“…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 have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences…So, the possible consequences of the loss [of Indochina] are just incalculable to the free world.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 7, 1954, in a statement to the press
In its most basic articulation, the Domino Theory postulated that the fall of one pro-Western nation to communism would lead to the rapid communist subjugation of adjoining Western-bloc nations. Every president from Truman to Nixon, either believed in the Domino Theory or recognized its usefulness as a tool in garnering domestic support for U.S. involvement abroad. The theory’s proponents did not believe it applicable to every region of the world. However, it was considered most pertinent to the East-West confrontation in Indochina.
Who authored the first version of the Domino Theory remains unknown. Contrary to popular belief, neither U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles nor President Dwight D. Eisenhower originated the idea. It is highly likely French colonial administrators first recognized the potential risk to the other countries of Indochina of a Viet Minh victory in Vietnam. The earliest American articulation of the Domino Theory as it related to Indochina occurred in 1946. That year, the American Consul in Saigon, Charles S. Reed, noted that if Cochin China (the southernmost administrative region of Vietnam) fell to the Viet Minh, the communists would then be in a position to undermine neighboring Laos and Cambodia. [Duiker, Ho, 390] There was no mention by Reed of the Viet Minh gaining influence beyond those two countries. The geographical area subject to Reed’s “Domino Theory” remained limited in scope.
Reed’s Domino Theory said less about communist expansionistic tendencies than about the human geography present across Indochina. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the French constructed a system of roads, rails, and water routes in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. These transportation corridors sat along a west-to-east axis, meaning the commodities of Cambodia and Laos moved east, eventually passing through Vietnam before arriving at the French-built ports strung out along the Vietnamese coastline. For instance, French Route 9 transported products from Tchepone in Laos to the port of Danang in Vietnam. The all-important Route 1 linked Phnom Penh to Saigon. Phnom Penh served as Cambodia’s busiest deep-water port. Vessels traveling to and from Phnom Penh from the South China Sea had to navigate through the Mekong Delta of Vietnam.
The French, and Consul Reed, understood that Viet Minh control of Vietnam’s infrastructure would translate into communist influence in Cambodia and Laos. Those two inland nations would be dependent on the Viet Minh for land and water access to the South China Sea and the markets of the world. Thus, by fiat, Vietnam’s geographical position would give the Viet Minh the ability to shape the economic and political future of its western neighbors.
Since the French constructed Indochina’s geography to function as a single, interconnected colonial system, it would have been physically and financially difficult, if not impossible, for Laos and Cambodia to decouple from Vietnam and reorient their road and rail networks toward Thailand. Moreover, such a reorientation did not offer the Laotians or Cambodians any guarantee of greater economic and political independence. Such a re-alignment only ensured that Thailand would supplant Vietnam, with the same results for Laos and Cambodia – continued dependence on an outside power for access to world markets. In 1946, Consul Reed’s Domino Theory simply acknowledged a geographical fact; a communist Vietnam would lord over Laos and Cambodia not because of communism but because of geography.
In 1950, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency presented a modified Domino Theory that encompassed a larger geographical area. On December 29, 1950, the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Indochina stated, “…the expulsion of the French by the Viet Minh, with or without Chinese Communist intervention, would almost certainly lead to the transformation of Indochina into a Communist satellite…We believe that control of Indochina by the Viet Minh would eventually entail Communist control of all mainland Southeast Asia in the absence of effective Western assistance to other countries of the area.” [Williams, America in Vietnam, 120]. This document accepted Consul Reed’s conclusions of 1946; and it went further by claiming that the loss of Vietnam would threaten the rest of mainland Southeast Asia “in the absence of effective Western assistance.” The dire warnings of the NIE provided the Truman Administration with the justification it needed to not only increase military aid to the French in Indochina, but also to increase U.S. aid to the other countries of Southeast Asia.
With the intensification of the First Indochina War in 1950 and 1951, French officials recognized that a geographically-expansive version of the Domino Theory could serve French political and military objectives in Indochina. More specifically, it could help the French acquire additional U.S. military aid.
