The domino theory, which governed much of U.S. foreign policy beginning in the early 1950s, held that a communist victory in one nation would quickly lead to a chain reaction of communist takeovers in neighboring states. In Southeast Asia, the United States government used the domino theory to justify its support of a non-communist regime in South Vietnam against the communist government of North Vietnam, and ultimately its increasing involvement in the long-running Vietnam War (1954-75). In fact, the American failure to prevent a communist victory in Vietnam had much less of a global impact than had been assumed by the domino theory. Though communist regimes did arise in Laos and Cambodia after 1975, communism failed to spread throughout the rest of Southeast Asia.
In September 1945, the Vietnamese nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed Vietnam’s independence from France, beginning a war that pitted Ho’s communist-led Viet Minh regime in Hanoi (North Vietnam) against a French-backed regime in Saigon (South Vietnam). Under President Harry S. Truman, the U.S. government provided covert military and financial aid to the French; the rationale was that a communist victory in Indochina would precipitate the spread of communism throughout Southeast Asia. Using this same logic, Truman would also give aid to Greece and Turkey during the late 1940s to help contain communism in Europe and the Middle East.
By early 1950, makers of U.S. foreign policy had firmly embraced the idea that the fall of Indochina to communism would lead rapidly to the collapse of other nations in Southeast Asia. The National Security Council included the theory in a 1952 report on Indochina, and in April 1954, during the decisive battle between Viet Minh and French forces at Dien Bien Phu, President Dwight D. Eisenhower articulated it as the “falling domino” principle. In Eisenhower’s view, the loss of Vietnam to communist control would lead to similar communist victories in neighboring countries in Southeast Asia (including Laos, Cambodia and Thailand) and elsewhere (India, Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, and even Australia and New Zealand). “The possible consequences of the loss [of Indochina],” Eisenhower said, “are just incalculable to the free world.”
The Domino Theory and Growing U.S. Involvement in Vietnam
After Eisenhower’s speech, the phrase “domino theory” began to be used as a shorthand expression of the strategic importance of South Vietnam to the United States, as well as the need to contain the spread of communism throughout the world. After the Geneva Conference ended the French-Viet Minh war and split Vietnam along the latitude known as the 17th parallel, the United States spearheaded the organization of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), a loose alliance of nations committed to taking action against “security threats” in the region.
John F. Kennedy, Eisenhower’s successor in the White House, would increase the commitment of U.S. resources in support of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam and of non-communist forces fighting a civil war in Laos in 1961-62. In the fall of 1963, after serious domestic opposition to Diem arose, Kennedy backed away from support of Diem himself but publicly reaffirmed belief in the domino theory and the importance of containing communism in Southeast Asia. Three weeks after Diem was murdered in a military coup in early November 1963, Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas; his successor Lyndon B. Johnson would continue to use the domino theory to justify the escalation of the U.S. military presence in Vietnam from a few thousand soldiers to more than 500,000 over the next five years.
The Domino Theory in Hindsight
In hindsight, the domino theory failed to take into account the character of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong struggle in the Vietnam War. By assuming Ho Chi Minh was a pawn of the communist giants Russia and China, American policymakers failed to see that the goal of Ho and his supporters was limited to Vietnamese independence, rather than the spread of global communism.
In the end, even though the American effort to block a communist takeover failed, and North Vietnamese forces marched into Saigon in 1975, communism did not spread throughout the rest of Southeast Asia. With the exception of Laos and Cambodia, the nations of the region remained out of communist control.