"X" (George F. Kennan) submitted a report entitled, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," to Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in 1947. The report was published, with Forrestal's permission, in Foreign Affairs later in 1947. Thus the Cold War doctrine of "containment" (of the Soviet Union) was proclaimed to the world. By 1954, containment was tested in a variety of places. Dwight E. Eisenhower injected a new slogan in the Cold War: the domino theory. Under the cover of the domino theory, the United States spent $111 billion on the Vietnam conflict between 1965 and 1975; in today's dollars that would be $2.3 trillion up in smoke. Even more importantly, our military deaths included 58,159 killed in the war (plus approximately 2,000 missing) and 303,635 wounded. After U.S. forces were withdrawn, the Vietnamese communists took control of that country in 1975 and the big domino in Southeast Asia fell. The end result was the fall of the Phillipines, the fall of Indonesia, the fall of Australia, and Hawaii is under Vietnamese control to this very day. The POTUS (44) will be well advised to pass on a chance to play dominoes with Afghanistan. If this this is (fair & balanced) game theory, so be it.
Finally, 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. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.
—Dwight D. Eisenhower (1954)
A Curtain Call For The Domino Theory?
By Kenneth Weisbrode
Tag Cloud of the following article
News leaked recently that President Obama had called a group of historians to the White House a few months ago to educate him on the thinking of President Lyndon Johnson in late 1964 as Johnson weighed the possibility of ordering a major military escalation in Vietnam.
As we know, that fateful escalation came in 1965. Are we to conclude that Obama has Vietnam in mind as he considers sending more troops to Afghanistan? Most likely.
Experts will argue forever about whether the Vietnam War was a lost cause. But there was little doubt at the time that Johnson and his advisers would opt for escalation. Less clear cut was the question of his ability to keep the public on board.
Johnson failed to do this and was demonized for that failure. Obama surely must keep the public message front and center. Unfortunately, Johnson's legacy provides him with mixed guidance.
The central rationale for the Vietnam War was the so-called domino theory, which Johnson inherited from Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. If Vietnam fell to the Communists, they argued, so too would the rest of Asia. Today's historical consensus is that the domino theory was oversold, at least with regard to Vietnam. But there seemed to be no clear alternative to it at the time.
So even if LBJ had opposed what his most of his advisers were telling him to do, he had no substitute course of action or rationale that he could sell to the American people. When he told the undersecretary of state, George Ball the token dove in his administration to draft the hypothetical presidential speech in favor of withdrawal, Ball had to admit that even he couldn't do it.
Obama's guests surely must have told him what came next. The mood of the public made a 180 degree turn against the war in less than two years. Johnson had lost the public's trust. But Johnson also realized that the withdrawal many more people demanded would betray the central rationale for the war.
It is not surprising therefore that hardly anyone pressing for a military escalation in Afghanistan has resorted to the domino theory with the partial exception of application to Pakistan, where Obama has rightly pointed out that country's vulnerability to the Taliban insurgency both at home and across its borders. Instead they stress the importance of cleansing Afghanistan of anti-American insurgents.
Polls show that the American people are growing skeptical of this rationale. That could change, of course, with another strike on the United States, whether or not it derives from Afghanistan. But for now, the vague counterinsurgency mission is proving a harder sell.
Ironically, a version of the domino theory is precisely what is at play in Afghanistan. The country blends ethnically, culturally, politically and economically with the territories of every one of its neighbors, none of which is inherently stable.
If the recent history of Afghanistan suggests anything, it is that the country threatens the regional peace so long as it remains fractured internally. It both invites and channels the rivalries of outsiders. This raises the possibility of a wider conflict, one that would pose big challenges to the United States and to nearly every major power whose interests matter to Americans, including not only Pakistan but also Iran, China, India and Russia. Afghanistan therefore demands a heavy American commitment, although the degree to which that commitment should be military is open to debate.
President Obama, however, is unlikely to appear on television with map and laser pointer to advertise a 21st-century rendition of the domino theory. But what alternative does he have? And how will he sell it?
If Obama heeds Johnson's example, he will do all he can to avoid getting trapped by a fixed idea. He must continue to appear flexible. But this is a catch-22. Because he needs a good rationale more than anything else, even all those troops. Ω
[Kenneth Weisbrode is the Vincent Wright fellow in history at the Robert Schuman Center in the European University Institute in Florence and the author of Reversing Relations With Former Adversaries: U.S. Foreign Policy After the Cold War (1998), Central Eurasia: Prize or Quicksand? (2005), and The Paradox of a Global USA (2007),]
Copyright © 2009 History News Service
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