There have been few greater threats to the public good in modern history than a government’s unquestioned use of an ideology or theory. Whether this has been segregation in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, National Socialism in Nazi Germany, Stalinism in the USSR or fundamentalist Islam, misused ideologies have brought unimaginable suffering to peoples across the globe. This especially occurs when governments try to force square ideological pegs into the round holes of contemporary events. This essay will examine the domino effect theory to show how a misplaced theory led to several wars, and could easily have triggered a global nuclear conflict.
The domino theory came into being at the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the USSR. The US government was still fixated on the Leninist aim of eventual communist global control. While Stalin had refined communist thinking to making communism work in the Soviet Union first before trying to export it globally, the prevailing mood of paranoia in 1950s America failed to allow this distinction to be made. The term was first used as part of foreign policy by President Eisenhower on April 7th, 1954. He used the term to indicate that if one country in a region fell to communism, then all the surrounding states would also follow suit, similar to what occurs with a row of dominoes when one is knocked over. However it is clear that the idea of containing communist expansion had become part of American foreign policy long before this declaration.
This simple theory went on to become the bedrock of US foreign policy for the next three decades. Its salience became immediately obvious with the crisis in Korea. Following the division of Korea at the Potsdam Convention, the country eventually became divided into two states. The northern state that had been controlled by the Soviet Union at the end of the war was turned into a communist state, headed by Kim IL Sung. The US backed southern state was administered by an anti-communist government under Syngman Rhee. Both leaders were nationalistic and sought to re-unify the country. Inter-state tensions eventually led to the Korean Peoples Army of North Korea invading South Korea in June 1950.
The domino theory was immediately invoked, as the US government felt it necessary to instantly contain the aggression, so the possibility of spill over into adjacent countries would be minimised. The newly formed United Nations speedily condemned the invasion, and under the provisions of UNSC Resolution 62, the US lead a coalition of Allied forces in confronting the Korean Peoples Army.
The resulting war ebbed and flowed for the allies until General Macarthur took the conflict to the banks of the Yalu River, which was considered the border between North Korea and China. This resulted in a massive intervention by the Chinese Army. In desperation Macarthur wanted President Truman to sanction the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese. Truman, who had sanctioned the use of nuclear weapons against Japan, saw the potential for escalation with China and the Soviet Union, and wisely refused. The Korean War eventually petered out to a return to the pre-war boundaries between the two states. The conflict cost in excess of three million lives, and had been predicated on the theoretical need to contain a presumed communist regional expansion.
This theory was again evoked in the Vietnam conflict. Originally termed Indochina, this country had been a colonial possession of France until they were militarily defeated in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. This resulted in a negotiated withdrawal of the French, and the independence of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. As with Korea, the country was partitioned between the communist controlled north, and the US friendly south, and as with Korea, this eventually led to conflict between the two.
John F Kennedy reiterated the importance of the domino theory in a speech given on June 1st, 1956, while he was still a senator, to the Conference on Vietnam in Washington. His belief in the salience of the theory guided his actions towards Vietnam, Berlin and to a lesser extent Cuba. Fortunately for humanity, Kennedy’s intelligence and flexibility allowed him to adopt a reasoned approach to the twin Cuban crises of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. While still following the policy of containment in these crises, he was sufficiently flexible to not resort to direct US intervention in the former case, and allowing Khrushchev an honourable exit in the latter. In Vietnam, his pragmatism caused him to shy away from full intervention. While he did increase the number of military advisers to South Vietnam, every indication exists that his intentions prior to his assassination was to withdraw from Vietnam.
His successor President Johnson had no such constraints. He quickly acceded to the wishes of the military and the CIA by massively escalating the military presence in Vietnam. Johnson subscribed fully to the domino theory by committing the United States to a full blown military intervention of around half a million men. He also initiated controversial tactics such as the massive bombardment of North Vietnam and the use of Agent Orange and other dangerous chemical defoliants. This war was fairly popular at first with the majority of the American public, who had also bought into the domino theory. They believed the line that is still being used today, that it is important to fight these conflicts in distant places to prevent them from being fought at home. However this war was unique in that it was the first war where the media relayed battlefield events into American living rooms every night. The American people saw for themselves, the wanton destruction of property and life being perpetrated on innocent civilians in the name of democracy and freedom. They also witnessed first hand the pain and suffering being endured by their own soldiers. This would eventually lead to a major national uprising against the war.
In 1969 Richard Nixon assumed the presidency on the promise of bringing the war to a swift and honourable end. Once in power however he found it impossible to extricate himself from the morass. On the contrary he extended the bombing campaign, while escalating the conflict into neighbouring Cambodia and Laos. Paradoxically this was the domino theory acting in reverse. It can be argued that it was American aggression in these states that eventually pushed them into the hands of the communists. Cambodia in particular was to suffer the consequences through the barbaric domination of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. American action itself was the catalyst for the dominoes falling, not the original aggression of North Vietnam.
The United States went on to an ignominious defeat and withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975. By this time the Watergate crisis had already unseated President Nixon. The domino theory would go on to be a major factor in American foreign policy till the end of the Cold War in 1991. Its pervasive influence would be responsible for some notorious examples of American domination. Cuba would continue to be strangled economically, while the apartheid regime would be appeased in the interest of maintaining a capitalist bulwark in southern Africa. And all manner of reprehensible right wing regimes would be supported in Latin America, from the murderous Pinochet in Chile and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, to the terrorist activities of the Contras in Nicaragua. Adherence to this theory would even cause an American President to break his own laws, an action that should have lead to his impeachment. In the 1980s the Iran Contra affair became one of the biggest political scandals of the 1980s, when the Reagan administration broke its own laws by illegally selling arms to embargoed Iran and covertly using the proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua.
The history of the 20th century has been replete with the pervasive consequences of the blind adherence to ideological doctrines. It has been the cause of countless instances of death, genocide, destruction and misery. It can only be the hope of mankind that the election of a practical president such as Barack Obama will usher in a new 21st century era, where political and economic decisions are made for pragmatic reasons, and dominoes are left for playing in the park on a sunny summer’s day.