‘Madman’ Theory in the age of Trump

Donald Trump will visit Peru and Colombia next month (Archives).

Machiavellianism is a term often used to characterize unscrupulous politicians of the sort Niccolo Machiavelli described in “The Prince.” But, Machiavelli’s writings were also inspirational to the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, and he is often characterized as the father of modern political science. In 1517, he argued that sometimes it is “a very wise thing to simulate madness.” Machiavelli’s point was that, to appear a little crazy may be a useful tool to persuade an adversary to stand down.

Perhaps it was Machiavelli who inspired President Richard Nixon to develop his “Madman Theory.” In 1969, about eight months into his Presidency, Nixon became frustrated with the hostility and obstinacy of the North Vietnamese leadership. During the campaign, he had promised to end the Vietnam War and wanted to negotiate an exit from Vietnam, but the North Vietnamese were unyielding in their terms.

 “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached a point where I might do anything to stop the war.”

-Richard Nixon

Nixon wanted the Soviet Union to pressure North Vietnam, and he believed that Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev would do so only if he thought the United States was getting ready to do something crazy. (Consider here the parallels to the situation faced by President Trump in dealing with North Korea).

Nixon sought to make the Soviet, and North Vietnamese leaders think that he was irrational and volatile. The President did not want either to feel confident that they could predict how he would act. Nixon wanted his adversaries guessing as to his temperament and decision making. He wanted the North Vietnamese leadership, with whom he was negotiating, to be concerned with how he would react if provoked.

To this end, he instructed his Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman:

 “I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached a point where 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 with communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s 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.”

The Nixon Administration did more than “just slip the word.” In October 1969, the Administration signaled that the madman was getting ready for action. Nixon ordered a full global war readiness alert, and for three consecutive days, the United States flew bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons near the Soviet borders.

According to Melvin Laird, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, the idea was to make the Soviets think “you could never put your finger on what he [Nixon] might do next.” Henry Kissinger, as National Security Advisor, played his part by portraying the U.S. incursion into Cambodia as symptomatic of Nixon’s presumed instability.

Ultimately, an end to the Vietnam War was negotiated. The terms of that agreement are a separate issue. The point is that making adversaries think that pushing too far may bring unpredictable and ominous consequences has its merits.

For the past year, President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un have both been playing the madman game exchanging military threats and insults. I call it Madman Theory version two (.2) President Trump mocked Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea. Kim called Trump a “dotard” and a “lunatic” and threatened to fire nuclear bombs at the U.S.


And yet, it has now been announced that Kim Jong Un has invited President Trump to meet for negotiations over its nuclear program, and the President has agreed to meet with the North Korean dictator. Kim has also pledged to stop nuclear and missile testing as demanded by the United States. It is impossible to underestimate this development; there have never been face-to-face negotiations, or even a phone call, between the sitting leaders of North Korea and the United States.


Whatever one may think of President Trump’s unorthodox caustic style, it seems clear that foreign policy tools, implemented under the Madman Theory, brought Kim Jong Un to the negotiating table.  President Trump has a reputation for making deals, let’s hope he does not settle for anything less than a verifiably denuclearized Korean Peninsula.


Dr. Azel‘s latest book is “Reflections on Freedom.”


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