The Domino Theory & the Vietnam War: Definition & Eisenhower's Speech

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  • 0:00 What Is the Domino Theory?
  • 0:15 The Fear of Communism
  • 1:49 The Vietnam Conflict &…
  • 3:15 Domino Theory & US Involvement
  • 4:14 The Outcome & Cambodia
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy
How did the United States come to be involved in a nearly twenty-year long conflict in Southeast Asia, with a nation most Americans knew nothing about? The extensive American military and diplomatic entanglement in Vietnam was justified, to a large extent, by the 'domino theory,' a principle laid out by Dwight Eisenhower in 1954.

What is the Domino Theory?

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 Fear of Communism

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.

The Vietnam Conflict

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.

Eisenhower's Speech

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.

The Domino Theory and U.S. Involvement

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.

The Outcome

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.

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