Nixon's Madman Strategy

"I call it the madman theory, Bob," Richard Nixon said to Robert Haldeman. With the recent revelation of the identity of ''Deep Throat," the nation's memory has been cast back to the Watergate crisis, which began with a burglary 33 years ago this week. Nixon is remembered as having threatened the US Constitution, but his presidency represented a far graver threat than that. Various published tapes have put on display his vulgarity, pettiness, and prejudice and his regular drunkenness. But what has generated insufficient alarm is Nixon's insane flirtation with the actual use of nuclear weapons.

''I want the North Vietnamese to believe," he went on, ''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'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." Six months into his presidency, Nixon's frustration with Hanoi's refusal to budge in its demands at the Paris peace talks was extreme, and he put his madman ploy into gear. For this account, I depend on the political scientists Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suir, whose 2003 article in the journal International Security brought the incident to light.

From Oct. 10, 1969, through the rest of the month the US military was ordered to full global war readiness alert, without any provocation, and with no explanation to US commanders as to the alert's purpose. Nuclear armed fighter planes were dispersed to civilian airports, missile countdown procedures were initiated, missile-bearing submarines were dispersed, long-range bombers were launched, targeting was begun. On Oct. 27, in the climactic action designed to make it seem the madman was loose, the Strategic Air Command was ordered to dispatch B-52 bombers, loaded with thermonuclear weapons, toward the Soviet Union. Eighteen of the bombers took off from bases in the United States in an operation named Giant Lance. ''The bombers crossed Alaska," Sagan and Suri wrote, ''were refueled in midair by KC-135 tanker aircraft, and then flew in oval patterns toward the Soviet Union and back, on 18-hour vigils over the northern polar ice cap." The ominous flight of these H-bombers to, and then at, the edge of Soviet territory continued for three days. This was all done in total secrecy -- not from the Soviets, of course, since they knew quite well what was happening, but from the American people.

Unbeknownst to Nixon, his ''madman" gamble coincided with a border dispute simmering just then between China and the Soviet Union. The two communist rivals were themselves approaching war footing, and Moscow already had reasons to be wary of America's tilt toward Beijing. Thus, when signals of an American nuclear countdown were picked up, Moscow would have had every reason to assume that the United States was preparing to attack in support of Beijing, perhaps launching a preemption of Moscow's own contemplated attack against China. The Soviets could have seen the American threat not as ''irrational," as Nixon intended, but as consistent with a reasonable strategic purpose.

As if such accidental complications were not unsettling enough, as Sagan and Suir point out, the entire ''madman theory" of coercion was flawed in its essence, depending as it did on twisted logic that assumed an adversary would respond to a calculated show of irrationality with something other than irrationality of its own. Presumably, Nixon wanted a frightened Moscow to convince a frightened Hanoi to change its behavior in Paris as a way of heading off Washington's insanity. Rational Russians would save the world from crazy Americans. Come again?

If Leonid Brezhnev, that is, behaved as Richard Nixon did in October of 1969, the world would have been plunged into nuclear horror. In the event, the Soviet Union did not respond irrationally to the ploy. The North Vietnamese ignored it. The secrecy of both regimes makes it impossible to know for sure what they made of the aggressive alert. But what do Americans today make of it?

Watergate is a reminder of the primal fact that US presidents are flawed human beings. Because he presides over a nuclear arsenal, this otherwise common fact of the human condition makes each president like every leader of the nuclear-armed nations a threat to the Earth. The ''madman theory" proves the point: Nuclear weapons themselves are mad and must be abolished.

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