For my blog post today about Joan Hoff's Nixon Reconsidered, my topic will be the so-called "madman theory."
What's the "madman theory"? According to Nixon aide H.R. Haldeman, in his book The Ends of Power,
Nixon during the 1968 campaign mused about how he could end the Vietnam
War as President by making the North Vietnamese think that he was a
madman who could do anything, including drop the nuclear bomb. The
notion that Nixon held to a "madman theory" is widely accepted.
Hoff appears to be skeptical that Nixon embraced the "madman theory," however, and she lists the following considerations:
Only Haldeman mentioned Nixon saying anything about it. Nixon himself
told Hoff that he didn't remember using the term in a conversation with
Haldeman, and that he rarely discussed with Haldeman "substantive
foreign policy matters" (Hoff's words on page 177). Hoff also says that
Nixon would have been imprudent to use the term "madman theory" in
discussing his diplomacy, since Nixon called the anti-war protesters
irrational. Nixon did say, however, that, if he discussed the
threat of "excessive force" in the Vietnam War, that had to do with
Nixon using Kissinger as the "good messenger" (Nixon's terms) who would
be a foil to Nixon's well-known anti-Communism. That sounds to me like
the substance of the madman theory----within a "good cop, bad cop"
context----even if Nixon did not use the exact term.
Hoff speculates that the term "madman theory" may go back to Henry
Kissinger. In 1959, Daniel Ellsberg delivered two lectures to
Kissinger's Harvard seminar, and they were entitled "The Political Uses
of Madness." Ellsberg discussed how Adolf Hitler used "irrational
military threats" (Ellsberg's words) in a political manner, and Ellsberg
went on to criticize Hitler's strategy. Hoff states that
"there is some indication in even his earliest books that Kissinger
accepted such an approach as diplomatically feasible," but that there is
nothing in Kissinger's memoirs that indicates Kissinger's support for
the "madman theory" (page 178). According to Hoff, this is probably
because Kissinger was trying to depict himself as a great negotiator.
refers to an example of Kissinger encouraging the use of force, while
Nixon was very hesitant. "On April 15, 1969," Hoff narrates, "North
Korea shot down a United States Navy EC-121 reconnaissance plane,
killing all thirty-one men aboard" (page 173). Contrary to what Kissinger would assert in White House Years,
Hoff states, we can see in military documents that Nixon at first was
all for "striking the North Korean airfield responsible for the attack
on the American plane" (page 174). But Nixon changed his mind on this,
concluding that such an attack would be unfeasible, due to the dearth of
enough U.S. planes and ships in the area, and the potential
unwillingness of Japan and South Korea to serve as a base for the U.S.
(since they wouldn't want to be involved in a conflict between the U.S.
and North Korea). Hoff states, "It would have taken up to a week to
mount an effective air strike, with effective backup power, in case
North Korea decided to deploy its 400 MIG jets" (page 175).
by contrast, supported an air-strike. Kissinger did not believe that
the North Koreans would attack back, plus he thought that an air-strike
would show the Soviet Union, China, and North Vietnam that Nixon meant
business. Nixon in his memoirs says that Kissinger told him: "If we
strike back, even though it's risky, they will say, 'this guy is
becoming irrational----we'd better settle with him.'" Kissinger was the
one supporting the "madman theory" in this case, not Nixon, Hoff
Hoff narrates that Kissinger during the Ford Administration would similarly "overreact."
In 1975, the Khmer Rouge "captured a U.S. merchant ship and its
forty-man crew", and President Gerald Ford acted on Kissinger's advice
by attacking Koh Tang, the island where the ship and crew were believed
to be (page 176). Kissinger supported this measure as a way to maintain
the United States' worldwide prestige, after "sixty hours of
negotiating had failed" (page 176). But the attack ended up
being a disaster. Forty-one Americans died, fifty were wounded, and
many Cambodians were killed on account of a bomb while they were
evacuating. Moreover, the Cambodian government released the crew prior
to the U.S. attack, meaning the attack was useless. Hoff states that
the U.S. should have negotiated with Cambodia through the UN or neutral
But let's return to the North Korea incident.
As I look in volume 1 of Nixon's memoirs, and I read Nixon's account of
the North Korea incident, it seems to me that Nixon identified with
Kissinger's motives for wanting the U.S. to attack North Korea, for
Nixon himself was concerned about U.S. prestige abroad. Nixon also
narrates that he initially supported a retaliatory attack. But Nixon
says that he came to believe that an attack would not be feasible, and
he states that Kissinger himself came around to backing off from his
support for an attack. Kissinger saw that (among Nixon's team)
only Vice-President Agnew, Attorney General John Mitchell, and he
supported an attack, whereas Secretary of State William Rogers,
Secretary of Defense Mel Laird, and most of the other top national
security people opposed it. (It's interesting to me that Agnew and
Rogers were involved in these discussions, since there were many times
that they were marginalized or kept outside of the loop.)
According to Nixon, Kissinger concluded that "we could ill afford a
Cabinet insurrection at such an early date in the administration", and
also that "congressional and public opinion were not ready for the shock
of a strong retaliation against the Communists in North Korea" (page
475). Nixon agreed to a plan of continuing intelligence flights, while
backing them up with "fighter escort," and also of launching another
round of attacks on North Vietnamese sanctuaries in Cambodia, just to
show North Vietnam (and North Korea) that the U.S. still meant
business. Nixon also expresses a sense, based on intelligent reports,
that what North Korea did was an isolated occurrence.
I've not yet read the entirety of Henry Kissinger's White House Years,
but his account of the EC-121 incident is on pages 315-321.
Essentially, Kissinger portrays Nixon as failing to act decisively and
to demonstrate solid leadership during this crisis, which occurred so
early in Richard Nixon's Presidency. Rather, according to Kissinger, Nixon was dithering and was considering options. Kissinger
admits that he himself (meaning Kissinger) "favored some retaliatory
act, but was less clear about what it might be" (page 317).
Kissinger also sees Nixon's point that "we could certainly not sustain a
prolonged ground war" if North Korea responded (Kissinger's words, page
319), but Kissinger says that he did not believe that North Korea would
escalate the situation if the U.S. retaliated. Like Nixon in his
memoirs, Kissinger narrates that he (meaning Kissinger) ultimately
backed off from supporting retaliation because there was "no
Congressional support" for it, plus Nixon's team was divided. Kissinger
states on page 320: "I never had had an impression that Nixon had his
heart in a retaliatory attack. He had procrastinated too much; he had
not really pressed for it in personal conversation; he had not engaged
in the relentless maneuvering by which he bypassed opposition when his
mind was made up."
While Hoff disputes elements of
Kissinger's account of the EC-121 incident, what is interesting to me is
that Kissinger's account appears to be more consistent with Hoff's
portrayal of Nixon than Nixon's own account of it in his memoirs, even
though Hoff does not appear to be a huge fan of Kissinger (or such is my
impression----she seems to portray Kissinger as a glory hog who could
offer some pretty bad advice and whose accounts are not always
trustworthy). Kissinger depicts Nixon as someone whose heart wasn't
into retaliation, which is consistent with Hoff's contention that Nixon
was not a supporter of the "madman theory." Nixon, however, seems to be
implying that he would have supported bombing North Korea to secure
America's reputation, but he did not deem it to be feasible at the
time. Circumstances were holding him back, in short!