Indochina was a central battleground of the Cold War for more than two decades in which poorly-armed Vietnamese guerrillas fought successfully against the USA.
Some saw it as an ideological struggle between capitalism and communism, and others, as a misinformed US attack on anti-colonial nationalism.
McGeorge Bundy argued that the prospects for a domino effect, though high in the 1950s and early 1960s, were weakened in 1965 when the Indonesian Communist Party was destroyed via CIA-supported death squads in the Indonesian Genocide. However, proponents believe that the
efforts during the containment (i.e. Domino Theory) period ultimately led to the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
The reasons for American involvement are unclear and have led to fierce debate among academics.
Before the second world war, Indochina was a French colony consisting of what we now know as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
It was occupied by the Japanese during the war but reclaimed by the French after theJapanese defeat.
Some supporters of the domino theory note the history of communist governments supplying aid to communist revolutionaries in neighboring countries. For instance, China supplied the Viet Minh, the North Vietnamese army
, with troops and supplies, and the Soviet Union supplied them with tanks and heavy weapons. The fact that the Pathet Lao and Khmer Rouge were both originally part of the
Vietminh, not to mention Hanoi's support for both in conjunction with the Viet Cong, also give credence to the theory. The Soviet Union also heavily supplied Sukarno with military supplies and advisors from the time of the Guided Democracy in Indonesia, especially during and after the 1958 civil war in Sumatra.
After WWII, Vietnam became a site of international interest; it declared independence in 1945 but France chose to fight to regain control. In 1954 the French were defeated and Vietnam was divided in two; the north controlled by a communist-nationalist government and the south under anti-communist control with US support
Some foreign policy analysts in the United States have referred to the potential spread of both Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy in the Middle East as two different possibilities for a domino theory. During the Iran-Iraq War the United States and other western nations
supported Iraq, fearing the spread of Iran's radical theocracy throughout the region.
Vietnam was the overwhelming focus of US policy towards the area and the site of a massive American troop commitment. Therefore, in this essay I will focus on US policy towards Vietnam and not Laos and Cambodia.
The primary evidence for the domino theory is the spread of communist rule in three Southeast Asian countries in 1975, following the communist takeover of Vietnam: South Vietnam (by the Viet Cong), Laos (by the Pathet Lao), and Cambodia. It can further be argued that before they finished taking Vietnam prior to the
1950s, the communist campaigns
did not succeed in Southeast Asia. Note the Malayan Emergency, the Hukbalahap Rebellion in the Philippines, and the increasing involvement with Communists by Sukarno of Indonesia from the late 1950s until he was deposed in 1967. All of these were unsuccessful Communist attempts to
take over Southeast Asian countries which stalled when communist forces were still focused in Vietnam.
‘Domino theory’ is frequently cited as a major influence on US policy towards Vietnam, not least by the politicians of the time. The idea is that if one domino (in this case a country) falls (to communism) it will knock down all those surrounding it.I will argue that domino theory played a significant role in early decision making but that raw materials and European pressure were also important.
In 1949, a Communist-backed government, led by Mao Zedong, was instated in China. The installation of the new government was established after the People's Liberation Army defeated the Nationalist Republican Government of China in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War
(1927-1949). Two Chinas were formed - mainland 'Communist China' (People's Republic of China
) and 'Nationalist China' Taiwan. The takeover by Communists of the
world's most populous nation was seen in the West as a great strategic loss, prompting the popular question at the time, "Who lost China?" The United States subsequently ended diplomatic relations with China in response to the communist takeover in
Domino theory remained influential until the late 60s but, once the US had openly committed to protecting South Vietnam, US prestige also played an important role; becoming dominant towards the end of the conflict as the US was faced with the possibility of defeat.
The John F. Kennedy administration intervened in Vietnam in the early 1960s to, among other reasons, keep the South Vietnamese "domino" from falling. When Kennedy came to power there was concern that the communist-led Pathet Lao in Laos would provide the Viet Cong with bases, and that eventually they could take over Laos.
The idea that communism was a contagious force that spread from country to country, later called domino theory, was first proposed by General Marshall in 1947 (Bell, 2001: 117). However, it was not seen to be applicable to Vietnam until 1950 when new fears of Chinese communism surfaced.
