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
In this way the dominoes were multiplied many times over, though Congress was only voting for financial aid to two countries. From then on, the global commitment made by Truman as the leader of the new global power meant that dominoes could be found anywhere on the face of the globe. The basic idea was not new or original, as the ancient Greek example shows. But no nation in recent times has made more use of the domino rationale than the United States has done, because no other nation has extended the reach of its power so far and so wide since the decline of the British empire.
The case of Greece and others like it suggests a peculiar tendency of American policy to go to extremes in its formulation. There were good reasons to come to the aid of Greece in postwar circumstances, but the way such aid was explained made it seem that Greece was merely an occasion for doing something far more momentous and grandiose. In fact, a country that cannot be defended for political, social, or strategic reasons on its own merits will be hard to defend at all, because the defense must still take place on its own soil and not on that of other, presumably more important and deserving, countries that will benefit from its defense.
The all-or-nothing reasoning behind the Truman Doctrine and its doctrinal successors made it seem that all the countries from Asia Minor to Western Europe had to be defended in one place at one time—or nothing would have been done for Greece and, for that matter, South Korea and South Vietnam. Ironically, all the others get a free ride at the expense of the first domino country, which they may not even believe deserves defending. In effect, the United States takes on an unlimited commitment to defend an unlimited number of countries with the often limited means of one relatively weak, little country plus whatever the United States is willing to invest in its behalf.
Unlimited commitments require unlimited power. The United States has never had that kind of power, and has less of it today in relation to the rest of the world than in Truman’s time. Truman’s Athenian-style hubris reflected an ambivalence that, ever since, has characterized American policy—an overweening sense of imperial power together with an overwrought susceptibility to nervousness, approaching panic, whenever that power is frustrated or challenged.
The Truman administration had one more important contribution to make to the American domino doctrine. Despite the original universality of the Truman Doctrine, an effort was made three years later to delimit what was geographically necessary for the defense of the United States. Again, Acheson stepped out in front. In January 1950, he defined the “defensive perimeter” of the United States in such a way as to exclude the Asiatic mainland, including Korea. This was not his own idea. He spoke with the authority of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the still imperious General Douglas MacArthur in command in the Far East had said much the same thing the year before. Thus when North Korea attacked South Korea in June 1950, the latter was not considered of strategic importance to the defense of the United States, in the event of a major war with the Soviet Union; there was no American war plan and no preparations had been made to defend South Korea.6 Yet, within days, the decision was made that kept the United States at war in Korea for the next three years at heavy cost in lives and substance. And when the war was over, the rest of the world looked very much the same as it had before.
Such a war needed a special kind of justification. It was found in the same sort of rationale that had led to the Truman Doctrine. A theory was developed to the effect that Korea was merely a pawn in a larger Soviet strategy. One version had it that the Soviets sought to pin down American forces in Korea while they prepared to attack in Europe. Symbolism took the place of material interest; the war in Korea was made, as President Truman put it, “a symbol of the strength and determination of the West”—which, with the exception of the United States, did little or nothing to add to that strength or determination. The American leaders made their decision to stand in Korea because of a conviction that a Soviet failure there would “deter new actions in other portions of the world,” in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, whereas a Soviet success would open Japan, Okinawa, and Formosa (Taiwan) to further aggression.7 In an undelivered farewell address, Truman wrote: “But if we had not persuaded the United Nations to back up the free Republic of Korea, Western Europe would have gone into the hands of the communists.”8 The real justification for the war in Korea was in Europe, not in Korea.
The Korean war, therefore, was fought over a domino that, if it fell, was going to topple dominoes all over the world. If this specter of falling dominoes had not hovered over their deliberations, it is hard to see how the American leaders could have justified abandoning their previously low estimate of Korea’s importance to the United States.
Acheson was made a scapegoat for the war on the ground that he had invited Soviet aggression in Korea by excluding it from our “defensive perimeter.” Less attention was paid to an alternative interpretation of the war—that it showed how easy it was for the Soviet Union to choose the place and time for embroiling the United States in a war, no matter how far away and how small the strategic stakes.
