The Soviets were master chess players so what happens when the Mad Hatter takes a seat
at the table? That was a question President Richard M. Nixon asked. By January 1969, finding a face-saving way out of the Vietnam War became a foreign policy priority for Nixon and Kissinger, and they had a plan. The Madman card played by Eisenhower during Korea was legend and Nixon, Eisenhower’s Vice President (1953 – 1961), was familiar with the ploy. Many arrows fill the foreign policy quiver; economic, trade, intelligence, diplomacy, and, of course, military. Foreign policy arrows combine forming customized solutions to particular interests or threats. The Madman game, played in one guise or another from 1969 to 1974, customized a bizarre and risky combination of foreign policy shafts.
The Eisenhower Madman policy appears founded in scuttlebutt, and documentation is hard to come by. Admiral Joy commanded the Naval Forces Far East, including all naval operations in Korean waters during the Korean War (1950-1953). Later the Admiral served
as chief negotiator during the truce negotiations at Kaesong until they broke down in 1952. Joy asserted that the Eisenhower administration’s nuclear threats in May 1953, reaped Soviet compromises during negotiations. The January 1956, issue of Life Magazine published a supporting story by James Shepley, “How Dulles Averted War” (pages 70 and 71). Secretary of State Allen Dulles detailed how he carried Eisenhower’s nuclear warning to Beijing in 1953 during a visit with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Shepley reported that “…Dulles told Nehru that the U.S. desired to end the fighting in Korea honorably. He also said that if the war continued, the U.S. would lift the self-imposed restrictions on its actions and hold back no effort or weapon to win…” According to rumor, innuendo, and the tribal drums similar, clarified messages, on nuclear intent found their way to China through several different mechanisms.
The story of Allen Foster’s meeting with Prime Minister Nehru was retold by Eisenhower on 17 February 1965 during a meeting on South Vietnam with President Lyndon Johnson. In a March 4, 1965 memo to Dean Rusk from State Department Executive Secretary Benjamin H. Read, Eisenhower told Johnson and the others in attendance that “he had sent a message to Nehru in 1953, warning that we would use nuclear weapons against China if the Korean War continued and that he believed this warning played a decisive part in terminating the Korean War.” The Read memo also recounts a meeting between the U.S. State Department’s Bohlen conveyed a similar message to the Soviet’s Molotov. Bold statements aside, it is not at all clear whether or not the Madman policy made a difference at the treaty table. The actions, the statements, claims, and internal beliefs of the Eisenhower administration formed the world that groomed Nixon for the presidency.
Not surprisingly, Nixon returned to the Madman policy. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, was the policy ringmaster. Between 1969 and 1974, the activity surrounding the policy’s implementation was intense. The tailored ‘Madman’ Policy was a vain effort to keep the Soviet Union at bay, minimize Chinese impact, force the North Vietnamese to the Paris Peace table, withdraw from Vietnam and buy time for Thiệu and South Vietnam with the meager hope they might survive once the U.S. left Vietnam.
H.R. Haldeman, Chief of Staff and a convicted Watergate conspirator, recounted Nixon’s view of the policy in his 1978 book, The Ends of Power (page 122).
“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.
During research for the 2015 book, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter, authors William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball “…filed mandatory and Freedom of Information requests with the Defense Department and other government agencies and examined documents in diverse U.S. government archives as well as international sources…” On May 29, 2015, the documents were posted at George Washington University’s National Security Archive Nuclear Vault. The excerpted list from that post follows:
- “…A March 1969 memorandum from Nixon to Kissinger about the need to make the Soviets see risks in not helping Washington in the Vietnam negotiations: “we must worry the Soviets about the possibility that we are losing our patience and may get out of control.” The Navy’s plan in April 1969 for a mine readiness test designed to create a “state of indecision” among the North Vietnam leadership whether Washington intended to launch mining operations.
- Kissinger’s statement to Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin in May 1969 that Nixon was so flexible about the Vietnam War outcome that he was “was prepared to accept any political system in South Vietnam, provided there is a fairly reasonable interval between conclusion of an agreement and [the establishment of] such a system.”
- The top secret warning to the North Vietnamese leadership that Nixon sent through an intermediary Jean Sainteny: If a diplomatic solution to the war is not reached by 1 November, Nixon would “regretfully find himself obliged to have recourse to measures of great consequence and force…. He will resort to any means necessary.” The Navy’s plan for mining Haiphong Harbor, code-named DUCK HOOK, prepared secretly for Nixon and Kissinger in July 1969.
- A telegram from the U.S. Embassy in Manila reporting on the discovery of the mining readiness test by two Senate investigators, including former (and future) Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus. After learning about aircraft carrier mining drills in Subic Bay (the Philippines), the investigators worried about a possible escalation, recalling that Nixon had made such threats during the 1968 campaign.
- A report from September 1969 on prospective military operations against North Vietnam (referred to unofficially within the White House as DUCK HOOK) included two options to use tactical nuclear weapons: one for “the clean nuclear interdiction of three NVN-Laos passes”-the use of small yield, low fall-out weapons to disrupt traffic on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The other was for the “nuclear interdiction of two NVN-CPR [Chinese People’s Republic] railroads”—presumably using nuclear weapons to destroy railroad tracks linking North Vietnam and China.
