Power  /  Explainer

The "Madman Theory" Was Quintessential Nixon

The rash ruse was central to Nixon’s strategy to fight the Cold War, and can also tell us a good deal about the famously elusive ex-president himself.

Rather than a steady march toward détente, Nixon approached the Cold War as a series of emergencies demanding off-the-cuff, often rash decision-making. He looked at the superpower standoff and its proxy wars as a set of conflicts lurching from one crisis to the next, from Latin America to Europe, from the Middle East to South Asia to the Pacific. Whether elated or aggravated, Nixon returned spiritedly to the coercive ruse of the madman theory, which reflected not only his predilection for acting and for secrecy, but also his penchant for taking great gambles in pursuit of ever-greater gains.

Nixon likewise envisioned himself as ever in the spotlight. He saw his life as ever a fight to fend off fierce rivals, as ever on the verge of great victory or collapse, as ever a series of tests demanding great political gambles and all-out assaults. The madman theory tested his striving and determination and his skills as a performer. It was another version of the story he told of himself, of the lonely, bootstrapped Dick Nixon risking everything as he reeled from crisis to crisis, struggling, gambling breakneck against a dangerous and threatening world.

And with no political experience, not even owning a suit, with only $10,000 in the bank, his wife Pat pregnant, Nixon had taken a longshot chance at running for Congress in 1946. Four years later he ran for Senate with terrible odds against the much-beloved Democrat incumbent and one-time move star Helen Gahagan-Douglas. He continued to risk take risks in his political career in order to climb quickly, precociously running for the vice presidency under Dwight Eisenhower at age 39.

Two years after his defeat to John Kennedy for the 1960 presidency, a 49-year-old Nixon described his life not only as a set of gambles but as a pattern of excruciating public tests against powerful enemies looking to destroy him. He titled his first biography Six Crises to describe his professional ascent. He wrote of standing up valiantly to communists in the State Department during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. He wrote of how he had been publicly castigated by Democrats for keeping a secret campaign fund that, he maintained, only defrayed costs for constituent mail and secretaries. He recounted how his limousine had been attacked by leftist rioters on a diplomatic trip to Caracas, Venezuela. He described his showdown with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev on an American kitchen display in the heart of Moscow.