Although there was never any actual fighting between the two countries, fears of a nuclear war were established. ‘The Vietnam War was a proxy war* between the United States, the Soviet Union and China.’(11) Proxy War: A war in which a war is fought between two or more entities, one or more of whom is supported by another
country, in order to achieve the goals of the supporting country. The Cold War is the biggest example there is to
show how worried America were about the spread of communism
. It links to why America got involved in Vietnam and The Cold War also gives evidence to support the Domino Theory, which suggests why America got involved in the first place. The Domino Theory stated that if one state in a region came under the influence of communism
, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect. The US used the Domino Theory to justify their intervention in Vietnam, but other factors also contributed. The US entered Vietnam to try and contain the spread of communism.
The victory of Mao Tse Tung’s communists in China and the swift beginning of the communist military campaign in Korea proved to many in the US that there was a Sino-Soviet conspiracy against the ‘free world’ and that the Soviet treatment of Eastern
Europe was not an isolated case of expansionism
(Landon: 23; and Morganthau: 9; in Hsiao, 1973).
They can validate this because South Vietnamese forces could not defeat the opposition without help. As well as that, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was where a US warship was attacked by a North Vietnamese torpedo boat, could also give the US a reason for getting involved
. To start off with, the US sent in ‘military advisers’ to commence their participation in Vietnam
. The aim of these advisers was to train the ARVN and to get them organised
. The US government called them ‘advisers’ to cover up the increased escalation of their involvement. They also started a new government in South Vietnam, which was ran by Ngo Dinh Diem. Unfortunately for the US, he ran a corrupt government and was not well-liked by his people. Diem and his brother were later
killed in an event the US approved. ‘After the Second World War, US leaders felt they had
to do everything they could to stop the spread of communism
. (1) This is because ‘When China became a communist state, the US lost their powerful position as the leader of the free world.’(2)
The recognition of the Vietnamese communists as the legitimate government of Vietnam by the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet bloc served the confirm these suspicions (Bradley, 2000: 177). The notable absence of any efforts to acquire specific information about the
Vietnamese communists (Record, 2002: 157) suggests that this myth of an international
communist conspiracy was widely believed and rarely questioned (Elliott, 1996: 25).
How significant was ‘The Domino Theory’ as a reason for US involvement in the conflict of Vietnam? The conflict of Vietnam was a battle between North Vietnamese forces and South Vietnamese soldiers, who had the help of the US. The highly disputed war took place between 1955 and 1975. The aim of the South Vietnamese forces was to unite the South of Vietnam with the North to form a communist government
. On the other hand, the South wanted to keep the country non-communist. This was exactly why the US got drawn in. To stop the spread of communism. There is a lot of debate surrounding
America’s involvement, many questioning whether they needed to intervene. Others question the high escalation of their involvement. Before the Vietnam War, the Cold War had started. It was the tense relationship between the US and the Soviet Union. The US used capitalism as their economic system
, whilst the USSR used the communist system. Differences in ideologies led to a taut relationship between the two countries.
That the spread of communism had to be contained was not under question during the Cold War but the US commitment to anti-communism in Vietnam was unusual in its extent. At the same time that the French were fighting communism in Vietnam, the British were engaged in similar struggles in Burma and Malaya but these campaigns were not given US support (Landon in Hsiao, 1973: 19).
President Eisenhower was the first to refer to countries in danger of Communist takeover as dominoes, in response to a journalist's question about Indochina in an April 7, 1954 news conference, though he did not use the term "domino theory". If Communists succeeded in taking over the rest of Indochina, Eisenhower argued, local groups would then have the encouragement, material support and momentum
to take over Burma, Thailand, Malaya and Indonesia; all of these countries had large popular Communist movements and insurgencies within their borders at the time.
The special treatment accorded to Vietnam can be explained by the perception in the US that it was a key domino in a Southeast Asia chain (Immerman, 1990: 9). During the Japanese occupation of the area in 1941, Vietnam was seen to be a very important strategic position to hold; it was the site for the launches of Japan’s attacks on Malaya, Southern Singapore, the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies (Bell, 2001: 214).
