Mad Men

Thomas Schelling showed that it could sometimes pay to be irrational, or at least to appear to be irrational.  If they think you’re crazy then in a game of chicken it’s your opponent who will backdown.

It’s known that Nixon understood the theory but in an frightening article in Wired we learn the insane extent to which the theory was practiced.

Frustrated at the state of affairs in Vietnam, Nixon resolved to:

…threaten the Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike and make its
leaders think he was crazy enough to go through with it. His hope was
that the Soviets would be so frightened of events spinning out of
control that they would strong-arm Hanoi, telling the North Vietnamese
to start making concessions at the negotiating table or risk losing
Soviet military support.

Much more was involved than words, at one point nuclear bombers were sent directly towards Soviet airspace where they triggered the Soviet defense systems.

On the morning of October 27, 1969, a squadron of 18
B-52s – massive bombers with eight turbo engines and 185-foot wingspans
– began racing from the western US toward the eastern border of the
Soviet Union. The pilots flew for 18 hours without rest, hurtling
toward their targets at more than 500 miles per hour. Each plane was
loaded with nuclear weapons hundreds of times more powerful than the
ones that had obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Soviets went nuts but following Nixon’s orders Kissinger told the Soviet ambassador that the President was out of control.

Apparently neither Nixon or Kissinger had absorbed another Schelling insight – if you want to credibly pretend you are out of control then you have to push things so far that sometimes you will be out of control.  The number of ways such a plan could have resulted in a nuclear war is truly frightening.  After all, Nixon was gambling millions of lives on the Soviets being the rational players in this game.

Next time you are told how a madman threatens the world remember the greatest threats have come from our own mad men.


Great post! I'm sure some readers will call it "moral equivalency" but no, you've said that it's far worse (not equivalent) when aggressive people have thousands of nuclear weapons at their beck and call.

I sometimes catch people who are concerned about proliferation by asking, "What is the one country that has used nuclear weapons on civilians?"

I have maintained for decades that the only reason that the Cold War did not end in nuclear war is that the Russians had a realistic glimpse of what nuclear war would mean, with millions of dead, cities of rubble and starving survivors. And that glimpse was part of the largest war ever fought, which would pale before what would happen in a nuclear exchange. Having had a foretaste of the true hell that would result from nuclear destruction, even the Soviet leadership was not going to destroy itself over an ideology

Strange to think that fear prevailed over ideology, at least in the Soviet Union, while many Americans believed that 'better dead than red' was a rational response to a geopolitical struggle.

Sadly, the nation which values ideology over pragmatism, the winner of a contest involving military competition of the sort its founders had always warned against, is still armed to the teeth, and still looking for the chance to triumph over the fears lurking in its own collective soul.

I find that article difficult to take seriously. Is there any corroborating evidence that this event actually took place?

As for this--"Sadly, the nation which values ideology over pragmatism, the winner of a contest involving military competition of the sort its founders had always warned against, is still armed to the teeth, and still looking for the chance to triumph over the fears lurking in its own collective soul."

Yeah, whatever.

My understanding is that, at least in his later days, Nixon _really was_ out of control, messed up on pills and drink and completely paranoid, and that Kissinger told the joint chiefs that if Nixon called them and told them to do anything that sounded crazy they were not to do it until after they had called him. As much damage as Nixon did to this country (and it was a huge amount) it's scarry to think of how much more he might have done if things were only a little different.

Since when do we look to a twenty-something trite computer magazine for serious political history?

Sorry, not buying Wired's article.

Anybody have anything credible to say or to link to, to help me decide whether to believe this or not?

The Wired article includes several original documents obtained by FIFA requests, look especially at the "Notes." For what it is worth, Suri is a young but well respected historian with a new book on Kissinger

He was recently profiled in the Smithsonian magazine as a leading innovator.


Nixon was supposed to be an excellent poker player. If true, this was a awfully large bluff though. Perhaps he realized that the Russians would realize he was just bluffing and that if they thought he thought this was a reasonable gambit then they would start to think he really was crazy though.

How do you know this true? There is so much disinformation about that I confess myself unpursuaded.

This is scary. Why hasnt this been uncovered and dealt with in a serious historical text/book?

We have known since 1980 that a readiness exercise took place in the fall of 1969 and the evidence for the article was published years ago

I just looked out the window and pigs are flying.
This is nonsense.

For those pooh-poohing the Wired story, verification is important, but the point is the story is believable.

As "we" (and I use "we" in the mistaken sense that our unhinged political "leaders" are us) won't even take nukes off the table when dealing with third-world non-threats who don't yet have The Bomb, but will surely try to get it, or ally with those who do.

Today's leaders have mutually assured destruction and nuclear deterrence exactly bass-akwards.

Yeah, I call BS on this story. Of course, it's "believable" ... all good lies are.

No Jim. TODAY we won't take pre-emptive nuking off the table. TODAY.

All the article really says is that for three days in October 1969, 18 US nuclear bombers came close to Soviet airspace. The Soviets complained, and Kissinger said Nixon was angry over Vietnam. Then the bombers landed.

