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Probe with Bayonets

“Probe with bayonets” refers to a cautious yet assertive approach to assessing the weaknesses or reactions of an opponent, often before making a significant move or decision.

The phrase originates from military strategy and has been adapted to describe how political actors test the waters by making small, calculated actions to gauge the vulnerabilities or inclinations of their adversaries.

More on “Probe with Bayonets”

A maxim attributed to Lenin that is cited in politics as a way for dealing tactically with opponents.

Former president Richard Nixon appears to have brought the phrase into popular political use. He wrote in his 1978 autobiography RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon: “Communist leaders believe in Lenin’s precept: Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw.”

The idea is that a bayonet stuck in the soil can detect a land mine without setting it off; the mines are designed to detonate under heavier pressure. The 1970 cult-classic war comedy Kelly’s Heroes features a scene in which Clint Eastwood, Don Rickles, and the rest of their platoon undertake just such a task after one of their buddies steps on a mine and is killed. (When Rickles’s character, Crapgame, encounters a buried explosive and is asked what kind it is, he retorts: “The kind that blow up! How the hell do I know what kind it is?”)

Prominent antitax activist Grover Norquist became known for employing a variation of probe with bayonets, though he denied it was an endorsement of Lenin’s tactics, or of Communism itself. Other Republicans, including Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, have quoted variations of it as a way of placing current Russian president Vladimir Putin in an established Communist tradition of constantly searching for opponents’ vulnerabilities.

“You know, Putin believes in the old Lenin adage that you probe with bayonets; when you find mush you push, when you find steel you stop,” Walker said at the initial GOP presidential debate in August 2015, shortly before he dropped out of the race. “Under Obama and Clinton, we found a lot of mush, over the last few years. We need to have a national security that puts steel in front of our enemies.”

But Democratic strategist Paul Begala, about as far from a conservative as you can get, brought up the expression in a 2003 article about how his party had come to be perceived as weak, especially when compared to GOP president George W. Bush and his then-well-regarded political mastermind Karl Rove.

“The adjective that comes to mind is ‘toothless,’” Begala said of Democrats. “What we need is some attitude. Karl is an old friend. I love Karl and admire his toughness. When someone takes shots at Bush, he hits back with greater force. Which means you can’t run and hide. You have to answer these people with steel. Probe them with bayonets, look for weaknesses, then stick ’em in.”

From Doubletalk © 2016 Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark.

Use of “Probe with Bayonets” in a sentence

  • The administration decided to probe with bayonets by introducing a moderate version of the healthcare bill first, aiming to assess the level of resistance among opposition and even within their own party.
  • In international negotiations, the country’s diplomats opted to probe with bayonets by proposing a less controversial agenda item before broaching the more sensitive topics, thereby gauging the willingness of other nations to cooperate.
  • During the primaries, the candidate chose to probe with bayonets by releasing a series of policy proposals aimed at the party’s base, carefully watching for reactions before fully committing to a more progressive or centrist platform.