When Dwight Eisenhower became president at the beginning of 1953, he appointed John Foster Dulles as secretary of state. Dulles pushed a very radical version of the domino theory, more extreme than had ever before been advocated by anyone so high in the U.S. government. At a meeting of the National Security Council on 31 March 1953, Dulles listed the vital strong points around the periphery of the communist bloc—Japan, Indochina, India, Pakistan, Iran, and NATO—and then, according to the record, "warned that the loss of any one of such positions would produce a chain reaction which would cost us the remainder."
In August 1953 President Eisenhower defined the threat in terms almost as extravagant: "If Indochina goes, several things happen right away. The Malayan peninsula, the last little bit of the end hanging on down there, would be scarcely defensible … all India would be outflanked. Burma would certainly, in its weakened condition, be no defense." Eisenhower acknowledged that it would be possible to stop this chain of events by major intervention even after Indochina fell, but he said that halting the process at any later point would be more expensive than stopping it in Indochina.
In early 1954, as it began to appear that a French defeat in Indochina might be imminent, Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was urging that the United States commit combat forces to Indochina, and he used the domino theory as a major argument. He said that if the communists gained control of the Red River delta, in northern Vietnam, they would win Indochina as a whole, and if they won Indochina they would then win the rest of Southeast Asia. The eventual fall of Japan would be probable. Sometimes he simply said each stage would trigger the next. At times he acknowledged that strong U.S. intervention might be able to prevent the fall of Indochina from causing the fall of the rest of Southeast Asia, but like Eisenhower the previous year, he said that intervention on a much larger scale would then be needed.
The press tended to endorse the domino theory, though not in its most extreme forms. Press versions of the theory typically suggested the fall at most of Southeast Asia, sometimes just the mainland of Southeast Asia, and indicated that this was likely to happen if Indochina fell, rather than saying it would definitely happen.
When the National Security Council met on 6 April 1954 to consider among other things whether the United States should intervene militarily in Indochina, President Eisenhower "expressed his hostility to the notion that because we might lose Indochina we would necessarily have to lose all the rest of Southeast Asia." But when Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey asked whether the United States should really be committing itself to oppose communism everywhere in the world, Eisenhower came close to endorsing the view that a few minutes earlier he had rejected. The record of the meeting first summarizes Eisenhower as having said: "Indochina was the first in a row of dominoes. If it fell its neighbors would shortly thereafter fall with it, and where did the process end? If he was correct, said the President, it would end with the United States directly behind the 8-ball." The record then goes on to quote Eisenhower as having said that "in certain areas at least we cannot afford to let Moscow gain another bit of territory. Dien Bien Phu itself may be just such a critical point." The very next day, Eisenhower made in a press conference the famous statement of the domino theory that has already been quoted.
The oddity of the logic comes into clearer focus if one considers Burma. Eisenhower mentioned Burma specifically; Radford included it implicitly when he said that if the Red River delta fell to communism then the rest of Southeast Asia would also fall. China had become communist in 1949. Burma shared a long border with China, essentially undefended. A very large area along this border had been in dispute between China and Burma even before the communists came to power in China. Anticommunist forces were mounting armed raids into China from Burmese territory, which would have provided the Chinese with ample excuse for taking action against Burma if they wished to do so. Roads capable of carrying military supplies from China into Burma (the Burma Road and Ledo Road of World War II fame) existed, although they were probably in poor repair. Despite all of these factors, the Burmese government did not seem about to be overthrown by either Chinese or Burmese communists. Yet communist rule in Indochina, which had a land area about 8 percent of China's and a population 5 percent as large, barely bordering on Burma at all and having no military roads leading into Burma, was expected to cause the fall of that nation. While some of Eisenhower's remarks show at least a little caution, the part of them in which the domino metaphor occurs suggests not only that Burma would fall if Indochina fell, but that it would fall quickly. According to Radford, the fall of just the Red River delta (not bordering on Burma, with a population less than half that of Burma and less than 2 percent as large as that of China) would make the fall of Burma inevitable, when the fall of China had not made the fall of Burma inevitable. None of the proponents of the domino theory ever attempted to explain this oddity, to describe some way in which the international context had changed to make Southeast Asia more vulnerable to a chain reaction than it had been in 1949 when China fell.
