Domino Theory

Domino Theory

The Korean War showed the American government that the communist threat was not restricted to Europe. Two regions in particular, appeared vulnerable to communism, Indo-China and Latin America. Indochina had been colonized by the French in the late 19th Century but had been lost to Japan during the Second World War. Resistance groups set-up to fight the Japanese often contained supporters of the communist party and after the allied victory in 1945, France attempted to reestablish control. Western governments feared that if France was unsuccessful in this, communism might spread throughout the whole of South East Asia.

The same reasoning was applied to Latin America after guerrilla fighters, under the leadership of Fidel Castro, overthrew Fulgencio Batista, the right-wing dictator of Cuba in 1959.

To justify his support for South Vietnam, President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice-President Richard Nixon put forward the 'domino theory. It was argued that if the first domino is knocked over then the rest topple in turn. Applying this to South-east Asia he argued that if South Vietnam was taken by communists, then the other countries in the region such as Loas, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Malaysia and Indonesia, would follow.

John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States in November, 1960. In the first speech he made to the American public as their President, Kennedy made it clear that he intended to continue Elsenhower's policy of supporting Ngo Dinh Diem and his South Vietnamese government. He argued that if South Vietnam became a communist state, the whole of the non-communist world would be at risk. If South Vietnam fell, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Philippines, New Zealand and Australia would follow. If communism was not halted in Vietnam it would gradually spread throughout the world. Kennedy went on to argue: "No other challenge is more deserving of our effort and energy... Our security may be lost piece by piece, country by country." Under his leadership, America would be willing to: "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty."

Primary Sources

(1) Konrad Adenauer, Memoirs 1945-53 (12th July, 1952)

I had become more and more firmly convinced that Stalin had always intended to get hold of West Germany with as little destruction as possible. His policy of the first post-war years had not brought the result he wished, but I was convinced that the Soviet Union had not given it up. If Stalin were to succeed in gaining control in the Federal Republic without too much destruction, he would then be able to exercise a decisive influence on France and Italy, countries whose political order was not very firm and where there were strong communist parties. Soviet dominance in the Federal Republic, France, and Italy would make Soviet Russia into the strongest economic, military, and political power on earth. It would mean the victory of communism in the world, including the United States. My policy has always been informed by the conviction that this is the goal of Soviet Russia.

If Russia should succeed in including Western Germany in the Soviet system, it would mean such an access of economic and war potential that Russia would gain a preponderance over the United States. Russia would certainly respect the American atomic striking force until she herself possessed enough atom bombs. In January 1949 the Soviets had for the first time succeeded in exploding an atom bomb. Soviet Russia would probably refrain from an attack until a balance had been reached in atomic production. Then, however, it might happen that neither Russia nor the United States would use that weapon, as was the case with poison gas which both sides in the last war possessed in equal measure so that both sides were careful not to use it. Once an atomic balance had been reached, land armies and air forces might become the decisive factors.

(2) Vice-president Richard Nixon, speech, (December, 1953)

If Indochina falls, Thailand is put in an almost impossible position. The same is true of Malaya with its rubber and tin. The same is true of Indonesia. If this whole part of South East Asia goes under Communist domination or Communist influence, Japan, who trades and must trade with this area in order to exist must inevitably be oriented towards the Communist regime.

(3) H. W. Baldwin, New York Times Magazine, (February 21,1965)

Vietnam is a nasty place to fight. But there are no neat and tidy battlefields in the struggle for freedom; there is no 'good' place to die. And it is far better to fight in Vietnam - on China's doorstep - than fight some years hence in Hawaii, on our own frontiers.

(4) Professor George Kahin, speech (15th May, 1965)

Those who still are impressed by the simplistic domino theory must realize that non-communist governments of Southeast Asia will not automatically collapse if the Communists should come to control all of Vietnam. So long as Southeast Asian governments are in harmony with their nations' nationalism, so long as they are wise enough to meet the most pressing economic and social demands of their people, they are not likely to succumb to Communism.

(5) Theodore Draper, Abuse of Power (1967)

The Latin American dominoes did not fall after Castro's victory (in Cuba) because the world is far more complex and unpredictable than the theory gives it credit for being. Castro's growing force immediately set in motion counterforces throughout Latin America, not sponsored by the United States alone, which was most ineffective, but in the domestic policies of each Latin American country... The Cuban experience does not prove that the Latin American dominoes could not have fallen; it merely proves that Castro's victory by itself was not enough for them to fall.

(6) President John F. Kennedy, interview (1963)

I believe there is no country in the world . . . where economic colonisation, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, partly as a consequence of U.S. policy during the Batista regime. I believe that, without being aware of it, we conceived and created the Castro movement, starting from scratch. I also believe that this accumulation of errors has put all Latin America in danger. The whole purpose of the 'Alliance for Progress' (an economic aid programme for Latin America) is to reverse this fatal policy.