The Madman Political Theory: Explaining Acting Crazy For Political Leverage, From Nixon To Putin

The Madman Political Theory: Explaining Acting Crazy For Political Leverage, From Nixon To Putin

madman theory

Photos: Explosion by AlexLMX / iStock, Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, Oct. 28, 2002. (AP Photo/ITAR-TASS/Presidential Press Service)

Acting crazy can be a political ploy, and U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump have been accused of using the madman tactic. Some madman theory pundits say this might be what’s behind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The madman theory is a political theory typically associated with U.S. President Richard Nixon’s foreign policy to make the leaders of hostile communist bloc nations think Nixon was irrational and volatile. According to the theory, those leaders would then avoid provoking the U.S. for fear of an unpredictable U.S. response such as the use of nuclear weapons. 

Is this the play Putin is currently using? Some observers note his behavior has been off, even mad, as of late. But is it an act?

“Most western policymakers believe in Putin the Rational. They argue that, after more than 20 years in power, the Russian leader is a known quantity. He is ruthless and amoral. But he is also shrewd and calculating. He takes risks, but he is not crazy,” wrote Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times, in an opinion piece

He added, “But there are other analysts who fear the Russian leader is turning into Vlad the Mad. They think that Putin has been in power for too long and is growing increasingly out of touch and paranoid. His isolation during the pandemic has made matters worse. Vlad is listening to a dangerously small circle of nationalist advisers.”

The madness could all be an act and an example of the madman theory.

“A final twist is that Putin the Rational may be pretending to be Vlad the Mad,” Rachman wrote. 

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Many political historians say Nixon, who was in the White House from 1969 to 1974, found it wise to act crazy as part of his foreign policy and that he came up with the madman theory.

Nixon Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman once wrote that Nixon had confided to him, “I call it the madman theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button, and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.”

Nixon and his administration were said to employ the madman strategy to force the North Vietnamese government to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. With madman diplomacy, Nixon sought to end the war on the “most favorable terms possible in the shortest period of time practicable,” according to documents from the National Security Archives, The George Washington University. 

Fast forward to Donald Trump’s administration. Some say Trump, who was in office from 2017 to 2021, employed the madman theory in setting his relationship with North Korea, but that Trump was “less effective than Nixon’,” Fandom reported.

Photo Credit: AlexLMX https://www.istockphoto.com/portfolio/AlexLMX?mediatype=photography/ Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin during a Cabinet meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Oct. 28, 2002. (AP Photo/ITAR-TASS/Presidential Press Service)