Last weekend, President Donald Trump reportedly told the U.S. trade representative to scare South Korean negotiators by telling them he was a madman. “You tell [the South Koreans] if they don't give the concessions now, this crazy guy will pull out of the deal,” he said, referring to the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement. That report came at the end of a day in which the president’s tweets about another issue on the Korean peninsula evoked comparisons to the Nixon-era “madman theory” that you can scare an opponent into concessions by cultivating an image of recklessness. “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” the president wrote. “… Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what needs to be done!”
Although President Trump credits himself with breaking every presidential norm, in choosing to intimidate foreign opponents through feigned (or real) recklessness, he is borrowing from the playbook of a predecessor. In April 1971, facing an impasse in negotiations with the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon gave Trump-like advice to his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had just suggested that he might hint to Hanoi, “if you think you’re going to defeat him [Nixon], if you don’t accept this [latest offer], he will stop at nothing”—implying the use of nuclear weapons.
Nixon: You can say, “I cannot control him.” Put it that way.
Kissinger: Yeah. And imply that you might use nuclear weapons.
Nixon: Yes, sir. “He will. I just want you to know he is not going to cave.”
Nor did Nixon invent this approach. Nixon’s mentor in foreign policy, Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles, was credited by many in Washington with having ended the Korean War by hinting to the Chinese that the former Allied commander was tough enough to use nuclear weapons in Korea. Even some top Democrats believed in this. According to Nixon’s autobiography, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was minority leader in the Senate when the war ended, later confessed to Nixon his belief that the Soviets “‘feared Ike’ because of what Dulles had threatened to do in Korea.” Eisenhower, of course, never allowed anyone to imply that he was crazy. But, in the expectation that the information would reach Mao, Dulles did hint to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that the Eisenhower administration was prepared to widen the war if negotiations did not succeed. As Eisenhower biographer William Hitchcock has recently argued, this was a self-serving myth Dulles himself invented after the fact. Not only does post-Cold War evidence suggest that the hint had no effect on Chinese decision-making, there is no reason to believe it ever reached Beijing at all.