Thus far we have been using the term “dominoes,” but the word did not come to designate a “principle” until 1954. The occasion was the French phase of the Indochinese war.
When the French were trapped at Dien Bien Phu, they asked desperately for aid from the United States. The request precipitated a heated and divisive debate within the Eisenhower administration. One of those who advocated American military intervention was then Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. He invoked, as had by now become customary, more falling dominoes—the fact without the name. It was necessary, he said, to “take the risk now by putting our boys in” to avoid further Communist expansion in Asia and Indochina.9 Another advocate of intervention was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who tried to convince British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that the loss of Indochina would lead to the eventual loss of Thailand, Malaya, Burma, and Indonesia.10 Resistance to the move came from congressional leaders, the army command, and the British. In the end, Eisenhower decided to stay out.
Before making up his mind, however, Eisenhower publicly ruminated about the problem. On April 7, 1954, this is how he gave birth to the Domino Principle:
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 a certainty that it will go over very quickly.
Eisenhower’s “falling domino” principle was the same as Acheson’s “rotten apple” recipe. Somehow Eisenhower’s version in shortened form caught on. The Corinthians and Lacedaemonians did not know it, but Potidaea was the falling domino of the fifth century BC.
Logically, Eisenhower should have sided with the military interventionists if, as he stated, knocking over the Vietnamese domino was sure to knock down a row of other dominoes. More than anything else, it was probably the opposition of the army’s high command, headed by General Mathew B. Ridgway, that deterred him. Ridgway and General James M. Gavin, chief of plans and development, took the position that Indo-china was not worth the price that would have to be paid to hold it. Eisenhower prudently chose to put the real, concrete value of a particular domino ahead of its hypothetical, ultimate cost.
John F. Kennedy was another president who subscribed to the domino theory, as it was also called, but wavered in its application. In September 1963, he was asked: “Mr. President, have you any reason to doubt this so-called ‘domino theory,’ that if South Vietnam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go behind it?” Kennedy replied: “No, I believe it. I believe it. I think that the struggle is close enough. China is so large, looms so high just beyond the frontiers, that if South Vietnam went, it would not only give them an improved geographic position for a guerrilla assault on Malaya but would also give the impression that the wave of the future in Southeast Asia was China and the Communists. So I believe it.”
So he believed it, but only increased the number of American “advisers” in Vietnam from 773 to 16,500 in order to maintain a “limited commitment.” Like Eisenhower, Kennedy believed in a theory, which he was reluctant to carry out to the bitter end, though what he might have done if he had lived longer is anyone’s guess.
The Domino Principle really came into its own with the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. As he once put it, it was better to fight in Vietnam than in Honolulu. The most extreme exponent, however, was Richard Nixon. In 1965, he goaded Johnson to get on with it by making the most demagogic use of the principle: the fate of Vietnam was the fate of all of Southeast Asia; if Vietnam fell, it would be necessary to write off Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, and Indonesia; the United States would have to fight a major war to save the Philippines; Japan would inevitably be pulled toward neutralism and even toward a pro-Communist position to survive economically; the Pacific would become a “Red sea”; a Chinese Communist aggression as far as Australia would be only four or five years away.11
It would seem hard to beat Nixon at the game of dominoes. But some have tried. In his recent book, Why We Were in Vietnam, Norman Podhoretz let it be known that the fall of South Vietnam had led to the appearance of Cuban troops in Angola in late 1975 and to similar occurrences in the next few years in Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Yemen, and Afghanistan. Evidently dominoes can leap across oceans and continents without the slightest explanation. Just how the South Vietnamese domino could have been prevented from falling, by a United States that, according to Podhoretz, did not have the military, political, intellectual, or moral capacities to save it, also remains a mystery.
Even more simple-minded was the recent contribution to our little anthology of falling-domino literature by William P. Clark, the present assistant to the president for national security affairs. Clark coyly intimated what was in his own mind:
If we lack the resolve and dedication the President asked for [in Central America], can we not expect El Salvador to join Nicaragua in targeting other recruits for the Soviet brand of Communism? When, some ask, will Mexico and the United States become the immediate rather than the ultimate targets?
