Those who fault President Obama for not being belligerent enough toward Russia and Iran — or assertive enough in dealing with the crises in Iraq, Gaza, Syria and Afghanistan — would do well to remember how poorly the feckless bravado of President Nixon served us and our allies in Vietnam.
Nixon prided himself on his tough-guy image and his reputation for strategic risk-taking. He learned the dubious art of brinkmanship as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president during the height of the Cold War. And, as he later acknowledged, he came to admire Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for his simple ability to “scare the hell out of everybody.”
Once Nixon became president and was faced with the daunting task of forcing the North Vietnamese to negotiate — even as U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam and U.S. antiwar sentiment peaked — he began trying to “scare the hell out of everybody” to gain leverage against Hanoi.
“I call it the madman theory,” Nixon told his aide H.R. Haldeman. “I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war.”
His calculated displays of rashness included invading Cambodia, making a jaw-dropping opening to China and initiating the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi in late 1972.