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.