The Domino Theory, Then and Now

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Matt writes:

I think I (and others) have actually been too easy on Bush's unhinged analogies speech yesterday. He'd like us to believe, I guess, that the crux of the debate about the Vietnam War was that hawks warned that after the war America's collaborators in South Vietnam would suffer, whereas doves naively said the Viet Cong were going to offer flowers and sweets.

Back in the real world, though, the essence of the matter was that hawks were warning that the survival of political democracy around the world quite literally depended on South Vietnam staying in non-Communist hands. A Communist victory in Vietnam was said to be destined to lead to the rest of Indochina going Communist, from which the Reds -- emboldened -- were going to march into Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Our allies in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan would prove incapable of resisting the onrushing tide. With Communism triumphant in Asian, Western Europe would turn to Finlandization to stave off direct Soviet domination, and next thing you know the New World would be crushed beneath the vast economic might of the Old.

It sounds crazy, yes, and the reason it sounds crazy is that it was crazy and when we eventually left Vietnam it turned out that while hawks and doves alike all made some bad forecasts, the hawkish point of view on the big strategic question was completely wrong whereas the dovish view was completely correct.

Well, okay, the fall of Vietnam didn't lead to a Red Dawn-like scenario, with America standing alone - actually, alongside "six hundred million screaming Chinamen," if I remember the movie right - against the Soviet juggernaut. But the Communist victory in Vietnam did lead to the rest of Indochina going Communist, as the domino theorists predicted, and it played a role in the Soviet advances across the Third World during the rest of the 1970s - from Ethiopia and Mozambique to Afghanistan and Nicaragua, with various other proxy wars thrown in for good measure. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the world wasn't really going the Soviets way in the late '70s, as people on both sides thought it was - or at least that their internal contradictions prevented them from capitalizing on the opportunities that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam afforded them, and eventually led them into their own Vietnam-style overreach. Similarly, our enemies in al-Qaeda, Iran and elsewhere probably won't make the kind of gains that, say, Rick Santorum and other feverish voices anticipate if we pull out of Iraq, and they simply aren't strong enough to pose an existential threat to the U.S. over the long run. But they will win a real victory, just as Soviet Communism won a real victory in the early 1970s, and that victory will have real repercussions around the globe. I think we were right to pull out of Vietnam when we did, and wrong to be there in the first place, but it's too simplistic to say that the domino theory looks "completely wrong" or "crazy" in hindsight; there are an awful lot of dead people in Indochina, Latin America and Africa who would quibble with that assessment.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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