Cold War Domino Theory Explained

Definitions and Examples of Theory

The domino theory was an element of American international politics from the 1950s until the end of the Cold War. It was the reason why there was such an emphasis on stopping socialist and Communist governments around the world.

The foundation of the domino theory was this: if one nation would be allowed to fall into Communism or socialism, then additional governments surrounding that nation would also convert their governments in a similar way.

This theory is what was used to justify American intervention into the politics of other nations around the world, including the Korean War.

When Was the Domino Theory Created?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented the domino theory for the first time on the global stage during a 1954 press conference.

“Finally,” he said, “you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the ‘falling domino’ principle. 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.

“You could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

Moving from Vietnam to the Cold War

Unlike the Vietnam War, the Cold War wasn’t a physical conflict. It was a state of political tension that existed between the Soviet Union and its satellites and the United States and its allies, including NATO.

Although there isn’t a formal “start” to the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, which vowed to give aid to nations that were threatened by Soviet expansion, is believed to have been the beginning of this political tension. It would remain in place until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

The reason for the Truman Doctrine was simple: if more sovereign nations were brought under the control of the Soviet Union, then Communism would have an opportunity to continue spreading westward. The domino effect could plunge Europe into another state of war, which in the late 1940s, would be a disaster since it was still trying to recover from the immense devastation of World War II.

After the domino theory was stated as part of official US policy, it became the foundation of numerous political actions that involved the USSR. Proxy wars between the two sides would be fought. The Cuban Missile Crisis was part of that process. There was a great fear that one superpower would attempt to take over the other, so both moved to stop that process from being able to move forward.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union, along with Communist governments in Cambodia, Mongolia, and Yemen, were formally dissolved. Although the domino effect didn’t happen as predicted, it did wind up leaving the United States as the only remaining superpower.

The Problem with the Domino Theory

In the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and other applications of the domino theory, the primary problem with the idea is that it fails to account for the people of each nation. It automatically assumes that if socialism or Communism has a victory, other nations in the region will quickly follow suit.

The domino theory was born out of the idea that Communist governments wanted to create a system of global Communism that everyone would be forced to follow. In reality, many nations were simply wanting to gain independence. Once that was achieved, they stayed within their borders and did not attempt to influence the rest of the world.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, only Cambodia and Laos would convert to Communism. The rest of Southeast Asia remained outside of Communist control.

A New Cold War and Another Domino Theory

Relations between the US and Russia are at a similar state of tension as they were during the first Cold War. Another domino theory is fueling this distrust between the two nations, but this time it involves Syria. The US believes that allowing the Syrian government to stay in power could cause a domino effect on the rest of the Middle East that could harm its allies.

Russia believes that if the US has their way, the domino effect in the region could affect their allies. So, once again, both sides are battling a proxy war against one another, but this time it is a civil war.

In the past, the domino theory has proven to be more of an apocalyptic prediction than what really occurred. The US clearly won the first Cold War as the dissolution of the Soviet state finished that era of history. In this new era, only time will tell if the domino theory will hold up to scrutiny.