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Key Issues Nuclear Weapons History Cold War Strategy Nixon's "Madman Theory"

Nixon "Madman Theory" Alert Revealed in
Declassified Documents

In late December, 2003 declassified documents published by the National Security Archives disclosed a worldwide secret nuclear alert Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, stage-managed from 13 Oct. to 25 Oct., 1969. The alert consisted of a series of actions to ratchet up the readiness level of nuclear forces hoping to jar Soviet officials into pressing North Vietnam to meet U.S. terms in peace negotiations. The move caused no change

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in Soviet policy towards North Vietnam.

The nuclear alert was based on a diplomacy-supporting stratagem Nixon called the Madman Theory, or "the principle of the threat of excessive force." Nixon was convinced that his power would be enhanced if his opponents thought he might use excessive force, even nuclear force. That, coupled with his reputation for ruthlessness, he believed, would suggest that he was dangerously unpredictable.

Although Nixon favored this theory more than most, threatening excessive force was nothing new. In the 1950s President Dwight D. Eisenhower, his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, and then-Vice President Nixon, had overtly practiced a version of the Madman Theory by means of the "uncertainty principle" and coercive nuclear "brinkmanship."

(Sources: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2003, National Security Archive, 23 December 2002 )