The Return of the Domino Theory





Mr. Nichols is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is an American historian currently completing a study of isolationism and internationalism during the Progressive Era. He can be contacted at: cnichols@virginia.edu.

Dominoes are back. The old, scuffed political theory of one domino falling and knocking down others turned up recently in President Bush's call for support from Congress for a surge in U.S. troops in Iraq.

On March 19, Bush said: "If American forces were to step back from Baghdad before it is more secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country. In time, this violence could engulf the region. For the safety of the American people, we cannot allow this to happen."

The domino theory, however, contains inherent flaws. It conflates present or past events with projection into the future. More symbolic than analytical, it predicts that outcomes will be worse unless new actions are taken. This reinforces an argument for sustained or escalated military involvement.

Why make such a case today? Simple: it works. Wartime presidents of both parties have historically recognized the value of domino theory and used it to support continued military intervention.

Consider past precedents. Born in the early Cold War years, under President Harry Truman, the domino theory found acceptance by his successor, general-turned-president Dwight D. Eisenhower. "You have a row of dominoes set up," said Ike in 1954, "you knock over the first one and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. . . you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences."

Adopted to justify the American entry into Indochina, this assumption underlay the rationales of Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in escalating the Vietnam War. As Johnson explained in 1967: "We have chosen to fight a limited war . . . in an attempt to prevent a larger war - a war almost certain to follow, I believe, if the Communists succeed in overrunning and taking over South Vietnam by aggression and by force."

President Bush expands on this theory by calling for a drive to spread freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East. He echoes the words of Johnson and Eisenhower, declaring that the "challenge playing out across the broader Middle East is more than a military conflict. It is the decisive ideological struggle of our time."

Some ask: If it were so decisive why not use overwhelming force? And why continue to use force if the struggle is extra-military? In his State of the Union Address in January, Bush responded to such criticism: "In the long run, the most realistic way to protect the American people is to provide a hopeful alternative to the hateful ideology of the enemy - by advancing liberty across a troubled region."

Just as with Eisenhower, Bush's rhetoric is shot through with contradictions. Ike proclaimed with "certainty" that the "last" domino would fall if the first one did; however, he also noted this to be a "possible sequence of events." Bush likewise hedges his words. While terming the clash "decisive," he asserts only that the "contagion of violence" "could" spill out of Iraq. Decades after the Vietnam War, our national leaders are using the same discredited arguments to justify an expanded American presence in Iraq.

Remarkably, the domino theory also has become part of jihadist doctrine. A psychiatrist and the Al Qaeda mastermind of the Madrid bombings, Dr. Abu Hafiza, wrote in 2004: "After knocking over one domino after another, we will stand face to face with the key domino, the United States." The sheer absurdity of such an outcome makes the assertion laughable. Yet it causes fear. And fear forms the basis for domino theory.

As military and political history amply illustrate, the domino theory falls flat. To be sure, America's departure from South Vietnam was horrific. U.S. allies there suffered terribly. So did the United States as a whole. Global prestige plummeted. A chastened America became less likely to engage in hot wars. Cambodia and Laos turned communist.

Nonetheless, the domino theory failed by the standard of its own predictions. Communism never took hold in Indonesia, Thailand, or more importantly, in any of the other large countries in the region, most notably, India. There was no cascade effect triggered by the U.S. departure from South Vietnam. The United States continued as an economic and military power. And now, America and Vietnam are trading partners, which President Bush should know as he visited that nation last year. Southeast Asia is a vibrant engine of global commerce and the region has closer ties to the United States now than at any time in the past.

Sometimes an action, however terrible, is an isolated event. It may not have irrevocable ramifications, much less disastrous ones. The concept of nation-state dominoes toppling in a row does not accurately describe the reality of the non-state actors engaged in modern 21st century terrorism. Nor does it apply to the divisive nature of the sectarian civil war in Iraq. It cannot.

The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is likely to have horrendous consequences on the ground. Humanitarian concerns must be addressed. Yet when seen in a longer historical view, such an event might not be nearly as tragic as predicted. It may result in unforeseen, long-term positive effects. At the very least, it seems unlikely that it will lead to a catastrophic crescendo of crumbling governments.

The President should put the dominoes back in the box.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Philip B. Plowe - 5/9/2007

"In foreign policy over the past century the Democrats have always been wrong, and the Republicans right."

It seems unlikely that a Republican president would have managed America's forces much differently before or during World War II.

And I'm sure that there are other examples, but one that immediately comes to mind is trading arms in exchange for hostages. Maybe it's just me, but that doesn't seem like very smart foreign policy.


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/17/2007

The previous poster forgot the Vietnamese "boat people," of whom there were about 1.5 million, many of whom became American citizens and will be happy to tell you about it. Add to them the 2 million Cambodians clubbed to death, and you can make a humanitarian case that the U.S. should have stayed on--or at least should have not have cut off support for the South Vietnamese. How do we know Singapore would not have fallen to the communists if we had not drawn the line in Indo-China? We don't. The Asian economic "Tigers" do not include Vietnam, by the way. That's an economic backwater compared to Taiwan, South Korea or Singapore.
..It is a mistake to mix Eisenhower's name with our debacle in Vietnam, too. Eisenhower cleaned up the mess Truman left in Korea. It was Kennedy and Johnson who sent the U.S. troops to Vietnam, after Eisenhower declined to. Nixon merely inherited the bad situation created by Kennedy and LBJ and tried to extricate us with honor, but was sabotaged by the Democratic controlled Congress. In foreign policy over the past century the Democrats have always been wrong, and the Republicans right.


