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.
Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger developed what he called the “madman theory,” which posited that threatening massive, even excessive, levels of military violence, including nuclear attacks, would intimidate the North Vietnamese and their patrons in the Soviet Union into submission at the negotiating table. On Oct. 9, 1969, Nixon and Kissinger instructed the Pentagon to place U.S. nuclear and other military forces around the globe on alert, and to do so secretly.
For 18 days in October, the Pentagon carried out one of the largest and most extensive secret military operations in U.S. history. Tactical and strategic bomber forces and Polaris missile-submarines went on alert. This “Joint Chiefs Readiness Test” culminated in a flight of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers over northern Alaska.
he secret U.S. nuclear alert, though certainly noticed by Soviet leaders, failed to pressure them into helping Nixon win concessions from Hanoi. Nixon switched his Vietnam strategy from one of intimidation to one of steady troop withdrawals and Vietnamization – reinforced by rapprochement with China and détente with the Soviet Union. In the end, he exited Vietnam only after negotiating an unsatisfactory armistice agreement.
Why did Eisenhower’s and Nixon’s nuclear gambits fail to work as intended? Such threats are unlikely to succeed when the side threatened possesses its own nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities, or when a non-nuclear state or a guerrilla or terror group is presumably under the protection of a nuclear state, or when the nuclear threat is disproportionate and therefore not credible because it is aimed at a small country or non-state actor.
For these and other reasons, Trump’s implied or actual nuclear “warnings” are not likely to succeed in their goal of intimidating others, whether it is nuclear-armed Russia, China, North Korea or the undeterrable Islamic State group, to comply with his foreign and military policy goals.
The real danger for the United States and the world, however, is that if Trump tries to operationalize his threat to expand the lethality or size of America’s already costly, formidable and oversized nuclear arsenal, and continues his erratic bluster, he may trigger a new arms race and possibly produce a chain reaction of great-power threats and mobilizations that could potentially escalate into nuclear conflict.
Published with authorization
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.”
Tags: Donald Trump, nuclear weapons, foreign policy, Russia, history