Recently, a friend spoke to me about his time as a cadet at West Point in the mid-1960s. As the war in Vietnam began to heighten, he felt increasingly disillusioned by what he saw and heard. Something wasn’t adding up. He decided to leave the Army. “I was gung-ho,” he said. Then why leave? “I remember them sitting us down in a big room and telling us about The Domino Theory,” he continued. “But it was a lie.” Those of us either adolescent or not yet born to the times will have difficulty sharing the era’s emotional immediacy as would one of its participants. I won’t pretend to, but I did wonder if viewed within the prism of 21st Century events whether The Domino Theory had legs or if my friend was right.
Many Americans may recall that the theory was prominent during the years leading up to the Vietnam War: If communism is not halted from bringing South Vietnam into its domain, then it will have a domino effect on all Indochina and the entire region will follow Vietnam into the orb of the Soviet Union. Closer examination would reveal this theory was a central theme of American foreign policy as far back as 1946 when the Soviet Union began propagating small revolutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe. With the fall of Chiang’s regime in China in 1949, policymakers wondered whether a domino effect would take place in Asia, first in Korea and then Laos and Vietnam. Ultimately the focus turned to Central America in the 1980s.
Some Americans may have felt its political leadership, whether inside the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon administrations may have been disingenuous in espousing the theory with regard to Vietnam, but there is ample documentation to suggest officials of the period were resolute and steadfast in their belief that a domino effect was a reality and even an eventuality. Their critics might argue that The Domino Theory did not prove true in Indochina. Laos and Cambodia may have become communist dictatorships with Vietnam, but Thailand, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and Burma did not. Critics might further argue that theory proponents did not factor into their equation that communism was not as monolithic as they believed: China’s version of communism did not reflect Russia’s or the nationalist nature of Vietnam’s, nor did the particulars of Vietnam’s revolution reflect those of other countries in the region or in the Americas. Therefore, one might conclude context matters. So, opponents of the theory may be right that the application of The Domino Theory did not prove true in Indochina. But did that mean the theory itself was not robust? Perhaps a more holistic review of whether it was legitimate or a lie may be worth further consideration.
As we know, communism was a revolution of the fist. As we shall see, democracy is a coup d’état’s of words. The revolutions sweeping through the Middle East this spring provide answers. The sparks that began in Tunisia have caused a wildfire of massive vibrations throughout the Arab world. Regime change has taken place in Egypt and Tunisia already. Civil war has unfolded in Libya. Authoritarian governments in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and elsewhere are under constant and growing pressure from their populations. If The Domino Theory is not legitimate, then why would Saudi Arabia send troops to Bahrain? To be sure, motivations may vary between countries: Some populations yearn for the end of autocratic rule while others feel disenfranchised by the lack of economic growth and opportunity. But who does not think that China, an authoritarian government who has historically felt pressured to maintain its record rate of growth as a mechanism for suppressing discontent, is not watching closely to see how events are unfolding the Middle East?
Is The Domino Theory as applied to the Middle East different? It is in at least two contexts. First, in juxtaposition with Cold War events, it is a domino effect in reverse: Authoritarian regimes are being toppled in favor of democracies (at least we think and hope). Second, in addition to the underlying sentiments of their publics, the engine driving change is the technological advances of our time. Social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter are allowing those without formal power or formal channels to enact change to connect with one another, network and canvass. The alacrity of change in the region is a by-product of the instantaneous connectivity of unrelated but like-minded individuals. How robust would The Domino Theory have been forty years ago if these communications tools had been available then? We can speculate about how American policymakers and Asian guerillas may have internalized these opportunities, but that is a different debate. What matters is that this domino effect appears truly to be a result of the following: A virtual world of democratic coup d’état’s of words.
Then, let’s circle back to the original question again. Were policymakers who adhered to The Domino Theory during the Cold War myopic or canny? And, therefore what is the final analysis? Historians should consider current events for unmistakable clues: Circumstances undermined implementation of the theory in the 1960s but it is being played out today.