Joseph Smith - 4/16/2007

"Dominoes are back. The old, scuffed political theory of one domino falling and knocking down others turned up recently in President Bush's call for support from Congress for a surge in U.S. troops in Iraq."





And that is how the article started.


Yet another lovely article supporting our commander-in-chief, I thought. I certainly knew what this guy was out to prove. Yet another more-than-likely-futile attempt to convince me that everything Bush does is evil, that the Iraq War is evil, that America is evil, always was and always will be, and that we must surrender to the terrorists and retreat from Iraq…like… yesterday or something.



But I attempted to avoid the example of so many of my fiery liberal friends and read with an open mind.



So here goes...



First off, what is the domino theory? The phrase “domino theory” was coined by President Eisenhower. Describing the situation in the Vietnam area, he said, “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. . . you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.” Ok, so technically he never said, “DOMINO THEORY.” But he thought up the general idea.



Eisenhower supposedly thought this whole idea up in order to justify his invasion of Indochina. Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon also used the domino effect to rationalize the escalation of the Vietnam War. President Johnson said, “We have chosen to fight a limited war… in an attempt to prevent a larger war - a war almost certain to follow, I believe, if the Communists succeed in overrunning and taking over South Vietnam by aggression and by force.”



The author then goes on to show that this is exactly what President Bush is doing. When Bush said that, “If American forces were to step back from Baghdad before it is more secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country. In time, this violence could engulf the region. For the safety of the American people, we cannot allow this to happen,” he was essentially, the article claims, invoking the Domino Theory to convince people that it is vital to stay and finish the job we started.



The whole crux of the author’s argument is this: “The domino theory, however, contains inherent flaws. It conflates present or past events with projection into the future. More symbolic than analytical, it predicts that outcomes will be worse unless new actions are taken. This reinforces an argument for sustained or escalated military involvement.”



He brings up a random irrelevant point about how President Eisenhower said that if the first domino falls, the last will “certainly” fall, and at the same time said that it was a “possible” sequence of events. Then he shows how President Bush did the same thing by saying that the “contagion of violence could spill out,” while at the same time calling the war “decisive.”



Now to me, this shows that neither Eisenhower nor Bush was particularly sure of the reliability of the Domino Theory, or at least they, as presidents, were not willing to say something for absolute certain. HOWEVER. It does not, in any way, have anything to do with the effectiveness of the Domino Theory.



But that’s ok. We can just ignore that and move on to the author’s assertion that the Domino Theory failed in Vietnam. Sure, says Nichols, we took some beatings. “To be sure, America's departure from South Vietnam was horrific. U.S. allies there suffered terribly. So did the United States as a whole. Global prestige plummeted. A chastened America became less likely to engage in hot wars. Cambodia and Laos turned communist.”



Let me add to this that North Vietnam immediately reinvaded South Vietnam after the US left and instituted a Communist government there. This resulted in making the 58,209 Americans, 5,000 Japanese, 512 Australians, and 37 New Zealanders die for absolutely no reason. Then there are the 166,890 people who were wounded for absolutely no reason. And THEN there are the 5,635,300 Vietnamese causalities, all because America left without completing the job.



But that didn’t have much to do with the domino effect. So lets try this.



In addition to the aforementioned affects…



* North Vietnam invaded what is now Cambodia and killed as many as 2 million in the Kmer Rouge Genocide.
* Then the Vietnamese began to repress their Chinese citizens, forcing thousands to flee the country, and resulting in the Third Indochina War.


Despite all this, many still say that the Domino Effect did not occur. As the author states, “Nonetheless, the domino theory failed by the standard of its own predictions. Communism never took hold in Indonesia, Thailand, or more importantly, in any of the other large countries in the region, most notably, India. There was no cascade effect triggered by the U.S. departure from South Vietnam. The United States continued as an economic and military power. And now, America and Vietnam are trading partners, which President Bush should know as he visited that nation last year. Southeast Asia is a vibrant engine of global commerce and the region has closer ties to the United States now than at any time in the past.”



Why did Thailand and India not fall to communism? In fact, a very convincing argument can be made that they didn’t turn communist because of the war. The war bought enough time for these less developed countries to build up their economy and their government.



We can look at it from a different angle. Imagine that in World War II, America suddenly decides, just after D-Day, that the war is simply to costly, that too many people have died. After all, it's Europe! We have a huge ocean between us! And anyway this war is pointless. So then we set up a timetable and pull out of Europe.



What we are saying here is that, sure the rest of Europe would fall, but...



a) that is ok (“The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq is likely to have horrendous consequences on the ground… Yet when seen in a longer historical view, such an event might not be nearly as tragic as predicted.)



b) there would be no other consequences after that. Hitler will NOT take over the rest of the world. He will not proceed to conquer the rest of Asia after repelling the Soviet Union. He will NOT eventually take over the rest of the world either.



Obviously, not only is the Domino Theory plausible, it seems like common sense. Not all cases are as extreme as the World War II. But if we pull our troops out of Iraq now, there is absolutely nothing keeping a “contagion of violence” from spilling out into the region.


William J. Stepp - 4/9/2007

"Cambodia and Laos turned communist", as you note; now they along with Vietnam are turning capitalist.

Bush should indeed put the dominoes
back in the box, and get back into his sandbox.