One of those who had already asked—and answered—the question was President Reagan himself. His version was at least more straightforward and forthright than that of Clark:
If we cannot defend ourselves there [El Salvador], we cannot expect to prevail elsewhere. Our credibility could collapse, our alliances would crumble, and the safety of our homeland would be put in jeopardy.
Clark had put the “targeting” of Mexico and the United States some time in the immediate future, after El Salvador had succeeded in joining Nicaragua so that together they could spread “the Soviet brand of Communism.” Reagan was far more defeatist. For him, the sole failure in El Salvador in and of itself could signify the collapse of our “credibility,” the crumbling of our alliances and jeopardy to the safety of the United States.12 The whole structure of American security built up over more than three decades now could rest on a single pinpoint—El Salvador.
Nevertheless, these variations on the domino theme come from the highest quarters in the US government and represent a challenge with which we may start to consider the rights and wrongs of domino-thinking in post-World War II American foreign policy.
What can those who ask Mr. Clark’s question conceivably have in mind?
The revolution in Nicaragua and the revolt in El Salvador grew out of widespread disaffection with oppressive military regimes long supported by the United States. Foreign intervention by Cuba and the Soviet Union cannot explain why these eruptions took place or how they managed to get the support of a sufficient portion of the younger middle class to give them leadership and a program.
Mr. Clark asks us to believe that El Salvador and Nicaragua will probably “target” other recruits for Soviet communism. What other “recruits”? Possibly Honduras and Guatemala to the north and Costa Rica to the south. The present military-dominated regimes in Honduras and Guatemala make them conceivable candidates for civil wars on the El Salvador-Nicaraguan model. Costa Rica, long a civilian democracy, is much less likely to be torn apart internally. In any case, more revolutions may break out in Central America. But will they come about merely because El Salvador and Nicaragua “target” them? To imagine that this is how the revolutionary process takes place is to confess ignorance of how the revolutions in El Salvador and Nicaragua came about. The root cause in each case was the previous corrupt, repressive, and hated regime. A critical distinction must be made between what sets off these revolutions and how they develop in the course of fighting off internal and external enemies, both during the fighting and also during the postrevolutionary struggles among revolutionary factions. If other Central American countries do not have the makings of civil wars in them, no “targeting” by El Salvador and Nicaragua will succeed in “recruiting” them.
I have tried, if only briefly, to inquire into what it would take to make more dominoes fall in Central America in order to suggest how one might go about thinking about the problem. I am not questioning whether there may be more falling dominoes in Central America or whether any of them should be of serious concern to US policy; I am questioning whether they will go down in the manner suggested by Mr. Clark. Those who can still believe that all revolutions need is to be “targeted” from the outside have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Secretary of State George Shultz should know better, but he, too, recently said at a congressional hearing that the region would “settle down” if there were no Cuban and Soviet intervention.
The political systems, the geographic positions, the economic conditions, the military potentials and other circumstances must be knowledgeably taken into account before countries far and near are set up as if they were a row of dominoes. This is the sort of discrimination that domino-minded doctrinaires fail to make, because it would get in the way of easy simplifications.
If Mr. Clark had stopped with the Central American dominoes, he might have been ahead. But he could not rest content with them. He showed himself to be a true believer in the Domino Principle by dragging in Mexico and the United States as immediate targets of El Salvador and Nicaragua.
What could be in the minds of those who seriously think that Mexico and the United States face such a threat—now, actually, immediately? Can they really mean that the threat will come from El Salvador and Nicaragua via Honduras and Guatemala? Yet this is what Mr. Clark seemed to say, so that a glance at the respective figures of the population and area of the four countries may not be amiss:
Even if we knew nothing more about the relative economic and military strengths of these countries, the idea that Mexico and the United States will be targeted by El Salvador and Nicaragua would appear to be a political and logistical absurdity. As for Mexico, it would have to be on the brink of civil war to make any sense of the idea that it is in immediate danger of targeting “for the Soviet brand of Communism.” Even if it were, the root cause would be in Mexico, not in the targeting by two vastly smaller, weaker, and poorer Central American countries. As for such a threat to the United States, it hardly deserves notice. Is the United States close to the kind of civil war that brought revolutionary movements to El Salvador and Nicaragua? And if it is not, how else are we going to be targeted for immediate recruiting to the Soviet brand of communism?
