Note: Didn’t have time to research my planned subject this week; here, then, is a post combining two of my old blog posts on everyone’s favorite President.
Richard Nixon took office with a bold strategy to end the Vietnam War. “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob,” he explained to H.R. Haldeman, his White House Chief of Staff shortly before taking office. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.” While running for president in 1968, he encouraged Anna Chennault to sabotage negotiations between North and South Vietnam just before Election Day. Now he hoped to achieve “peace with honor” by unleashing his madness on Indochina.
In fact, Nixon’s “madman theory” wasn’t an original construct. Theorists as far back as Machiavelli espoused the political uses of madness, but the concept reached its apex in the Cold War stalemate. Assorted theorists and political scientists, notably Thomas Schelling, Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger, advocated calculated acts of “madness” to tip the balance in international affairs towards the United States. “Where trust and good faith do not exist and cannot be made made to by acting as though they did,” Schelling wrote, “we may wish to solicit the advice of the underworld, or from ancient despotisms, on how to make agreements work.”
On the other hand, Nixon hardly needed outsiders to prod him. As Dwight Eisenhower’s Vice President, he’d watched the brinksmanship policy of Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles result in many confrontations. He interpreted Eisenhower’s threat to unleash nuclear weapons on North Korea and China as the reason for the Korean War’s conclusion; Nixon himself urged the use of tactical nuclear weapons during the Siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Now came the chance to implement his madness.
To implement his plan, Nixon simultaneously waged war against America’s foreign policy apparatus. He invested unprecedented power in Henry Kissinger, his National Security Advisor, while marginalizing the traditional bureaucracy. He viewed the State and Defense Department as natural enemies, staffed with career bureaucrats and Democrats he couldn’t control, leaking military and diplomatic information to the press and undermining his plans. He trusted Kissinger, who’d support the President’s irrational whims to consolidate power, more than his hapless cabinet.
“All you had to do was talk to [William] Rogers,” speechwriter Pat Buchanan said of Nixon’s Secretary of State, “and you knew who was going to come out on top.” Though Nixon had originally offered the post to William Scranton, former Governor of Pennsylvania, he ultimately settled on a more pliable choice. A long time personal friend, and former Attorney General to Eisenhower, Rogers nonetheless had little foreign policy experience and wasn’t expected to influence policy. Reduced to a figurehead, he spent more time arguing with Kissinger (who spread unfounded rumors that Rogers was gay) than shaping policy. Nixon observed that “Henry thinks Bill isn’t very deep, and Bill thinks Henry is power crazy…They’re both right.”
Melvin Laird, Secretary of Defense, proved a tougher foe. A longtime Congressman from Wisconsin, Laird resented being “sandbagged” into his post after the President’s first choice, Washington Senator Scoop Jackson, declined. Where Nixon pressed for escalation, Laird pushed a “Vietnamization” policy of turning the war over to ARVN. Nor was he averse to flexing his muscles. During the conflict between Jordan and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Laird countermanded Nixon’s order to bomb PLO targets in Syria. “The Secretary of Defense can always find a reason not to do something,” he said.
Thus, Nixon and Kissinger worked to short circuit their influence. With Rodgers sidelined, diplomatic information passed directly to Kissinger and his staff, including deputy Alexander Haig. Laird was further undercut when Kissinger established a direct line to Admiral Thomas Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thus, Nixon and Kissinger could order military actions without notifying Rogers or Laird, let alone Congress, the press or the American people.
Career diplomats were caught in the crossfire, alternately baffled, resentful and powerless. “You’re going to get screwed,” Roger Morris, one of Kissinger’s staff, warned diplomat Arthur A. Hartman. “You’re going to lose all sorts of power.” Morris urged Hartman to fight back, but State entertained no hope of open rebellion. “We can’t get anyone to step forward,” Hartman admitted, forcing Morris to conclude that resisting Kissinger amounted to a “lost cause.”
U. Alexis Johnson, who’d served the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, confronted Kissinger over his coup d’état. “I told Henry I’d heard what was up and told him what was wrong with it,” Johnson recalled. “I wanted it clear when it was the President who wanted something or when it was he.” Kissinger responded, “It’s already been decided and it’s the way it’s going to be.” Finding Rogers non-responsive and unwilling to confront the National Security Adviser, Johnson dropped his reservations and fell into line…for now.
Nixon had good reason to distrust his cabinet’s willingness to acquiesce. In April 1969, Rogers and Laird restrained Nixon when North Korea downed an EC-121 reconnaissance plane. Nixon wanted to launch retaliatory strikes, with Kissinger warning that “it could go nuclear.” Rogers and Laird, fearing another conflict in which China may become involved, vehemently opposed the action. Publicly challenged, Nixon backed down – and never fully trusted the secretaries again.
But Nixon had already stolen a march on the Secretaries, authorizing Operation Menu – a bombing of Vietcong supply lines in Cambodia and Laos – the previous month. Using his back channels, Nixon authorized the bombing raids in secret, informing Rogers and Laird only after the fact. “What do we care if the New York Times clobbers us now if it helps us end the war sooner?” Kissinger asked Nixon, mocking Rogers’ warnings about potential backlash towards the raids.
