Zachary Jacobson, "On Nixon's Madness: An Emotional History" (Johns Hopkins UP, 2023)


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: An Emotional History (Johns Hopkins UP, 2023), 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.

Andrew O. Pace is a historian of moral dilemmas of US foreign relations and an adjunct professor of history at Salt Lake Community College. He is a co-host of the Diplomatic History Channel on the New Books Network and is currently working on a book about the reversal in US foreign policy from victory at all costs in World War II to peace at any price in the Vietnam War. He can be reached at

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Andrew Pace

Andrew O. Pace is a historian of the US in the world who specializes in the moral fog of war. He is currently a DPAA Research Partner Fellow at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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