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The "madman theory" of nuclear war has existed for decades. Now, Trump is playing the madman.

(Romolo Tavani/Shutterstock)

Is Donald Trump a madman? Or, at least, would he like foreign leaders to think he might be just a little unstable? Such questions are being batted around in papers like the Boston Globe and the Washington Post in response to the president-elect’s foreign policy moves: his provocations toward China, his attacks on NATO and the UN, his warm overtures toward Rodrigo Duterte and Vladimir Putin.

Across the pundit-sphere, analysts are asking, is he crazy, or crazy like a fox?

In no context is the question more pertinent than Trump’s position on nuclear weapons. His comments both as candidate and president-elect show a more cavalier attitude toward their proliferation and use than any president in the past 30 years. “You want to be unpredictable,” Trump said last January on Face the Nation when asked about nuclear weapons. More recently, he tweeted that it was time for the US to start stockpiling nukes again. The comments prompted instant parallels to Richard Nixon’s “madman theory” of foreign relations: the idea that the president couldn’t be controlled — including where America’s nuclear arsenal was concerned — so foreign leaders should do everything in their power to appease him.

The madman question is so important here because madness has been a mainstay of nuclear culture since the atomic age flashed into being in the Jornada del Muerto desert in 1945. The bomb, carefully engineered by some of the 20th century’s most brilliant scientists, able to raze cities and civilizations, has always spanned rationality and irrationality, logic and madness.

The brightest minds created the most destructive force, and then leaders spent years working out rationales for its world-ending use. It was a madness begot by logic. But that madness doesn’t always present in the same way, which is why the history of nuclear madness has to precede our understanding of the Trump-as-madman debate.

High culture and pop culture alike have wrestled with the insanity of nuclear weapons

The first nuclear detonation in 1945 split history itself: the time before the bomb and the time after. Scientists had harnessed the atom, the same energy that fueled the stars — a new Big Bang. Hermann Hagedorn captured the sense of dislocation ushered in by the atomic age in his 1946 poem, “The Bomb That Fell on America.” The bomb, he wrote:

did not dissolve their bodies,
But it dissolved something vitally important to the greatest of them, and the
least.
What it dissolved were their links with the past and with the future.
It made the earth, that seemed so solid, Main Street, that seemed so well-
paved, a kind of vast jelly, quivering and dividing underfoot.

Science fiction became a repository for those anxieties. The Japanese grappled with the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through films like 1954’s Godzilla, featuring a prehistoric monster revived and remade by a nuclear blast. That same year, American filmmakers released the horror film Them!, which saw giant irradiated ants making their way from nuclear test sites in the deserts of New Mexico to Los Angeles. Tellingly, the easily described monsters — they’re just big ants — are referred to in the film as an “unknown terror” and “nameless horror.” This was not just an ant movie.

The trailer for Them! gave away the game: “Cities, nations, civilization itself: threatened with annihilation, because in one moment of history-making violence, nature — mad, rampant — wrought its most awesome creation.” Nuclear weapons were not presented as scientific marvels but instruments of “history-making violence,” quickly elided with nature itself, as though humans had not, with precisely drawn equations and charts and blueprints, engineered and unleashed that violence.

That celluloid terror was a product of changing geopolitics. For a moment — just a moment — the US had a nuclear monopoly. During that brief period, the terror of nuclear science, with its unprecedented destructive power and its potential for fueling more and more powerful weapons, seemed controllable, knowable. But four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Soviets tested their own nuclear bomb, and the race was on for more powerful bombs, for better strike capability, for the ability to annihilate the other side before it could return fire. By the mid-1950s, the arms race had reached its illogically logical endpoint: If one side struck, everyone would be wiped out. Mutual assured destruction. MAD.

The acronym stuck, perhaps because of the horrific absurdity of it all. The logical conclusion, the position to which the world had been brought by the combined education and expertise of scientists and strategists, was the verge of obliteration.

No giant irradiated ant could compete with that.

As time passed, Mutually Assured Destruction came to seem — MAD

In the early 1960s, the world wobbled on that edge during the Cuban Missile Crisis. John Kennedy, the young, optimistic president surrounding himself with the “best and the brightest,” had toyed with nuclear war, engaging in brinksmanship right until the moment Khrushchev blinked. Never had the world come closer to war between two nuclear powers. One false move, one miscalculation, and the story would have ended there.

Maybe it was the exhaustion of the arms race, or the terror of the missile crisis, or the apocalyptic consequences of MAD, but by 1964 the idea of ever using nuclear weapons was considered insane. If the outcome truly was mutual assured destruction, then it would take an act of self-destructive madness to press the button. That was the conceit behind Dr. Strangelove, the film that offered characters like Strangelove, the German-émigré nuclear “mad scientist,” and Jack D. Ripper, the insane general with a killer’s name, as models of madness.

Ripper, convinced that the Soviets were brainwashing Americans through fluoridation, sent ordinance-laden planes toward the Soviet Union. But in order for the spittle-flecked lunacy of Ripper to have world-ending consequences, another madness had to precede it: the game-theory logic of brinksmanship, stockpiling, and second-strike strategies.

