1969 - Nixon Threatens to Nuke North Vietnam
According to H.R. Haldeman, the President’s Assistant, Nixon intentionally planned to signal to Moscow and Hanoi that he was a “madman” capable of any irrational deed, up to and including using nuclear weapons, to end the stalemate at the negotiating table and bring about an end to the war. The so-called “madman theory” was first suggested in Haldeman’s memoirs, published in 1978. Haldeman recalled: “the Communists feared Nixon above all other politicians in U.S. public life. And Nixon intended to manipulate that fear to bring an end to the War. The Communists regarded him as an uncompromising enemy whose hatred for their philosophy had been spelled out over and over again in two decades of public life. Nixon saw his advantage in that fact. ‘They’ll believe any threat of force that Nixon makes because it’s Nixon,’ he said.”
Haldeman wrote of Nixon’s belief that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had convinced North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union to end the Korean war in 1953 only by issuing a nuclear threat. “He saw a parallel in the action President Eisenhower had taken to end another war. When Eisenhower arrived in the White House, the Korean War was stalemated. Eisenhower ended the impasse in a hurry. He secretly got word to the Chinese that he would drop nuclear bombs on North Korea unless a truce was signed immediately. In a few weeks, the Chinese called for a truce and the Korean War ended.”
Although it is unclear whether the Eisenhower’s threat of nuclear expansion was received as such in China, Nixon planned to use the same tactic in Vietnam, Haldeman recalled. Although he lacked Eisenhower’s long military résumé, “he believed his hardline anti-Communist rhetoric of twenty years would serve to convince the North Vietnamese equally as well that he really meant to do what he said. He expected to utilize the same principle of a threat of excessive force.”
“The threat was the key, and Nixon coined a phrase for his theory,” Haldeman continued. Nixon reportedly told Haldeman 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’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.” Nixon himself recalled events differently, however. The former President, during an interview with historian Joan Hoff in 1984, denied using the term “madman theory” and claimed that he rarely discussed substantive foreign policy matters with Haldeman. (H.R. Haldeman with Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), pages 82–83; Joan Hoff, Nixon Reconsidered (New York: BasicBooks, 1994), page 177)
In October 1969, the U.S. military, including its nuclear forces, secretly went on alert, a fact that remained unknown for many years. The documentary record offers no definitive explanation as to why U.S. forces went on this alert, also known as the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Readiness Test. There are two main after-the-fact explanations: first, that nuclear brinkmanship was designed to convince the Soviets that President Nixon was prepared to launch a nuclear attack against North Vietnam in order to convince Moscow to put pressure on Hanoi to negotiate an end to the war in Southeast Asia; second, that the President ordered the alert as a signal to deter a possible Soviet nuclear strike against China during the escalating Sino-Soviet border dispute.
On November 3, Nixon gave a nationally televised address in which he announced his plan for the complete withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Vietnam. During his address, Nixon threatened to respond with “strong and effective” action in the event of an escalation in the intensity of fighting by the North Vietnamese. The full text of the speech is in Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pp. 901–909.
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