A second reason to show that the significance of the Domino Theory was a reason for the US involvement, is that during the 1950s US involvement began to grow in Vietnam. A small team of US military advisers was sent out in 1954 to help ?prepare? for the 1956 elections in Vietnam (3). This suggests that America feared the
spread of communism in Vietnam and they were keen to prevent Ho Chi Minh from bringing communism rule to Vietnam. A third reason is that the fighting between the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese forces intensified through 1963. American military leaders began to
clamour for increased involvement in Vietnam. Under Lyndon Johnson?s administration, the U.S. would now openly send combat troops into Vietnam for the first time (4). ...read more.
Concerns that this type of regional dominance would reoccur if the communists triumphed in Vietnam were supported by the British, who had important colonial possessions in the region (Immerman, 1990: 6), and the French, whose motives may have been influenced by their
desperate need of US assistance (Irving, 1975: 103).
This started with stopping the first ‘domino’ falling, which was Vietnam. Before the US entered Vietnam, the French had built a colony, consisting of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In 1954, the ‘Battle of Dien Bien Phu’ marked the end of
France’s involvement in Indochina. This defeat for the French showed the US why they needed to increase their participation. The Geneva Conference marked a turning point in America’s involvement in Vietnam. Representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and Great Britain came together in to try to
resolve several problems related to Asia. As part of the agreement, the French agreed to withdraw their troops from Vietnam, which would be split into two, pending elections within two years to choose a President and re-unite the country
. During those two years, no foreign troops could enter the country.
Estimates of the effect of the Vietnamese domino falling varied from communism spreading to its immediate neighbours to the ‘loss’ of all land in the region including Australia and New Zealand (Letter, Eisenhower to Churchill, 04/04/54 and Security Council Documents, NSC-64 and NSC-68, in Bell, 2001: 117 and 213).
This would give them a geographical and economic strategic advantage, and it would make Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand the front-line defensive states. The loss of regions traditionally within the vital regional trading area of countries like Japan
would encourage the front-line countries to compromise politically with
French assessments emphasised the danger posed to all land west of Vietnam until the Suez Canal (Irving, 1975: 103).
Domino theory was an influential factor in decision making in the US from 1950, until the assumptions that supported it started to be dismantled in the 60s and 70s.
The Domino Theory Here is my report on the Domino Theory The ?Domino Theory? is a complex and interesting theory. It is based on a simple rule of physics. That rule is inertia. Inertia is defined in the dictionary as, ?the tendency of matter to remain at rest or to continue in a fixed direction unless
affected by some outside force.?1 This can be seen by making a line of dominoes, one right after the other and pushing the first domino over. The rest of the dominoes will fall over until the last one is down.
By the 1970s, the presence of a communist government in North Vietnam was followed only by the spread of communism to half of Laos, and the Sino-Soviet alliance that was thought to be controlling the Vietnamese communists showed signs of a serious split as early as 1956 (Morganthau in Hsiao, 1973: 14 , 12).
Korea had also partially fallen under Soviet domination at the end of World War II, split from the south of the 38th parallel where U.S. forces subsequently moved into. By 1948, as a result of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S., Korea was split into two regions, with separate governments, each claiming to be the legitimate government of Korea, and neither side accepting the border as permanent. In 1950 fighting broke out between Communists and Republicans that soon
involved troops from China (on the Communists' side), and the United States and 15 allied countries (on the Republicans' side). Though the war never
officially ended, the fighting ended in 1953 with an armistice that left Korea divided into two nations, North Korea and South Korea. Mao Zedong's decision to take on
the U.S. in the Korean War was a direct attempt to confront what the Communist bloc viewed as the strongest anti-Communist power in the world, undertaken at a time when the Chinese Communist regime was still consolidating its own power after winning the Chinese Civil War
The theory’s influence was not overwhelming, however, even during the early 1950s. President Eisenhower’s administration had questioned the domino theory and concluded that the ‘loss’ of Vietnam would not be a disaster for the ‘free
world’ and that Laos and Cambodia were in little danger (Immerman, 1990: 17).
