Did Thomas C. Schelling Invent the Madman Theory?

Mr. Kimball is a professor of history at Miami University and the author of To Reason Why, Nixon's Vietnam War, and The Vietnam War Files.

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On October 10, 2005, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced that it had awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences to Thomas C. Schelling and Robert J. Aumann for their separate work in having “enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis.” The Academy’s press release explained that Schelling’s contribution included his ideas about “uncertain retaliation”:

Against the backdrop of the nuclear arms race in the late 1950s, Thomas Schelling’s book The Strategy of Conflict [1960] set forth his vision of game theory as a unifying framework for the social sciences. Schelling showed that a party can strengthen its position by overtly worsening its own options, that the capability to retaliate can be more useful than the ability to resist an attack, and that uncertain retaliation is more credible and more efficient than certain retaliation. These insights have proven to be of great relevance for conflict resolution and efforts to avoid war. . . . Notably, his analysis of strategic commitments has explained a wide range of phenomena, from the competitive strategies of firms to the delegation of political decision power.

The concept of uncertain retaliation has to be placed in the context of Schelling’s critique of standard game-theory definitions of economic “rationality.” Schelling argued that in a bargaining or competitive situation one economic agent’s framework for rationality is not always necessarily another’s. If, for example, agent A does not act according to agent B’s conventional assumptions about the rules of the game, B will consider A’s behavior “irrational.” During the game, B will be uncertain about the trajectory of A’s behavior. From B’s point of view, A’s behavior is ambiguous and unpredictable. Thus, A’s irrationality might result in A winning the competition. If Agent A is not really irrational—or mad—but is using his/her unconventional behavior as part of a conscious bargaining or competitive strategy, then his/her so-called irrationality is effectively rational in relation to the game’s “payoffs.”1

Tyler Cowen, one of Schelling’s former students at Harvard University, explained Schelling’s irrational-behavior theory relative to nuclear deterrence this way:

Ever see Dr. Strangelove? Tom developed the idea that deterrence is never fully credible (why retaliate once you are wiped out?). The best deterrent might involve pre-commitment [e.g., the Doomsday Machine], some element of randomness [e.g., ambiguity about one’s deterrent strategy], or a partly crazy leader [e.g., a madman such as General Ripper]. I recall Tom telling me he was briefly an advisor to Kubrick.2

Michael Kinsley, another former student, recalled a classroom lecture of Schelling’s whose lesson Kinsley associated with the purposeful projection of “madness.”

So you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, chained by the ankle to someone else. You’ll be released, and one of you will get a large prize, as soon as the other gives in. How do you persuade the other guy to give in, when the only method at your disposal—threatening to push him off the cliff—would doom you both? . . . Answer: You start dancing, closer and closer to the edge. That way, you don’t have to convince him that you would do something totally irrational: plunge him and yourself off the cliff. You just have to convince him that you are prepared to take a higher risk than he is of accidentally falling off the cliff. If you can do that, you win. You have done it by using probability to divide a seemingly indivisible threat. And a smaller threat can be more effective than a bigger one. A threat to drag both of you off the cliff is not credible. A threat to take a 60 percent chance of that same thing might be credible. . . . Madness can be wickedly rational. If one of those two folks on the cliff can convince the other that he is just a bit nuts, that makes his threat to drag them both off the cliff much more plausible. Some defenders of Richard Nixon used to claim that the evidence of insanity that bothered a few Americans was actually a purposeful strategy to enhance the deterrent power of our nuclear arsenal.3

Jonathan Schell had made similar remarks in May 2003:

[Schelling argued that] if you visibly arranged to make yourself a little bit out of control, the foe would no longer be able to imagine that you might desist from nuclear war in a last-minute fit of sanity. They’d think that you might plunge into the abyss in spite of yourself. And so they would fear you, as hoped. . . . Another solution, also pioneered by Schelling, among others, was the deliberate cultivation of a reputation of irrationality. Schelling called this policy the “rationality of irrationality.” In this policy, the foe would believe in your self-destructive threats not because it thought you might slip on a banana peel, so to speak, at the brink but because it believed you just might be lunatic enough to go over the edge deliberately. Richard Nixon was one practitioner of this strategy. . . . He called the strategy the “madman theory.”4

Schell was correct in crediting unnamed others with having also written about the strategy of irrationality—a strategy that also went by other names. In his book Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), for example, Henry Kissinger—drawing on the deliberations of a panel of military and foreign policy experts called together by the Council on Foreign Relations—had discussed the “strategy of ambiguity.” Oskar Morgenstern had observed in The Question of National Defense (1959), that “the time is with us when even a moderate [nuclear-weapons] edge gained by one side over the other, coupled with a will to exploit it ruthlessly, creates new possibilities of threats, ultimatums, blackmail” (p. 286). In the same year, Daniel Ellsberg had delivered two lectures on the uses of “blackmail” and “madness” before Henry Kissinger’s Harvard seminar, which he followed with a series of public lectures before audiences in Boston on the topic of “The Art of Coercion.” Lecture topics included “The Theory and Practice of Blackmail,” “Presidents as Perfect Detonators,” “The Threat of Violence,” “The Incentives to Preemptive Attack,” and “The Political Uses of Madness.”

