How would you explain the domino theory

The Cold War

The domino theory was the prevailing belief that communism is an internationalist movement that spreads from one country to the next until it rules the world, just as a series of dominoes collapse one after another. The domino theory has been accepted by a number of United States Presidents and Western policy makers. As a result, it shaped the foreign policy of the US and its allies during the Cold War.

International Revolution Theory

Supporters of the domino theory pointed to the writings of the Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin, who called for "international revolution".

Communism, said Lenin, is a movement based on class rather than nationality or race. It would cross borders, nationalities, patriotism and language barriers. After the Russian Revolution, Lenin believed that communism would spark similar revolutions in Germany, France, and other European nations.

The new Soviet government actively promoted communism abroad. In March 1919 Moscow founded the Communist International or Comintern, a committee of Russian and foreign delegates. The main aim of the Comintern was to promote and support communist movements in other nations in order to promote the spread of communism.

Communist party delegates attended the Comintern in dozens of countries, including Western nations such as the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. In its early years, the Comintern provided training and material assistance to individuals and groups around the world, including the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh.

Western paranoia

The West had long been paranoid about communism and its internationalist agenda. In the late 1940s, this paranoia became domino theory due to Stalin's expansion into Eastern Europe and the rise of communism in China.

Western leaders believed that once communism took hold in a nation, its neighbors would be quickly infiltrated, overrun, and seized by communists - much like a row of standing dominoes, one knocking over the next until all fell.

It is unclear who first used the analogy of falling dominoes or who coined the term domino theory. The first public mention was made by US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in a speech in 1954, he explained why America would help the French in the fight against the communists in Indochina (Vietnam):

“[There are] broader considerations that could follow the principle of 'falling dominoes'. You have put up a series of dominoes, you are knocking over the first, and what will happen to the last is the certainty that it will pass very quickly ... But when we get to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina , from Burma, Thailand, the Peninsula (Malaysia and Singapore) and Indonesia, now you start talking about ... millions upon millions of people. "

The example of the 1930s

Western politicians' willingness to accept the domino theory was likely influenced by events in Europe in the 1930s.

Most of the Cold War politicians and planners had lived through the prewar period, when Central European regions like the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, and Czechoslovakia had successively fallen victim to Hitler. The policy of appeasement - annexing Hitler or allowing certain regions to be conquered in the hope that it would satisfy him - had not prevented the war.

A similar scenario had developed in Asia, where Japanese imperial expansion was allowed to spread unhindered through the 1930s. These events shaped the attitudes of the Cold War leaders and made them more determined to take action against perceived aggression and expansion. As historians Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts put it:

“The domino theory… resulted from thinking in terms of simple, if appealing, psychological and legal analogies. If you let your daughter come home late from a date with no punishment, the next thing you know she will be pregnant. If you leave a crime with impunity, you invite more crimes. If aggression in small, remote locations is tolerated, attackers will be encouraged to attack larger, more important locations. The US government saw a straight line from the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931, to the invasion of China, to the invasion of Indochina and the attack on Pearl Harbor. Once the principle has been undermined, there is no longer a breakpoint. "

Weak nations, weak borders

Another factor was concerns that some nations were unable to oppose communism - especially if it were to gain a foothold in their region. Most European nations were tired and economically exhausted after years of war. Their governments were weak and their people depressed, desperate and hungry. This made them easy prey for communist infiltration and propaganda.

Asia was also prone to communist expansion. The governments and armed forces of most Asian nations were comparatively weak. Their population consisted of large numbers of peasants who were vulnerable to communist propaganda and recruitment.

Nationalist and independence movements in Asia were considered ideal hiding places for communist infiltrators. The Asian borders were not well monitored and largely unsafe, so that communists could enter and leave the destination countries without much difficulty. The same risks and vulnerabilities to communism existed in Africa and Latin America.

Chinese expansion

The domino theory was also fueled by assumptions about China's expansion. Western planners believed the People's Republic of China would become an avant-garde for the expansion of communism in Asia, as Soviet Russia had done in Eastern Europe.

The events of the late 1940s and 1950s seemed to support this. Chinese troops supported the communist invasion of South Korea during the Korean War (1950-53). During the same period, Beijing provided moral, material and logistical support to Ho Chi Minh and the emerging Vietnam in North Vietnam.

As China's economic and military capacity increased, the West believed Beijing was expanding communism to create a buffer between itself and potential threats. This put a number of countries at risk, including South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia.

Proponents of the domino theory

Every US president from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon has been an advocate of dominoes theory. Although Truman never used the domino analogy, he accepted its general principles and used them as the basis of his Truman Doctrine.

John F. Kennedy spoke of the domino theory and in his inaugural address indicated that "our security may be lost piece by piece, country by country". Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon also accepted the domino theory as fact, a position that allowed their continuation and escalation of the Vietnam War.

The costly American defeat in Vietnam resulted in the domino theory being largely discredited. Today it remains a controversial idea; the critics are usually more numerous than the supporters. Some claim that the domino theory is correct and confirmed by the southern march of communism in Asia. only US intervention in the region stopped its progress. Others claim that the domino theory was a simplified idea that failed to understand the true nature of the revolutionary movements in Asia, which were nationalist and socialist rather than aggressively communist.

A historian's view:
“Those who are still impressed by the simple domino theory must realize that non-communist governments in Southeast Asia will not automatically collapse when the communists come to control all of Vietnam. As long as the Southeast Asian governments are in tune with the nationalism of their nations and are smart enough to meet the most pressing economic and social needs of their people, they are unlikely to succumb to communism. "
George Kahin, American historian

1. The domino theory was the belief that communism would spread from one nation to its neighbors. It was based on the falling dominoes analogy and became popular in the early 1950s.

2. The theory was based on the ideology of Vladimir Lenin calling for an "international revolution" and the actions of the Soviet Comintern, which supported communist groups abroad.

3. The domino analogy was first used by US President Dwight Eisenhower. He warned that communism could permeate Asia and take control of millions of people.

4. The Asian nations were considered particularly vulnerable to communism. Their governments and military were weak, their societies illiterate, and their borders fluid.

5. The domino theory has been accepted as a reality by the US presidents. His belief in communist expansion underpinned the Truman Doctrine and other elements of American foreign policy.

Eisenhower explains the domino theory in relation to Asia (1954)
Robert McNamara on Kennedy, Domino Theory and Vietnam (1966)

Citation information
Title: "The Domino Theory"
Authors:Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Editor: Alpha story
Url: https://alphahistory.com/coldwar/domino-theory/
Release date: 5th September 2020
Date accessed: May 23, 2021
Copyright: The content of this page may not be republished without our express permission. For more information on usage, see our Terms of Use.