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The domino theory was articulated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in an April 7, 1954, news conference in which he worried that if communism remained unchecked, the free world might endure “the ‘falling domino’ principle. [In that case] 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 have the beginning of a disintegration [of democratic countries] that would have profound influences” (Eisenhower 1954, p. 382). According to that principle, a change in one country will “spill over,” setting in motion the political transformation of an entire region.
Georgraphic and Political Origins
Of particular concern to American leaders at that time was the ongoing crisis in southeastern Asia, where the loss of Vietnam could be expected to lead to eventual Communist domination of Thailand, Indonesia, and perhaps New Zealand and Australia (Gaddis 1982). The application of the domino theory, however, was not limited to southeastern Asia. The growing momentum of communism and the falling of dominoes animated national security debates over American policies toward Western Europe and Latin America as well. After the Eisenhower administration, the Democratic administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson continued to believe that setbacks in southeastern Asia in general and Vietnam in particular would have dire consequences.
Fears of dominoes falling were based primarily on two mutually reinforcing concerns. The first was that if the United States failed to support an ally against Communist agitation, Communist movements in neighboring countries and their Soviet and Chinese sponsors would be emboldened. Communist success would breed success, and failure to stem the tide early would push countries out of the American orbit, with disastrous longterm consequences. Second, that perception of threat was amplified by concerns that the inability of an Americansponsored government to suppress domestic insurgents or outside provocateurs would signal that the United States could not be counted on as a reliable alliance partner. In that case the insecurities of allied countries and the demonstrated inability or unwillingness of the United States to help overcome them would lead countries to pull away from the United States. On both counts American decision makers feared that seemingly small reverses in peripheral countries ultimately would lead to a massive redistribution of cold war power as country after country fell to Communist pressure.
Although the rhetoric of falling dominoes most often was used to articulate the dangers from the unchecked spread of Soviet expansion, some noted that dominoes might be induced to fall the other way as well. Soon after the end of the World War II (1939–1945) conservatives in the Truman administration advocated “rolling back” Soviet advances in Europe. Although the lexicon of falling dominoes had not been coined yet, the basic logic was the same: It was hoped that American successes would demonstrate the power of the West and the poverty of the Soviet alternative. If that policy was successful, it was hoped that it might set into motion a counterdomino effect in which European Soviet-styled authoritarian regimes were felled by a mix of domestic and Western pressure. The Soviets’ continued de facto and then de jure domination of Central and Eastern Europe frustrated those early reactionary impulses to roll back the postwar status quo. Thereafter, the world’s dominoes were seen as leaning against the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s.
The Reagan and Second Bush Administrations
Despite the absence of a positive theory of a Communist rollback for much of the cold war, the idea did not die. After the collapse of détente in the late 1970s, many conservatives called for the Reagan administration to roll back communism in Europe and especially in Latin America. The intellectual basis for American overt and covert involvement in a number of military conflicts in the region, notably the 1983 invasion of Communist-held Grenada, indicated continued support for the concepts found in domino theory. Specifically, it was believed that American weakness in Latin America would lead to further Communist advances, whereas American successes not only would reverse that process but perhaps would lead to conditions in which established Communist regimes might be rolled back and ultimately expelled from Latin America. Again, the key point was the belief that success breeds success and that small and even tangential victories early can have a snowball effect: Communist successes would increase the support for and allure of that centrally planned and authoritarian model, whereas American successes would reverse the trend and create conditions under which free markets and democracy could flourish.
The end of the cold war did not spell the end of the domino theory. In the first decade of the twenty-first century the Bush administration used the domino theory to motivate and justify its policies in the Middle East and the war on terror. The Bush White House feared that successes by Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda threatened Westernfriendly states and provided a recruiting tool for those opposed to American interests in that region. On the one hand, American and Western successes in routing those elements and spreading democracy throughout the Middle East would set in motion a liberalizing and democratizing dynamic that would bring peace and stability to an unsettled region. On the other hand, if the Islamisists’ attacks on friendly governments and Western interests went unchecked, it would catalyze a counter-Western and counterdemocratic movement. According to the logic of the domino theory, the early victors in that struggle would prove their worthiness to be emulated and draw further recruits and converts to their cause; the losers would see their losses compounded as the struggle continued.
Again, the key assumption was that success creates a self-sustaining momentum that will lead to the domination of the region by one side or the other. Implicitly or explicitly that logic was given scholarly support by many “offensive” realists, such as William Wohlforth, who argued in 1999 that American willingness to serve as a leader and a supporter of democracy and free markets will lead to a pax Americana: a new era of American dominance and peace and cooperation.
The fact that the logic of domino theory has proved enduring does not mean that it is without critics. “Defensive” realists such as Kenneth Waltz (1998) and Christopher Layne (1993) argue that the success of a country holds within it the seeds of failure. They claim that as a country becomes more powerful, it threatens the sovereignty and autonomy of its neighbors, increasing their willingness to resist further expansion. Rather than going from strength to strength, aggressive countries encourage others to unite against them, and thus early successes make future expansion less rather than more likely.
According to the logic of balancing, early Communist success in southeastern Asia made countries such as Thailand and Japan more likely to support the United States and pushed them farther from the Communist camp. Likewise, successes by Islamists are likely to drive states into closer cooperation with the United States out of fear that they could be next. At the same time, American activities in the region, such as the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, are likely to drive those governments away as they become increasingly wary of American power and influence. The defensive realist analysis thus turns the domino theory on its head. If it is correct, it should serve as both a comfort to American decision makers combating Islamists in the Middle East and a warning to those who would use American hegemony to launch a program of liberalization and democratization abroad.
- Eisenhower, Dwight D. 1954. Public Papers of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Washington, DC: Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration.
- Gaddis, John L. 1982. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Layne, Christopher. 1993. The Unipolar Illusion: Why New Great Powers Will Rise. International Security 17 (4): 5–51.
- Waltz, Kenneth N. 1998. The Emerging Structure of International Politics. International Security 18 (2): 44–79.
- Wohlforth, William. 1999. Stability in a Unipolar World. International Security 24 (1): 5–41.
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