- A Kissinger telephone conversation transcript, in which Nixon worried that with the 1 November deadline approaching and major anti-Vietnam war demonstrations scheduled for 15 October and 15 November, escalating the war might produce “horrible results” by the buildup of “a massive adverse reaction” among demonstrators.
- As part of the White House plan for special military measures to get Moscow’s attention, an October 1969 memorandum from the Joint Staff based on a request from Kissinger for an “integrated plan of military actions to demonstrate convincingly to the Soviet Union that the United States is getting ready for any eventuality on or about 1 November 1969.”
- A Department of Defense plan for readiness actions that included measures to “enhance SIOP [Single Integrated Operational Plan] Naval Forces” in the Pacific and for the Strategic Air Command to fly nuclear-armed airborne alert flights over the Arctic Circle.
- Navy messages on the 7th Fleet’s secret shadowing of Soviet merchant ships heading toward Haiphong Harbor….”
The course plotted by the U.S. government during the deployment of the Madman policy was a dangerous game of chicken. A missed step at any point could have loosed the gods of war. Kissinger was the single point of coordination and management between the president and the U.S. players at Defense, State, and CIA. In the Nuclear Vault’s, Memorandum, “Kissinger,” from files of Gardner Tucker, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Analysis, 10 August 1972, Top Secret, excised copy Kissinger said: the “President’s strategy has been (in the mid-East crisis, in Vietnam, etc.) to ‘push so many chips into the pot’ that the other side will think we might be ‘crazy’ and might really go much further.” By 1972, Nixon was quagmired in the Watergate scandal and Kissinger, no doubt, was separating himself from the man but not the policy. Kissinger, however, engaged the Madman policy during the Arab-Israeli War in October 1973.
The massive antiwar demonstrations planned for late 1969 were a deterrent to Nixon’s Madman policy implementation of Duck Hook, a concept initially including “proposals for tactical nuclear strikes against logistics targets and U.S. and South Vietnamese ground incursions into the North.” Planned antiwar demonstrations and the large number of protesters estimated may have saved thousands of lives during a Duck Hook execution. It was an operation only rumored until the GWU National Security Archives Nuclear Vault 2015 Freedom of Information Act request.
The Nixon-Kissinger Madman policy did not succeed. The U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War didn’t end until 1975 when Saigon fell. Kissinger and Vietnam’s Tho shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973, but not without controversy. Time Magazine’s Jak Phillips described Kissinger in Nobel-Winner Wrangling on October 7, 2011, as:
“Once called “the most controversial to date,” the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger in 1973 was fraught with debate. Critics said Kissinger’s alleged involvement as Secretary of State in Operation Condor and the U.S. bombing campaigns in Cambodia made a mockery of the prize and led Tom Lehrer to quip that the award “made political satire obsolete.” Further incensing the situation, North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, who was jointly awarded the prize, declined his half of the spoils on the grounds that he didn’t want to share the award with the realpolitik ringmaster. To date, his detractors continue to dispute the accolade, arguing that the prize was for efforts to conclude the Vietnam War — something that didn’t actually happen until 1975.”
Nixon-Kissinger’s foray into the Madman policy during the Vietnam war resulted in a ‘great deal of sound and fury signifying nothing’ (The author apologizes to Shakespeare). It failed. The waste in labor and expertise for planning and, in some instances, partial implementations and false starts was colossal. Misjudgments and potential happy trigger fingers by the Soviets or Chinese because of the policy game unnecessarily exposed millions of Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians to death or injury. Basic risk analysis—impact of failure and the potential for the occurrence—obviously never crossed the minds of the policy architects. To their credit, throughout the incessant planning and plotting and deployments, the Navy, Army, and Air Force tied planned actions to diplomatic and military objectives as well as advantages and disadvantages.
President Reagan revived a modified version of the Madman policy when he pulled the trigger on the ‘Star Wars’ Strategic Defense Initiative. The Soviets broke its financial back on the economic shoals of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’—international version. Arguments rage as to who, if anyone, gets the credit for the dissolution of the U.S., but Gorbachev sat at Reagan’s table because the Soviet Union dissolved on Reagan’s watch.
A Madman policy or strategy has been a constant companion throughout the history of
warfare. Niccolò Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, Book 3, Chapter 2 concludes, “Thus one must play crazy, like Brutus, and make oneself very much mad, praising, speaking, seeing, doing things against your intent so as to please the prince.” Eisenhower wanted out of Korea and Nixon wanted out of Vietnam with ‘honor’ to please their respective ‘Prince’, the American people. A clear difference between Eisenhower’s venture into the Madman policy and Nixon’s is their relative experience. Eisenhower knew the players intimately. As the former Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force during WWII, Ike knew how each would push or pull strategically and tactically to the carrot of peace and the stick of nuclear war. Nixon was a former Naval Commander with no such knowledge. But, each implemented a policy of madness. The ‘elephant in the room’ of the Madman policy is modern warfare’s risk and return. Archers and Swordsmen or riflemen on horseback from wars of old cannot destroy the world. Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons can. Time to shelve the Madman policy for eternity?