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:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. Hoff 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).
Kissinger, 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 argues.
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 channels.
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!