The top of the US Armed Forces received a surprising order in October 1969: to intensify their preparations for a possible confrontation with the Soviet Union.
Pentagon B-52 bomber planes were loaded with nuclear weapons and 18 of them took off off the US west coast. They crossed Alaska and flew close to Soviet territory before returning.
This nuclear alert was ordered by then US President Richard Nixon (1969-1974) and carried out secretly, although it seemed inevitable that Moscow and its allies would observe US action.
In the midst of the Cold War and mired in the Vietnam War, Nixon intended to make his enemies believe he was willing to use excessive, even nuclear, force. His chief of staff, HR Haldeman, revealed years later how Nixon explained this action: “I call it the ‘madman theory'”.
Many people have remembered this historic moment in recent weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear deterrent forces on alert after invading Ukraine in February.
But what is the madman theory and what are the results obtained by the leaders who put it into action?
Experts indicate that the antecedents of this strategy can be traced back to five centuries ago, when Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that “sometimes it is very wise to simulate madness.”
In the modern era, the theory was presented in 1959 by former American military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, a scholar of nuclear strategies. He would later become known for leaking secret US documents about the Vietnam War, known as the Pentagon Papers, in 1971.
Ellsberg claimed that the leader of one country could make more effective threats to another nation if he were considered crazy by others.
But the name “madman theory” was coined by Nixon, according to the book The Ends of Power, written by his former chief of staff, Haldeman, after both fell out of favor. with the Watergate scandal.
According to Haldeman, the president then spoke of spreading the rumor that he was obsessed with communism, that his nerves were uncontrollable and that he always had “his hand on the nuclear button.”
“I want the North Vietnamese to believe that they have reached the point where I would do whatever it takes to win the war,” Nixon told Haldeman, according to the chief of staff’s accounts.
Since assuming the presidency in January 1969, with Henry Kissinger as national security adviser, Nixon had aimed to negotiate an end to the war against the socialist government of North Vietnam on terms favorable to the US.
“Probably, [Nixon] believed that if they thought he was on his way to madness, they would believe he would do anything to end the war, even use nuclear weapons,” according to Roseanne McManus, a professor of political science and international affairs at Pennsylvania State University. , who is currently writing a book on the theory of the madman.
But if that was the gamble, the outcome was different from what Nixon wanted. “It seems that the Soviets and their North Vietnamese allies didn’t realize he was trying to show signs of madness or they just didn’t believe he was really mad,” McManus told BBC News Mundo (the Spanish-language service of BBC).
The professor added that this was because, in other interactions with the Soviets, Nixon acted prudently, which may have made his Vietnam tactics less convincing.
It is difficult to know precisely what was real or what was dubious about Nixon’s behavior.
Documents revealed by the US highlight that, at that time, the White House considered the option of using nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. But Nixon himself claimed years later that he discarded that option to avoid an escalation of the mass war.
Indeed, reliability can be a double-edged sword for the madman theory. “If the leader is able to communicate that he is crazy limited to a specific issue, he can sometimes be successful,” argues McManus, who was an analyst with the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). .
“But if people believe that he is totally crazy, out of touch with reality or that he wants to rule the world, it will be more difficult to succeed because people will worry more about the future,” she continues. “It is very difficult to promise peace to someone who has this reputation for extreme madness.”
Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and former US president Richard Nixon are cited as two historic cases of the use of the madman theory — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Indeed, McManus’ research highlights that the madman theory is often ineffective. Several other former leaders considered unstable also failed to achieve favorable effects, such as the Soviet Nikita Khrushchev, the Libyan Muammar Gaddafi and the Iraqi Saddam Hussein.
On the other hand, she mentions the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as an atypical case of someone who took advantage of his international image of madness to achieve the occupation of former Czechoslovakia in 1938, when he came to be considered a complete madman who wanted to dominate the world.
More recently, former US President Donald Trump aroused suspicions of using the madman theory against North Korea in 2017, when he warned that he would respond with “fire and fury” if that country threatened the US. Trump later met in person with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – the first meeting between the leaders of the two nations in 70 years – but Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal continued to grow.
Can Vladimir Putin’s behavior be compared to Richard Nixon’s actions in 1969? — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Several analysts have compared Putin’s behavior during the invasion of Ukraine to the actions of Nixon and Khrushchev. But McManus argues that, in the face of high-stakes situations, the two past leaders reacted prudently, no matter how hard they tried to feign madness. It’s not the same case now, in her view.
“In Putin’s case, he has already done something very costly and that many people would consider a very big strategic mistake,” he adds.