When news of the Cambodian bombings leaked to the press, Kissinger exploded. “We must crush these people!” he raved to his aides. He asked the FBI to wiretap his staff and Rogers’ State Department, seeking revenge on his rivals in manners public and private. He telephoned Laird, who was golfing at Burning Tree Club in Washington, yelling “You son of a bitch!” Laird instantly recognized the Teutonic growl and hung up, returning to his golf game.
From here on out, Nixon pursued his “madman theory” unilaterally. From his time as Vice President, Nixon remembered Dwight Eisenhower’s threat of nuclear weapons as a factor in concluding the Korean War. Now he’d implement the same strategy in Vietnam. “They’ll believe any threat of force that Nixon makes because it’s Nixon,” he concluded, trading on his reputation as America’s premiere red-baiter.
Thus was born Operation Duck Hook. Drafted by Admiral Moorer’s staff, it envisioned bombing North Vietnam’s Red River dikes, potentially flooding Vietnam’s farmland, killing or starving millions. Other facets included unleashing nuclear weapons against Hanoi, mining Haiphong Harbor and bombing raids north to the Chinese border. Kissinger sent the president a memo urging that “to achieve its full effect on Hanoi’s thinking, the action must be brutal.”
Nixon waxed enthusiastic about the imminent apocalypse. “I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sakes!” he enthused to Kissinger, who felt that Nixon’s proposals were “a bit much.” Kissinger fretted in private about his boss’s instability, a concern shared by his staff. Roger Morris and Anthony Lake warned that Nixon must “decide beforehand, the fateful question of how far we will go” – namely, whether to use nuclear weapons.
Several factors caused Nixon abandon Duck Hook. Secretary of State William Rogers and Defense Secretary Melvin Laird both adamantly opposed the plan; public opinion, cresting in the National Moratorium Against the War that October, undermined its political feasibility. Worse, Kissinger and the military chiefs couldn’t guarantee success. Lawrence Lynn, one of Kissinger’s aides, cautioned that “a short, vicious, punishing blow was impossible” based on this operation, while Laird felt that Nixon “could accomplish the same thing without using the assets he wanted to use.”
Next, Nixon decided to try intimidating the Soviets. In early October, he authorized an extended nuclear exercise, code-named Operation Giant Lance, wherein nuclear bombers spent several days buzzing Soviet airspace. Nixon’s precise motivations for this bizarre incident remain unclear, with many relevant documents remaining classified; apparently, he hoped that he could intimidate the USSR into brokering a peace in Vietnam. If so, he failed; Leonid Brezhnev and his advisers certainly noticed the provocation, but couldn’t make sense of it, and nothing positive resulted.
Despite Nixon’s claims that “Under no circumstances will I be affected by it,” the backlash represented by the Moratorium clearly got under his skin. He responded with his “Silent Majority” speech on November 3, 1969. It was classic Nixon, alternately reasonable and bullying, outlining his efforts to “win the peace” while realigning America into patriots and traitors. He assured the public that “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.”
Nixon enthused over the public response: millions of phone calls, letters and telegrams, with polls showing 77 percent approval of his speech. “We’ve got those liberal bastards on the run now!” he told Haldeman, encouraging his aides to organize a letter-writing campaign to harass critical newspapers and unleashing Vice President Spiro Agnew to blast the “nattering nabobs of negativism” in the press and media. He had routed the Eastern Establishment, liberal pundits and craven diplomats alike, and redoubled his hostility.
Operation Menu’s main result, besides killing thousands of Cambodians and Laotians, was destabilizing Prince Sihanouk’s neutral regime. In March 1970, a coup led by Lon Nol ousted the Prince, triggering increased North Vietnamese presence and strengthening Cambodian Communists, the Khmer Rouge. Nixon encouraged Kissinger to “develop and implement a plan for maximum assistance” to Lon Nol. He urged secrecy, telling Kissinger to bypass “those impossible fags” in State and work through the CIA.
Smarting from the Senate’s rejection of his arch-conservative Supreme Court nominee, G. Harrold Carswell, Nixon roused himself into a fighting mood. “I’ll show them who’s tough!” he raged to his staff, encouraged by generals who longed to strike Communist sanctuaries in Cambodia. He became obsessed with the movie Patton, watching the film repeatedly and adopting George C. Scott’s swaggering mannerisms as his own. With Lon Nol’s regime tottering, he prepared yet again to expand the war, this time with American ground troops.
With Laird and Rogers cut out of the planning, Kissinger convened a half-dozen skeptical aides on April 24th. When Anthony Lake argued against the operation, Kissinger interrupted him. “I knew what you were going to say,” the National Security Adviser muttered. (“If I am predictable… then there is no point in my staying around,” Lake recalled thinking.) He also mocked William Watts, his Executive Secretary, as a “bleeding heart” and dismissed Morris’s prediction of “blood in the streets” from American protesters.
