History Wars World War II

Why Eisenhower believed in the Domino Theory

Jessica Evans Avatar
domino theory by eisenhower
General Dwight Eisenhower during his visit in Warsaw, capital of Poland. Picture taken on the Old Town Square, destroyed in 1944 by German forces after supression of Warsaw Uprising (1944). Right, General Marian Spychalski.

Turns out, countries might be a lot like dominoes. If you tip one over, they all topple. President Eisenhower may have sat playing with dominoes as he pondered the dangers of communism. He believed that if one country went communist, its neighbors would follow until the entire region had joined the movement. The Domino Theory.

The Communists themselves may have inspired Eisenhower’s fears, too. Way back when Vladimir Lenin took power in Russia, he promised that communism would grow in popularity. He claimed that the system would liberate the world from those pesky thorns in our sides. Specifically, he had his eye on racism and nationalism. The thought was this way of life might grant equality.

All that lofty chatter about the virtues of communism may have given some people hope. But the good ole U.S. of A. wasn’t hearing it. To Americans, communism was more like a nasty virus that would spread and kill off the free world.

Eyes trained toward Asia

Eisenhower certainly wanted nothing to do with it. Specifically, he kept his eyes on a storm brewing in southeast Asia because he was sure those dominoes were going to eventually fall. By 1945, World War II was cooling off. But thanks to all those Nazi air raids, Western Europe was left licking its wounds. European colonialism began to unravel because Europe was in no position to suppress opposition to its colonial rule overseas. The French had occupied present-day Vietnam since 1887, but the Vietnamese had had enough of them by the mid-1940s. In 1946, nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh lifted his foot and tried to boot the French out. The real problem for America was that Ho loved communism. On top of that, Vietnam sat a little too close to a communist superpower—China.

domino theory illustration
An illustration of the domino theory as it had been predicted.

With so many communists in Asia, America worried a communist movement would infect the region, spreading to places like Laos, Cambodia, and even India. When Harry Truman took office, he sent secret aid to the French to help them beat the communist party into submission. It didn’t work all that well, and Ho stayed in power.

Vietnam begins and the dominoes fall

Then, in 1954, Vietnam got split in half, with Ho controlling the northern half and the French keeping control of the south. America dumped a ton of money into South Vietnam, hoping to build up an anti-communist government. As if that wasn’t enough, the U.S. went on to establish SEATO, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization to monitor what it dubbed secret threats (a.k.a. communism).

When JFK won the White House, he, too, joined the anti-communist movement, which meant he had an eye toward toppling those communist dominoes. Civil war had broken out in southeast Asia by then, and Kennedy continued to dump American dollars into the fight. He figured that if America coughed up enough dough, the people of Vietnam would see how great democracy really was.

As it turns out, communism failed to spread into the rest of Asia, and the Domino Theory was debunked. Each country had its own ideas about economics, and most of southern Asia rejected communism altogether.

Speaking of Vietnam, here’s how the war gave rise to America’s nail salon industry.