The Nukes of October

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

The Nukes of October looks at Richard Nixon’s secret plan to bring peace to Vietnam:

Codenamed Giant Lance, Nixon’s plan was the culmination of a strategy of premeditated madness he had developed with national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The details of this episode remained secret for 35 years and have never been fully told. Now, thanks to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, it’s clear that Giant Lance was the leading example of what historians came to call the “madman theory”: Nixon’s notion that faked, finger-on-the-button rage could bring the Soviets to heel.

Nixon and Kissinger put the plan in motion on October 10, sending the US military’s Strategic Air Command an urgent order to prepare for a possible confrontation: They wanted the most powerful thermonuclear weapons in the US arsenal readied for immediate use against the Soviet Union. The mission was so secretive that even senior military officers following the orders — including the SAC commander himself — were not informed of its true purpose.
After their launch, the B-52s pressed against Soviet airspace for three days. They skirted enemy territory, challenging defenses and taunting Soviet aircraft. The pilots remained on alert, prepared to drop their bombs if ordered. The Soviets likely knew about the threat as it was unfolding: Their radar picked up the planes early in their flight paths, and their spies monitored American bases. They knew the bombers were armed with nuclear weapons, because they could determine their weight from takeoff patterns and fuel use. In past years, the US had kept nuclear-armed planes in the air as a possible deterrent (if the Soviets blew up all of our air bases in a surprise attack, we’d still be able to respond). But in 1968, the Pentagon publicly banned that practice — so the Soviets wouldn’t have thought the 18 planes were part of a patrol. Secretary of defense Melvin Laird, who opposed the operation, worried that the Soviets would either interpret Giant Lance as an attack, causing catastrophe, or as a bluff, making Washington look weak.
The madman theory was an extension of [the "flexible response"] doctrine. If you’re going to rely on the leverage you gain from being able to respond in flexible ways — from quiet nighttime assassinations to nuclear reprisals — you need to convince your opponents that even the most extreme option is really on the table. And one way to do that is to make them think you are crazy.

Consider a game that theorist Thomas Schelling described to his students at Harvard in the ’60s: You’re standing at the edge of a cliff, chained by the ankle to another person. As soon as one of you cries uncle, you’ll both be released, and whoever remained silent will get a large prize. What do you do? You can’t push the other person off the cliff, because then you’ll die, too. But you can dance and walk closer and closer to the edge. If you’re willing to show that you’ll brave a certain amount of risk, your partner may concede — and you might win the prize. But if you convince your adversary that you’re crazy and liable to hop off in any direction at any moment, he’ll probably cry uncle immediately. If the US appeared reckless, impatient, even insane, rivals might accept bargains they would have rejected under normal conditions. In terms of game theory, a new equilibrium would emerge as leaders in Moscow, Hanoi, and Havana contemplated how terrible things could become if they provoked an out-of-control president to experiment with the awful weapons at his disposal.
Dobrynin recounted Nixon’s threatening words in his report to the Kremlin: The president said “he will never (Nixon twice emphasized that word) accept a humiliating defeat or humiliating terms. The US, like the Soviet Union, is a great nation, and he is its president. The Soviet leaders are determined persons, but he, the president, is the same.”

Dobrynin warned Soviet leaders that “Nixon is unable to control himself even in a conversation with a foreign ambassador.” He also commented on the president’s “growing emotionalism” and “lack of balance.”

This was exactly the impression that Nixon and Kissinger had sought to cultivate. After the meeting, Kissinger reveled in their success. He wrote the president: “I suspect Dobrynin’s basic mission was to test the seriousness of the threat.” Nixon had, according to Kissinger, “played it very cold with Dobrynin, giving him one back for each he dished out.” Kissinger counseled the White House to “continue backing up our verbal warnings with our present military moves.”

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