Avoiding Needless Wars, Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert

The first three installments in this series drew on irrefutable evidence – formerly classified top secret documents and a recording of a presidential phone call – to show that we need to critically question government claims before going to war. Those posts showed that the Gulf of Tonkin incidents, which became the legal basis for the Vietnam War via Congress’ Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, were incorrectly portrayed by the Johnson Administration as unprovoked North Vietnamese aggression. In fact, the second incident never happened and the first incident was, in the words of CIA Director John McCone, a defensive reaction “to our attacks on their off-shore islands.” While the loss of over 58,000 Americans and approximately 2,000,000 Vietnamese is reason enough to avoid future such mistakes, the Vietnam War also added little-known nuclear risks. This post deals with the most bizarre of these, an event that has been dubbed Nixon’s “Madman Nuclear Alert.” A paper by Stanford Prof. Scott Sagan and University of Wisconsin Prof. Jeremi Suri describes the origins and trajectory of this dangerous ploy:

Domestic and bureaucratic opposition to further escalation of the Vietnam War led Nixon to conclude that he could not implement his first strategic preference, which was to launch a massive bombing campaign against North Vietnam. He therefore resorted to a secret nuclear signal in an attempt to convince the Soviets that he would do what he had, in fact, decided not to do — launch a major bombing attack, perhaps even a nuclear attack, against North Vietnam — in the fall of 1969. Nixon hoped that his nuclear bluff would compensate for his domestic and bureaucratic constraints, convincing Moscow to put pressure on the Hanoi government to sue for peace on terms acceptable to the United States. …

[Despite efforts by Nixon and Kissinger to minimize the chances of an accidental escalation], a number of dangerous military activities occurred, completely off the radar screens of U.S. political authorities. … [For example,] 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. … 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. …

[In his memoirs], Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman … quoted Nixon as telling him 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 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.” [H.R. Haldeman with Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), p. 83; emphasis in original] …

Nixon later stated that he learned from observing Eisenhower’s actions that it is important to be an “unpredictable president”: “If the adversary feels that you are unpredictable, even rash, he will be deterred from pressing you too far. The odds that he will fold will increase and the unpredictable president will win another hand.” …

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 … First, the president and national security adviser 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.

The first three installments in this series – along with the failure of the “domino theory” (the fall of Vietnam did not, as predicted, lead other nations to fall to communism) – provide strong evidence that Vietnam was a needless war, thereby making Nixon’s madman alert a needless nuclear risk. To save lives, to save treasure, to save national honor, and to reduce the risk that our homeland will be destroyed in a nuclear war, isn’t it time we started questioning our government when it starts the drumbeat to war? If you agree, be sure to read Part 3 in this series, which highlighted a current such danger.

Martin Hellman

Links to all posts in this series on Avoiding Needless Wars
Part 1: The First Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 2: The Second Gulf of Tonkin Incident
Part 3: Are We About to Repeat the Mistakes of Vietnam?
Part 4: Nixon’s Madman Nuclear Alert
Part 5: Operation Northwoods
Part 6: North Korea
Part 7: Afghanistan
Part 8: Syria
Part 9: Iraq
Part 10: Iran

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, 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. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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