FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

The Mad Man Theory: Nixon, Trump and Bolton

Photo by Cody McComas | CC BY 2.0

Early in Richard Nixon’s presidency, he told his chief of staff Bob Haldeman that his secret strategy for ending the Vietnam War was to threaten the use of nuclear weapons.  Nixon opined that President Eisenhower’s nuclear threats in 1953 brought a quick end to the Korean War, and that he planned to use the same principle of threatening maximum force.  Nixon called it the “madman theory,” getting the North Vietnamese to “believe…I might do anything to stop the war.”

Ironically, Daniel Ellsberg, who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers, may have been responsible for introducing the theory in his lectures in 1959 to Henry Kissinger’s Harvard seminar on the conscious political use of irrational military threats.  Ellsberg called the theory the “political uses of madness,” and he noted that any extreme threat would be more credible if the person making the threat were perceived as not being fully rational.  Ellsberg couldn’t imagine that an American president would ever consider such a strategy, but he believed that irrational behavior could be a useful negotiating tool.

It is noteworthy that Kissinger, who became Nixon’s national security adviser ten years later, said that he “learned more from Dan Ellsberg than any other person about bargaining.”  And in his book “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” he advocated a “strategy of ambiguity” in any discussion of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Kissinger’s writings in the 1950s, moreover, suggest that Nixon’s madman theory was an extension of Kissinger’s belief that power wasn’t power unless one was willing to use it.

Of course, nuclear weapons weren’t used in Vietnam, but the secret war in Cambodia and the unconscionable carpet bombing in Vietnam were designed to convince Hanoi to make concessions to the United States.  These tactics didn’t elicit concessions from Hanoi and didn’t curtail the operational abilities of North Vietnamese forces, but Kissinger loved “playing the bombardier” along with his military aide General Alexander Haig.  He loved screening the raids and demanded the raw intelligence on the bombing.  Kissinger and Nixon believed in the logic of escalation, although the results indicated futility and failure.Let’s fast forward several decades to the current situation.  The United States has an authoritarian president who is attracted to power and has surrounded himself with “yes men.”  In the past several days, Trump has appointed a new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Gina Haspel, who was a key player in the use of sadistic torture and abuse in secret prisons. He has appointed a new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who believes in torture and abuse, and supports the idea of regime change in both Iran and North Korea.  And now we have a new national security adviser, John Bolton, who has recommended the use of force and regime change in Iran and North Korea as well.

Over the past year, there has been accumulating evidence that Donald Trump is unfit to serve as the commander in chief.  He is an extreme and unbridled hedonist who has no interest in the consequences of his actions.  His personal life style, his personnel policies, his Twitter rants, and his political actions point to self-absorption that overrides any such concerns.  Trump is not a theoretician so we are not talking about a considered “madman” approach.  Rather, we have to consider an actual “madman” president who has appointed another “madman” to run his National Security Council

The thought of Trump and Bolton discussing national security and the use of force in the White House is simply frightening.  Both men have displayed an impulsiveness and explosiveness that seems to point to  megalomania.  Nixon’s biographers described him as sharp and analytical with a remarkable memory; Trump’s biographers point to dangerous elements of irritability and aggressiveness as well as a pattern of deceitful behavior in his personal and professional life.  Bolton is more hawkish than Trump.

Both Trump and Bolton have engaged in irresponsible talk about nuclear weapons.  Trump told interviewers that there is no point in having nuclear weapons if we’re not willing to use them. Bolton still defends the use of force in Iraq, and favors it in dealing with both Iran and North Korea.      He played a key role in politicizing the intelligence to justify the war in Iraq and, as UN ambassador, misused intelligence to make false statements in the General Assembly and the Security Council regarding policy toward Syria and Cuba.

Two secretaries of state, Colin Powell and Rex Tillerson, refused to accept Bolton as a deputy secretary because of his extremist views and his brutal treatment of underlings.  It is interesting that Bolton has already described his job of national security adviser as making sure that the bureaucracy doesn’t impede the decisions of the president.  One of the primary tasks of the national security adviser is to be an honest broker,  bringing different views to the president.  This is clearly not Bolton’s modus operandi.

