Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert

b52_bomberThe first three installments in this series drew on irrefutable evidence – formerly classified top secret documents and a recording of a presidential phone call – to show that we need to critically question government claims before going to war. Those posts showed that the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, which became the legal basis for the Vietnam War via Congress’ Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, were incorrectly portrayed by the Johnson Administration as unprovoked North Vietnamese aggression. In fact, the second incident never happened and the first incident was, in the words of CIA Director John McCone, a defensive reaction “to our attacks on their off-shore islands.” While the loss of over 58,000 Americans and approximately 2,000,000 Vietnamese is reason enough to avoid future such mistakes, the Vietnam War also added little-known nuclear risks. This post deals with the most bizarre of these, an event that has been dubbed Nixon’s “Madman Nuclear Alert.” A paper by Stanford Prof. Scott Sagan and University of Wisconsin Prof. Jeremi Suri describes the origins and trajectory of this dangerous ploy:

Domestic and bureaucratic opposition to further escalation of the Vietnam War led Nixon to conclude that he could not implement his first strategic preference, which was to launch a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam. He therefore resorted to a secret nuclear signal in an attempt to convince the Soviets that he would do what he had, in fact, decided not to do — launch a major bombing attack, perhaps even a nuclear attack, against North Vietnam — in the fall of 1969. Nixon hoped that his nuclear bluff would compensate for his domestic and bureaucratic constraints, convincing Moscow to put pressure on the Hanoi government to sue for peace on terms acceptable to the United States. …

[Despite efforts by Nixon and Kissinger to minimize the chances of an accidental escalation], a number of dangerous military activities occurred, completely off the radar screens of U.S. political authorities. … [For example,] Nixon and Kissinger ordered the increase in readiness of U.S. nuclear forces with minimal attention to the evidence that the Soviet Union and China were still in the midst of a serious crisis over their border dispute and that, indeed, in October 1969 Chinese political leaders were evacuated from Beijing and their small nuclear arsenal was placed on alert. … The U.S. nuclear alert thus took place in the middle of a set of loosely coupled crises, a global environment that increased the risks of misperception and inadvertent escalation. In short, Nixon made a nuclear threat that left something to chance; but that was not his intent, nor did he even appear to have been aware that this had occurred. …

[In his memoirs], Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman … quoted Nixon as telling him in the summer of 1968: “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point that 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 is 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.” [H.R. Haldeman with Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), p. 83; emphasis in original] …

Nixon later stated that he learned from observing Eisenhower’s actions that it is important to be an “unpredictable president”: “If the adversary feels that you are unpredictable, even rash, he will be deterred from pressing you too far. The odds that he will fold will increase and the unpredictable president will win another hand.” …

when one looks closely at the details of SAC operations, a number of the specific alert actions can be seen to have created hidden risks … First, the president and national security adviser had ordered that no reconnaissance flights take place on the periphery of the Soviet Union so as to avoid a diplomatic incident. Yet SAC flew B-52 bombers over the Arctic ice, on routes toward the Soviet Union and back, without the use of ground-based navigational aids from radar sites in Alaska. Similar flights had produced an incident earlier in the decade when a B-52 accidentally strayed into the Soviet Union’s air defense warning net, a fact not known to Washington officials in 1969 who had approved the new operation.

The first three installments in this series – along with the failure of the “domino theory” (the fall of Vietnam did not, as predicted, lead other nations to fall to communism) – provide strong evidence that Vietnam was a needless war, thereby making Nixon’s madman alert a needless nuclear risk. To save lives, to save treasure, to save national honor, and to reduce the risk that our homeland will be destroyed in a nuclear war, isn’t it time we started questioning our government when it starts the drumbeat to war? If you agree, be sure to read Part 3 in this series, which highlighted a current such danger.

Martin Hellman


8 Responses to “Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert”

  1. AllenDulles May 6, 2013 at 6:56 PM #

    For more on Nixon’s madman theory, see the book, The Madman Theory, by Harvey Simon.

  2. HingeThunder May 11, 2013 at 10:15 AM #

    Didn’t the Soviets try a similar gambit during the Yom Kippur War back in ’73? IIRC that required use of the DC-Moscow “hotline” (text messages) because the Soviets were pretty much in shock that their client state would again end up on the losing end of a conflict. I think it also provoked a nuclear alert in this country. Nixon was able to defuse that one, but things were a bit tense for awhile.

  3. Martin Hellman May 11, 2013 at 12:28 PM #

    HingeThunder: You’re right that the 1973 Yom Kippur War produced serious nuclear threats. Here’s one that is less well known:

    Formerly secret telephone conversations (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A58802-2004May26.html) of Henry Kissinger show that, on October 11, 1973, when British Prime Minister Edward Heath requested a phone conversation with Nixon during the crisis produced by the Yom Kippur War, Kissinger told his assistant, “Can we tell them no? When I talked to the president, he was loaded.” (The full transcript is at http://www.thesmokinggun.com/file/kissinger-tells-drunk-nixon.) Woodward and Bernstein’s 1976 book, “The Final Days,” offers additional evidence that Nixon had a serious drinking problem.

