Madman in the White House

tags: Barack Obama, foreign policy, Richard Nixon, Vietnam War



James Rosen is a Washington correspondent for Fox News. Luke Nichter is associate professor of history at Texas A & M University—Central Texas.

On the afternoon of April 19, 1972, seated in the Oval Office, President Richard Nixon instructed Henry Kissinger on what message he wanted the national security advisor to convey to his counterparts in the Soviet Union. In a few hours' time, Kissinger would be aboard a red-eye flight to Moscow for a tense set of secret negotiations on the interrelated issues of the Vietnam War and nuclear disarmament. Unbeknownst even to the flight crew at Andrews Air Force Base, Kissinger was to be joined by a most important -- and unusual -- passenger: Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin. Nixon wanted to make sure the flight time wasn't wasted on small talk.

"Henry, we must not miss this chance," the president said, his taping system silently recording the session. "I'm going to destroy the goddamn country [North Vietnam], believe me, I mean destroy it, if necessary. And let me say, even [use] the nuclear weapon if necessary. It isn't necessary," Nixon hastened to add, "but, you know, what I mean is, that shows you the extent to which I'm willing to go."

Nixon wanted to impress upon the Soviets that the president of the United States was, in a word, mad: unstable, erratic in his decision-making, and capable of anything. The American commander-in-chief wanted the Kremlin to know that he was willing to escalate even localized conventional military conflicts to the nuclear level. Kissinger understood: "I'll tell [the Soviets] tomorrow night," he vowed. The national security advisor even rehearsed for the president specific lines from the good cop/bad cop routine he intended to put on. "The more we do now," he would tell his Soviet interlocutor, "the better." He was akin to saying: On the shoulders of reasonable men, like you and me, rests the responsibility of preventing a madman, like Nixon, from taking things too far....

Speaking at a summit of North American leaders in Mexico last month, Obama derided those who see the Ukraine crisis, Syria, or other contexts in which Washington and Moscow are presently clashing, as "some Cold War chessboard in which we're in competition with Russia." Yet the president's own national security advisor, Susan Rice, would later tell reporters following Crimea's formal annexation: "Our interest is not in seeing the situation escalate and devolve into hot conflict." Obama's sarcasm notwithstanding, Rice's comments betrayed that the United States has little choice but to see itself as engaged in a "cold" conflict.

This time, however, it is the Russians, not the Americans, who find value in the strategic use of "madness." Following a telephone call with Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have confided that she was not sure the Russian leader was in touch with reality; "in another world" is how she reportedly described her interlocutor. And in the diplomatic volleys that followed Russia's military seizure of Crimea, it was Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov who, in a radio interview with the Voice of Russia, warned that the Kremlin might respond to additional sanctions by the United States and its European allies with "asymmetric measures."...




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