It is worth noting that in the 1940s and 1950s, numerous American officials in the State Department had grave doubts about providing American military assistance to the French expeditionary force in Indochina. These officials rightly believed that the French were attempting to reestablish their colonial rule in that region. State Department officials argued that the U.S. had no business supporting the French in repressing the legitimate nationalist aspirations of the Vietnamese. But the Domino Theory reframed the French war against the Viet Minh as a struggle between the West and communist expansionism. Rather than suppressing a morally justifiable revolutionary movement, the French were attempting to halt the spread of communism and the collapse of the Western position in Asia. The Domino Theory made the French expeditionary force the last line of Western defense in Southeast Asia, rather than an army of re-conquest.
The Domino Theory also elevated the standing of the French within U.S. government circles. The French became anti-communist crusaders, rather than brutal, repressive colonists. It transformed Indochina (a previously peripheral and economically unimportant region to the United States) into a geographically important region, vital to U.S. national security. In and of itself, Vietnam was not important to the United States. The U.S. had never had a significant presence in Indochina, nor had the area been a major source of raw materials for the U.S. economy. But the Domino Theory made Vietnam a strategic area. It was like the old American adage, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” The French altered the adage to “As goes Vietnam, so goes Southeast Asia.” Vietnam became a central place – it’s future political make-up would affect all of Southeast Asia.
French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who headed French forces in Indochina, traveled to the U.S. in September, 1951, to gain increased U.S. aid for the French military effort in Indochina. In order to convince the Americans that France’s war in Vietnam was not merely a French attempt at re-conquest of a former colony, and that the French were in fact engaged in an anti-communist effort and not an anti-nationalist effort, de Lattre articulated his version of the Domino Theory, detailing the most catastrophic consequences if the Viet Minh won. He stated to a Pentagon audience, “If you lose Korea, Asia is not lost; but if I lose Indochina, Asia is lost, Tonkin is the key to Southeast Asia, if Southeast Asia is lost, India will burn like a match and there will be no barrier to the advance of communism before Suez and Africa.” [Spector, Advice and Support, 143] De Lattre enlarged the theory’s geographic area far beyond Indochina and Southeast Asia. When de Lattre claimed that India and the Middle East would fall to communism if the Viet Minh defeated the French in Indochina, he neglected to clarify just how the communists were going to reach those regions. More specifically, he did not detail how the communists were going to overcome all of the geographical and environmental obstacles along between Indochina and the Middle East. It was as if by magic, the communists would bridge the wide Mekong River, cross the plains of Thailand, jump the Irrawaddy, surmount the Arakan Mountains, swim the Ganges, enter India and keep going. That de Lattre’s version of the Domino Theory was completely divorced from geographical reality made no difference to U.S. officials. He succeeded in his mission to Washington. The Truman administration shipped more military hardware to the French expeditionary force.
On April 29, 1953, in a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles expressed yet another version of the Domino Theory. In a manner similar to de Lattre, he applied the theory to regions far from Indochina. But instead of communism spreading westward toward the Middle East (de Lattre’s contention), Dulles argued that it would spread southeastward toward Indonesia. He also openly admitted that the theory offered the Eisenhower administration a justification for its involvement in the First Indochina War. He stated, “Well, the excuse for our participation in the Indochina affair is that if Indochina is lost to communism and the non-communist government is driven out, and a totally communist government is installed, it is almost certain that the next operation will be in Siam [Thailand], which is already weak; the next operation may be in northern Malaya or Burma or both; and the next operation will be in Indonesia, and by that time all of Southeast Asia will be lost.” [Williams, America in Vietnam, 146]
Although Dulles’s statement to the Senate alluded to the nascent communist movements then existing in Burma, Thailand, and Malaya, his elaboration of the theory completely discounted the U.S.’s ability to stem communist expansion in Southeast Asia after a French defeat in Indochina. If the communists took Indochina and then went on to take Thailand, which in and of itself would have been no small task, the communist subjugation of Malaya was not guaranteed. And the communist conquest of Indonesia would have been still more difficult.
