The pattern of thinking soon extended to Asia, where communist parties were engaged in armed struggles in several areas. The Chinese civil war was clearly tending toward a communist victory by the end of 1948. The First Indochina War, in which the Vietminh—a Vietnamese nationalist group under communist leadership—fought the French, was stalemated until 1950, when the balance tipped toward the Vietminh. Guerrilla struggles on a much smaller scale were occurring in Malaya and the Philippines, and there was a brief communist rebellion in Indonesia in 1948.
In November 1948 Madame Chiang Kaishek, wife of the president of the Republic of China and quite popular in the United States, told the American people that "if China falls, all of Asia goes." This statement was given considerable publicity in the American press. In December the government of the Republic of China declared in a message to the U.S. Congress that "if China should unfortunately be conquered, the Far East will be sovietized and so would Asia and Europe." Several prominent Americans said much the same, but the theory that the fall of China would trigger a widespread disaster did not take hold at the top levels in Washington.
It was French government officials who originated the idea that the loss to communism of Indochina, or even a part of Indochina, would lead to the loss of a huge area. In January 1949 French president Vincent Auriol commented upon a proposal that France attempt to negotiate peace with Ho Chi Minh. He rejected this idea, arguing that to negotiate with Ho, an "agent of Moscow," would lead to the loss not only of Indochina but of the rest of Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia under Soviet control would constitute a barrier between the United States and Europe; the result would be to "hand over Europe to Russia." The later spread of the theory in the United States, however, was more a matter of independent invention than French influence, although the French did make an effort to spread it.
One might have thought that when the fall of China, the world's most populous country, to communism in 1949 failed to trigger the rapid loss of a string of other countries, Americans would have come to doubt that the loss of smaller and less important countries could trigger the disaster. Instead, the idea that the fall of Indochina, or just Tonkin in the northeastern corner of Indochina, could trigger a cascade of other losses, took hold within the U.S. government only after China had fallen without causing such a result.
In the last years of the Truman administration, the National Security Council staff tried to maintain some restraint about statements concerning the dire consequences of Indochina's fall. The State Department went a little further, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff were the most extreme, saying for example in April 1950: "The fall of Indochina would undoubtedly lead to the fall of the other mainland states of Southeast Asia. Their fall would … bring about almost immediately a dangerous condition with respect to the internal security of the Philippines, Malaya, and Indonesia, and would contribute to their probable eventual fall to the Communists."
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: