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On Nixon's Madness

An Emotional History

Was Richard Nixon actually a madman, or did he just play one?

When Richard Nixon battled for the presidency in 1968, he did so with the knowledge that, should he win, he would face the looming question of how to extract the United States from its disastrous war in Vietnam. It was on a beach that summer that Nixon disclosed to his chief aide, H. R. Haldeman, one of his most notorious, risky gambits: the madman theory.

In On Nixon's Madness, Zachary Jonathan Jacobson examines the enigmatic president through this theory of Nixon's own invention. With strategic force and nuclear bluffing, Nixon attempted to coerce his foreign adversaries through sheer unpredictability. As his national security advisor Henry Kissinger noted, Nixon's strategy resembled a poker game in which he "push[ed] so many chips into the pot" that the United States' foes would think the president had gone "crazy."

From Vietnam, Pakistan, and India to the greater Middle East, Nixon applied this madman theory. Foreign relations were not a steady march toward peaceful coexistence but rather an ongoing test of mettle. Nixon saw the Cold War as he saw his life, as a series of ordeals that demanded great risk and grand gestures. For decades, journalists, critics, and scholars have searched for the real Nixon behind these acts. Was he a Red-baiter, a worldly statesman, a war criminal or, in the end, a punchline?

Jacobson combines biography and intellectual and cultural history to understand the emotional life of Richard Nixon, exploring how the former president struggled between great effusions of feeling and great inhibition, how he winced at the notion of his reputation for rage, and how he used that ill repute to his advantage.

About the Author

Zachary Jonathan Jacobson (CAMBRIDGE, MA) received his doctorate in Cold War history from Northwestern University. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, USA Today, New York Daily News, Vox, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Endorsements

"Jacobson has done a superb job of using archival, journalistic, and primary and secondary sources that make up the amazing universe of Nixonology to craft an original theory on Nixon's madness."

- Melvin Small, Wayne State University, author of The Presidency of Richard Nixon

"Layering the history of emotions and psychological theory on top of impressive research and engaging prose, Zachary Jacobson views Richard Nixon through the lens of his 'madman theory.' He reveals that Nixon's self-perception was the same as allies' and enemies': at war with himself. The result is a superb portrait that illuminates nuclear policy, the Vietnam War, and more."

- Richard Immerman, Temple University

Reviews

"Jacobson is an astute observer and a graceful writer. This brings one of America's most enigmatic presidents into sharper focus."

Johns Hopkins University Press
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