In the 1977 Frost/Nixon interviews, Richard Nixon defended America's destabilization of the Salvador Allende regime in Chile on domino theory grounds. Borrowing a metaphor he had heard, he stated that a Communist Chile and Cuba would create a "red
sandwich" that could entrap Latin America between them
. In the 1980s, the domino theory was used again to justify the Reagan administration's interventions in Central America and the Caribbean region.
As President, Eisenhower’s rhetoric suggested that Vietnam was an essential domino, but in practice his policies were much more flexible and cautious (Bell, 2001: 117). It is clear that other factors also played a role in deciding US policy towards the area, particularly in the very beginning of US involvement and the
latter part of the war.
Assess the importance of nationalism to the Vietnamese up to 1965. From 1965 the US implemented a policy of direct military involvement in Vietnam. Evaluate the consequences of this policy….
Geo-political Factors and the Role of Europe and Japan
In the immediate post-war period, Indochina’s worth to the US was based on more than its role as a barrier to communism; the area was rich in raw materials considered necessary for America and its allies (Immerman, 1990: 7; Sanders, 1998: 14).
In West Germany, this includes the terrorist actions of the Red Army Faction. In the far east the Japanese Red Army carried out similar acts. All four, as well as others worked with various Arab and Palestinian terrorists, which like the red brigades were backed by the Soviet Bloc.
During WWII, America had considered the area economically important enough to risk provoking Japan in order to get access; action which resulted in the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour (Immerman, 1990, 2). In the Cold War environment the need
for Indochinese raw materials was complemented by a desire to keep them out of the hands of the USSR (Immerman, 1990: 5) and therefore the US had considerable interest in keeping the region friendly
In addition, this theory can be further bolstered by the rise in terrorist incidents by left-wing terrorist groups in Western Europe, funded in part by Communist governments, between the 1960s and 1980s. In Italy, this includes the kidnapping and assassination of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, and the kidnapping of former US Brigadier General James L. Dozier, by the Red Brigades.
As the colonial power in the area until 1954, France made considerable use of the Indochinese resources. Its prestige was also threatened by the loss of colonies and, when Vietnam declared independence in 1945, France fought to maintain control.
In May 1954, the Viet Minh, a Communist and nationalist army, defeated French troops in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and took control of what became North Vietnam. This caused the French to fully withdraw from the region then known as French Indochina, a process they had begun earlier.
In the early Cold War environment, US interest in the conflict initially stemmed not from the nature of the war in Indochina but from the French domestic situation. France’s war was unpopular at home and very expensive. Much of the Marshall plan aid that was received was channelled into Indochina rather than into
improving the French economy and challenging the growth of French communism (Immerman, 1990, 6). The link between French communism and the French war in Indochina was noted by the US. The threat of communist electoral success in France and
other western European countries was a serious issue for the United States immediately following WWII and one far accorded far more importance than communist expansionism elsewhere
in the world (Immerman, 1990: 5). Aiding the French military efforts would be a small price to pay for ensuring the failure of communism in France.
Finally, 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 could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences
France had another reason to expect US support for its war; it was an essential ally for the US in the emerging Cold War and French troops were needed in NATO. A strong Western alliance was seen by the US to be far more important than the fate of Indochina and made it necessary to keep France friendly (Irving, 1975: 98). Britain was very supportive of France in this situation as it too had Southeast Asian colonies where it was fighting independence movements.
Eisenhower's domino theory of 1954 was a specific description of the situation and conditions within Southeast Asia at the time, and he did not suggest a generalized domino theory as others did afterward.
Britain and France portrayed themselves as necessary for European security and as essential trading partners, forcing the US to sacrifice its anti-colonial ideals in return for more material advantage (Immerman: 3, 7; Walker, 1994: 61).
This Domino Theory is essentially the entire reason that the United States participated in the Vietnam War. So, by extension, this Domino Theory is the reason that The Things They Carried was written and thus provides a background into the generally unwanted involvement in this
war. O'Brien showed much of this discomfort in the chapter "On the Rainy River". During the entire length of this chapter he fought with himself over the concept of going to
war. This was generally something experienced by every person that went to
Vietnam as many did not see the reason for going. Domino Theory provides a background for the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and shows why the participants may have been against it.