The mechanism of the predicted disaster was not traced to concrete issues of strength. The domino theorists said that the fall of Southeast Asia as a whole would give the communists resources and population that would add dangerously to their strength, but they did not try to argue that the reason the fall of Tonkin, Vietnam, or Indochina would lead to the fall of the rest of Southeast Asia was that the population or resources of Tonkin, Vietnam, or Indochina would add decisively to communist strength.
The theory appears, instead, to have been based primarily on issues of symbolism and perception. If the United States allowed Tonkin, Vietnam, or Indochina to fall to communism, this would indicate to the world that the United States did not have the will to oppose communism. The communists would be encouraged to launch assaults on other countries, and the noncommunist countries, no longer trusting the United States to defend them, would be demoralized and would not resist the assaults. In effect, proponents of the theory appear to have been presuming that the United States could not adopt a policy of defending some areas but not others, because neither the enemies nor the friends of the United States would be capable of understanding such a policy.
Statements of the theory were often vague about the identity of the communists whose victory was feared, and never acknowledged that the takeover of a small country by domestic communists might have different implications than conquest by some larger communist country. When discussing the struggle in Vietnam in the early 1950s, American officials sometimes suggested that the country was in danger of being taken over by the Chinese, sometimes by the Soviets (note Eisenhower's comment, quoted above, that "Moscow" might be about to take Dien Bien Phu). Sometimes the likelihood of a takeover by Vietnamese communists was acknowledged, but in carefully restricted language; they were "Vietminh," or occasionally "Reds," but never "Vietnamese communists." The word "Vietnamese" had in fact dropped completely out of the vocabulary with which the U.S. government discussed the Vietminh in the late 1940s; calling Ho Chi Minh or his men "Vietnamese" would have granted them too much legitimacy. Very often it was simply "communists" of unspecified nationality who were said to be trying to take over Vietnam. The theory was similarly vague about which communists would take over the other countries of Southeast Asia should Vietnam fall. Occasionally it was predicted to be the Soviets, more often the Chinese, most often just "communists" of unspecified nationality.
One reason the domino theory was so poorly thought out was that for many of its proponents, it was not so much a theory as a call to action. Whenever any country seemed about to fall to communism, anticommunists tried to persuade the American government and people to take action to prevent this from happening. In an effort to generate enthusiasm for the project, some of them always argued that the United States must hold the line against communism in whatever country was currently under threat, because that was where the chances of holding the line would be best; an effort to fall back and defend in some other country would be utterly hopeless, or would at least involve a much more difficult and dangerous effort than defending the country currently threatened. Also, since the country currently endangered was always a country where the communists were strong, the domino theorists were each time in the position of arguing that it would be easier to stop the communists in that country, where they were strong, than in some other country where they were much weaker.
The fact that the theory was basically a call to action helps to explain why so few people in the U.S. government chose to apply it to China in the late 1940s. China was very large, and an American commitment to prevent communist victory there seemed likely to be very expensive in money and lives. Few officials had much enthusiasm for a theory that might have obligated them to make such a commitment. Indochina was much smaller, and the prospects for blocking communist victory at reasonable cost seemed much better than in China. American officials therefore were more inclined to endorse a theory obligating them to defend Indochina.
It does not seem likely that Eisenhower tried to make a rational calculation of the effects that would follow from a Vietminh victory in Indochina, and concluded that the communist conquest of Indochina would have a tremendously greater effect on the Asian balance of power than had the communist conquest of China. For one thing, a rational calculation of effects should have produced a theory that was a bit more specific on things like the identity of the communists whose victory was feared. For another, if Eisenhower really believed that the collapse of the French position in Indochina would have so disastrous a result, it seems likely that he would have tried considerably harder than he did to prevent that collapse.
