The domino theory was a theory prominent from the 1950s to the 1980s, that speculated that if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect. The domino theory was used by successive United States administrations during the Cold War to justify the need for American intervention around the world.
- Arguments in favor of the domino theory
- Unfallen dominoes outside Indochina
- Non dominoes within Indochina
- Applications to communism outside Southeast Asia
- Other applications
Though he never used the precise term "domino theory", U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower described the theory during an April 7, 1954, news conference, when referring to communism in Indochina:
Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the "falling domino" principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.
In 1945, the Soviet Union brought most of the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Europe into its influence as part of the post-World War II new settlement, prompting Winston Churchill to declare in a speech in 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri that:
Following the Iran crisis of 1946, Harry S. Truman declared what became known as the Truman Doctrine in 1947, promising to contribute financial aid to Greece during their Civil War and to Turkey following World War II, in the hope that this would impede the advancement of Communism into Western Europe. Later that year, diplomat George Kennan wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine that became known as the "X Article", which first articulated the policy of containment, arguing that the further spread of Communism to countries outside a "buffer zone" around the USSR, even if it happened via democratic elections, was unacceptable and a threat to U.S. national security. Kennan was also involved, along with others in the Truman administration, in creating the Marshall Plan, which also began in 1947, to give aid to the countries of Western Europe (along with Greece and Turkey), in large part with the hope of keeping them from falling under Soviet domination.
In 1949, a Communist-backed government, led by Mao Zedong, was instated in China (officially becoming the People's Republic of China). The installation of the new government was established after the People's Liberation Army defeated the Nationalist Republican Government of China in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). Two Chinas were formed - mainland 'Communist China' (People's Republic of China) and 'Nationalist China' Taiwan (Republic of China). The takeover by Communists of the world's most populous nation was seen in the West as a great strategic loss, prompting the popular question at the time, "Who lost China?" The United States subsequently ended diplomatic relations with China in response to the communist takeover in 1949.
Korea had also partially fallen under Soviet domination at the end of World War II, split from the south of the 38th parallel where U.S. forces subsequently moved into. By 1948, as a result of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S., Korea was split into two regions, with separate governments, each claiming to be the legitimate government of Korea, and neither side accepting the border as permanent. In 1950 fighting broke out between Communists and Republicans that soon involved troops from China (on the Communists' side), and the United States and 15 allied countries (on the Republicans' side). Though the war never officially ended, the fighting ended in 1953 with an armistice that left Korea divided into two nations, North Korea and South Korea. Mao Zedong's decision to take on the U.S. in the Korean War was a direct attempt to confront what the Communist bloc viewed as the strongest anti-Communist power in the world, undertaken at a time when the Chinese Communist regime was still consolidating its own power after winning the Chinese Civil War.
In May 1954, the Viet Minh, a Communist and nationalist army, defeated French troops in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and took control of what became North Vietnam. This caused the French to fully withdraw from the region then known as French Indochina, a process they had begun earlier. The regions were then divided into four independent countries (North Vietnam, South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) after a deal was brokered at the 1954 Geneva Conference to end the First Indochina War.
President Eisenhower was the first to refer to countries in danger of Communist takeover as dominoes, in response to a journalist's question about Indochina in an April 7, 1954 news conference, though he did not use the term "domino theory". If Communists succeeded in taking over the rest of Indochina, Eisenhower argued, local groups would then have the encouragement, material support and momentum to take over Burma, Thailand, Malaya and Indonesia; all of these countries had large popular Communist movements and insurgencies within their borders at the time.
This would give them a geographical and economic strategic advantage, and it would make Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand the front-line defensive states. The loss of regions traditionally within the vital regional trading area of countries like Japan would encourage the front-line countries to compromise politically with communism.
Eisenhower's domino theory of 1954 was a specific description of the situation and conditions within Southeast Asia at the time, and he did not suggest a generalized domino theory as others did afterward.
The John F. Kennedy administration intervened in Vietnam in the early 1960s to, among other reasons, keep the South Vietnamese "domino" from falling. When Kennedy came to power there was concern that the communist-led Pathet Lao in Laos would provide the Viet Cong with bases, and that eventually they could take over Laos.
