Trump's Madman Gambit

tags: election 2016, Trump

Jeffrey P. Kimball is an emeritus professor of history at Miami University and the co-author of "Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War."

President-elect Donald Trump's recent Tweet that "the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear arsenal" and comments to MSNBC welcoming an "arms race" could signal a radical shift away from decades of bipartisan U.S. policy to reduce nuclear tensions and stockpiles. His spokesperson Sean Spicer tried to explain the comments to NBC's Matt Lauer as a "warning" to other countries "that this president's going to take action." 

Some pundits have suggested Trump's unorthodox and erratic comments on nuclear policy are part of a deliberate, Nixonian "madman" strategy designed to strike fear of irrational U.S. behavior into adversaries in order to secure better terms for the United States. But if Trump, his advisers or the neoconservative commentariat believe nuclear threats can be leveraged to the United States' advantage in the 21st century, they should think again. A look at the historical record reveals that when this strategy was pursued during the Eisenhower and Nixon years, it failed to achieve the desired results.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who entered the White House at a time when the United States had a near-monopoly on nuclear weaponry, pursued Cold War diplomacy with a heavy dose of nuclear bluster. He and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, called the strategy "massive retaliation," but critics called it brinkmanship – that is, taking threat-making to the brink of nuclear or thermonuclear Armageddon. Eisenhower's and Dulles' assumptions, however, were that adversaries would fear and therefore capitulate to an irrational threat more than a rational proposal, precisely because they would fear the threatener who enjoyed nuclear superiority.

Contrary to Republican mythology, and as Bill Burr and I document in our 2015 book, "Nixon's Nuclear Specter," the historical record does not support claims that Eisenhower's threat of using nuclear weapons ended the Korean War or intimidated China or the Soviet Union into yielding their goals in the Taiwan Strait, the Mideast or Eastern Europe. Instead, it spurred the Soviets and Chinese to build up their own nuclear arsenals and delivery capabilities.

A student of Eisenhower-Dulles diplomacy, President Richard Nixon sought to deploy his own variation of the brinkmanship strategy. But realizing that he lacked the threat-making credibility of Eisenhower's military résumé and no longer enjoyed nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union, he thought he could draw on his own political reputation for toughness, anger and vindictiveness in order to project the impression that he was a leader who might do anything, no matter how irrational, to end the war in Vietnam. ...

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