A half century ago the world, and most specifically America, was an extremely different place. As the world moved out of the World War II era, changes came in droves. America and the Soviet Union would move into a Cold War with a space race, while the rest of the world would watch in awe. In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as the 35th president of the United States. Segregation was at an all-time high, so was the fight for better civil rights. As far as the rest of the world goes Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin would become the first human to fly in space; East Germany would start construction on the Berlin Wall; Anti-political riots in Japan were on the rise, and Fidel Castro in Cuba would continue his harsh dictatorship. The world was at an impasse and seemingly all hanging onto the major players, such as the United States and the Soviet Union. Every move they made had a huge impact on the rest of the world. Wars, policies, and decisions made by these two super powers would change the fate of the world forever. Early in the year of 1995, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said that he now believed that the domino theory was just wrong. “I think we were wrong. I do not believe that Vietnam was important to communists. I don’t believe its loss would have led, it didn’t lead, to communist control of Asia.” The domino theory was the foundation for the United States’ national strategy of containment and the reason why they would enter the Vietnam conflict War. This paper will examine the issue that supports the apprehension for the domino theory and the need for the United States strategy on containment. Areas of focus that will be developed include the situation of South East Asia, communist ideology, capability and investment within communistic nations, and the views of the United States, China, Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and Southern Vietnam. This examination of the domino theory and the United States containment strategy will include an elucidation on why the theory, although initially true, lost almost all credibility by the 1970s. Just how essential would the United States and their policy of containment to the disruption of the spread of communism to South East Asia.
The 1950’s and 60’s were a violent time in the world as the growth of communism was developing and the global force status of the United States was surfacing. Through a series of events the United States would shift their focus heavily on anti-communism. Communism, although already established in the strong, military-orientated Soviet Union, was just starting to bloom in China in the 1950’s. Within the same time, the Soviets would acquire the atomic bomb and for the first time since World War II would be a legitimate force to the United States. The fear of the spread of communism wasn’t a new topic to the United States. During and after WWII, the United States would be on constant watch. The fall of Eastern European countries to the Soviets war machine required a constant eye. Now with the rise of China, there was fear of a Soviet and Chinese interest in spreading communism to Indochina. George Kennan, the American in charge of domestic affairs in Moscow, would send an 8,000-word telegram to the U.S. Department of State detailing his views on the Soviet Union, and U.S. policy toward the communist state. In his lengthy message he stated that the Soviet Union could not foresee a “permanent peaceful coexistence” with the West. This “neurotic view of world affairs” was a manifestation of the “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” To lose Indochina, would lead to a series of communist occupations in southeast Asia. This would be the worry, and fear of the domino principle that President Eisenhower would later articulate in his famous 1954 speech. The combined power from the Soviets and now the Chinese communistic powers was a very real threat. The United States would need to act, and act quickly. They would put into place a policy of containment. The containment policy as read in the National Security Council 68 Document states “the issues that face us are momentous, involving the fulfilment or destruction not only of this republic but of civilization itself.” How the United States would handle this information, and act upon it would be vital to the free-world.
Early on when the United States saw concern for the growth of communism in Asia, they acted with military action. In 1950, President Truman would send a military advisor to aid the French in Vietnam. The President claimed they were not sent as combat troops, but to supervise the use of $10 million worth of U.S. military equipment to support the French in their effort to fight the Viet Minh forces. By 1953, aid increased dramatically to $350 million to replace old military equipment owned by the French. Later President Eisenhower would accept the views of the so-called domino theory and the policy of containment. He would even state that the Vietminh were just an instrument of international communism. With the combination of the two communistic superpowers in the East, the United States would strongly push their national strategy of containment. The domino theory was nothing more than a “strategic explanation of what would happen if the Truman doctrine was not implemented.” In short, if we don’t employ the policy of containment, communism will spread throughout Southeast Asia. Fearing that the Soviets and Chinese would spread their power to Indochina, the United States viewed Vietnam as the most likely spot for their first point of attack.