Another aide, Laurence Lynn Jr., argued against the plan while wondering about Nixon’s stability. “The plan was just awful,” he said, branding the Joint Chief’s strategy “imprecise and vague.” Kissinger seemed interested, encouraging Lynn to write a list of criticisms. Kissinger promised to forward it to Admiral Moorer. But when Lynn asked Al Haig whether he should expect an answer, Haig declined to answer. Lynn, already on the hot seat for criticizing Duck Hook, was frozen out.
Nor were higher-ups happy, once informed. Secretary Laird complained about Kissinger’s military back channels and warning about high casualties during the operation. During a Pentagon briefing, Nixon startled the Secretary by demanding, “I want to take out all those sanctuaries” in Cambodia. One of Laird’s aides tried to explain why that was impossible, leading Nixon to declaim “You have to electrify people with bold decisions… Let’s go blow the hell out of them!”
Rogers, who feebly protested the invasion in private, found himself tasked with briefing Nixon’s cabinet about the mission. The Secretary of State, sunburned and exhausted after a golf outing, exploded while reading a draft of Nixon’s public announcement. “Unite the country!” he shouted, throwing the speech across the room. “This will make the students puke.”
Kissinger, himself skeptical of the operation’s feasibility but unwilling to displease his boss, endured several drunken, rambling phone calls from Nixon. Once, Nixon told Kissinger he planned, again, to nuke North Vietnam should the invasion fail. Another time, Nixon phoned Kissinger in the middle of the night, bringing his friend, businessman Bebe Rebozo, on the line to taunt Kissinger. “If this doesn’t work Henry,” Rebozo muttered, “it’s your ass.” Kissinger groused, “Our peerless leader has flipped out.”
Finally, William Watts had enough. When Kissinger ordered Watts to coordinate NSC staff work on the invasion, Watts refused, telling Kissinger “I’m against this action on every count and I’m resigning.” Kissinger, exhausted from weeks of planning while enduring staff dissent and Nixon’s ravings, had no patience for his aide’s pangs of conscience.
“Your cowardice represents the cowardice of the Eastern Establishment,” Kissinger growled, infuriating Watts further. Watts recalled that “I just came up out of my chair swinging, I was so damn mad, and missed him,” causing Kissinger to scurry behind his desk. Watts marched over to his office and wrote a resignation letter, with a furious Alexander Haig following after him.
“You’ve just had an order and you can’t refuse,” Haig barked. Watts, his nerves worn thin by weeks of fruitless argument, rounded on him. “Fuck you, Al!” he shouted. “I just have and I’ve resigned.” Watts handed Haig his letter then left the White House, driving straight home. When he formally resigned in July, Kissinger acted as if nothing had happened, assuring Watts that “It’s been interesting.”
Roger Morris and Anthony Lake considered a public news conference to announce their resignations. Instead, they handed Kissinger a letter on April 29th, the day before the invasion. “We have grave reservations about the value of using U.S. troops in Cambodia,” they wrote, adding that “the reasons for our resignations, involving an increasing alienation from this administration, also predate and go beyond the Cambodian problem.” Two hundred State Department staffers sent Nixon a petition protesting the invasion; Nixon demanded that Rogers immediately fire them.
On April 30th, Nixon announced the invasion in a televised address, gesturing towards a map that laid out his targets – not only Vietcong sanctuaries within Cambodia, but also, he promised, the headquarters of Communist forces in Indochina. He then threw down a gauntlet at antiwar forces, insisting the invasion was a “test of will” and that if “the United States of America acts like a pitiful, helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world.”
In the short term, the operation scored tactical successes in routing North Vietnamese forces and destroying several key positions and supply depots. The North Vietnamese, however, simply responded by rerouting their supply lines, nullifying American gains within months. They were offset by massive protests, culminating in the Kent State shootings on May 4th, where Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded nine more. “When dissent turns to violence,” Nixon chided, “it leads to tragedy,” a callous response which triggered further protests. Nixon was shaken enough to visit the Lincoln Memorial and chat with protesters, engaging them in a rambling discussion of Vietnam, football and the importance of travel.
Yet the system remained in place, with Rogers and Laird enduring their separate indignities until resigning at the end of Nixon’s first term. Vietnam dragged on for another three years, incurring tens of thousands more casualties as Nixon sought “peace with honor.” Nixon never used nuclear weapons (though he seriously considered it during the Easter Offensive of 1972), but other facets of the madman theory were implemented piecemeal: a disastrous invasion of Laos, limited attacks on the Red River dikes and increased bombing of North Vietnam, culminating in the murderous Linebacker II raid in December 1972. Despite a short-lived peace accord, Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam all fell to Communism in 1975, rendering their deviousness moot.
Echoing the sentiments of many, Watts recalled that “Kissinger and Nixon had very exceptional brains. They were also, in my view, amoral in the very basic sense of the word. Right and wrong was not part of their calculus, it was win and lose.” Their combined arrogance (or madness, in Nixon’s own words) finally proved too much for sane bureaucrats and career diplomats to stomach.
Sources and Further Reading
Besides the linked articles, this article draws upon: Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983); Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War (1998); Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008); Richard Reeves, President Nixon: Alone in the White House (2001); and Tom Wells, The War Within: America’s Battle over Vietnam (1994).