Indeed, they were considered so important that some American politicians suggested the US voluntarily take over responsibility for France’s war in Indochina (Immerman, 1990: 6).
In terms of its raw materials, Indochina was also important for the Japanese economy in its period of recovery following WWII.
Domino Theory, a complex and interesting theory, is based on a simple rule of physics. That rule is inertia. Inertia is the tendency of matter to remain at rest or to continue in a fixed direction unless affected by some outside force. An example for Domino
Theory would be making a line of dominoes and then pushing the first domino over, as each domino falls another will follow until, finally, every domino has fallen.
The USA had made substantial commitments to Japan economically and valued it as a barrier to communism in the Pacific and as the home of numerous American military bases. It was anxious to ensure that Japan would have non-communist trading
partners in the area to prevent it establishing any kind of commitments to its communist neighbours (Immerman, 1990: 10-11).
The combination of these factors in the late 1940s and early 50s provided a compelling case for assisting the French in Indochina; aid and military advisors were provided from 1950 and, by the French defeat in 1954, the US was paying for 75% of the war (Bradley, 2000: 177). America was concerned with keeping the Indochinese resources in friendly hands for the benefit of itself and its allies. Its reliance on Britain and France for European security made it necessary to overlook its commitment to self-determination for colonies and to actively attempt to strengthen colonial power. The presence of communists in Indochina was the official reason for involvement but during this period the futures of France, Britain and Japan were also very influential (Walker, 1994: 61).
National Pride and Prestige
As the USA got further and further embroiled in Vietnam, domino theory and geopolitical considerations began to lose their importance.
Political cartoon by Carlos Latuff applying the domino theory to the Arab Spring.
During the 1960s it became increasingly clear that China and the USSR were in severe disagreement and that communism was not a monolithic entity; by 1970 it was established that the Vietnamese communists were independent of China
and the USSR and that the Vietnam war was not ‘containing’ China (Morganthau in Hsiao, 1973: 12-13).
Mazour, Anatole. Men and Nations: A World History. 2nd ed. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich. 1971.
It was also shown that the fall of the North Vietnamese ‘domino’ had had no effect on the political persuasion of Southeast Asia nor was likely to, with the exceptions of Cambodia and Laos (Bell, 2001: 298). Britain and France were strong allies of the US and were no longer requesting American involvement in the area. However, with these considerations largely removed, the US discovered that withdrawal from Vietnam was in fact virtually impossible because of the blow
that a defeat would deal internationally
, to American pride and prestige, and domestically, to the popularity of the President.
The ideological battle of the Cold War led to considerable American emphasis on its role as protector of the ‘free world’. When decisions were made to escalate the Vietnam war rather than pull out, this factor was very influential; a loss or withdrawal would undermine America’s credibility (Immerman, 1990: 8). President Eisenhower in particular was concerned about the trust of the US by its allies if it was seen to be abandoning a dependent state to communism (Immerman, 1990: 12-13).
Many others, including President Kennedy, saw the conflict from a slightly different angle; for them the Cold War was a zero sum game in which communist success was seen as a loss for American prestige and international standing and where communist challenges had to be met and dealt with (Bell, 2001: 275-6). This approach was linked very closely with a belief in the communist conspiracy which led to assumptions of the homogeneity of international communism and greatly overestimated the influence of Moscow and Beijing (Morganthau in Hsiao, 1973: 9). To lose in Vietnam was to lose to communism - the hated enemy of the US, and must be avoided (Kent and Young, 2004: 165). Eisenhower recognised the importance of this factor when he predicted that, if any US troops were committed to Vietnam, US prestige would demand a victory (Immerman, 1990: 15).
Of particular sensitivity was the prospect of the incredibly powerful US military machine being seen as unable to defeat poorly-armed, peasant guerrillas. That the US would win was assumed for almost the whole course of the conflict (Record, 2002: 157; Neustadt and May, 1986: 137) and, when the victory proved to be further out of reach than supposed, the logical conclusion was to commit more troops and resources (Bell, 2001: 275-6). In this context it was almost impossible to concede defeat. In an attempt to avoid this, President Nixon embarked on a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ that involved handing over full responsibility for the conflict to the South Vietnamese army and withdrawing American troops (Landon in Hsiao, 1973: 33). By this method the final victory of the Vietnamese communists occurred after the US had left the country.