These arguments were not contained to film. Dr. Strangelove was quickly reinterpreted as an allegory for the Goldwater campaign, especially after Goldwater advocated the use of low-yield nuclear bombs in Vietnam. Goldwater’s suggestion that the US should use nuclear weapons, even on a small scale, fed into his image as an unstable extremist, a madman in the Strangelovian mold. It was those public doubts that led Fact magazine to ask psychiatrists to evaluate Goldwater’s mental health. And it was also why the popular rejoinder to Goldwater’s slogan, “In your heart you know he’s right” was “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”

This belief — that advocating the use of nuclear weapons was insane — likewise shaped Richard Nixon’s early foreign policy moves. Upon entering office, Nixon used a make-’em-think-you’ll-do-it tactic with the Soviets and Vietnamese in an attempt to bring Hanoi to the bargaining table. (This effort followed his efforts during the 1968 campaign to scotch the Johnson administration’s attempt at peace talks, the subject of some recent archival revelations.)

The tactic became known as “the madman theory”, a term Nixon coined and shared with his aide H.R. Haldeman in the summer of 1968. The basic concept had been brought into the White House by Henry Kissinger, who wrote about the “strategy of ambiguity” in his 1957 book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, although the idea seems to have come from a 1959 lecture by Daniel Ellsworth called “The Political Uses of Madness.”

Nixon explicitly embraced the “madman theory”

Nixon put the madman theory to the test early in his first year. In October 1969 the US went on nuclear alert, loading up 18 B-52 bombers with nuclear warheads and aiming them right at the Soviet Union’s eastern border. As historian Jeremi Suri explained in his account of the incident, Nixon’s goal was not to attack the Soviets but to convince everyone Nixon was out of control, and just crazy enough to start a nuclear war in pursuit of ending the war in Vietnam.

Despite resistance from the joint chiefs and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, for three days the planes looped between the West Coast and the edges of Soviet airspace, skirting the border in ways that might gain notice but would not make the Soviets think they were under attack. (There is no evidence the Soviets had any significant reaction to the provocations.)

“I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I've reached the point that I might do anything to stop the war,” Nixon told his aide H.R. Haldeman. “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 is 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 wanted the North Vietnamese to think he might unleash a wave of nuclear-armed B-52’s.
Pacific Press / Getty

The Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, walked away from a meeting with Nixon and Kissinger convinced that Nixon was unhinged. But the feint didn’t work. Hanoi did not rush to cut a deal. The war raged on for another four years. Nixon’s foreign policy victories came instead from more rational strategies of détente and triangulation, resulting in open relations with Communist China and SALT I, the first arms-limitations agreement between the US and the Soviet Union.

Arms-control talks were the norm until Ronald Reagan took office and reintroduced a note of instability into US nuclear policy. In the 1980 race he had campaigned against SALT II, which he called “fatally flawed,” and pushed for a new arms build-up, along with a missile defense initiative. In office, his hawkish rhetoric, combined with Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov’s fear of a secret attack and increasingly realistic American war games in Europe, brought the world once again to the brink of nuclear war. A recently declassified 1990 intelligence report concluded: “In 1983, we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger.” The trigger nearly went off in November of that year.

When Reagan learned that the Soviets believed he was capable of starting a nuclear war, he was stunned. During the 1983 war scare, he said: “I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that.” His rhetoric soon softened, and Reagan, like Nixon before him, switched from the madness of brinksmanship to the rationality of arms-control, starting first with a ban on intermediate-range missiles and culminating in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty.

The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union broke apart and the challenge became keeping nuclear weapons secure in the hands of the new Russian state, and away from actual madmen whose geopolitical calculations did not conform to the great-state deterrence model of the Cold War. Neither MAD nor the madman theory had a place in a post-cold War world, where nuclear policy was instead defined by controlling and destroying weapons and managing their spread.

Trump embraces a Nixonian approach in the post-Cold-War era

This has not been an easy feat. World leaders understand that nations with nuclear weapons are treated differently than those without, and so there is a rational reason for pursuing nuclear technology. At the same time, the use of nuclear weapons against an enemy would make a nation-state into a global pariah. It would be insane.

Enter Donald Trump. The president-in-waiting is schooled in none of these particulars, claiming to believe only in strength and the desire to use it. His loose talk about nukes has re-raised the long-dormant question: Is he crazy enough to actually press the button?

Here, the history of nuclear madness may be as much a trap as a guide. Because the questions now shouldn’t be about Trump’s madness but his impulsivity and ignorance. Whatever one thinks of Nixon and Kissinger’s madman theory, it was a calculation. Kissinger was steeped in game theory and Nixon had a deep knowledge of international affairs. Reagan was a foreign policy autodidact with experienced ideological advisors. Their administrations could tell a hawk from a handsaw. (Admittedly, some of these comforting thoughts were only fully evident in hindsight.)

Trump doesn’t share his predecessors’ considered strategic thinking and mastery of geopolitics, but that doesn’t make him a madman. The madness is in the weapons themselves, powerful enough to obliterate entire countries, entire peoples, and in the logics that grew up around them to govern their disuse. The only hope is that, as with Nixon and Reagan before him, Trump’s time in office makes clear how badly things can go in an atomic age, and how important it is to continue the push to contain, if not eliminate, the madness in our midst.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.


The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart, often scholarly excursions into the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically written by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at thebigidea@vox.com.


Watch: A brief history of America's nuclear mishaps

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