Newt Gingrich and the “Madman” Theory of International Relations

Richard Nixon visiting U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Richard Nixon visiting U.S. troops in Vietnam.

On occasion, US generals get themselves into trouble when they speak publicly about foreign policy. Perhaps the most famous example is the insubordination of General Douglas MacArthur while he was commander of US/UN forces in Korea in 1950-51, which led to his sacking by President Truman. More recently, General Stanley McChrystal was fired from his role as senior US commander in Afghanistan, after an article appeared in Rolling Stone in which McChrystal and his aides made disparaging and ‘sophomoric’ remarks about President Obama and his senior foreign policy advisers.

The latest member of the military’s top brass to find himself in a spot of bother is General Martin Dempsey, the current chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. Now, there’s no suggestion that Dempsey has been insubordinate. However, he has inadvertently raised the ire of Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

The cause of Gingrich’s displeasure was a recent interview given by Dempsey to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, in which the general stated that ‘we are of the opinion that the Iranian regime is a rational actor’. Gingrich took exception to this comment, declaring in a GOP debate in Arizona on Wednesday that ‘I just cannot imagine why he would have said it’. Gingrich himself described Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as ‘a madman’ and ‘a dictator who said he wants to eliminate Israel from the face of the earth’.

Gingrich went on to imply that he would support a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran, and offered the following justification: ‘If you think a madman is about to have nuclear weapons and you think that madman is going to use those nuclear weapons, then you have an absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of your people by eliminating the capacity to get nuclear weapons’.

Gingrich’s statement about the need to face down a ‘madman’ got me thinking about a former Republican president. Richard Nixon is remembered for many reasons: Watergate, Vietnam, the opening to Mao’s China, détente, and using the CIA to overthrow Chile’s elected president, Salvador Allende, among them. I prefer to remember Nixon for something else: it was he who formulated the unforgettable ‘Madman Theory’ of international relations.

As Stanley Karnow relates in his seminal book Vietnam: A History, Nixon’s plan for ending the Vietnam War was to ‘threaten the North Vietnamese with annihilation’. He discoursed upon his strategy to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman:

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe that I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just let slip to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed with Communists. 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.

Of course, things didn’t work out that way. There was no ‘begging for peace’ on the part of North Vietnam, and Nixon didn’t resort to the nuclear option, although the US military did drop a staggering quantity of conventional bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos while he was president. It’s worth noting as an aside that Nixon also privately contemplated using the US nuclear arsenal if the Soviet Union invaded China, a not unimaginable scenario considering that fighting broke out along their border in 1969.

If we employ Gingrich’s logic, we must conclude that the United States under Nixon, like Ahmadinejad’s Iran, was not a ‘rational actor’ either. As Nixon himself expressed it, his aim was to create the impression that he was a ‘madman’ who ‘might do anything’, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. If we take Gingrich’s argument a step further, North Vietnam had the same ‘absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of [its] people’ as present-day Israel, only in their case the nuclear threat was posed by the ‘madman’ Nixon.

So where does this leave us in our counter-factual thought experiment? According to Gingrich’s logic, North Vietnam would have been justified in attacking the US. Somehow, however, I can’t imagine Gingrich ever expressing that point of view, notwithstanding his professed belief in the need to confront ‘madmen’ like Ahmadinejad.

Curiously enough, Gingrich has expressed admiration for Nixon in the past. Indeed, it has even been suggested that the former speaker has viewed Nixon as ‘a role model’ throughout his political career. We must assume, therefore, that Gingrich is unaware of Nixon’s ‘Madman Theory’. Still, that’s a little hard to believe. Wasn’t Gingrich a professor of history before he turned to politics?

Michael Walker has a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews.