Nixon’s Madman Theory and Madison Avenue Mad Men

This week’s blog post is a guest contribution from my brother, Michael, on the topic of the “nuclear option,” a term from nuclear deterrence theory that has come to be applied, sometimes loosely, in those situations when one decides to “push the button,” to risk, and probably lose, everything for the chance to destroy an opponent. Michael focuses his attention on a work of fiction to show how the theory of mutually assured destruction rests on assumptions of human nature that may be flawed. Fiction can’t be taken as scientific evidence, but when the actions of fictional characters ring true with an audience, they invite us to ponder those questions that science can’t answer either. In this case, such questions as: Will mutually assured destruction someday fail just because one fallible human being with his finger on the button gambles that he could come out victorious after launching a first strike? Or would the losing side in a long war, at the moment before an ignominious defeat, scream après moi, l’apocalypse and set off a nuclear exchange? Human behavior in less high-stakes scenarios suggest we shouldn’t expect our luck will always hold out.
Nixon’s Madman Theory and Madison Avenue Mad Men: Why mutually assured destruction scenarios don’t assure the prevention of mutual destruction

by Michael Riches (guest contributor, January 30, 2016)

One of the most sublime aspects of the AMC TV series Mad Men, which concluded last year, is how the show was always about more than what it was about.

On its surface, the program is about the advertising industry in the 1960s. Watch it patiently and it becomes a depiction of how the dynamic social classes of the 1960s rubbed against (and rubbed off on) each other. Pay closer attention and it becomes an almost clinical analysis of one man’s anxieties about identity and death, and how they play out against the anxieties and identities of others. Is Mad Men the story of how modern-day advertising came of age in a turbulent decade, or is it the story of an orphan raised by Appalachians during the Great Depression, outrunning his demons with the stolen identity of dead Korean War lieutenant? In many ways, Mad Men is more than any of these things. It is the story of how any one of us could be like Don Draper, abundant with creativity or desperate and mean, or both, depending on the circumstances of our upbringing and the opportunities presented to us.

What elevates each of Mad Men’s storylines is how much is revealed by what’s not said within its adeptly scripted dialogs.

The program had a sharp eye for metaphor – occasionally clunky, but mostly well disguised within compelling storylines. This is reflected in how Mad Men dealt with pivotal events of the 1960s. The first mention of the Cuban Missile Crisis, for instance, was in the background of the final episode of Season 2 (“Meditations in an Emergency”), “breaking news” that largely went unmentioned by any character. The social angst caused by the crisis manifested not so much in open dialog, but in how the characters behaved, as if each were aware that they might soon perish, yet in too much denial to talk about it – the secretary’s confession to one of her superiors that she gave birth to his child then gave it away for adoption; Don’s wife having her first extramarital tryst in the bathroom of a singles bar after years of deducing (though never verbally acknowledging) her husband’s infidelities; and the parallel of the hostile incursion of foreign power, as a British advertising conglomerate lands in New York to buy out the firm, to which Don is told to stand his ground during negotiations. Don’s survival (as with the survival of the Americans and Soviets during Cuba) came down to a risky move that could be seen either as brilliant or a fluke. All of this could have played out as soap opera, but deft handling by the writers turned these dramas into authentic moments of catharsis.

It would be too obvious an omission for any fictional study of the 1960s to ignore the Cold War. The nuclear arms race had a profound effect on generations raised through the 1950s to the early 1990s, and yet Mad Men made scarce mention of it during its seven-year run. This, however, was probably a wise and natural choice. As a child in the 1970s and a high school student in the 1980s, I recall that the potential of nuclear warfare was an underlying anxiety in our culture, frequently in our thoughts and constantly in the news, but rarely talked about outside of political arguments or the occasional topic in Social Studies. I imagine it would have been the same in the 1960s. In that respect, Mad Men made a wise move in depicting the Cold War through interpersonal conflict rather than explicit dialog about the fears of a nuclear attack.

One of the clever ways in which Mad Men touched on the Cold War was in an episode that dealt with various characters blowing up relationships in a style of “mutually assured destruction” (season 6, episode 6, “For Immediate Release,” set in the spring of 1966). In one storyline, the ever insecure account man Pete Campbell locks eyes with his father-in-law while both are making an exit from a high-end Manhattan brothel, where Pete’s firm often entertains demanding clients.  Unnerved by the encounter, Pete seeks advice from his more unflappable peer, Ken Cosgrove. Will Pete’s father-in-law, a top executive with Vicks who handed Pete an ongoing advertising account, pull his business from the firm?