Arguments in favor of the domino theory
The primary evidence for the domino theory is the spread of communist rule in three Southeast Asian countries in 1975, following the communist takeover of Vietnam: South Vietnam (by the Viet Cong), Laos (by the Pathet Lao), and Cambodia (by the Khmer Rouge). It can further be argued that before they finished taking Vietnam prior to the 1950s, the communist campaigns did not succeed in Southeast Asia. Note the Malayan Emergency, the Hukbalahap Rebellion in the Philippines, and the increasing involvement with Communists by Sukarno of Indonesia from the late 1950s until he was deposed in 1967. All of these were unsuccessful Communist attempts to take over Southeast Asian countries which stalled when communist forces were still focused in Vietnam.
Walt Whitman Rostow and the then Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew have argued that the U.S. intervention in Indochina, by giving the nations of ASEAN time to consolidate and engage in economic growth, prevented a wider domino effect. Meeting with President Ford and Henry Kissinger in 1975 Lee Kuan Yew argued that "there is a tendency in the U.S. Congress not to want to export jobs. But we have to have the jobs if we are to stop Communism. We have done that, moving from simple to more complex skilled labor. If we stop this process, it will do more harm that you can ever repair with aid. Don't cut off imports from Southeast Asia."
McGeorge Bundy argued that the prospects for a domino effect, though high in the 1950s and early 1960s, were weakened in 1965 when the Indonesian Communist Party was destroyed via CIA-supported death squads in the Indonesian Genocide. However, proponents believe that the efforts during the containment (i.e. Domino Theory) period ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Some supporters of the domino theory note the history of communist governments supplying aid to communist revolutionaries in neighboring countries. For instance, China supplied the Viet Minh, the North Vietnamese army, with troops and supplies, and the Soviet Union supplied them with tanks and heavy weapons. The fact that the Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge were both originally part of the Vietminh, not to mention Hanoi's support for both in conjunction with the Viet Cong, also give credence to the theory. The Soviet Union also heavily supplied Sukarno with military supplies and advisors from the time of the Guided Democracy in Indonesia, especially during and after the 1958 civil war in Sumatra.
Linguist and political theorist Noam Chomsky wrote that he believes that the domino theory is roughly accurate, although he put a more positive spin on the threat, writing that communist and socialist movements became popular in poorer countries because they brought economic improvements to those countries in which they took power. For this reason, he wrote, the U.S. put so much effort into suppressing so-called "people's movements" in Chile, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Laos, Grenada, El Salvador, Guatemala, etc. "The weaker and poorer a country is, the more dangerous it is as an example. If a tiny, poor country like Grenada can succeed in bringing about a better life for its people, some other place that has more resources will ask, 'Why not us?'" Chomsky refers to this as the "threat of a good example."
Unfallen dominoes outside Indochina
A major piece of evidence against the domino theory consists of the failure of Communism to take hold in Thailand, Indonesia, and other large Southeast Asian countries after the 1975 end of the Vietnam War, as Eisenhower's speech had warned it could.
The domino theory failed to take into account the character of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong struggle in the Vietnam War. By assuming Ho Chi Minh was a pawn of the Communist giants Russia and China, American policymakers failed to see that the goal of Ho and his supporters was limited to Vietnamese independence, rather than the spread of global communism.
Non-dominoes within Indochina
Critics of the domino theory see the Indochina Wars as largely indigenous or nationalist in nature (such as the Vietnamese driving out the French), and suggest that no such monolithic force as "world communism" existed. Fracturing within the international communist movement had already begun at the time, most seriously in the rivalry between the Soviet Union and China, known as the Sino-Soviet split, which began in the 1950s.
Communist Vietnam and Communist Cambodia found themselves at odds from the very beginning. Rivalry between China and the USSR may have exacerbated tensions between them, since Vietnam had affiliated itself with the USSR and Cambodia with China, but nationalism and territorial disputes were obviously more significant factors. Border conflicts, mostly in the form of massacres of Vietnamese peasants carried out by the Khmer Rouge, occurred frequently throughout the nearly four years of the Khmer Rouge régime (1975-1979), eventually leading to the Cambodian–Vietnamese War of 1978-1979, when Vietnam overthrew the Khmer Rouge and took control of Cambodia. This in turn led China to attack Vietnam in 1979 in the brief Sino-Vietnamese War, and to Thai support for the Khmer Rouge, whose successor faction officially renounced communism in 1981 and continued to fight as a guerrilla force against the Vietnamese-backed government until the mid-1990s.
