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Falling Dominoes


The Peloponnesian War, according to Thucydides, was set off by a pretext that should be peculiarly familiar to us. Its background was not so different from that of modern wars. The conflict had its roots in the growing power of Athens, which came to be regarded as a threat to the safety of its neighbors. The Corinthians were among those most anxious to declare war on Athens before it was too late. To do so with any hope of success, however, they needed the superior strength of the Lacedaemonians, whose main city was Sparta. The Lacedaemonians had also become restive but were bound by an agreement to maintain a truce with Athens for thirty years.

The immediate issue for the Corinthians was whether to come to the aid of Potidaea, which was both a Corinthian colony and a tributary ally of Athens. Afraid of a revolt by Potidaea that would set off revolts by other Athenian allies, Athens took preventive action to forestall a Potidaean uprising. Athens’ action was thus an effort to prevent its dominoes from falling.

In retaliation, the Potidaeans backed by the Corinthians sent envoys to Lacedaemon to seek support against Athens. When the Lacedaemonians promised support, Potidaea and other tributary cities staged their revolts. Corinth soon sent a considerable force to the aid of Potidaea. Yet the great war between Sparta and Athens had not yet broken out. To settle the issue, the Lacedaemonians called a congress of their allies, most of whom wanted to break the truce and declare war on Athens and its allies. At the congress the main argument in favor of war was made by the Corinthians. Their argument was probably the first fully recorded case of a policy based on falling dominoes.

The Corinthian argument turned on the issue of supporting Potidaea, now besieged by the Ionians, who were themselves dependent allies of Athens. If we think of Potidaea, which was not itself worth going to war for, as somewhat akin to Korea or Vietnam in contemporary history, we have a rough modern equivalent.

The Corinthians were forced to admit that assisting Potidaea was “quite a reversal of the order of things.” They justified it on the ground that all were threatened by “the tyrant city that has been established in Hellas,” driven by “a program of universal empire, part fulfilled, part in contemplation.” It was, they urged, “impossible for us to wait any longer when waiting can only mean immediate disaster for some of us.” Since all were potential dominoes, the Corinthians argued, they might as well challenge the expansionist Athenians in Potidaea, despite the distance and difficulties. As for Potidaea, it fell to the Athenians, who totally wiped it out—and Potidaea is never mentioned again.1

Out of such rationalization came the disastrous Peloponnesian War. Thucydides set an example, from which all future historians could profit, of distinguishing between the real and the ostensible causes of this war. “The real cause I consider to be the one which was formally kept most out of sight,” he wrote. “The growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable.”


No country has made more use of the Corinthian argument in the rationalization of its wars than the United States has done since the Second World War. Every major commitment has been justified in the name of defending faraway dominoes. Every American leader has been influenced by the falling dominoes of the 1930s. From President Truman to President Reagan, the aggressions of Nazi Germany have haunted American foreign policy. As recently as August 23 of this year, President Reagan defended his policy in Central America by evoking the memory of former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, whom he accused of having “thought of peace as a vague policy in the 1930s, and the result brought us closer to World War II.”

In fact, Mr. Reagan was far more vague about Chamberlain’s policy than Chamberlain had been. The policy of “appeasement” was not vague at all; it was largely based on a well-defined belief that Hitler’s ambitions were limited and, if satisfied, could not do much harm to the Western powers or at most endanger the Soviet Union. This judgment was fatuously false, but there was more to the self-deception of Chamberlain and his supporters than that.

The dominoes of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland did fall to Hitler; in those circumstances, the logic of the falling dominoes did apply. It should have been recognized at the time, because Hitler’s plans had been fully exposed, even by himself; he sought to sever countries that had been traditional allies, separately threatening each of the members of the closely knit European state system. But another lesson may be learned from the same events, and it is less often noted.

Probably the only domino for which the French and British could successfully have fought was an early one in the series—against the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936. Hitler was even prepared to retreat if the French had shown any inclination to use force to make him back down. But the Rhineland was German territory and the demilitarization of Germany had long been a fiction, even during the Weimar years. By 1938 and the first dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the French were so hopelessly inferior militarily that they had given up all intention of going to the aid of an ally; the British forces were so feeble that they had resigned themselves to follow the French lead. By March 1939, even Chamberlain’s government did not have to be told about falling dominoes. Yet it is at this point that the analogy of falling dominoes becomes far more complex and double-edged than it has been represented to be.

On March 31, 1939, as a result of the final dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the British and French governments gave the Polish domino a guarantee of aid in the event of a German aggression. The guarantee was followed on April 6 by a formal pact of mutual assistance. It is hard to decide which was worse—the lack of action previously or the pretense of action later. A new study of the period convincingly shows that neither the British nor the French had any intention of making good on the guarantee.2 They considered themselves so outclassed militarily and economically by the Germans that they were forced to fall back on a purely defensive strategy, one that might long have kept them from serious fighting if the Germans had not attacked in 1940.

