flying B52’s in provocative flight patterns near the Russian border – no one blinked. Even Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was feeding lies about the President around the world; stating that the invasion of Cambodia was a byproduct of his instability, and that he would nuke North Vietnam even if he knew the Russians and Chinese would retaliate. But it was unconvincing, because even he had doubts…
“However, it may have precisely the contrary effect; it may give rise to the notion that we do not intend to resist at all and thus encourage aggression.” – Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State
Ultimately, Madman didn’t work. Historian Michael Sherry put it best,
“First, while he would pretend to be willing to pay any price to achieve his goals, his opponents actually were willing to pay any price to achieve theirs. Second, Nixon had the misfortune to preside over a democracy growing weary and increasingly critical of the struggle.” – Michael Sherry, Historian
The idea itself was sound. By being unpredictable the Russians might no longer understand the “rules,” and would begin to feel vulnerable. Former President Eisenhower practiced a version of MadMan in the 1950’s, known as the “Uncertainty Principle” and it is believed to be inspired by Niccolò Machiavelli, who, in his Discourses on Livy discusses how it is at times “a very wise thing to simulate madness.”
Photos courtesy of Dollar Photo Club and Wikimedia Commons.