Nixon’s final years as president sucked for Nixon. As the Watergate scandal intensified, the president can hardly be blamed for having reached for a drink. But apparently, the situation was so bad that when Nixon fell victim to growing bouts of insomnia and fits of drunken rage, some Washington insiders started taking bets on when he might crack.
After Nixon left office, Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “It’s probably a good thing, in retrospect, that only a very few people in this country understood the gravity of Richard Nixon’s mental condition during his last year in the White House. There were moments in that year when even his closest friends and advisers were convinced that the President of the United States was so crazy with rage and booze and suicidal despair that he was only two martinis away from losing his grip entirely and suddenly locking himself in his office long enough to make that single telephone call that would have launched enough missiles and bombers to blow the whole world off its axis or at least kill 100 million people.”
Folks’ concerns about Nixon’s disposition predate his eventual downfall, though. Reflecting on his time spent reporting on the Nixon presidency, John Osborne wrote that, “Even in the first years of his presidency, reporters who followed and observed Nixon as closely as I tried to, did so in part because, way down, there was a feeling that he might go bats in front of them at any time.”
Which brings us to Nixon’s drunken run-ins with the bomb.
The first occasion, in 1969, came after a US spy plane was downed by North Korea over the Sea of Japan, killing 31 Americans. George Carver, the CIA’s top Vietnam specialist at the time, recalls that, “Nixon became incensed and ordered a tactical nuclear strike… The Joint Chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone to them. They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning.”
“If the president had his way,” Kissinger was known to say, “there would be a nuclear war each week!”
On a separate occasion, Nixon was passed out drunk, unable to respond, when the Arab-Israeli conflict reached the brink of nuclear war. On October 20, 1973 – a day that lives in infamy as the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon fired independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox and sealed his own fate in the process – the war in the Middle East reached a breaking point. Syria and Egypt, in an effort to regain territories lost in the Six-Day War, launched a joint surprise attack, and Israel and the United States were caught unaware. The US tried to send weapons covertly to Israel, but because of a series of incidents, was unable to maintain the necessary secrecy. US cargo planes were greeted in Tel Aviv by the press’ microphones and flashing lights. Soon after, Saudi Arabia put an oil embargo on the United States, and the world price of oil quintupled.
Meanwhile, the Soviets became deeply involved in the war. It wasn’t long before they’d threatened unilateral action.
Years later, it was revealed that during this time, American intelligence sensors detected Soviet ships carrying nuclear arms through the strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, on their way to Egypt. It was in the midst of this revelation that newly appointed Secretary of State Henry Kissinger received a call from his aide, Brent Scowcroft:
SCOWCROFT: The switchboard just got a call from 10 Downing Street to inquire whether the president would be available for a call within 30 minutes from the prime minister. The subject would be the Middle East.
KISSINGER: Can we tell them no? When I talked to the president he was loaded.
Kissinger, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Thomas Moorer, White House Chief of Staff Al Haig and CIA Director Bill Colby took action to warn the Soviets to back off, and ultimately, in a bit of good – or just dumb – luck, it worked.
Nixon, incapacitated and (we can only assume) drooling on his pillow in the family quarters, was none the wiser.
Larry Eagleburger, who served as secretary of state under President George H. W. Bush, later noted, “One of the things that I recall now with a great deal more equanimity than I did at the time is what was never really understood: the degree to which the Watergate crisis, particularly in its final months, meant that if we had been put to the test somewhere in the foreign policy arena, we would not have been able to respond. We were a ship dead in the water.”
Nixon’s erratic behavior calls into question the chain of command required to launch a nuclear weapon, then and now. Under current law, the President of the United States can essentially launch a nuclear weapon on a whim – free from checks and balances. Say what you will about Kissinger’s influence, had he been moved to do so, Nixon could have carried out his threats toward North Korea without interference. Trump could do the same. And such concerns say nothing about the possibility of presidential absenteeism or the basic concern that just one person, no matter the office, can launch the world’s most powerful weapons without consult. In the case of a crisis, an error in communication, or just a piss-drunk president, the system breaks down.
Some have suggested it’s time to rethink this policy. Others disagree. In such an intensely partisan time, the suggestion feels inescapably political. But perhaps, in this case, history should serve as our guide.