Ken tells Pete to relax.

Ken: “It’s mutually assured destruction.”
Pete: “So he’s not going to say anything?”
Ken: “He can’t. It’s why I don’t worry about the bomb.”

In another storyline, Don Draper fires his most prestigious client, Jaguar, during a dinner in which their insufferable dealer representative, Herb Rennet, puts forward a business proposal that is a veiled swipe on Don’s capabilities. Don hands him a card with the name of “the person who’ll be handling your account from now on.”

Herb: “You never fail to overheat, do ya? You know the somersaults I’m doing because you’re so touchy?”
Don: “Really? A man your size?”

Two superpowers, one vulgar and fat on life’s excesses, the other a bully who “overheats” when his pride is wounded, get into a battle of wills. Herb sees no harm in pushing Don because Don is perceived to have too much to lose by pushing back. But Don does push back, taking the “nuclear” option and putting his entire firm in jeopardy (the Jaguar account was the lifeblood of Don’s agency).

The news infuriates his partners. Pete lividly informs Don that the loss of Jaguar means killing a public offering that would have been tremendously lucrative for all involved. As it turned out, another partner had been talking to Chevy about a bid for their business, meaning the firm would have had to drop Jaguar regardless.

Don: “You wanna go public? How much better is it when we have Chevy!”
Pete: “Don’t pretend you had a plan. You’re Tarzan, swinging from vine to vine.”

(Meanwhile, subtle Cold War reference is made in a storyline involving the copywriter Peggy and her live-in boyfriend Abe. The two are residing in the makings of a future ghetto, at the insistence of Abe, a social activist who is adamant about building a life in a genuine neighborhood free of the material wants of the Manhattan bourgeoisie. Peggy, in dislike of her living conditions, moans, “Those kids are living on our stoop, lighting firecrackers and playing their music.” This can be seen as a reference to Cuba, living on America’s “stoop,” provoking the USA with Soviet rockets and fiery orations, not to mention the way Cuba needled the US with their inconvenient example of Communism working with relative success. A few moments later, while Peggy and Abe kiss, Latin-American music blasts from outside.)

The subtle lesson in this episode is that when the “nuclear option” is threatened, a positive outcome can be chalked up more to luck than to a tactic with a foreseeable result. That much is stressed in a subsequent scene, when word goes out that Pete’s father-in-law, Tom, has pulled his business from the agency. Pete visits Tom in his office at Vicks.

Pete: “Tom, what are you doing? I know we’re both emotional and vulnerable, but I’m not the enemy here.”
Tom: “My daughter is a princess. She could have had anyone. I knew there was a reason you didn’t want children. You have no business being a father.”
Pete: “You just pressed the button, Tom! You just blew everything up!”
Tom: “It makes me sick, thinking about the man I saw being with my daughter and granddaughter.”
Pete: “Why don’t you go look in the mirror!”
Tom: “You can either walk out of here like a man, or I can throw you out like the lowlife you are.”
Pete (on his way out the door): “If I have as little character as you say, why would you push me like this?”
Tom: “You’ll do the right thing.”

What is meant by the “right thing” is not stated, but it’s obvious that Tom believes Pete will keep his mouth shut and forget the incident. In Tom’s view, he has delivered his revenge, he is “even.” Pete, though, leaves the room with a different idea of what the “right thing” means, believing that Tom’s pulling of Vicks’ business was the nuclear option. Pete’s marriage was already crumbling thanks to one of his affairs – something Tom was likely not aware of and was not able to consider – which allows Pete some freedom for a counter-strike when he realizes he is likely going to lose his wife regardless.

Pete: “Did you know your father pulled his business?”
Trudy: “No. And I don’t care, Peter.”
Pete: “I guess it doesn’t matter that I caught him in a mid-town whorehouse… It’s true. With a 200-pound negro prostitute. Ask him to his face.”
Trudy: “You’ll say anything to hurt me, won’t you!”
Pete: “He wanted it this way. He left me no other choice.”
Trudy: “You had lots of choices, Peter! We’re done. Get your things.”

That last line perhaps encapsulates the episode’s argument, that the more heated a conflict becomes, the fewer choices we believe we have. We may feel that we have been pushed to the brink in any given dispute, but in fact there is no brink, no precipice; we feel we have only one option, when in fact we have many, including doing nothing. Pete didn’t have to say anything to his wife, and he didn’t have to confront Tom in his office. Each decision to escalate the conflict came with its own consequences. In Don’s case, he gained the upper hand in his high-stakes gamble out of pure luck, whereas when Pete tried to duplicate Don’s success, he finished off his marriage after losing a major client. The threat of mutually assured destruction works sometimes. Other times it doesn’t. Chance and circumstance are usually the deciding factors.

The title of Mad Men comes from the moniker that “ad men” applied to themselves in the 1960s. When related to this episode, though, we’re reminded of the “Madman  Theory” of US president Richard Nixon (1969-1974). As recounted by Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, in his 1978 book The Ends of Power, Nixon said:

“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.” [1]

Historians generally agree that Nixon came to this strategy on his own, though his tactics can be traced back to Machiavelli and fictional characters such as Hamlet. So Nixon may not have been an original in employing the “madman” approach to international disputes, but he was the first to take such a stance in the nuclear age.  

In their article “The Madman Nuclear Alert: Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969” [2] authors Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suri provide detail of how the Madman Theory was put into practice. The US military had been ordered, in late 1969, to increase readiness to "respond to possible confrontation by the Soviet Union."

“The Strategic Air Command (SAC) was ordered to … increase the number of nuclear-armed B-52 bombers on ground alert … Even more dramatic, on October 27 SAC launched a series of B-52 bombers, armed with thermonuclear weapons, on a ‘show of force’ airborne alert … Eighteen B-52s took off from bases in California and Washington State. The bombers crossed Alaska, were refueled in midair by KC-135 tanker aircraft, and then flew in oval patterns toward the Soviet Union and back, on eighteen-hour ‘vigils’ over the northern polar ice cap … Nixon sought to convince Soviet and North Vietnamese leaders that he might do anything to end the war in Vietnam, in accordance with his "madman theory" of coercive diplomacy. The nuclear alert measures were therefore specifically chosen to be loud enough to be picked up quickly by the Soviet Union's intelligence agencies. The military operation was also, however, deliberately designed to remain secret from the American public and U.S. allies.”

Author Michael S. Sherry also reported in In the Shadow of War [3] that American diplomats, including National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, directly intimated that the US incursion into Cambodia, in 1970, was a product of Nixon's mental instability.

The fault in such strategizing is that Nixon might have ignored the possibility that he was playing a “madman” game with actual madmen – it was entirely possible that the Communist states he was playing chicken with might have been willing to sacrifice more than what Nixon himself was pretending to put at risk. Like Tom in the example above, he lacked information about his counterpart’s circumstances and psychology. But what this also demonstrates, as pointed out by Sagan and Suri, is that the American public – actually, the global public – would have had no clue as to the actual reasons nuclear warfare had broken out, if it had. In the same way that popular history has eliminated (or at the very least diminished) the fact that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely unnecessary to ending Japanese involvement in World War II,  a “credible” provocation would have likely been manufactured by both sides had a nuclear conflict resulted from Nixon’s reckless approach to international relations.

That’s also the subtext of what was demonstrated in this episode of Mad Men. In each dispute depicted in the story, every party involved believed that the other had more to lose than him, and each aspiring “winner” did not know enough about what was going on behind each scene to be able to guarantee a favorable outcome. Don believed that his high-stakes strategy – putting his entire firm at risk in order to purge a client he despised – resulted in victory, when in fact there was an emerging situation he was not aware of that worked in his favor. Tom thought he knew how to play his cards with son-in-law Pete, but not without some unexpected collateral damage to his own family and his own standing as a father.

In the poetic way that art can argue better than history, conflict in relationships is often unavoidable and occasionally necessary. And yet there always remains potential for self-destruction. Mad Men showed that the essential lessons are in the choices we make when we manage disputes. We can follow our egos in the pursuit of destroying an adversary, often harming ourselves in the process, or we can make the difficult choices to resolve the enmity and do something for the greater good. Whether it’s the mad men of Madison Avenue or those holding political leadership, history demonstrates that humanity rarely makes the latter choice. It can be argued that favorable outcomes (not to mention survival itself) in the nuclear age have largely been matters of luck.


[1] H.R. Haldeman, The Ends of Power (Times Books, 1978).
[2] Scott D. Sagan and Jeremi Suri, “The Madman Nuclear Alert: Secrecy, Signaling, and Safety in October 1969,” International Security, Spring 2003, Vol. 27, No. 4.
[3] Michael S. Sherry, In the Shadow of War (Yale University Press, 1995).

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