We must assume, then, that Mr. Clark must have meant that Mexico and the United States are being targeted from El Salvador and Nicaragua by Cuba and the Soviet Union. How? By infecting the United States with the Central American revolutionary virus? By launching a military attack from El Salvador and Nicaragua? Can anyone believe that such a Soviet attack would come from this direction?
Even if El Salvador and Nicaragua may represent a potential threat to the Caribbean sea lanes and the Panama Canal, as the more panicky domino players suggest, that is still a long way and very different from targeting the United States as an immediate recruit for the Soviet brand of communism. El Salvador and Nicaragua could not conceivably mount such a threat by themselves; if the Soviets decided to use them for such purposes, we would be close to war for much larger reasons than anything having to do with El Salvador and Nicaragua—reasons so fatally imperious that they would impose themselves whether or not El Salvador and Nicaragua existed.
What could Mr. Clark have had in mind? The probability is that he did not have anything concrete, substantive, or circumstantial in mind. He was expressing himself in the abstract, generalized mode of domino theorizing. This leap from domino to domino, without asking how or why, functions as a substitute for thought. It would be less worrisome if Mr. Clark’s bugaboo were merely an individual aberration or personal indiscretion. Though it must be admitted that his dominoes were rather more far-fetched than usual, this type of thinking came out of a postwar tradition that has encouraged just such panic-mongering.
Falling dominoes may, in some circumstances, be a fact of international life, but the “falling domino principle” has been a delusion, and a dangerous one.
One reason is that the principle is presented as if it worked automatically. Acheson’s one rotten apple automatically infected the whole barrel. Eisenhower’s one domino knocked over with “certainty” the whole row of dominoes to the very last. For Nixon, the fate of Vietnam sealed the fate of Southeast Asia and beyond.
We are dealing here with one of the most treacherous forms of political thinking—analogy. The analogies here are physical ones—apples and dominoes—as if the political world obeyed the most rigorous physical laws. If the interactions among nations were not perceived to be as automatic as these analogies imply, it would be necessary to ask some awkward questions. How and why does a rotten apple in Greece make other apples rotten as far away as Iran and all to the East, Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, Europe through Italy and France? How and why does a defeat in Vietnam inevitably pull Japan toward neutralism and even toward a pro-Communist position? How and why could El Salvador and Nicaragua make Mexico and the United States the targets for the Soviet brand of communism?
This is not to say that what happens in one country may not influence what happens in another country. But if there is such influence it will be due to circumstances that can and should be made explicit and explicable. No such process is automatic and inevitable, especially when it occurs in countries with very different histories and separated by great distances.
Another reason why the application of the domino “principle” has been delusory is that it obliterates distinctions between what is important, essential, and primary and what is not.
Let us take the case of South Korea. South Korea was not considered worth a war by the secretary of state and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but it was made worth fighting for through the multiplier effect of the domino “principle.” War may not be justifiable for A-country alone, but if B, C, D, and others are said to hang on it, A-country takes on the importance of all of them put together. By this expedient, almost any place on earth may be made a casus belli. By itself it may amount to relatively little, but adding domino countries to it gives it the importance of the most important country or countries said to fall with it. The effect is somewhat like that of a distorting mirror at a sideshow.
The question arises: Why is the distortion so necessary for domino players? Nixon’s Vietnam dominoes are a case in point. He was right about the dominoes of Laos and Cambodia, which fell with Vietnam. But they had been associated states of Indochina under French rule and hence closely connected. He was wrong, however, about what brought them down; it was North Vietnam, not Communist China, which by that time had no sympathy for Communist Vietnamese expansionism. He was spectacularly wrong about all his other dominoes, from Burma to Australia. Why did he have to go so far afield for them? He clearly needed dominoes of such importance that, added to South Vietnam, their fall would make the entire world order shake and tremble. Indochina by itself would not have been enough.