The beginning of the United States involvement in Vietnam according to General Maxwell Taylor, who was President Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff of the Army, was when the United State granted the French military aid (1950) in the form of a military advisor. This would also symbol the start the United States containment policy. Following the enactment of the containment policy, multiple engagements in Asia would cause the policy to gain strength. The Korean war would be the first event that would have a direct affect on the policy. The War in Korea demonstrated just how powerful and motivated communist China was. It also showed just how weak the smaller countries in the surrounding area were to communism. The other major event that would give way to the containment policy was the technology advancement of the worlds super powers. Each of these major events would provide the United States with enough uneasiness to produce the national containment policy in order to stop the domino theory from becoming true.
Understanding the Korean war brings to light just how important the U.S. policy for containment was. During the war, the United States would provide military action close to the Chinese boarder. Unphased by the proactive action from the United States, China would rise to the threat with a threat of their own. Massive troop mobilization to the boarder was a direct display of China’s intent and power. With the aid and involvement from the communist China in the Korean war, the communists would start to show signs that they were ready and willing to die to ensure that communism would spread to Southeast Asia. The U.S. knew that the what the Chinese were doing in Korea would directly correlate to actions taken in Indochina. The United States aid to Vietnam would significantly grow after China would intervene in the Korean war. Even though North Korea is not a part of Southeast Asia, the involvement on behalf of communist China showed to the world that communism was spreading, and it was a very real threat. China’s decision to not be bullied by the United States and to protect their hold on North Korea started to prove the domino theory and would call more support for the containment policy.
The threat the United States feared was that China would protect their hold on Vietnam the same way they did in China. In the early stages of the 1950s communism was extremely active in other countries of Asia outside of North Korea. Countries like Burma, Malaya, the Philippines, Indonesia, and India were all being sought after by the Soviets and China. To the United States, there were clear as day, dominos in a line. Another massive push from the communists was their push into the West. With Fidel Castrol in Cuba knocking at the American’s front door, a call for a national strategy of containment would only grow in strength. Belief in the domino theory on behalf of United States policy makers was now at an all time high.
The last thing keeping the domino theory alive was the prominent gaps in the U.S. technology. Being a superpower from WWII now meant nothing, and in the mid 1950’s this was clear to the United States. Government officials were worried about its military proficiency when compared to the Soviet Union’s. Seeing technology gaps in the Soviets power with bombs, and in missiles, the United States was worried the communists would have the upper hand in an Indochina conflict. With a seemingly upper hand, the Soviets would be able to move into smaller countries and spread communism unchallenged by the United States. Fear of a “zero sum” mentality triumphed.
The launch of Sputnik in 1957 would also launch the space race between the United States and the Soviets. Yet another technology gap the U.S. was fearing. Again, the apparent advantage the Soviets had would leave the United States useless in any conflict and allowing the Soviets and the spread of communism go unchecked. Not only would the United States have to catch up to the Soviets power domination, but they would need to surpass them if they wanted to halt communism. With the communists pushing to the West, and to Southeast Asia, along with the gaps in technology, the domino theory was looking more and more real.
In order to understand the fundamental views of the communist movement, it would be smart to review the major ideologies of communism in this time of the world. The major ideologies and philosophies not just of communism, but of the leaders supporting it. Leaders from key countries involved in the Vietnam war, to be specific. Main leaders and countries such as the Soviet Union, China, and North Vietnam. The views of these nations and communism can be boiled down to two specific leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Chairman Mao. Not understanding the way these two leaders’ minds worked is to not understand the fear that was the domino theory, and why the United States had to act.
To Lenin, a common ground of communist internationalism is where most of his writings go. Understanding internationalism is extremely important in order to calculate the domino theory and ultimately the policy of containment. Reading from Lenin’s Selected Works, he states that internationalism needed to take priority over nationalism. The notion of internationalism, to Lenin, was the foundation of communism. Lenin fully supported the “fusion of nations” under the cloak of communism. After the 1900’s Lenin’s beliefs became a major driving force in the world. Although long dead, his ideologies would live on through a man named Nikita Khrushchev. Over time, the feelings of communistic internationalism did not fade.
