The madman theory was a primary characteristic of the foreign policy conducted by U.S. President Richard Nixon. His administration, attempted to make the leaders of other countries think Nixon was mad, and that his behavior was irrational and volatile. Fearing an unpredictable American response, leaders of hostile Communist Bloc nations would avoid provoking the United States.
Nixon explained the strategy to his White House Chief of Staff, H. R. Haldeman:
I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. 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.
In October 1969, the Nixon administration indicated to the Soviet Union that “the madman was loose” when the United States military was ordered to full global war readiness alert (unbeknownst to the majority of the American population), and bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons flew patterns near the Soviet border for three consecutive days.
The administration employed the “madman strategy” to force the North Vietnamese government to negotiate a peace to end the Vietnam War. Along the same lines, American diplomats (Henry Kissinger in particular) portrayed the 1970 incursion into Cambodia as a symptom of Nixon’s supposed instability.
Nixon’s use of the strategy during the Vietnam War was problematic. The theory makes the assumption that the opponent will surrender, fearing that he will be attacked with extreme force regardless of potentially suicidal consequences. In Vietnam, this would imply that Nixon would be willing to use nuclear weapons to ‘win’ the war heedless of nuclear retaliation from the USSR or China. Nixon hoped this perception would allow for a resolution without need of force, but he never managed to truly create that image. As historian Michael Sherry put it: “First, while he would pretend to be willing to pay any price to achieve his goals, his opponents actually were willing to pay any price to achieve theirs. Second, Nixon had the misfortune to preside over a democracy growing weary and increasingly critical of the struggle.”
The madman strategy can be related to Niccolò Machiavelli, who, in his Discourses on Livy (book 3, chapter 2) discusses how it is at times “a very wise thing to simulate madness.” Kimball, in Nixon’s Vietnam War, argues that Nixon arrived at the strategy independently, as a result of practical experience and observation of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s handling of the Korean War.