How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence? Part 5

The last two installments in this series dealt with President Nixon’s deliberate, conscious incorporation of irrationality into nuclear deterrence. This installment deals with an unintended risk: Nixon’s suicidal ideation in the final months of his presidency, as Watergate pulled him down.

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the prize-winning Washington Post reporters who – against seemingly insurmountable odds – brought Watergate to the public’s attention report stunning details of Nixon’s mental state in their book, The Final Days. All page references below are to the Pocket Books edition, London, 1976:

[August 2, 1974] Since late spring, [Nixon’s son-in-law and daughter], David and Julie Eisenhower had lived nearly half the time in the White House. … Their lives were built around Nixon and his defense [against the Watergate accusations]. … [David worried because] the president was passive, despondent. For months, David had been “waiting for Mr. Nixon to go bananas,” as he sometimes phrased it. … David thought the President might commit suicide. Nixon’s political life was his life – totally. And now it was going, even Mr. Nixon could see that in his clearer moments. David seemed convinced he would never leave the White House alive. [page 343] …

[On August 6, 1974, Senator Robert P Griffin, Republican of Michigan, met with Nixon’s other son-in-law, Edward Cox.] Cox sounded distraught. He was worried about the President’s mental health. The President was not sleeping, and he had been drinking. The man couldn’t take it much longer, Cox said. The President had been acting irrationally.

Griffin interrupted to say that he had been to meetings with the President recently, and Nixon had been rational. That was the problem, Cox replied. The President went up and down. He came back from meetings and was not rational, though he had been fine at the meeting.

[Cox told Griffin], “The President was up walking the halls last night, talking to pictures of former Presidents – giving speeches and talking to the pictures on the wall.” … [Cox] hated to raise it, but he was worried about what the President might do to himself. “The President might take his own life.” [page 395] …

[On August 7, 1974, two days before Nixon resigned, his Chief of Staff General Alexander Haig] was afraid the president might kill himself. Over the past months, there had been certain references to death and suicide. At first they were oblique and often expressed in Nixon’s impatient manner; the President was thinking out loud, probably. This week, Nixon had finally approached the subject head on. The two men had been alone.

“You fellows, in your business [referring to the Army] … you have a way of handling problems like this. Somebody leaves a pistol in the drawer.” Haig waited. “I don’t have a pistol,” the President said sadly, as if … he were half asking to be given one. …

Afterward, Haig called the President’s doctors. He ordered all pills be denied the President, and that the sleeping pills and tranquilizers he already had be taken away. … Haig told [White House Counsel for Watergate matters J. Fred] Buzhardt he was taking every possible precaution to make sure that Watergate did not end in a presidential suicide. [pp. 403-404]

Martin Hellman

This is part of a series on “How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence?” Here are links to each post: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, and Part 8.

How You Can Help If you agree that society’s complacency concerning nuclear may be unwarranted, please sign our petition asking Congress to authorize a National Academies’ study of that risk, and encourage friends to do the same. My paper, “How Risky is Nuclear Optimism,” provides a brief, but more complete summary of the reasons such a study is needed.

Critical Thinking The need for critically examing all reports, of course applies to Woodward and Bernstein’s as well. The Foreword to their book states that, “Nothing in this book has been reconstructed without accounts from at least two people.” [page 7] Their accuracy in uncovering the Watergate scandal also lends credence – but not certitude – to the claims in this book.

But, before accepting Woodward and Bernstein’s accounts uncritically, we would have to know more about their sources. For example, did they get two independent sources for the incident reported with Alexander Haig? If they heard it from Haig and someone Haig related the incident to that is no better than just hearing it from Haig. The Foreword notes that Nixon refused to be interviewed, so unless Nixon related these events to someone who was willing to talk with the authors, then the two or more accounts they required all were filtered through Haig. Given that the account puts Haig in a positive light, it is natural to question whether his remembrance was accurate.

The account of the interchange between Edward Cox and Senator Griffin also may not  have two independent sources: An April 5, 1976 New York Times article states, “Mr. Cox angrily denies ever having said anything of the sort.”

But, even if Woodward and Bernstein only had one independent source for the Haig story (e.g., Haig) and only one independent source for the Griffin story (e.g., Griffin), the two together would give two independent sources for Nixon being suicidal.

About Nuclear Risk

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects your credit card. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.
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