The Falling Domino Theory:
Why the US became involved in Vietnam

In order to understand why the US was involved in Vietnam you have to understand the Falling Domino Theory or the domino theory for short.

Many media sources incorrectly claim the domino theory was a myth.

Courtesy MS

Let’s take a look at the situation in the late 40’s and early 50’s when the US first got involved in Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh and the communists.

In 1945 the US supplied Ho Chi Minh with weapons and supplies for his (then) 200-man army to fight against the Japanese.

Major Patty and Ho
Franklin Delano Roosevelt

As instructed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR), Major Patty of the OSS promised Ho that the French would not be allowed to reclaim Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; Thailand was an independent kingdom) after World War II.

FDR told the French they could not have Vietnam back because they lost their own country in two wars (so far in the 20th century) so they ought to worry about getting France together and not worry about re-conquering their former colonies.

Harry S. Truman
Jean de Lattre de Tassigny in 1945

Unfortunately, FDR died in office and Vice President Truman, who had only been in office 80 days when he became President, either did not know, or did not care about FDR’s promise.

French General de Tassigny was sent by General De Gaulle to Washington to take advantage of the situation. So France was allowed to return to Vietnam at the end of World War II1.

So that briefly explains how the alliance between Ho Chi Minh and the United States was broken. It didn’t help that Ho was totally snubbed when he went to Washington to appeal to President Truman to uphold FDR’s promise to keep France out of Indochina.

Fast-forward to March/April 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, at a news conference explained the "falling domino" principle.

Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon

Following WWII nation after nation fell under the influence of what Churchill called the Iron Curtain, (communism)2.

Stalin consented, at the Yalta conference, to permit supervised free, secret ballot elections in Eastern Europe, but "the US was unprepared to prevent Russian expansion after World War II".

Joseph Stalin

Military Parade in Moscow

With a large standing Soviet army, "a communist minority seized power by outlawing major parties, exiling and imprisoning opposition leaders, controlling the press, and rigging elections

Maneuvering swiftly with determination, the communists seized power in Eastern Europe before the West had the ability or will to react"4.

By 1948 22 countries had fallen to communism.
(not all are pictured in this map)

In 1949 after Congress cut funding to Chang Kai Shek,

Chang Kai-Chek
Mao Zedong

...the Communist Mao Zedong, enslaved another 450 million people into the Communist world.

"Chinese Communist Party leader Lui Shaoqi, in a widely reported speech at an international trade union congress held in Beijing...

...announced that the new People’s Republic of China (PRC) would provide active assistance to national liberation movements in neighboring countries. He specifically mentioned the struggles in Indochina and Malaya"5.

Mao and the Chinese "openly endorsed national liberation movements". They stepped up their support of the aggression in Southeast Asia. Indeed they promoted that aggression by all means short of open invasion6. Except, of course, in Korea.

Soviets bragged that communism was a world revolution. Everyone in 1960 with access to a new fangeled television saw Nikita Khrushchev pound the podium with his fist as the translator stated "We will bury you by 1980"7.

The Communists wanted to control the world and that fact is well documented.

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not the only dominoes

Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not the only dominoes that the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations were concerned about.

Kennedy explains Communist Expansionism

While the French were preparing to have their Dien Bien Phued, there were communist revolutions in Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea and elsewhere.

Truman faced 2 years of horrific war in Korea, creating the real stalemate of the 20th century. That treaty is still only a cease fire. As of January 2014, 28,500 US troops8 are still stationed along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) to keep Communist North Korea from invading the South.

Kennedy faced the specter of Communist Cuba 90 miles off the Florida coast.

After World War II, Europe was in ruins. Asia was devastated as well. "The Soviet Armies that followed the retreating Germans into Eastern Europe stayed, and the Iron Curtain9 clanged down across the continent"10.

Locked under Communist rule were the nations of Poland, Hungary, Albania, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and ten other states that were absorbed into the Soviet Union11.

Stalin stated, "The reason there is now no communist government in Paris is because in the circumstances of 1945 the Soviet Army was not able to reach French soil"12.

Many in the United States felt betrayed. After the US provided billions of dollars in war materials & food & other supplies for the Soviet’s defense against the Nazi war machine, the Soviets became far worse than the Nazis.

Khrushchev confirmed the rumors of mass exterminations by the Stalin regime of over 20 million Soviet dissidents and of whole groups of nonconformists that were exiled to labor camps in Siberia13.

By 1950, only a year after his victory over Chang Kai Shek, Chairman Mao Zedong "exuded tentacles" into 9 Asian countries: Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Malaya and Burma, as well as Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia14.

Nixon was adamant, "The only way to deal with the communists is to stand up against them. Otherwise they will exploit your politeness as weakness".

"They will try to make you afraid and then take advantage of your fears. Fear is the primary weapon of communists"14.

In the 1930’s, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain found out that appeasement doesn‘t work ... the hard way.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain,
Adolf Hitler
& interpreter Paul Schmidt

Maybe those who scoff at the Domino theory can explain: If there was nothing to the Domino Theory...

