Supporters of the Iraq War often state that the war has “proven” that we are willing to attack if necessary, and thus was a successful bit of foreign policy. (Funny – Iran doesn’t seem to be acting any better now than they were before.) This odd “peace thru belligerence” approach nearly came to a head on October 27, 1969, when Richard Nixon loaded up 18 B-52 bombers with nuclear weapons and launched them towards Moscow with the intent of terrifying the USSR into pressuring Hanoi into making concessions at the peace negotiations in Paris.

Codenamed Giant Lance, Nixon’s plan was the culmination of a strategy of premeditated madness he had developed with national security adviser Henry Kissinger. The details of this episode remained secret for 35 years and have never been fully told. Now, thanks to documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, it’s clear that Giant Lance was the leading example of what historians came to call the “madman theory”: Nixon’s notion that faked, finger-on-the-button rage could bring the Soviets to heel.

So what did the bombers do?

After their launch, the B-52s pressed against Soviet airspace for three days. They skirted enemy territory, challenging defenses and taunting Soviet aircraft. The pilots remained on alert, prepared to drop their bombs if ordered. The Soviets likely knew about the threat as it was unfolding: Their radar picked up the planes early in their flight paths, and their spies monitored American bases. They knew the bombers were armed with nuclear weapons, because they could determine their weight from takeoff patterns and fuel use. In past years, the US had kept nuclear-armed planes in the air as a possible deterrent (if the Soviets blew up all of our air bases in a surprise attack, we’d still be able to respond). But in 1968, the Pentagon publicly banned that practice — so the Soviets wouldn’t have thought the 18 planes were part of a patrol. Secretary of defense Melvin Laird, who opposed the operation, worried that the Soviets would either interpret Giant Lance as an attack, causing catastrophe, or as a bluff, making Washington look weak.

This bizarre game of chicken was prompted by game theory – an interesting field of applied mathematics, but I’m not sure it makes good foreign policy.

Kissinger had studied game theory as a young academic and strategic theorist at Harvard. In the early ’60s, he was part of a group of World War II veterans who became the oracles or “whiz kids” of the nuclear age. Working at newly formed institutes and think tanks, like the RAND Corporation, they preached that the proper way to deal with the existence of nuclear weapons wasn’t to act as if the situation was so grave that one couldn’t even discuss using them; it was to figure out how to use them most effectively. This was the attitude mocked by Stanley Kubrik in Dr. Strangelove, in which RAND appears thinly disguised as the Bland Corporation.

Of course, the entire goal of this exercise was actually to convince the Soviets we were crazy. It’s a giant game of nuclear chicken.

If you’re going to rely on the leverage you gain from being able to respond in flexible ways — from quiet nighttime assassinations to nuclear reprisals — you need to convince your opponents that even the most extreme option is really on the table. And one way to do that is to make them think you are crazy.

Consider a game that theorist Thomas Schelling described to his students at Harvard in the ’60s: You’re standing at the edge of a cliff, chained by the ankle to another person. As soon as one of you cries uncle, you’ll both be released, and whoever remained silent will get a large prize. What do you do? You can’t push the other person off the cliff, because then you’ll die, too. But you can dance and walk closer and closer to the edge. If you’re willing to show that you’ll brave a certain amount of risk, your partner may concede — and you might win the prize. But if you convince your adversary that you’re crazy and liable to hop off in any direction at any moment, he’ll probably cry uncle immediately. If the US appeared reckless, impatient, even insane, rivals might accept bargains they would have rejected under normal conditions. In terms of game theory, a new equilibrium would emerge as leaders in Moscow, Hanoi, and Havana contemplated how terrible things could become if they provoked an out-of-control president to experiment with the awful weapons at his disposal.

On th 30th, Nixon recalled the marauding bombers. On one level, it worked – the Soviets were convinced that Nixon was crazy. However – the war didn’t end in 1969, did it?

On the most obvious level, the mission failed. It may have scared the Soviets, but it did not compel them to end their support for Hanoi, and the North Vietnamese certainly didn’t dash to Paris to beg for peace. Nixon and Kissinger believed, though, that their threats opened the door to the arms-control deals of the early ’70s. According to this argument, leaders in Moscow recognized after October 1969 that they had better negotiate with Washington, on terms amenable to American interests.

More than 35 years after Giant Lance, I asked Kissinger about it during a long lunch at the Four Seasons Grill in New York. Why, I asked, did they risk nuclear war back in October 1969? He paused over his salad, surprised that I knew so much about this episode, and measured his words carefully. “Something had to be done,” he explained, to back up threats the US had made and to push the Soviets for help in Vietnam. Kissinger had suggested the nuclear maneuvers to give the president more leverage in negotiations. It was an articulation of the game theory he had studied before coming to power. “What were [the Soviets] going to do?” Kissinger said dismissively.

What were they going to do?!? What if they were crazier than you? Or at least committed to appearing crazier, trying to win the “game”?

GOP foreign policy really hasn’t changed that much in the past 39 years. We still have disproportionate, “crazy” military responses. We have a “don’t talk to ’em” policy that is designed to keep them from knowing what we’ll do – enhancing our “crazyness”. Bush has stated that “no option is off the table”, implying that we’ll nuke somebody… if we feel like it.

The difference between appearing mad and being mad is a very thin line indeed.

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