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Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Domino Theory, August 4, 1953

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Today in 1953, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a speech during the Governor's Conference in Seattle, Washington. During this one presentation, Eisenhower laid out his foreign policy goals with regard to communism in a clear and concise manner; never before had the new President's strategy been so clearly stated. The decisions he took in pursuit of that strategy would affect the world for the next forty years, and still resinate today.

Until the beginning of the Korean War in June, 1950, the United States focused most of its energies on stopping the spread of communism in Europe. But when American soldiers found themselves fighting North Koreans on the other side of the globe, that focus quickly changed. Asia had great mineral wealth, but the area was in the grip of incredible poverty. It's also important to remember that the French still controlled Indochina (Vietnam) and that almost every nation in Asia had endured a period of colonialism. History had shown that these two elements had the potential to create a breeding ground for a communist uprising.

Earlier in 1953, Eisenhower had instituted a tougher policy towards North Korea than his predecessor, Harry Truman. The White House hinted that even the use of nuclear weapons was possible if it meant bringing the Korean War to an end. The armistice that put the war on hold (but did not end it) was signed in July of that year.

This was the state of the world when Ike gave his speech a week after the fighting ended on the Korean peninsula. He addressed the growing communist threat in Asia and mentioned his recent decision to send a $400 million aid package to help the French in their fight against the Viet Minh in French Indochina. But most importantly, he put forth the idea that one communist country in Asia would soon spawn another, and another, until the entire region was allied with China and/or the Soviet Union. If it could happen there, Ike reasoned, it could happen all over the world.

And so the "domino theory" was born---the concept that communism spreads like a virus from country to country, neighbor to neighbor. To stop the spread, it was necessary to keep the seed from being planted. This belief would shape American foreign policy for the next forty years. It lead to an effort at toppling Fidel Castro in Cuba and was the primary reason behind deploying troops to South Vietnam in 1965. It resulted in funding for the Contras in Nicaragua and support for the government of El Salvador. It also resulted in relationships with foreign leaders who, if communism had not existed, would have been shunned. It was the concept of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" put into global practice.

Practical application of the domino theory had mixed results. South Korea became a free, thriving democracy, but the leaders of El Salvador and the Philippines were allowed to rule with an iron fist because they were tough on communism. This trade-off is still debated today, but one thing is clear: our world today is still being shaped by an idea first stated publicly more than half a century ago.

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