Early in Richard Nixon’s presidency, he told chief of staff Bob Haldeman that his secret strategy for ending the Vietnam War was to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. Nixon believed that President Eisenhower’s nuclear threats in 1953 brought a quick end to the Korean War, and he took part in discussions to use nuclear weapons to bail out the French in Vietnam in 1954 and even in the Lebanon imbroglio in 1958. Nixon said that he planned to use the same principle of threatening maximum force. He 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 to stop the Vietnam War, introduced the theory in his lectures in 1959 to Henry Kissinger’s Harvard seminar on the conscious political use of irrational military threats. Ellsberg, who started out as a Cold Warrior, called the theory the “political uses of madness,” arguing that any extreme threat would be more credible if the person making the threat were perceived as not being fully rational. Ellsberg never imagined that an American president would ever consider such a strategy, but he believed that irrational behavior could be a useful negotiating tool.
Ten years later, Kissinger, who became Nixon’s national security adviser, stated that he “learned more from Ellsberg than any other person about bargaining.” In “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” he advocated a “strategy of ambiguity” in discussing the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and presumably believed that the “madman theory” related to his belief that power wasn’t power unless one was willing to use. During the October War in 1973, Kissinger chaired a meeting of the National Security Council that raised the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces in order to signal the Soviets that they should not intervene unilaterally in Egypt to stop Israeli violations of the cease fire.
I was a CIA analyst at the time; there were no indications that the Soviets were prepared to intervene in Egypt. Kissinger, however, was concerned about the instability of the Nixon administration that included a dysfunctional president, the removal of Vice President Spiro Agnew, and the delay in confirming Gerald Ford as the next vice president. We know from the remarkable and unusual memoirs of a Kremlin notetaker in the Kremlin, Victor Israelyan, that the nuclear alert shocked and angered the Politburo.
Fortunately, the Soviets held their fire, and Kissinger immediately lowered Defense Condition III, which violated the 1972 Soviet-American agreement on the prevention of nuclear war. Thanks to the initiative of former Senators Sam Nunn and John Warner in 1985, Washington and Moscow created nuclear risk reduction centers, which created additional opportunities for consultation and communication in order to reduce the risk of miscalculation or misunderstanding in times of crisis.
For four years, from 2017 to 2021, the global community had to deal with two potential mad men, who commanded the overwhelming majority of nuclear weapons in the world, as well as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Donald Trump cited his huge nuclear inventory and his “red button” in his threats to North Korea, and his aggressive national security advisers included John Bolton, who recommended the use of force and regime change in North Korea and Iran; a secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who believed in regime change as well as torture and abuse; and CIA director Gina Haspel, a key player in the use of sadistic torture and abuse in secret prisons in East Europe and Southeast Asia. Previously, Russian President Vladimir Putin resorted to the use of force in Chechnya in 1999; Georgia in 2008; Ukraine in 2014; and Syria in 2015. He stated that Moscow was “ready for a nuclear alert” on several occasions in 2014 and 2015 when he faced no threat of foreign opposition.
Currently, we are dealing with Putin, who commands the world’s largest nuclear inventory, and the mad man theory. Last week, he told two stony-faced generals that they must adopt a “special mode of combat duty” for Russia’s deterrent forces, its nuclear forces. Thus far, Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling has not been accompanied by any known changes in Russia’s nuclear posture such as bringing battlefield nuclear weapons out of storage. The United States has not changed its own nuclear alert status, but we have about 100 tactical nuclear weapons stored in West Europe.
Nuclear weapons have no real utilitarian value, unless one is willing to risk an apocalyptic ending to a crisis. There is no reason to believe, for example, that tactical nuclear weapons could be used on a battlefield occupied by ground forces, marked by the 150,000 Russian troops in Ukraine. But the mere threat of an enhanced nuclear alert will make decision making between the United States and its allies more difficult. Moreover, we may not be dealing with “mad man theory,” but an actual mad man.
Nuclear saber-rattling in any scenario increases the risk of miscalculation in decision making. This was true in Cuba in 1962; the Middle East in 1973; and South Asia in 1999, when India and Pakistan were involved in an armed conflict that raised the specter of the use of nuclear weapons. The fact that Putin is demonstrating so many signs of instability and irrationality, in addition to his dangerous isolation; his reliance on like-minded colleagues from the KGB; and the absence of a Politburo that might provide some restraint, as it did in 1962 and 1973, is particularly worrisome.
We were fortunate in 1962, when John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev relied on diplomatic compromise and an arms control dialogue to counter the threat of direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow. Sadly, we are in a Cold War confrontation that seems to offer no apparent opportunity for a substantive discussion of the dangers of nuclear threats and the need for a return to arms control and disarmament.