A conventional communist army marching down the length of the razor thin Malayan Peninsula would have confronted the firepower of U.S. warships deployed in the seas to the west and east. U.S. warplanes would have pounded communist positions within the narrow chokepoint that is the peninsula. In all likelihood, a U.S. ground force, supported by naval and air forces, would have been able to dig in along a line running across the Malayan Peninsula. Communist armies, dependent on long supply lines from China and Vietnam, would have been hard pressed to break through any American defensive bulwark thrown up across the Malayan Peninsula. An insurgent communist army would also have had great difficulty achieving victory in Malaya (as the British defeat of the Malayan insurgents would prove). U.S. forces would have been in a position to hinder or completely sever any resupply of communist forces in Malaya from base areas to the north. How a conventional communist force or insurgent force would have taken Indonesia is anyone’s guess. Communist armies or supply vessels would have had to pass through an array of obstacles, including the Strait of Malacca– all the while facing withering American firepower.
Dulles’s Domino Theory not only downplayed the U.S.’s huge military advantages on the high seas and in the air, it also ignored Southeast Asia’s geography. Dulles was the U.S. Secretary of State. He was charged with overseeing U.S. foreign affairs. In his position he had to know world geography as a basic job prerequisite. For him to have made such a geographically and militarily ignorant statement to the U.S. Senate indicates that he could not have possibly considered his version of the theory legitimate. So why make such an outlandish claim? Because the Eisenhower administration needed public support for U.S. involvement in Indochina. Dulles understood that the American people would question U.S. involvement in such a distant region – far from American centers of power – and peripheral to the U.S. economy. He also understood that the Domino Theory made otherwise unimportant Indochina vital to U.S. security.
Dulles’s theory lumped all the people of Southeast Asia together. It assumed that all of the people of Southeast Asia would respond in the same, weak way to a communist advance. His theory ignored the differences between Southeast Asia’s nation-states and cultures. Take for example Cambodia and Vietnam. The Cambodians despised the Vietnamese and vice versa. The two peoples had nursed a mutual hatred for centuries. It would not be easy for the Viet Minh to invade or subvert Cambodia without stoking that long-held animosity. The theory completely ignored the ability of Southeast Asian countries to resist or halt any form of communist expansion. It utterly disempowered the native regimes.
The Domino Theory had several different articulations in subsequent years. The geographical area within the purview of the theory varied according to whom occupied the White House. Ike had one version of the theory, JFK another, LBJ a third and Nixon a fourth [Spector, Advice and Support, 172, Gettleman, Vietnam and America, 52]. Each of these men recognized the theory’s usefulness in quelling the public’s doubts about America’s involvement in Indochina. It is instructive that the U.S.’s major allies, France, Great Britain, Germany, and Japan did not accept the expansive versions of the Domino Theory.
In a letter dated April 4, 1954, Eisenhower attempted to gain Winston Churchill’s support for unified Allied action on Indochina. President Eisenhower wrote that the loss of Indochina to the communists would have global ramifications. He stated, “[If Indochina falls to the communists] it is difficult to see how Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia could be kept out of communist hands. This we cannot afford. The threat to Malaya, Australia, and New Zealand would be direct. The offshore island chain would be broken.” [Williams, America in Vietnam, 153] Ike eluded to the threat to Malaya, Australia, and New Zealand because all of those regions had close cultural and trade ties to the U.K. The president tried to convince Churchill that the collapse of the Western position in Indochina would directly affect the British Commonwealth. But Churchill didn’t believe in Ike’s Domino Theory and the Brits stayed out of Indochina.
