The madman theory is a political theory commonly associated with U.S. President Richard Nixon's foreign policy. He and his administration tried to make the leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations think Nixon was irrational and volatile. According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the United States, fearing an unpredictable American response.
In 1517, Niccolò Machiavelli had argued that sometimes it is "a very wise thing to simulate madness" (Discourses on Livy, book 3, chapter 2). Although in Nixon's Vietnam War, Kimball argues that Nixon arrived at the strategy independently, as a result of practical experience and observation of Dwight D. Eisenhower's handling of the Korean War.
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.
In October 1969, the Nixon administration indicated to the Soviet Union that "the madman was loose" when the United States military was ordered to full global war readiness alert (unbeknownst to the majority of the American population), and bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons flew patterns near the Soviet border for three consecutive days.
The administration employed the "madman strategy" to force the North Vietnamese government to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. Along the same lines, American diplomats, especially Henry Kissinger, portrayed the 1970 incursion into Cambodia as a symptom of Nixon's supposed instability.
The theory was criticized as “ineffective and dangerous,” by political scientist Scott Sagan and the historian Jeremi Suri, citing the belief that the Soviet leader Brezhnev did not understand what Nixon was trying to communicate and also the chance of an accident from the increased movements of U.S forces. Trump's use of the theory with North Korea was similarly criticized, suggesting the chance of an accident arising from Korea's string of missile testing was also increased.
- David A. Welch (2005). Painful Choices. Princeton University Press. p. 154. ISBN 9780691123400.
- "Rex Tillerson’s agonies". The Economist. 5 October 2017.
- Haldeman, H. R. (1978). The Ends of Power. Times Books. p. 122.
- Carroll, James (2005-06-14). "Nixon's madman strategy". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-04-01.
- Robert D. Schulzinger (2002). U.S. Diplomacy Since 1900. Oxford University Press US. p. 303. ISBN 9780195142211.
- Michael S. Sherry. In the Shadow of War. Yale University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-300-07263-5. Page 312.
- Naftali, Tim (4 October 2017). "The Problem With Trump's Madman Theory". The Atlantic. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
- Coll, Steve (24 September 2017). "The Madman Theory of North Korea". The New Yorker. Retrieved 8 October 2017.
- Kimball, Jeffrey (24 October 2005), Did Thomas C. Schelling Invent the Madman Theory?, History News Network
- Sagan, Scott D.; Jeremi Suri (Spring 2003), "The Madman Nuclear Alert: Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969", International Security, 27 (4): 150–183, JSTOR http://www.jstor.org/stable/4137607, doi:10.1162/016228803321951126
- Suri, Jeremi (March 2008), "The Nukes of October: Richard Nixon's Secret Plan to Bring Peace to Vietnam", Wired, 16 (3)
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