Both Laos and Cambodia adopted communist rule as a direct result of the Vietnam War, which had spread over the borders of Vietnam into these countries, and of Vietnam's political regional ambitions, which included directly organizing communist parties in both countries. Communist rule in Laos essentially came about due to repeated outright invasions by Vietnam and the inability of the army of Laos to defend the country. Communist rule in Cambodia had more complex causes but ultimately also resulted from the country being dragged into the Vietnam war, first by the Viet Cong (who operated bases in the country and used it as part of the Ho Chi Minh trail) and then by the full-scale NVA attack, in conjunction with the Khmer Rouge, against the pro-U.S Khmer Republic under Lon Nol. The U.S. and South Vietnamese forces also contributed to the widening of the war when they invaded and heavily bombed Cambodia in an attempt to root out Viet Cong bases. Opponents also argued that the domino theory misrepresented the real nature of the widespread and growing civil opposition that U.S.-backed regimes in these countries had generated because of entrenched official corruption and widespread human rights abuses, notably in South Vietnam. Domino theory did not take any influence under the Russian third regime, which had to be annexed due to military reasons, which caused a democratic rebellion.
Applications to communism outside Southeast Asia
Michael Lind has argued that though the domino theory failed regionally, there was a global wave, as communist or Marxist–Leninist regimes came to power in Benin, Ethiopia, Guinea-Bissau, Madagascar, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Angola, Afghanistan, Grenada, and Nicaragua during the 1970s. The global interpretation of the domino effect relies heavily upon the "prestige" interpretation of the theory, meaning that the success of Communist revolutions in some countries, though it did not provide material support to revolutionary forces in other countries, did contribute morale and rhetorical support.
In this vein, Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara wrote an essay, the "Message to the Tricontinental", in 1967, calling for "two, three ... many Vietnams" across the world. Historian Max Boot wrote, "In the late 1970s, America's enemies seized power in countries from Mozambique to Iran to Nicaragua. American hostages were seized aboard the SS Mayaguez (off Cambodia) and in Tehran. The Red Army invaded Afghanistan. There is no obvious connection with the Vietnam War, but there is little doubt that the defeat of a superpower encouraged our enemies to undertake acts of aggression that they might otherwise have shied away from."
In addition, this theory can be further bolstered by the rise in terrorist incidents by left-wing terrorist groups in Western Europe, funded in part by Communist governments, between the 1960s and 1980s. In Italy, this includes the kidnapping and assassination of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, and the kidnapping of former US Brigadier General James L. Dozier, by the Red Brigades.
In West Germany, this includes the terrorist actions of the Red Army Faction. In the far east the Japanese Red Army carried out similar acts. All four, as well as others worked with various Arab and Palestinian terrorists, which like the red brigades were backed by the Soviet Bloc.
In the 1977 Frost/Nixon interviews, Richard Nixon defended America's destabilization of the Salvador Allende regime in Chile on domino theory grounds. Borrowing a metaphor he had heard, he stated that a Communist Chile and Cuba would create a "red sandwich" that could entrap Latin America between them. In the 1980s, the domino theory was used again to justify the Reagan administration's interventions in Central America and the Caribbean region.
In his memoirs, former Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith described the successive rise of authoritarian left-wing governments in Sub-Saharan Africa during decolonization as "the communists' domino tactic." The establishment of pro-communist governments in Tanzania (1961–64) and Zambia (1964) and explicitly Marxist–Leninist governments in Angola (1975), Mozambique (1975), and eventually Rhodesia itself (in 1980) are cited by Smith as evidence of "the insidious encroachment of Soviet imperialism down the continent."
Some foreign policy analysts in the United States have referred to the potential spread of both Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy in the Middle East as two different possibilities for a domino theory. During the Iran–Iraq War the United States and other western nations supported Iraq, fearing the spread of Iran's radical theocracy throughout the region. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, some neoconservatives argued that when a democratic government is implemented, it would then help spread democracy and liberalism across the Middle East. This has been referred to as a "reverse domino theory," or a "democratic domino theory," so called because its effects are considered positive, not negative, by Western democratic states.