view counter

Considered opinionThe Madman Theory of North Korea

By Steven Coll

Published 25 September 2017

By the fall of 1969, President Richard Nixon had become increasingly frustrated with the refusal of North Vietnam to engage in meaningful negotiations with the United States. He believed that the Soviet Union was the only country able to persuade the North Vietnamese leadership to be forthcoming – but how do you get the Kremlin to apply pressure on North Vietnam? Nixon’s idea: To convince Leonid Brezhnev that Nixon was a madman, capable of irrational action. Has President Donald Trump revived the Madman Theory in order to deal with North Korea’s nukes?

By the fall of 1969, President Richard Nixon had become increasingly frustrated with the refusal of North Vietnam to engage in meaningful negotiations with the United States. He believed that the Soviet Union was the only country able to persuade the North Vietnamese leadership to be forthcoming – but how do you get the Kremlin to apply pressure on North Vietnam? Nixon’s idea: To convince Leonid Brezhnev that Nixon was a madman, capable of irrational action.

Steve Coll writes in the New Yorker that in late October, Nixon ordered an operation code-named Giant Lance. B-52 bombers loaded with atomic weapons took off from bases in California and Washington State and headed toward the Soviet Union, then flew in loops above the polar ice cap. Nixon hoped that Soviet intelligence would interpret the action as an immediate, and completely insane, threat of nuclear attack.

Nixon confided in his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman: “I call it the Madman Theory…. “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.’”

President Donald Trump may be reviving Nixon’s Madman Theory vis-à-vis North Korea. Coll writes:

Never before have two leaders in command of nuclear arsenals more closely evoked a professional wrestling match. It is unsettling that with both men it is hard to know where performance ends and personality begins. Trump rages publicly at Kim, but, then, he rages at everyone, from his staff to Meryl Streep. Kim may not be suicidal, but he has executed his uncle and is reported to have ordered the murder of his half brother.

In the history of nuclear diplomacy, no nation-state has ever given up atomic weapons in response to shrill threats. In a number of instances, however, countries have been coaxed to mothball their nuclear programs in exchange for political and economic returns. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus voluntarily gave up their nuclear weapons or abandoned advanced programs. In 2003, Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, agreed, in exchange for economic opportunities, to surrender his uranium-enrichment equipment. Nearly twelve years later came the landmark accord in which Iran agreed to freeze its nuclear-weapons program and dismantle parts of it, in exchange for relief from sanctions.

It is not Trump’s fault that North Korea has crossed ominous nuclear thresholds this year… [But] to apply some version of the Madman Theory to the North Korean problem, however, as Trump seems inclined to do, is foolish…. If Kim Jong Un believes that Trump is rash enough to initiate a first strike, he may accelerate his missile and nuclear-bomb tests and deployments. North Korea’s missile-testing binge this year has increased the odds of an accident. One of Kim’s rockets could veer off course and kill civilians in Japan or elsewhere. The result of such a calamity could conceivably be a war.

….

“To overcome the perils of the present,” the President said at the U.N. last week, “we must begin with the wisdom of the past.” If only there were some evidence that Trump knew what that was, or how to use the power of his office to forge a less dangerous world.

Read the full article: Steve Coll, “The Madman Theory of North Korea,” New Yorker (2 October 2017)