For the presidents involved, the Vietnam war took on a personal aspect; none would want to be seen to be soft on communism or remembered as the first US president to lose a war. The McCarthy ‘witch-hunts’, in which Senator McCarthy and his Committee for Un-American Activities removed suspected communist sympathisers from all positions of influence, dominated the domestic arena in the early 1950s. As a result, not one prominent person spoke up against the idea of an international communist conspiracy (Landon in Hsiao, 1973: 24). Throughout the 50s and 60s the Cold War atmosphere meant that any signs of weakness towards communism were avoided, particularly in election campaigns (Sanders, 1998: 58). Memory of the electoral fate of those seen to have ‘lost’ China to the communists were still fresh (May, 1973: 99). President Kennedy especially, needed to show his determination and ability to combat communism following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba which marked the first months of his presidency (Sanders, 1998: 42). The two US presidents faced with the possibility of defeat in Vietnam, Johnson and Nixon, both declared privately their determination not to be the first American president to lose a war (Morganthau in Hsiao, 1973: 16). Nixon managed to avoid the title only by the ‘Vietnamisation’ described above.
The role of the Vietnam war as a measure of ideological and military strength in the context of the Cold War cannot be overlooked. This made US pride and prestige a very restricting factor when considering withdrawal or defeat. The ‘Quagmire’ analogy summs up the situation by describing US Indochina policy as stuck in a bog where it was not possible to get out, only to sink further in. The effect of a loss on US military and ideological prestige and on the fate of the president was seen to be reason enough to increase commitment to winning.
The evidence suggests that domino theory was indeed very influential on US policy towards Indochina during the Cold War but that it was not overwhelmingly so. The immediate post-war situation was dominated by the need to secure Europe and Japan from communism and Indochina was seen as an important tool in this. Domino theory came in to play in 1950 when the communist victory in China and subsequent war in Korea were seen as a threat to Southeast Asia. The combination of these factors persuaded the Eisenhower administration to begin aiding the French in their war. By the time the French conceded defeat and the Geneva agreements partitioned Vietnam into South and North in 1954, domino theory had become more prominent and the US transferred their support to the South Vietnamese government. Once the US was committed openly to defeating the communist guerrillas in South Vietnam, prestige came into play as a factor influencing US decision making and came to dominate it. US pride demanded that defeat could not be conceded, militarily or ideologically.
Domino theory was an important influence on US foreign policy towards Indochina during the Cold War, but so were French, British and Japanese concerns, and US prestige; no one factor was dominant overall.
R.E.M. Irving, The First Indochina War : French and American policy 1945-54 (London, Croom Helm, 1975)
Immerman, ‘US interests in Indochina’ in L.S. Kaplan, D. Artaud, M.R. Rubin (eds), Dien Bien Phu and the Crisis of Franco-American Relations, 1954-1955 (Scholarly Resources Inc,. 1990)
Gene T. Hsiao (ed), The Role of External Powers in the Indochina Crisis (Andronicus, 1973)
Bradley, M.F, Imagining Vietnam & America: The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950 (University of North Carolina Press, 2000)
Walker, M, The Cold War (Vintage, 1994)
May E.R, “Lessons of the Past”: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (New York 1973)
Record J, Making War, Thinking history: Munich, Vietnam and Presidential uses of force from Korea to Kosovo (Annapolis 2002)
Bell P, ‘The World Since 1945: an international history’, (Arnold Publishers, 2001)
Young J andKent J, ‘International Relations Since 1945’, (Oxford University Press, 2004)
Paul Elliott Vietnam:Conflict and Controversy (Arms and Armour Press, 1996)
Vivienne Sanders - The USA and Vietnam 1945-75 (Hodder & Stoughton, 1998)
Written by: Katie Smith
Written at: Aberystwyth University
Date written: 2005