On the other hand, it is not likely that Eisenhower was deliberately and consciously lying when he propounded the domino theory. Five factors are all probably relevant to Eisenhower's statements, and those of most other proponents of the domino theory, including even Radford. First, what they really meant by their statements was that communism was expanding, and that this was very dangerous and should be stopped. Second, they genuinely believed this to be true. Third, they had not bothered to think much about whether the words they had used to express that belief were true if taken literally. For that matter, they tended to think about communist expansion in very vague terms; to them communism was something that "expanded," and they did not always ask themselves exactly how it expanded when they were thinking about this problem. Fourth, belief in the danger of communist expansionism was universal in the circles in which they moved, and maintaining that belief was considered morally obligatory. This stance deterred them from questioning the literal truth of any particular words chosen to describe the danger. Fifth, they were convinced that the communists had the same ambitions for conquest as Hitler. This implied that the communists were likely to embark on a massive campaign of overt international aggression— with Chinese armies pouring south through Laos and Thailand into the Malay Peninsula—as soon as they felt strong enough.
The legacy of the 1938 Munich Conference hung heavily over Americans of Eisenhower's generation. The lesson of Munich, as it was understood in the United States in the 1950s, was that aggression will go on until it is stopped, and that stopping it becomes more difficult the longer one waits to do so. The combined armies of the communist powers were by the 1950s larger than the Nazis had ever had, far larger than would have been necessary to initiate the feared wave of aggression had the communist leaders really been a unified group, with ambitions and daring that approximated Hitler's. American policymakers, seeing that the disaster had not yet happened, did not ask whether they really faced a Hitlerian menace. Instead they worried that even the smallest addition to the total of communist strength would finally trigger the deluge.
When France lost the battle of Dien Bien Phu and it became apparent that the first domino in the row was actually likely to fall, President Eisenhower did not descend into the despair that some of his previous statements would leave one to expect. When asked about this at a press conference on 12 May 1954, he simply explained that he was working to ensure that the fall of the first domino would not knock down the rest of the row. Secretary of State Dulles had said the day before that the domino theory had been based on the assumption that the endangered countries would be facing the threat singly; he said that if they were bound together in an alliance, the theory need not apply.
The habit of American policymakers of saying, at any given time, that the country currently under threat was the final barrier, after the loss of which the forces of communist aggression would be so strong that there would be no stopping them at any acceptable price, is easier to understand if one bears in mind the alternatives. They could not say that the communists were not bent on world conquest; their peers would have called them dupes of the communists and their careers would have been destroyed. For the same reason, they could not say that the communists were weak enough so that even the addition of another country would not strengthen their expansionist drive to a dangerous extent. It was marginally acceptable to say that the communists were already so strong that they could be stopped only by a big expensive war, but this was an uncomfortable position to take, since the United States did not want a big expensive war. The only really acceptable thing to say was that the communists were still weak enough to be stopped cheaply if they were stopped immediately, but only if they were stopped immediately.
American policymakers faced a fundamental problem when they tried to win public support for programs designed to oppose communism in distant parts of the globe. Vietnam was a country of moderate importance. President Eisenhower wanted to make a moderate effort to save it from communism, not involving a degree of cost or risk grossly out of proportion to its real significance. If he had described the situation to the public in these terms, however, he would have been attacked from two directions: first, a large portion of the public, which did not even know where Vietnam was, would not have approved any risk or any expenditure had they been told that it was not a matter of high importance, and second, with the "Who Lost China?" debate still going on, it would have been extremely dangerous for any American political figure to have described the defense of Vietnam or any other country as a matter of less than the highest importance. Had Eisenhower said that the relatively modest efforts he was making were all Vietnam was really worth, he would have been accused of abetting communist aggression.
Eisenhower endorsed the domino theory rhetorically, and so strongly that he gave the theory its name, but he did not commit more resources to Indochina than the real importance of the area could justify. This worked for him in 1954, but he was storing up trouble in the long run. The domino theory slid out of view for several years, but it was waiting to reassert itself whenever some country in Asia seemed in danger of falling to communism. One of Eisenhower's last actions as president, on 19 January 1961, was to tell John F. Kennedy and the top foreign policy officials of the incoming Kennedy administration that if Laos were to fall to communism, it would be "just a question of time" before South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma did the same.