Back To CourseThe Vietnam War: Help and Review
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The domino theory goes something like this: if one domino strikes another, it can lead to a chain reaction in which all dominoes fall. But what does this have to do with Vietnam?
The major foreign policy issue of the post-World War II world, in the U.S., was communism: the dominant political/economic system of the Soviet Union. The USSR, which had been our ally during the war (albeit an ally that was really only on our side because we happened to have the same enemy, Nazi Germany), had been promoting worldwide communist revolution since its founding in 1917. Since the war's end, many Americans had come to see not only the Soviet Union as an external threat, but the system of communism as an existential threat to American values and our very way of life.
It was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who first put forth the thought that if communists take over a given country, then the next country nearby may fall, and then the next, and the next, and…well, you get the idea.
Now, there are some problems with this theory, of course. For example, what if a majority of citizens of that first nation want to have communism? It happened in Russia, after all. And how do we know that the next country over will necessarily fall to communism? Are we really sure that communism will spread so surely, so inevitably, right to America's shores?
Fear of communism, however, and what it may entail, tended to cloud a rational response to these problems. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the metaphor of the domino effect was the main justification for American intervention around the globe.
Since 1945, Vietnam (known for a long time as Indochina) had been fighting on several different fronts. The nation was effectively split into two sections: the communist north, with its capitol, Hanoi and its leader, Ho Chi Minh; and the south, with its capitol in Saigon and its leaders supported by the former colonial occupant of the nation, France. In September of that year, Ho Chi Minh had proclaimed Vietnam's independence from France, and starting at that point, a war had been waged between north and south, with the former receiving aid from the Soviet Union and the latter helped by France and, eventually, the United States.
During a press conference on April 7, 1954, President Eisenhower laid out the first major defense of the domino theory. He was referencing the battle between French forces and the Vietminh (the communist forces of North Vietnam), and he began by explaining how economically important Vietnam was to the U.S. More importantly, however, was what Eisenhower called the 'falling domino' principle.
If South Vietnam fell, then Laos would be next, and after that, Thailand and Burma; and that would lead communists to the doorstep of India, a strong ally of the United States. Even Japan, Eisenhower warned, could be in danger of toppling, another domino in the row.
A month later, the French lost a major battle to Minh's forces at a place called Dien Bien Phu, which led ultimately to France's withdrawal from Vietnam. In the years that followed, the United States under Eisenhower, and then under John F. Kennedy, supported the South Vietnamese government, even as it remained locked in an ongoing struggle with the North Vietnamese, as well as South Vietnamese communist guerrillas, who called themselves the Vietcong.
As the fighting between the Vietcong and South Vietnamese forces intensified through 1963, American military leaders began to clamor for increased involvement. The death of John Kennedy in November 1963, brought a new president, Lyndon Johnson, who also promoted the domino theory as justification for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Under his administration, the U.S. would openly send combat troops into Vietnam for the first time.
As it turned out, the domino theory was just that - a theory. In reality, none of the rest of Southeast Asia toppled to communism. As most Americans know, the Vietnam conflict played out in lengthy, painful fashion, causing the growth of a massive anti-war movement in the U.S. and various halting efforts to end the war, in Richard Nixon's phrase, 'with peace and honor.' Finally, peace was declared in 1973. Two years after the U.S. had withdrawn, South Vietnam finally fell to the North Vietnamese.
Something far, far worse happened to Vietnam's immediate neighbor, Cambodia. The destabilization of the war (and the U.S. invasion of that country in 1970, in order to eradicate Vietcong bases there) caused a violent uprising and takeover by a radical communist group called the Khmer Rouge, which launched a genocidal campaign against its own people, resulting in between 1.5 and 3 million deaths.
Over the years, the 'slippery slope' logic of the domino theory has fallen out of favor, though echoes of it still remain, especially in debates over other sensitive geopolitical topics like the Mideast. Mostly, though, it serves as a cautionary note against justifying open-ended military action with no clear end in sight.
The domino theory, the idea that failing to act could lead to a series of cascading events, all of which could be worse than the preceding one, developed after World War II as a military and diplomatic justification for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War and for U.S. intervention around the world. The primary motivation was to prevent the spread of communism, which was considered dangerous to American values and interests. This theory was first articulated as American policy by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954.
However, the domino theory proved to be just a theory. Communism didn't spread around the world or through the region, and the U.S. didn't win the war. South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese forces. In fact, the U.S. involvement in the region led to further destabilization. This allowed for the Khmer Rouge to take hold in neighboring Cambodia.
|Terms, People/Groups & Places||Explanations|
|Domino theory||if one domino strikes another, it can lead to a chain reaction in which all dominoes fall|
|Communism||the dominant political/economic system of the Soviet Union|
|President Dwight D. Eisenhower||first put forth the thought that if communists take over a given country, then the next country nearby may fall, and then the next|
|Vietnam/Indochina||split into two nations: the communist north and the democratic south|
|Hanoi||capitol of the north|
|Ho Chi Minh||leader of the communist north|
|Saigon||capitol of the south|
|Vietminh||communist forces of the north|
|Dien Bien Phu||where the French lost a major battle to Minh's forces|
|John F. Kennedy||was the president who succeeded Eisenhower; he also supported the South Vietnamese government|
|Vietcong||communist guerrillas in South Vietnam|
|Lyndon Johnson||also promoted the domino theory as justification for U.S. involvement in Vietnam|
|Cambodia||Vietnam's immediate neighbor; the destabilization of the war caused a violent uprising and takeover in this country by a radical communist group called the Khmer Rouge|
|Khmer Rouge||launched a genocidal campaign against its own people in Cambodia, resulting in between 1.5 and 3 million deaths|
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Back To CourseThe Vietnam War: Help and Review
7 chapters | 59 lessons
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