In the late fifties, Schelling, Morgenstern, Kissinger, and Ellsberg (as well as others) were part of a circle of strategic thinkers centered at Harvard and RAND who were concerned mainly with the problem of the instability of the nuclear arms race and nuclear deterrence.5 They recognized, analyzed, understood, and criticized the irrationality theory. Although they believed in the efficacy of force in foreign policy, in the late fifties none of these civilian strategists, as far as I can discern, actually advocated a madman strategy of ambiguity, irrationality, uncertainty, unpredictability, or excessive force and ruthlessness as later practiced by Nixon. (Kissinger converted to the madman theory while working for Nixon; Schelling had a falling out with Kissinger over his and Nixon’s conduct of the Vietnam War.)

In Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, for example, Kissinger had made an argument for predictable nuclear deterrence, calling for “presenting the enemy with an unfavorable calculus of risks” by means of “military operations in phases which permit an assessment of the risks and possibilities for settlement at each stage before recourse is had to the next phase of operations” (pp. 225-226). This approach resembled what became known as “graduated deterrence,” a supposedly rational strategy that Nixon would criticize when Lyndon Johnson’s administration applied it in Vietnam. (It was also what Schelling recommended in Strategy of Conflict.)6 Kissinger’s discussion of the “strategy of ambiguity . . . , which combines political, psychological, and military pressures to induce the greatest degree of uncertainty and hesitation in the minds of the opponent,” was a strategy he claimed the Soviets used, and which was also implicit in the Dwight Eisenhower-John Foster Dulles strategy of brinkmanship and massive retaliation. Kissinger was critical of brinkmanship and massive retaliation precisely because of their unpredictability and ambiguity:

It has been argued that the deliberate ambiguity of our present position, which refuses to define what we understand by limited war or under what circumstances we might fight it, is in itself a deterrent because the enemy can never be certain that military action on his part may not unleash all-out war. . . . However, it may have precisely the contrary effect; it may give rise to the notion that we do not intend to resist at all and thus encourage aggression [p. 224].

Even if I am wrong and these “wizards of Armageddon” had indeed advocated madman strategies, and even though they may have been the first game theorists and civilian deterrent strategists to discuss the madman theory, they had not invented or originated it, as some writers have claimed or implied.

I have argued elsewhere that the madman theory is as old as “civilization,” if not humanity itself, and that the madman theory’s inventors and practitioners were political-military decision makers:

The principle of instilling fear by threatening excessive force is as ancient as statecraft, war, and terror. Demanding the return of a hostage, the second millennium bce Hittite King Mursli, for example, issued this warning . . . to the hostage-taker: “I will come and destroy you along with your land.” Over three thousand years later, the principle became an essential component of [strategic bombing and] “atomic diplomacy.” While serving as vice president at the dawn of the nuclear age—the period in which Nixon had come of age as a policymaker and strategist—he learned about the “uncertainty principle,” which was one of the principles that lay at the heart of the atomic “brinkmanship” or “massive retaliation” strategy of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.7

Nixon had also learned from Nikita Khrushchev, who, Nixon claimed, was “the most brilliant world leader I have ever met,” because he nurtured a reputation for rashness and unpredictability that “scared the hell out of people.”8

Policymaking strategists continued to incorporate the uncertainty principle and the principle of excessive force—two of several elements that make up the madman theory—in their concepts of nuclear deterrence and coercion in the decades after Nixon. In 2002, for example, the George W. Bush administration openly touted its strategy of nuclear “ambiguity” and later that of conventional “shock and awe.”9

With or without nuclear threats, the madman theory has worked for some decision makers, leaders, statesmen, tyrants, aggressors, and conquerors during the long course of history, but it has not always worked, and it did not work for Nixon and Kissinger during the Vietnam War. Real-world diplomacy and war have proven to be far more complicated than any make-believe game, however instructive the game may be. The lessons of history may be a better guide, assuming one can draw the right lessons, which is another real world complication.

Related Links

  • Thomas G. Schelling: The Nuclear Taboo
  • Notes

    1 On Schelling' s views about "irrational behavior," see, e.g., his book The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 16 ff. In Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), Schelling also discussed diplomatic blackmail, "compellence," and coercion.

    2 Tyler Cowen, "Thomas Schelling: New Nobel Laureate," October 10, 2005.

    3 Michael Kinsley, "A Nobel Laureate Who's Got Game," Washington Post, October 12, 2005, p. A 17.

    4 Jonathan Schell, " Letter From Ground Zero: Madmen," Nation, May 15, 2003. This op-ed was primarily a comment on the Bush administration's nuclear-weapons policy.

    5 On these others, see, e.g., Fred M. Kaplan, Wizards of Armageddon (Palo Alto: Standard University Press, 1991).

    6 This also seems to be Kaplan's view regarding Schelling's position on nuclear deterrence; "All Pain, No Gain: Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling's Little-Known Role in the Vietnam War," Slate, October 11, 2005.

    7 Kimball, The Vietnam War Files: Uncovering the Secret History of Nixon-Era Strategy ( Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 16. Also see, Kimball, Nixon's Vietnam War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), chap. 4; and William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, "Nixon' s Secret Nuclear Alert: Vietnam War Diplomacy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff Readiness Test, October 1969, " Cold War History 3, 2 (January 2003): 113-156.

    8 Quoted in "What the President Saw: A Nation Coming into Its Own," Time, July 29, 1985, p. 51.

    9 See, e.g., Kimball, "Is Bush Trying Out the Madman Theory," February 28, 2005, History News Network.

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