The Domino Theory was a prevailing belief that communism was an internationalist movement that would spread from one country to the next until it dominated the world, much as a row of dominos collapses one after the other. The Domino Theory was accepted by a succession of United States presidents and Western policymakers. As a result, it shaped the foreign policy of the US and its allies during the Cold War.
Theory of international revolution
Adherents of the Domino Theory pointed to the writings of Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin, who called for “international revolution”.
Communism, Lenin said, was a movement based on class, rather than nationality or race. It would transcend borders, nationalities, patriotism and language barriers. After the Russian Revolution, Lenin believed communism would inspire similar revolutions in Germany, France and other European nations.
The new Soviet government actively promoted communism abroad. In March 1919, Moscow established the Communist International, or Comintern, a committee of Russian and foreign delegates. The Comintern’s main objective was to foster and support communist movements in other nations, in order to facilitate the spread of communism.
The Comintern was attended by delegates from communist parties in dozens of countries, including Western nations like the United States, Great Britain and Australia. In its early years, the Comintern provided training and material support to individuals and groups around the world, including the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh.
The West had long been paranoid about communism and its internationalist agenda. In the late 1940s, this paranoia hardened into the Domino Theory, on the back of Stalin’s expansion into eastern Europe and the rise of communism in China.
Western leaders believed that once communism gained a foothold in a nation, its neighbours would quickly be infiltrated, overrun and seized by communists – much like a row of standing dominos topples, one knocking over the next until all have fallen.
It is unclear who first used the analogy of falling dominos or coined the phrase Domino Theory. The first public mention of it was made by US president Dwight Eisenhower in a speech in 1954, where he explained why America would aid the French in their struggle against communists in Indochina (Vietnam):
“[There are] 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… But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula (Malaysia and Singapore) and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about … millions and millions and millions of people.”
The 1930s example
The readiness of Western policymakers to accept the Domino Theory was probably influenced by events in Europe during the 1930s.
Most Cold War politicians and policy planners had lived through the pre-war period, when central European regions like the Rhineland, Austria, Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia had all fallen to Hitler, one after another. The policy of appeasement – letting Hitler annex or seize particular regions in the hope it would satisfy him – had failed to prevent war.
A similar scenario had unfolded in Asia, where Japanese imperial expansion was allowed to spread unchecked through the 1930s. These events shaped the attitudes of Cold War leaders and made them more determined to act against perceived aggression and expansion. As historians Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts put it:
“The domino theory … resulted from thinking along the lines of some simple, albeit appealing, psychological and legal analogies. If you let your daughter come home late from a date without punishment, the next thing you know she will be pregnant. If you let a crime go unpunished, you invite more crime. If aggression is tolerated in small out-of-the-way places, aggressors will be emboldened to attack larger, more vital places. US leaders saw a straight line from the Japanese takeover of Manchuria in 1931 to the invasion of China to the invasion of Indochina to the attack on Pearl Harbour. Once the principle has been undermined, there is no stopping place.”
Weak nations, weak borders
An additional factor was a concern that some nations were incapable of resisting communism – particularly if it was to take hold in their region. Most European nations were fatigued and economically exhausted after years of war. Their governments were weak and their people depressed, desperate and starving. This made them easy prey to communist infiltration and propaganda.
Asia was just as susceptible to communist expansion. The governments and military forces of most Asian nations were comparatively weak. Their populations contained large numbers of peasants, who were susceptible to communist propaganda and recruitment.
Nationalist and independence movements in Asia were considered ideal ‘hiding places’ for communist infiltrators. Asian borders were not well policed and were largely insecure so communists could move in and out of target countries with little difficulty. The same risks and susceptibility to communism existed in Africa and Latin America.
The Domino Theory was also fuelled by assumptions about Chinese expansion. Western planners believed the People’s Republic of China would become a vanguard for expanding communism in Asia, much 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 was providing moral, material and logistic support to Ho Chi Minh and the emerging Viet Minh in northern Vietnam.
As China’s economic and military capacity increased, the West believed Beijing would expand communism to create a buffer between itself and potential threats. This placed a number of countries at risk of communist aggression, including South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Burma, Tibet, Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia.
Domino Theory advocates
Every US president from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon was an advocate of the Domino Theory. Though Truman never used the domino analogy, he accepted its general principles and used it as the basis of his Truman Doctrine.
John F. Kennedy spoke of the Domino Theory and hinted at it in his inauguration speech, warning 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 underpinned their continuation and escalation of the Vietnam War.
The costly American defeat in Vietnam led to the Domino Theory being largely discredited. Today it remains a controversial idea, its detractors generally outnumbering its supporters. Some claim the Domino Theory was correct and validated by the southward march of communism in Asia; only US intervention in the region halted its progress. Others suggest the Domino Theory was a simplistic idea that failed to understand the true nature of Asian revolutionary movements, which were nationalist and socialist rather than aggressively communist.
A historian’s view:
“Those who still are impressed by the simplistic Domino Theory must realise that non-communist governments of Southeast Asia will not automatically collapse if the communists should come to control all of Vietnam. So long as south-east 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.”
George Kahin, US historian
1. The Domino Theory was the belief that communism would spread from one nation to its neighbours. It was based on the analogy of falling dominos and popularised in the early 1950s.
2. The theory drew on the ideology of Vladimir Lenin, who called for “international revolution”, and the actions of the Soviet Comintern, which supported communist groups abroad.
3. The first use of the domino analogy was made by US president Dwight Eisenhower. He warned that communism could sweep through Asia and gain control of millions of people.
4. Asian nations were seen to be particularly susceptible to communism. Their governments and militaries were weak, their societies uneducated and their borders fluid.
5. The Domino Theory was accepted as a reality by US presidents. Its belief in communist expansion underpinned the Truman Doctrine and other elements of American foreign policy.