    It should be noted that University of Indiana Prof. Joan Hoff’s book, “Nixon Reconsidered,” (Basic Books, New York, 1994, page 153) questioned such claims and notes that, “Kissinger spread unsubstantiated rumors about the president’s drinking.” However, Woodward and Bernstein (page 424) claim that Kissinger aide Lawrence Eageburger also experienced an obviously drunk Nixon, though that might be questioned given his association with Kissinger. While more research is warranted, the transcript of the October 11, 1973 telephone conversation between Kissinger and Scowcroft, referred to above (but released ten years after Hoff’s book), provides reasonably strong evidence in favor of the allegations. Kissinger would seem to have no incentive to lie about Nixon’s inebriated state to Scowcroft at that point in time, and the lack of surprise on Scowcroft’s part seems to indicate that he had experienced previous such incidents.

  4. HingeThunder May 12, 2013 at 9:07 AM #

    To be honest, I have no interest in a “discussion” whose purpose appears to be to simply sully a deceased individual’s reputation. If that is your purpose here, it seems quite petty and shallow and brings discredit and shame to FAS and yourself.

  5. Martin Hellman May 12, 2013 at 11:45 AM #

    HingeThunder: My goal was not to sully Nixon’s reputation. But, to the extent that presidents have created needless risk of a nuclear catastrophe, that needs to be brought to the public’s attention. And Nixon was not alone in doing this, as other posts on my blog make clear. To name just the ones that come to mind:

    I took JFK to task for some major mistakes in handling the Cuban Missile Crisis;

    LBJ for misrepresenting the Gulf of Tonkin incidents which led to his Vietnam buildup (and nuclear risks, as detailed in the blog);

    Jimmy Carter for aiding — and in many ways creating — the Afghan mujahideen, including Osama bin Ladin;

    Ronald Reagan for mistakes which have played a part in that nation seeking nuclear weapons;

    Bill Clinton for expanding NATO in ways which increase the risk of a Russian-American confrontation;

    George W. Bush for actions which led to North Korea restarting its nuclear weapons program (which they had put on hold from 1994 to 2002 under the Agreed Framework);

    and Obama for not adequately considering the nuclear proliferation implications of his using American air power to topple Gaddafi (whom W had promised would be rewarded for giving up his WMD programs).

    Unfortunately, most American presidents have acted in ways which have had serious negative implications for our Homeland Security.


  6. HingeThunder May 12, 2013 at 12:14 PM #

    Most of your previous post involved personal matters of Mr. Nixon and had no bearing on the topic you purport to examine. It is a well-known fact that Presidents such as Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson engaged in excessive alcohol consumption, yet you made no mention of that. Presidents Kennedy and Clinton were known to indulge somewhat untoward sexual proclivities. Are you going to bring those up? Policy decisions are fair game for reasonable debate among reasonable people, but bringing up personal issues is somewhat petty and disingenuous and, to be honest, intellectually lazy. Make your case on the historical facts, not personal foibles.

  7. Martin Hellman May 12, 2013 at 4:02 PM #

    HingeThunder: I haven’t researched Truman or Johnson’s excessive use of alcohol, and if you have some information on that please post it. It would add to our understanding of nuclear risk (which is what my blog is about) in the same way that my highlighting Nixon’s alleged drinking did. Sexual dalliances, unless they impact on the president’s ability to respond rationally in crises with the potential to go nuclear — as is the case with Nixon during the 1973 Yom Kippur War — are a different matter.

    I fear, however, that we may just look at these matters through a different lens. Unless I have something concrete to add to any future posts of yours, I will defer from doing so, in order to keep this thread from becoming overly long.


  8. Hinge Thunder May 12, 2013 at 4:18 PM #

    Dr. Hellman, I know a lot about you and you have wrestled with a difficult and complex problem. For that, as well as your credentials, you deserve credit and your opinions should be heard and considered. You have put your name and reputation in the public arena, something I have not done and will stipulate to any criticism for. I am just concerned that you are using the issue to score political points against those that you have had a political disagreements with. I am aware that you have spent a good part of your career in the academic world, as I have, and so am aware of the pressures that can be brought to bear by peers and administrators and funding agencies to conform to accepted political memes and paradigms. It should not be that way, but the reality is that it is so, and I understand how that can influence one’s stated positions on certain issues.

    I will say no more except this. You and I have the benefit and luxury of hindsight, something Presidents dealing with situations in the real world in real time do not have. Being a Monday Morning Quarterback or armchair General/President is the easiest job in the world. It is always easy to second-guess after the fact, to say that if only President So-And-So had done this or that, things would be different, and maybe that is true, but it doesn’t change the fact that the pressures and responsibilities associated with the job are far above those the rest of us must deal with, and for that reason alone I am inclined to go a little easy on the judgment angle.

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