President Ford

...then why did President Ford suffer the indignity of watching the last dominoes fall 2 years after the U.S. left Vietnam, as predicted by Eisenhower in 1954.

Without the protection of the United States, South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia all fell to Communism. All 3 fell in 1975.

Reactionaries during the Vietnam War made high claims that communism was the form of government the South Vietnamese people should have, not that it was their choice to be made.

Yet they ignored the fact that wherever communist rule established itself, the communist leaders had to build fences to keep their people from escaping.

They also ignored the fact that the South Vietnamese people did not want to live under communist

Following the French defeat in the North, almost a million Vietnamese fled South to avoid living under the the rule of Ho Chi Minh and the iron fist of Communism.

Yet, the hippies sat on their self-righteous dias of pseudo-morality and proclaimed they knew what was best for the South Vietnamese people.

If communism is so great why did so many people risk death trying to escape?

18-year-old Peter Fechter, one of over 1200
shot and killed trying to escape
from Communist East Germany.

Containing world communism was a logical American foreign policy decision. However, foreign policy became complicated by communist development of nuclear weapons.

The role nuclear weapons played in the US involvement in the Vietnam War.

The Soviet Union developed the Atomic Bomb in 1949.

First Soviet A-Bomb test
First Soviet H-bomb test

The Soviets developed the Hydrogen Bomb in 1955


When Sputnik circled the globe in 1957, the possibility that a nuclear warhead on a missile could travel from the Soviet Union to the United States became a growing concern.

With the help of the Soviets, The Chinese developed nuclear weapons in late 1964. There is an interesting story about why the Soviets aided the Chinese. I will relate that story in a later blog.

Chinese A-bomb test

With the three enemies all having the capability to create and deliver nuclear weapons, any direct confrontation between the superpowers threatened the survival of the human race.

Eisenhower developed the "massive retaliation" doctrine. If you attack us, we can and will annihilate you.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis, massive retaliation gave way to Kennedy’s "flexible response" which basically said, we’ll match whatever you send at us, but we’ll maintain the ability to obliterate you, several times over.

Because a direct confrontation between the free world and the communist world became so dangerous, the communists attempted to bring the third world countries into their sphere of influence through the use of wars of national liberation, using terrorism and guerrilla warfare.

Many former colonies belonged to European countries that were devastated during WWII. These emerging nations were ripe breeding grounds for communist agitators that provoked wars of national liberation.

John Foster Dulles
Che Guevara

John Foster Dulles explained, The Communist "scheme is to whip up the spirit of nationalism so that it becomes violent"16 using professional agitators.

Then Communist military and technical leadership and the provision of military supplies "enlarge the violence. In these ways, international communism gets a stranglehold on the people and it uses that power to ‘amalgamate’ the peoples in the Soviet orbit"17.

All the dominos in Eastern Europe fell while the world stood by and watched. Congress let China go by cutting funding to Chang Kai Shek. Western leaders knew that a line had to be drawn somewhere.

Vietnam was chosen as the place where the line was drawn to stop communist expansionism.


1 MacLear, Michael (1981). The Ten Thousand Day War: 1945-1975. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

2 John Foster Dulles (1888-1959), speech to Overseas Press Club (New York, March 29, 1954) Department of State Bulletin, April 12, 1954: America Should Consider Direct Military Intervention in Indochina, pp. 39.

3 Joiner, H. M., (1977). American Foreign Policy: The Kissinger era. Huntsville, Alabama: The Strode Publishers Inc, p. 230.

4 Ibid, p. 230

5 Duiker, W. J., (1994). U.S. Containment Policy and the Conflict in Indochina. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, p. 89.

6 McNamara, R. S., (1995). In Retrospect: The tragedy and lessons of Vietnam. New York: Times Books, p. 30. & John Foster Dulles (1888-1959), speech to Overseas Press Club (New York, March 29, 1954) Department of State Bulletin, April 12, 1954: America Should Consider Direct Military Intervention in Indochina, p. 40.

7 Khrushchev later stated that this was mistranslated. However, even if that were true, the voting public did not know that.

8 Cappaccio, Tony & Gaouette, Nicole, (January 7, 2014). U.S. Adding 800 Troops for South Korea Citing Rebalance. (print version) 1 November, 2014, para. 2.

9 Winston Churchill coined the term Iron Curtain in a speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940.

10 Nixon, R.M., (1980). The Real War. New York: Warner Books Inc., pp. 18-19.

11 Nixon, R.M., (1980). The Real War. New York: Warner Books Inc., p. 19.

12 Ibid.

13 Barron, J., (1974). KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents. New York: Bantam Books, pp. 90-92.

14 Jung, C., Halliday, J. (2005). Mao: The unknown story. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp. 370-371.

15 Nixon, R. M. (1978). The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, p. 131.

16 John Foster Dulles (1888-1959), speech to Overseas Press Club (New York, March 29, 1954) Department of State Bulletin, April 12, 1954: America Should Consider Direct Military Intervention in Indochina, pp. 37-38.

17 Ibid.