By 1961, Eisenhower’s Domino Theory encompassed a smaller geographical area. It also deemphasized the importance of South Vietnam to the future of Indochina, while stressing the import of Laos. On inauguration day, January 19, 1961, Ike met in the White House with Kennedy, McNamara, and Rusk. The old warrior told the young, inexperienced Kennedy and his principal foreign affairs advisors that Laos represented the key to Indochina. According to McNamara, Eisenhower said that, if Laos went communist “it would be just a matter of time until South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma would collapse.” [McNamara, Argument Without End, 29]. A communist Laos would act as a salient, enabling insurgents to undermine the regimes of all of those adjoining countries. This conversation makes it clear that Eisenhower had a broad Domino Theory for public consumption and a more limited private Domino Theory.
By 1963, doubts about the veracity of the Domino Theory began to surface in the media. In a September 9, 1963, interview with JFK, NBC news correspondent David Brinkley challenged the validity of the Domino Theory. He stated, “…Mr. President, have you had any reason to doubt this so-called domino theory, that if South Viet-Nam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go behind it?” Kennedy responded emphatically, “No, I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Viet-Nam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it.” [Williams, America in Vietnam, 200] Kennedy, seeking to quell doubts at home about U.S. involvement in a distant land, employed the Domino Theory justify the increasing U.S. presence in South Vietnam.
But it was LBJ, the master of political drama, who took the Domino Theory to a new level of absurdity. In a conversation with McGeorge Bundy On May 27, 1964, LBJ explained his own homespun Texas version of the Domino Theory. The president said, “Of course if you start running from the Communists, they may just chase you right into your own kitchen.” The hyper-rational Bundy responded, “Yeah, that’s the trouble. And that is what the rest of that half of the world is going to think if this thing [in South Vietnam] comes apart on us.” [Beschloss, Taking Charge, 370] Less than a month later, LBJ spoke again of falling dominoes. On June 23, 1964, he remarked, “If he [South Vietnam’s head of government General Nguyen Khanh] falls over, as he may any day, and we have another coup, we’re through in Asia” [Beschloss, Taking Charge, 426]. LBJ’s statement represented a complete misread of the geo-political situation in Asia at the time and an over-exaggeration of the consequences of a coup against Khanh.
Johnson’s Domino Theory took on ominous proportions in a conversation with Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen on February 17, 1965. He claimed, “…If they [the communists] take South Vietnam, they take Thailand, they take Indonesia, they take Burma, they come right on back to the Philippines” [Beschloss, Reaching for Glory, 181-182]. Johnson did not explain how the communists were going to cross the South China Sea to the Philippines with the powerful U.S. 7th Fleet blocking their path. Surprisingly, Dirksen did not challenge Johnson’s unfounded assertions. At a later date, Johnson had the audacity to claim that the loss of South Vietnam would push the U.S. back to Hawaii.
In 1968, the last full year of Johnson’s presidency, the CIA released a NIE that noted that the fall of South Vietnam would only result in Laos and Cambodia coming under Hanoi’s influence. The rest of Southeast Asia would remain within the Western Bloc [Ellsberg, Secrets, 241]. This conclusion was the same one put forth by U.S. Consul Reed twenty-two years earlier. The Domino Theory had come full circle.
The Domino Theory had merit when applied solely to Indochina. Indochina’s geography made the theory plausible. A communist Vietnam would dominate Laos and Cambodia because of its geographical position. But the theory became implausible when applied to Southeast Asia, the entire Asian landmass, and the American off-shore island chain. There existed too many environmental, political, economic, and geographical barriers to the rapid expansion of communism across Asia and the far western Pacific.
Every president from Truman to Nixon convinced himself that the loss of Indochina to communism was not enough to win U.S. public support for the continued U.S. involvement in that far corner of the globe. Thus, successive presidents broadened the Domino Theory outward, until it encompassed areas vital to U.S. national security. By Johnson’s presidency, the theory had reached absurd proportions. The expansive versions of the Domino Theory served as a means of elevating the strategic importance of Indochina and thereby attaining U.S. public support for intervention there. It was not coincidental that the broadest interpretation of the theory occurred during the Johnson administration, when the United States directly intervened in Vietnam with ground forces. Johnson needed the most expansive Domino Theory to justify his escalation of the war.