How Logical is Nuclear Deterrence? Part 4

The previous installment in this series quoted President Nixon as advocating “unpredictable, even rash” presidential behavior in order to “win another hand” at nuclear poker. He employed exactly that approach during his first year in office in what has become known as the “Madman Nuclear Alert.”

In an effort to scare the Soviets into forcing Ho Chi Minh to seek a Vietnamese peace agreement on our terms, President Nixon ordered a military alert, ostensibly “to respond to possible confrontation by the Soviet Union.” In reality, it was all an act. Nixon’s chief of staff H.R. Haldeman wrote that Nixon told him:

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 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. [1, 2]

Sagan and Suri found that despite efforts by Nixon and Kissinger to minimize the chances of an accidental escalation [1]:

a number of dangerous military activities occurred, completely off the radar screens of U.S. political authorities. Compromises in peacetime nuclear weapons safety regulations were instituted as part of the alert, and there was a near-accident with a nuclear-armed B-52 bomber on airborne alert. [Further], Nixon and Kissinger ordered the increase in readiness of U.S. nuclear forces with minimal attention to the evidence that the Soviet Union and China were still in the midst of a serious crisis over their border dispute and that, indeed, in October 1969 Chinese political leaders were evacuated from Beijing and their small nuclear arsenal was placed on alert. There were, in fact, multiple crises occurring at the same time in October 1969, and key political actors in Washington were not sufficiently attentive to what was happening in adversaries’ capitals. The U.S. nuclear alert thus took place in the middle of a set of loosely coupled crises, a global environment that increased the risks of misperception and inadvertent escalation. In short, Nixon made a nuclear threat that left something to chance; but that was not his intent, nor did he even appear to have been aware that this had occurred. … 

when one looks closely at the details of SAC operations, a number of the specific alert actions can be seen to have created hidden risks … [for example,] the president and national security adviser [Henry Kissinger] had ordered that no reconnaissance flights take place on the periphery of the Soviet Union so as to avoid a diplomatic incident. Yet SAC flew B-52 bombers over the Arctic ice, on routes toward the Soviet Union and back, without the use of ground-based navigational aids from radar sites in Alaska. Similar flights had produced an incident earlier in the decade when a B-52 accidentally strayed into the Soviet Union’s air defense warning net, a fact not known to Washington officials in 1969 who had approved the new operation.

Martin Hellman

How You Can Help If you agree that society’s complacency concerning nuclear deterrence 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.


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.

Footnote [1]: Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suri, “The Madman’s Nuclear Alert: Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969,” International Security, Vol. 27, No. 4, 2003. Accessible online.

Footnote [2]: The Soviet Union had much less control over North Vietnam than Nixon (and most Americans) thought, making this “madman alert” doubly dangerous. Also, the peace terms we were trying to impose involved joint withdrawal of both North Vietnamese and American troops from South Vietnam, to be followed by free elections. While seeming to be a reasonable proposal, a similar promise of free elections had been part of the 1954 Geneva Accords, which followed the French defeat. That promise enticed the Viet Minh (the Viet Cong’s forerunner) to pull back from significant territory that they controlled in South Vietnam in the belief that they would regain control when the elections took place. Knowing this would almost surely happen, South Vietnam’s dictator Ngo Dinh Diem broke the agreement after the Viet Minh had withdrawn, and refused to allow the elections. Nixon’s offer of free elections must have been seen by the Viet Cong as “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” For details, see George McT. Kahin and John W. Lewis, “The United States in Vietnam,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume XXI, Number 6, June 1965, pp 28-40; and Daniel Ellsberg, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, Penguin Books, New York, 2002pp. 250-251. Diem was assassinated in a 1963 CIA supported coup.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, since 1982, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book, co-written with my wife Dorothie, with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." It's on Amazon and a free PDF can be downloaded from its website:
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