Our democracy depends to a large degree on citizens having trust in the sense and sensibility of our leaders.  In a world that appears to be spinning out of control, it is simply not possible to have faith in the decision making of our current leadership.  The madman theory of policy is a debatable subject, but the thought of having actual madmen in positions of power is frightening.  At the point of its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union found that its leaders were no longer believable to its people.  The increased cynicism of Americans and their opinion leaders will change the nature of our democracy.

 

More articles by:

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His forthcoming book is American Carnage: Donald Trump’s War on Intelligence” (City Lights Publishers, 2019).  Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

Weekend Edition
April 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What Will It Take For Trump to Get His Due?
Roy Eidelson
Is the American Psychological Association Addicted to Militarism and War?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Time is Blind, Man is Stupid
Joshua Frank
Top 20 Mueller Report “Findings”
Rob Urie
Why Russiagate Will Never Go Away
Paul Street
Stephen Moore Gets Something Right: It’s Capitalism vs. Democracy
Russell Mokhiber
Why Boeing and Its Executives Should be Prosecuted for Manslaughter
T.J. Coles
The Battle for Latin America: How the U.S. Helped Destroy the “Pink Tide”
Ron Jacobs
Ho Chi Minh City: Nguyen Thai Binh Street
Dean Baker
Fun Fictions in Economics
David Rosen
Trump’s One-Dimensional Gender Identity
Kenn Orphan
Notre Dame: We Have Always Belonged to Her
Robert Hunziker
The Blue Ocean Event and Collapsing Ecosystems
Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr.
Paddy Wagon
Brett Wilkins
Jimmy Carter: US ‘Most Warlike Nation in History of the World’
John W. Whitehead
From Jesus Christ to Julian Assange: When Dissidents Become Enemies of the State
Nick Pemberton
To Never Forget or Never Remember
Stephen Cooper
My Unforgettable College Stabbings
Louis Proyect
A Leftist Rejoinder to the “Capitalist Miracle”
Louisa Willcox
Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic and the Need for a New Approach to Managing Wildlife
Brian Cloughley
Britain Shakes a Futile Fist and Germany Behaves Sensibly
Jessicah Pierre
A Revolutionary Idea to Close the Racial Wealth Divide
George Burchett
Revolutionary Journalism
Dan Bacher
U.S. Senate Confirms Oil Lobbyist David Bernhardt as Interior Secretary
Nicky Reid
The Strange Success of Russiagate
Chris Gilbert
Defending Venezuela: Two Approaches
Todd Larsen
The Planetary Cost of Amazon’s Convenience
Kelly Martin
How the White House is Spinning Earth Day
Nino Pagliccia
Cuba and Venezuela: Killing Two Birds With a Stone
Matthew Stevenson
Pacific Odyssey: Guadalcanal and Bloody Ridge, Solomon Islands
David Kattenburg
Trudeau’s Long Winter
Gary Olson
A Few Comments on the recent PBS Series: Reconstruction: America After the Civil War
Ellen Lindeen
What Does it Mean to Teach Peace?
Adewale Maye and Eileen Appelbaum
Paid Family and Medical Leave: a Bargain Even Low-Wage Workers Can Afford
Ramzy Baroud
War Versus Peace: Israel Has Decided and So Should We
Ann Garrison
Vets for Peace to Barbara Lee: Support Manning and Assange
Thomas Knapp
The Mueller Report Changed my Mind on Term Limits
Jill Richardson
Why is Going Green So Hard? Because the System Isn’t
Mallika Khanna
The Greenwashing of Earth Day
Arshad Khan
Do the Harmless Pangolins Have to Become Extinct?
Paul Armentano
Pushing Marijuana Legalization Across the Finish Line
B. R. Gowani
Surreal Realities: Pelosi, Maneka Gandhi, Pompeo, Trump
Paul Buhle
Using the Law to Build a Socialist Society
David Yearsley
Call Saul
Elliot Sperber
Ecology Over Economy 
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail