New Vietnam War film goes one step too far

Paul Ryder | April 17, 2023

A new documentary film on PBS, “The Movement and the Madman,” spotlights the 1969 Moratorium demonstrations for peace in Vietnam. These events marked the passage of the peace movement from the groundbreaking stage (1965-1969) to the stage of great expansion, flooding into the American heartland (1970-1975). 

While I recommend the new film, it goes one step too far by asserting the demonstrations actually prevented a U.S. nuclear attack on Vietnam.  It would be fair to say the Moratorium demonstrations helped delay other forms of military escalation, such as the mining of Haiphong harbor. But the nuclear attack was just a weak bluff.

The film’s title refers to Nixon’s notion that if he could make Hanoi leaders think he was capable of any barbarity, even a nuclear attack, they would capitulate at the negotiating table. As Nixon put it, “Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” [1]

Nixon didn’t come up with this idea himself and neither did Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser. It goes back at least four centuries, to Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote, “It is wise sometimes to pretend to be crazy.”

Nixon called his threat the “November Ultimatum” and included a demand, a deadline, and an “or else.” 

In the messages Nixon sent to Hanoi, directly and indirectly, the demand changed from “progress in Paris,” to “major progress toward a solution,” and “a settlement.”

The deadline was specific: November 1, 1969.

The “or else” part of the ultimatum also kept changing, from “other measures,” “alternatives,” “re-evaluate our policy,” “take measures that would create a complicated situation,” “take measures of the greatest consequence,” to “steps of grave consequence.” Nixon didn’t use the word “nuclear” at all.

It’s also clear there weren’t any secret messages with explicit nuclear threats. This is what North Vietnam’s principal negotiator Le Duc Tho told Henry Kissinger in 1972:

You made statements amounting to threats. . . We foresee that if the war is not settled, the war will be very ferocious. Maybe you would even use massive B-52 bombing raids, perhaps even to level Hanoi and Haiphong. We also sometimes think that you would also use atomic weapons, because during the resistance against the French, Vice President Nixon proposed the use of atomic weapons. [2]

Le Duc Tho was a founder and Politburo member of the Communist Party of Vietnam. Had there been any secret explicit nuclear threats in 1969, he would have known about it. And if so, he would have referred to those threats rather than to Nixon’s views in the 1950s. He didn’t.

Of course, no bluff will work unless the enemy is taken in by it. In the case of the Vietnamese leaders, it was quite the opposite. They called his bluff immediately.

At first, they just ignored Nixon’s direct and indirect approaches. When they replied, they were defiant. Nixon made a direct overture to President Ho Chi Minh on July 15, 1969. He was met with silence until August 25, when a reply arrived over Ho’s signature. Nixon characterized it as a “cold rebuff.” [3]

Nguyen Co Thach, the North Vietnamese Foreign Minister, later explained Hanoi’s perspective to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. He said, 

It is Kissinger’s idea that it is a good thing to make a false threat that the enemy believes is a true threat. It is a bad thing if we are threatening an enemy with a true threat and the enemy believes it is a false threat. I told Kissinger that ‘False or true, we Vietnamese don’t mind. There must be a third category – for those who don’t care whether the threat is true or false.’ [4]

In any case, there is no evidence Nixon ever intended to actually use a nuclear weapon. The premise of the Madman Theory, after all, was bluffing the adversary into capitulation, not starting World War III.

Nixon did ask Kissinger to order up a plan including the option of using nuclear weapons. However, as Kissinger described a later Oval Office tirade by the president about nuclear weapons, he said it illustrated 

Nixon's method of decision-making. I am convinced that Nixon would never have implemented these measures . . . They were his way of conveying his determination, not his tactics. [5]

The only explicit nuclear threat in 1969 existed only in Nixon’s imagination. In his memoirs, Nixon describes his press briefing in Guam on July 25, 1969, introducing the Guam Doctrine, later called the Nixon Doctrine. He said the United States would supply money and equipment for other nations to defend themselves, but they would have to supply the “manpower.” According to Nixon’s 1978 memoirs,

I made only one exception: in case a major nuclear power engaged in aggression against one of our allies or friends, I said that we would respond with nuclear weapons. [6]

If he had said this, it would have been an explicit imminent nuclear threat, since all the criteria for the use of nuclear weapons were already in place. The Soviet Union and China were both major nuclear powers, they were both openly sending weapons to Hanoi, and the United States said Hanoi was using those weapons to commit aggression against a U.S. ally. Further, Nixon didn’t just characterize nuclear warfare as an option to consider, he guaranteed it would happen: “we would respond with nuclear weapons.” 

However, since a tape recorder had been running in Guam, we know he never said this.  Nixon actually said, 

as far as the problems of military defense, except for the threat of a major power involving nuclear weapons, . . . the United States is going to encourage and has a right to expect that this problem will be increasingly handled by, and the responsibility for it taken by, the Asian nations themselves. [7]

This is not a threat at all. Neither the Soviets nor the Chinese had any intention of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and it would have been senseless for either of them to do so. 

In any case, when the Vietnamese called Nixon’s bluff, it was the end of the Madman Theory and the November Ultimatum. The Moratorium accomplished many things, but not this.

Through the fall, Nixon kept ruminating. Nixon lost his temper a few times. He pointlessly ordered a military alert, which got no reaction from Moscow, Beijing, or Hanoi. But these were just the death throes of an idea that was never going to work.

It may be shocking to read Nixon’s Oval Office tirades about nuclear weapons. It shouldn’t be, though, because to this day U.S. politicians regularly threaten to use  nuclear weapons. 

The new euphemism is “all options are on the table,” which means, “I’m ready to commit war crimes equal to those President Harry Truman inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” 

In the 2008 presidential election, for example, Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons program was an issue. In the Democratic primaries, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama both said, “all options are on the table.” In the general election, Obama faced Sen. John McCain, who said the same thing.

In 2012, running against the incumbent Obama, former Governor Mitt Romney said, “We should employ any and all measures” against Iran, and extended the “on the table” metaphor curiously, “We are considering military options and they’re not just on the table; they are in our hand.”[8]

Such talk is routine and carries no stigma in Washington. It is instead a threshold, an unwritten requirement for political elites to a consider a candidate to be “presidential material.”  

Paul Ryder has been research assistant to attorney Leonard Weinglass, Pentagon Papers Legal Defense; national staff, Indochina Peace Campaign; policy director for Ohio Governor Richard Celeste; and organizing director for Ohio Citizen Action. He is the principal author and editor of “The Good Neighbor Campaign Handbook” (2006) and co-editor with Susan Wind Early of “Tom Hayden on Social Movements” (2019).  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


[1] H.R. Haldeman, The Ends of Power (1978), p. 83.

[2] William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter (2015), p. 256.

[3] Richard Nixon, RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Volume I (1978), p. 491.

[4] Seymour Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House (1983), p.134n.

[5] Henry Kissinger, Ending the Vietnam War: A History of America's Involvement in and Extrication from the Vietnam War (2003), p. 275.

[6] Nixon, Memoirs, p. 488

[7] American Presidency Project, University of California Santa Barbara, Richard Nixon’s Informal Remarks in Guam with Newsmen, July 25, 1969, p. 8

[8] “Romney talks tough on Iran during visit to Israel,” Steve Holland, Reuters, July 28, 2012; “Why Bombing Iran Would Mean Invading Iran,” Robert Wright, The Atlantic, March 1, 2012.


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