There is thus a second lesson to be learned from this case of falling dominoes. Poland was encouraged by Great Britain and France to expect aid which they could not deliver. In the concrete circumstances of March 1939, the guarantee to Poland was a dishonorable snare and deception. Dominoes do fall, but there are times and places when and where something can be done to prevent one from falling; there are times and places when and where nothing can be done. There is no timeless formula for dealing with dominoes that are real countries.


Ever since the promulgation of the so called Truman Doctrine in 1947, the domino analogy has dominated American foreign policy. All the key officials, from the president down, have had pre-World War II dominoes at the backs of their minds whenever they faced what might otherwise have appeared to be limited emergencies in specific areas.

The emergency in 1947 arose because Great Britain decided to withdraw its troops and suspend its financial assistance to Greece. A power vacuum in Greece opened up the prospect of a Communist takeover. If Greece fell, Turkey could be next. The immediate problem was how to substitute American for British support of Greece and Turkey, by now linked as if they had to stand or fall together. Such a commitment was still foreign to American foreign policy. The administration recognized that the precedent was sure to set American policy on a new course, that its implications were incalculable, and that only the strongest arguments in its favor could get it through Congress.

It was at a meeting with congressional leaders that more and more dominoes were added to Greece and Turkey. President Truman first asked Secretary of State George C. Marshall to explain why aid to Greece and Turkey was necessary. If the Greek economy collapsed and military supplies gave out, Marshall foresaw an imminent civil war, out of which might emerge a communist state under Soviet control. Turkey would then be surrounded. All this was merely prologue. Marshall said next:

Soviet domination might thus extend over the entire Middle East to the borders of India. The effect of this upon Hungary, Austria, Italy, and France cannot be overestimated. It is not alarmist to say that we are faced with the first crisis of a series which might extend Soviet domination to Europe, the Middle East and Asia.3

The undersecretary of state, Dean Acheson, listened to his chief with consternation. Marshall, he thought, had been too moderate in tone and expression. In an unusual move, Acheson asked to speak to improve on Marshall’s performance. As he later related:

In the past eighteen months, I said, Soviet pressure on the Straits, on Iran, and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe.4

If Acheson’s contribution had been better known at the time, we might now have the Rotten Apple rather than the Domino Principle. In three sentences, he had managed to extend the crisis from Greece to three continents, to all the East and most of the West. Acheson’s scenario demanded that one rotten apple would suffice to cause panic over most of the globe. By 1947, there were already quite a few rotten apples in Eastern Europe, but he did not ask why they had not infected the whole barrel, because he was more or less resigned to them. Greece was different because something could still be done about it.

At this stage, only aid to Greece and Turkey was supposed to be in question. Unprecedented as this step was at the time, the next move was far more portentous. To overcome expected congressional resistance, Truman decided to address a joint session of Congress. A draft of his speech, in the preparation of which Acheson was largely instrumental, contained a phrase about supporting “free peoples” without geographical qualification. Some, notably George F. Kennan, then head of the State Department’s policy planning staff, objected to such an unlimited commitment. Truman wanted nothing less and therefore spoke the words: “The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.” In his memoirs, Truman interpreted his new “doctrine” to mean that American foreign policy had “now declared that wherever aggression, direct or indirect, threatened the peace, the security of the United States was involved.”5

  1. 1

    In the seventeenth year of the war, Thucydides reported another argument based on falling dominoes. He put it in the mouth of Alcibiades, the Athenian general who went over to the Spartans and even gave them advice on how to defeat Athens. Alcibiades’ problem was how to convince the Spartans to assist Syracuse, the main city of Sicily, which Athens sought to conquer. “But if Syracuse falls,” Alcibiades argued, “all Sicily falls also, and Italy immediately afterwards; and the danger which I just now spoke of will before long be upon you.” To clinch the point, he added: “None need therefore fancy that Sicily only is in question; Peloponnesus will be so also, unless you speedily do as I tell you.” The Spartans and their Peloponnesian allies followed this advice, with ruinous effect on the Athenians. Alcibiades himself came to a bad end; he later turned against the Spartans who, after the final defeat of Athens, had him murdered. Whether his dominolike argument was right or wrong, he had correctly seen that Athens could be made to overextend itself at distant Syracuse and go down to smashing defeat.

  2. 2

    John J. Mearsheimer, Conventional Deterrence (Cornell University Press, 1983), chapter 2.

  3. 3

    Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1947, vol. 5, pp. 60-62.

  4. 4

    Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (Norton, 1969), p. 219.

  5. 5

    Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, Vol. II: Years of Trial and Hope (Doubleday, 1958), p. 106.

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