On Nixon's Madness: An Act or Reality?

On Nixon's Madness
Political Cartoon by Herbert Block called "Onward and Upward and Onward and..." from April 23, 1967, in The Washington Post.  Cartoon depicts three nuclear bombs going from shortest to tallest, which writing on them.

A new PBS documentary called The Movement and the Madman opens with a 1960s TV recording of Richard Nixon promising not to use nuclear weapons to end the Vietnam War. The scene fades to a black screen that reads: “That was his campaign promise. But Nixon had a secret plan to end the war.” This secret plan entailed Nixon pretending to be a “madman” so that officials in North Vietnam would fear his mental state enough to acquiesce to his demands. But was Richard Nixon actually a madman, or did he just play one?

Cover image of On Nixon's Madness

It was on a beach during the summer of 1968 that Nixon disclosed to his chief aide, H. R. Haldeman, one of his most notorious, risky gambits: the madman theory. In On Nixon's Madness, a new book published this month by Johns Hopkins University Press, Zachary Jonathan Jacobson takes a fresh look at the enigmatic president through this theory of Nixon's own invention. With strategic force and nuclear bluffing, Nixon attempted to coerce his foreign adversaries through sheer unpredictability. As his national security advisor Henry Kissinger noted, Nixon's strategy resembled a poker game in which he "push[ed] so many chips into the pot" that the United States' foes would think the president had gone "crazy."


The PBS documentary intermingles interviews with people close to Nixon at the time, the US Department of State’s Anthony Lake and National Security Council staff member Roger Morris, with interviews with important anti-war activists, including Sam Brown, David Hawk, and Joan Libby. Some of Nixon’s aides believed that Nixon was bluffing, while others privately worried that Nixon’s “madman” act was not an act, but instead revealed his unstable mental state. Footage from the Vietnam War and anti-war protests are overlaid with these interviews to provide historic context and striking visuals. 


Political Cartoon by Art Pointer, "where it stops nobody knows!" April 7, 1972, The Detroit News, cartoon depicts Richard Nixon over a roulette wheel with a nuclear bomb jumping around.

From Vietnam, Pakistan, and India to the greater Middle East, Nixon applied this madman theory. Foreign relations for Nixon were not a steady march toward peaceful coexistence but rather an ongoing test of mettle. Nixon saw the Cold War as he saw his life, as a series of ordeals that demanded great risk and grand gestures. For decades, journalists, critics, and scholars have searched for the real Nixon behind these acts. Was he a Red-baiter, a worldly statesman, a war criminal or, in the end, a punchline?

Jacobson combines biography and intellectual and cultural history to understand the emotional life of Richard Nixon, exploring how the former president struggled between great effusions of feeling and great inhibition, how he winced at the notion of his reputation for rage, and how he used that ill repute to his advantage.


Written by: Kristina Lykke
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