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. In July 1969, according to a recently-declassified CIA report, President Nixon may have suggested to South Vietnamese President Thieu that the two paths he was considering were either a nuclear weapons option or setting up a coalition government.
The theory is believed by some to be a strategy used by U.S. President Donald Trump in dealing with both allied and hostile nations. Jonathan Stevenson argues Trump's strategy may be even less effective than Nixon's because Nixon tried to give the impression that "he'd been pushed too far, implying that he would return to his senses if the Soviets and North Vietnamese gave in." Whereas the North Korean government is unlikely to believe that "Trump would do the same" because his threats are "standard operating procedure", not a temporary emotional reaction.
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 has been similarly criticized, suggesting the chance of an accident arising from North Korea's string of missile testing was also increased.
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