Fast-forward to 1970. The Russians views of internationalism haven’t waivered. They felt communism was the new era in the life of humans. Lenin wanted communistic internationalism to have an impact on the world and it did. Russians believed that Lenin focused on an international working class in order grow a successful social development on the world. Lenin would focus on internationalism in the form the struggle the Soviet people must endure. Lenin believed that only a communist party can lead the public in a final, end all, struggle against the forces of capitalism. The people of Russia understood internationalism and believed in its ideals. They were willing and ready to put forth the effort required in order to spread communistic internationalism across the globe. They were willing to carry out Lenin’s beliefs to stop capitalism and logically saw Southeast Asia to gather a larger public in order to do so.
The leader of communist China would fall almost perfectly in line with Vladimir Lenin’s preaching’s. Like Lenin, Chairman Mao would base his countries communistic beliefs around the struggle they all have to endure. Chairman Mao would say that in order “to achieve lasting world peace we must give active support to the national independence and liberation movements in countries in Asia.” Mao would bring to light this ideal with a fighter’s attitude. Unlike Lenin, who wanted to achieve peace through the working class, Mao only saw peace through war. The only way in which war could end in Mao’s eyes was once society advanced to the point where classes and states no longer existed.” To Mao, communism must be spread through the power of politics and war, and he did just that. He understood that world peace, or internationalism would take time. He knew that the only way to achieve world communism was a bit by bit approach, piece by piece. Piece by piece hits close to home when talking about falling dominos in a line. Mao would say it best when he puts the theory into his own words. He says that in war, destroying an enemy isn’t done all at once, it is done over time by destroying them one by one. He used the term a piecemeal solution in conjunction with the domino theory.
Just like Lenin, and Khrushchev, Chairman Mao would take his work seriously. Mao would push to support and aid liberation movements in Southeast Asia. During this time of conflict, a World War III was also a very real threat between the United States and the Soviets. Mao fully believed that supporting liberation movements would prevent a WWIII. There was no conceivable way the United States would attack the Soviets and vise versa. To Mao it was simply out of the question. To Mao however, he did not see the domino theory as being the spread of communism to Southeast Asia, he saw it as the spread of imperialism to the North. He felt that his communist China had a lead role in stopping the imperialistic migration. In a complete reversed world, Mao saw himself as a key player in the stoppage of imperialism, so pushing to the south was necessary. Nixon writes that to the people of China; Mao’s views were clear. In order to get rid of guns, you must pick one up. In order to spot the United States from spreading imperialism, the Chinese lead by Mao would have to be operating in Southeast Asia.
Knowing how the minds of the leaders from the two major players supporting North Vietnam is critical in understanding just how crucial the containment policy was in stopping the domino theory. While both China and the Soviet Union would support North Vietnam in their liberation movements, their ideology wasn’t enough. Both China and the Soviet Union would need to aid the North with more. Both would provide significant assistance to the North Vietnam over the course of the war. With this assistance however would come large expectations in return.
The Soviet Union was massive supporter of North Vietnam. They provided aid in ways of diplomatic help, military aid, and civilian functions. Outside of simply supporting the North, the Russians were a sound supporter of the rights of the North Vietnamese people. The support for North Vietnam was very strong from the Soviets during the 1950’s however once China started to play a larger role in the North Vietnams war, the soviets would slowly back off. As time went on, Khrushchev would say that while their original policy in Asia is still correct, they needed to focus on moving forward with caution.
The military support sent by the Soviets was detrimental to North Vietnam and their survival early on. Just about everything that North Vietnam was using had to be imported, and the largest exporter to them was Russia. Russia was providing the North with a slow and steady flow of goods and services. This would all change however once Khrushchev dies in 1965. Once he died, Russia went all in for North Vietnam. They knew what the North needed to be successful and were willing to take responsibility for it. On top of military aid, the Soviet Union was sending massive amounts of economic aid as well. After everything was said and done, the Soviet Union would have pored over $8 billion into North Vietnam. Russia’s support was no longer meek, it was now all out assertive.
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