None of it was that unusual for the Cold War, and the threat was not large enough to provoke the Soviets into a panicked retaliation. This was not the Cuban Missile Crisis. Provocative, but still within reason.

I'm not sure how much of this was actually to make Nixon seem unpredictable rather than credible as someone who had no problem standing up the Soviets. Everything I've read suggests that Nixon was respected by his Communist peers, and they knew Nixon was actually consistent in his rhetoric and policies.

I don't have a strong opinion either way on the correctness of the story.

It must be noted though that the story is wrong in several details. The author does not understand how nuclear weapons work. There is no possibility that a tired loader could drop a weapon and trigger an explosion. When loaded nuclear weapons are not armed, they are armed only before being deployed. Similarly, when the planes were being refueled there was very little risk that a bomb would explode, since they would not have been armed. There is risk in both cases of a significant leak of radioactive plutonium though.

The author is also - as far as I understand the subject - wrong to think that the Soviets would have known that the planes necessarily carried nuclear weapons. As far as I know, a tactic used in the Cold war was to arm and fuel up a plane as though it was going to do something like a nuclear bombing run. When doing other things procedures close to war procedures would be used so that outside observers could not distingush the difference.

wait...nixon was out of control?

if the author dines with kissenger and quotes from a diary by nixon's chief of staff. the burden of proof now lies in the doubter's court.

the national security archive that puts declassified documents out on the internet has some articles on operation giant lance as well.

I find this post to be insufficiently damning of Nixon, hawks and America. Alex yet again reveals his right-wing conservative bias.

Kudos Mr. Tabbarok this theory of mad man negotiations is alive and well. Balistic Missle defence systems and an active program by the neocons to milliterize space leave us in the hands of mad men. One question though, Isn't George Shults a part of your libertarian movement?

For those pooh-poohing the Wired story, verification is important, but the point is the story is believable.

People who make this argument usually believe a) the story is not true b) it would serve their purposes if other people believed that it was true.

If it makes no difference whether the story was true, why tell it?


No, the point is, I'd never heard the story before, but not having heard it, and not knowing if it was true did not factor into my believing Nixon was deranged. And if the story isn't true, it won't change my mind. There is plenty we know to be true. It would be more of a stretch to believe that people like Nixon act the way they do in everything they do EXCEPT war and nukes.

@Shaun M.

Shenanigans. I believe Alex's entire post beginning with the sentence, "It's known..." is a game of irrationality, and it's surprising to see some posters have bought into it. Alex isn't buying into Wired's incredibly awfully written and incorrect story but wanted to create the appearance of such a belief.

Er, what evidence do you have that we not take Alex's posts at face value?

but the personal attacks, like Varangy's, are also a bonus. Alex 1, not_scottbot 0, Varangy -1.

My comment was neither an attack nor ad hominem. I simply registered my disappointment at what I take as arrogance. I am a great fan of this blog (I read it daily) and its authors, but am also honest and vocal when I think they have erred.

While I am at it, I should add that one problem I have with this blog is that TC and AT are much too used to speaking down to naive undergrads and grads (telling them 'what's what', as they say), in this forum, they occasionally come across as arrogant which can, to be truly honest, be quite irritating to an adult.

@ Sigivald Maybe you havn't been aware of the dismantling of non proliferation treaties that the Bush administration has recently been involved in. Also bmd systems are seen by other countries as offensive weapons used for full spectrum dominance. Being that having a good shield makes it easier to use your spear. Additionally having a sattelite with maybe a tactical nuke in it that can strike any spot on the globe without impedence and under cover in minutes makes the mad man negotiation strategy a lot more effective. Problem is with the ever groing threat of sophistcated hair trigger alert icbm systems we can accidentally end the species.


Nixon's victory was not a result of the primary system. Up through the 1968 election, only about of a third of the states used them. It would be more apt to say that the primary system was a result of Nixon's victory, being largely encouraged by the nominating rules the Democratic party adopted following their loss that year, in the hopes of never having a repeat of their disastrous 1968 nominating convention.

By the way, Kubrick consulted with Thomas Schelling.

Huh, so you guys are saying that electing unaccountable leaders and giving them the power to destroy the world might tend to produce bad results? I don't know, that sounds like commie-talk to me. I think you guys just need to stop worrying and learn to love the state.

mmm, sensatioanl. let's break this down until what we have is rational thought...

"massive bombers" = oooh

"eight turbo engines" = massively underpowered and underperforming; note that modern aircraft have fewer engines for increased power and speed

"185-foot wingspans" = not necessarily better, or how i learned to shoot down the massive bird

"began racing from the western US toward the eastern border of the Soviet Union" = plod, plod, plod

"pilots flew for 18 hours without rest" = it's the air force, dear

"hurtling" clouds with reckless abandon, tossing mist and vapor to and fro

"at more than 500 miles per hour" = a very slow rate by aircraft standards leaving plenty of time for rest (see above), poker, and *ahem* reading

I think they got my point, but just to make it crystal clear: 99.9% of the people talking about non-proliferation mean, "We need to keep those bad countries from getting nukes, because they might hurt people with them."

Do you disagree with them?

Or do you disagree with their implicit belief that the US and its allies are unlikely to bomb themselves?

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Is it realistic?

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