4-8: Eisenhower and the Domino Theory

Eisenhower Coins the Phrase “Domino Theory”

The History Channel (http://www.history.com)  reports that on April 7, 1954:

President Dwight D. Eisenhower coins one of the most famous Cold War phrases when he suggests the fall of French Indochina to the communists could create a “domino” effect in Southeast Asia. The so-called “domino theory” dominated U.S. thinking about Vietnam for the next decade.

Yeah, one American politician after another fell into the wrong-headed thinking that deploying more and more troops to Vietnam would somehow allay an impossible mission.

By early 1954, it was clear to many U.S. policymakers that the French were failing in their attempt to re-establish colonial control in Indochina (Vietnam), which they lost during World War II when the Japanese took control of the area. The Vietnamese nationalists, led by the communist Ho Chi Minh,

Ho was not a hard line communist from the beginning. He was a nationalist who would have taken aid from any country, including the United States in order to build his own people’s standard of living. America ignored his letters requesting aid and so he turned to China. Note that at the time France was trying to re-establish colonial control in Vietnam. France was there for the valuable raw materials it could steal from its colony. America, in effect, backed the European colonialist over the Asian nationalist. And 60,000 Americans died.

were on the verge of winning a stunning victory against French forces at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. In just a few weeks, representatives from the world’s powers were scheduled to meet in Geneva to discuss a political settlement of the Vietnamese conflict. U.S. officials were concerned that a victory by Ho’s forces and/or an agreement in Geneva might leave a communist regime in control of all or part of Vietnam. In an attempt to rally congressional and public support for increased U.S. aid to the French, President Eisenhower gave an historic press conference on April 7, 1954.

He spent much of the speech explaining the … economic importance, ‘the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs’ (materials such as rubber, jute, and sulphur)….

Eisenhower’s words had little direct immediate impact–a month later, Dien Bien Phu fell to the communists, and an agreement was reached at the Geneva Conference that left Ho’s forces in control of northern Vietnam. In the long run, however, Eisenhower’s announcement of the ‘domino theory’ laid the foundation for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson both used the theory to justify their calls for increased U.S. economic and military assistance to non-communist South Vietnam and, eventually, the commitment of U.S. armed forces in 1965.”

Following is the actual transcript of the press conference held by Eisenhower on April 7, 1954. I have left in the references to the hydrogen bomb as I believe the arguments are still relevant (e.g., the US treaty with Iran). To view the entire nine-page transcript of the conference, click on the URL at the bottom of this page.

Public Papers of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954, p. 381- 390

 The President’s News Conference of April 7, 1954

The President.

We will go right to questions this morning, ladies and gentlemen.

Q. Merriman Smith, United Press:

Mr. President, concerning the hydrogen bomb, are we going to continue to make bigger and bigger H-bombs and, as the H-bomb program continues or progresses, are we learning anything that is directly applicable to the peacetime uses of atomic energy?

The President.

No, we have no intention of going into a program of seeing how big these can be made. I don’t know whether the scientists would place any limit; and, therefore, you hear these remarks about “blow-out,” which, I think, is even blowing a hole through the entire atmosphere.

Q. (Questioner unidentified):

What was that, sir?

The President.

I say you hear statements, comments like “blow-out” and all of that sort of thing.

We know of no military requirement that could lead us into the production of a bigger bomb than has already been produced.

Now, with respect to the potentiality of this development for peace-time use, our people study, I think in almost every aspect of human affairs, how this whole atomic science, this nuclear science, can be applied to peacetime uses.

It would be rash to say that the hydrogen bomb doesn’t add to the possibilities; yet, at the moment, I know of no direct connection or direct application of the hydrogen bomb principle to peacetime power.

Q. Mrs. May Craig, New England Papers:

Mr. President, aren’t you afraid that Russia will make bigger hydrogen bombs before we do?

The President:

No, I am not afraid of it. I don’t know of any reason for building a bigger bomb than you find to represent as great an efficiency as is needed or desirable, so I don’t know what bigger ones would do.

Q. Robert Richards, Copley Press:

Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world? I think there has been, across the country, some lack of understanding on just what it means to us.

The President.

You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things.

First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.

Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

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….

Now, with respect to the first one, two of the items from this particular area that the world uses are tin and tungsten. They are very important. There are others, of course, the rubber plantations and so on. (Any soldier who spent time in Tay Ninh Province, War Zone C, knows of Nui Ba Denh Mountain and the Michelin rubber plantation it shadows. –pd)

But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people. (So, do we care equally about materials and people? Why should their materials become our materials? –pd)

Finally, the geographical position achieved thereby does many things. It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand. (Never happened. –pd)

It takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go — that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live.

So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.

Q. Robert G. Spivack, New York Post:

Mr. President, do you agree with Senator Kennedy that independence must be guaranteed the people of Indochina in order to justify an all-out effort there?

The President.

I will say this: for many years, in talking to different countries, different governments, I have tried to insist on this principle: no outside country can come in and be really helpful unless it is doing something that the local people want.

I do say this: the aspirations of those people must be met, otherwise there is in the long run no final answer to the problem.

Q. Joseph Dear, Capital Times:

Do you favor bringing this Indochina situation before the United Nations?

The President.

I really can’t say. I wouldn’t want to comment at too great a length at this moment, but I do believe this: this is the kind of thing that must not be handled by one nation trying to act alone. We must have a concert of opinion, and a concert of readiness to react in whatever way is necessary. (… but America has to lead, apparently. –pd)

Q. Robert Clark, International News Service:

Secretary Dulles has said that the Chinese Communists are awfully close to open aggression in Indochina. Can you tell us what action we are prepared to take if their intervention reaches the point of open aggression?

The President.

No, Mr. Clark, I couldn’t answer that one for the simple reason that we have got this whole troublous question now under study by a group of people….

It is getting study day by day, and I can’t tell you what would be the exact reaction.

Merriman Smith, United Press: Thank you, Mr. President





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