CSS Research and Policy Seminar with James D. Boys

James D. Boys was the guest speaker at an October 27 session of the Research and Policy Seminar series hosted by the Center for Strategic Studies. Boys, a political historian specializing in the study of the United States, presented his paper, “The Madman Theory: Intellectual and Cultural Origins,” which is the third chapter in his forthcoming book about the theory and its implementation by Presidents Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

Invoking the Madman Theory has been in vogue in policy commentary since Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, when the candidate began hinting at using perceived irrationality as a foreign policy tool. Boys’ paper looks into the now almost forgotten roots of the Madman Theory, when three scholar-practitioners developed the main foundations of the concept at Harvard University in the late 1950s and then went on to apply it in government positions. In essence, Boys provides an intellectual history of the Madman Theory, but also offers fascinating insights into the history of Harvard, its ties to U.S. government policy during the Cold War, and the career, scholarly research, and policy work of these three giants of the study of international relations.

We learn that Henry Kissinger, Thomas Schelling, and Daniel Ellsberg worked—mostly separately but sometimes jointly—on the foundations of the Madman Theory. Boys argues that it is nearly impossible to identify the original author of the concept as each contributed vital elements to its construction. The chapter also delves into the origins of the United States’ nuclear strategy during the Cold War, illustrating how the Madman Theory influenced strategy during the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Boys’ chapter sheds light on the origins of a foreign policy tool of the Trump administration that is, in fact, less novel than contemporary media has made it out to be.

The seminar provided a lively discussion of Boys’ paper with the active participation of CSS faculty, faculty associates, and post-doctoral and PhD fellows. The team members of the Center for Strategic Studies wish Boys much luck in finishing his manuscript and look forward to the publication of his new book.

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