The same type of panic-inducing dominoes may be detected in Mr. Clark’s pronunciamento. If he had stopped with Honduras and Guatemala, he would have improved the verisimilitude of his dominoes but he would have failed to reach a really shattering crescendo of falling dominoes. By going as far as Mexico and the United States, he inferentially made fighting for little El Salvador as important as and even equivalent to fighting for Wichita, Kansas. The only dominoes that really count in this game are those that frighten.
It may not pay merely to scoff at Mr. Clark’s dominoes, because we have been through this once before. Both Eisenhower and Kennedy acted prudently in the case of Vietnam, but their dominoes were imprudent. Finally, the logic of the dominoes won out. If Vietnam was all that important as a domino, something more than a few hundred or a few thousand “advisers” were necessary to save it from falling. If there is so much at stake in El Salvador, from “credibility” to alliances to our very safety, as the president has assured us, it is hard to see how he can commit himself not to seek the overthrow of the government of Nicaragua and not to send American combat troops to Central America. A policy based on dominoes tends to extremes, despite all the protestations of prudence with which it may be initiated. When means and ends are so far apart, one or the other must give.
If, moreover, a domino-minded country can be made to fight anywhere, its enemy can manipulate it with ruinous results. Various American leaders have devoutly believed that they were fighting the Soviet Union in Korea and Communist China in Vietnam, and now believe they are fighting Cuba and the Soviet Union in El Salvador. Even if they are right, this also means that the Soviet Union was able to make the United States fight in Korea and El Salvador, and China was able to make us fight in Vietnam. While the United States was spending itself on alleged surrogates, the Soviet Union stood by and, in effect, said: “Let’s you and him fight.” The Soviet Union thus chooses the place and time for American wars. If the United States could be made to fight for eight years in Vietnam, it could be made to fight anywhere. Yet once the decision to go to war is made, the struggle begins to live a life of its own; it soon hardly matters what the domino was or why it had made such a tremendous difference. We then go on fighting to save face, to protect the reputation and morale of our armed forces, or to uphold symbols of “strength and determination”—not because it was the right time and place to fight for an essential and attainable objective.
From a strictly military point of view, this policy results in a strategic monstrosity. The enemy is capable of making us overextend ourselves, but we do not make the enemy overextend himself. The first move always becomes the crucial one. The “falling domino principle” has the effect of making us fight for the first domino in a row on the assumption that we are fighting for the entire row. But life is not like that. There may be and almost always is, in the case of real countries, a long and hazardous road to be traveled from the first domino to the last. There is no automatic connection between the fall of the Vietnamese domino and the putative fall of dominoes as far away as India and Australia, or between the “targeting” of El Salvador and of the United States. Each step of the way produces its own opportunities and obstacles.
Thus dominoes fall because they are deliberately set up in a row in order to fall; countries are not dominoes, because they are not set up in neat careful rows purposely designed to be made to fall. The more countries vary, the farther they are from one another, the less likely they are to be pushed over like dominoes. Yet the variations and distinctions are still lost on domino-dominated mentalities among us in positions which demand the most knowledge and discrimination.
October 27, 1983
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. ↩
John J. Mearsheimer, Conventional Deterrence (Cornell University Press, 1983), chapter 2. ↩
Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1947, vol. 5, pp. 60-62. ↩
Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (Norton, 1969), p. 219. ↩
Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, Vol. II: Years of Trial and Hope (Doubleday, 1958), p. 106. ↩
Glenn D. Paige, The Korean Decision, June 24-30, 1950 (Free Press, 1968), pp. 68-69. ↩
Truman, Memoirs, Vol. II, pp. 337, 339. ↩
The Autobiography of Harry S. Truman, edited by Robert H. Ferrell (Colorado Associated University Press, 1980), p. 102. ↩
In a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 16, 1954. ↩
Anthony Eden, Full Circle (Houghton Mifflin, 1960), p. 106. ↩
Speech of March 15, 1965, text in Congressional Record, Senate, September 2, 1965, pp. 21928-21930. In 1970, Nixon as president extended the domino argument so far that it could probably go no further. The occasion was the PLO-Syrian effort to overthrow the regime of King Hussein in Jordan. Nixon says in his memoirs that he reasoned: “If it [Hussein’s overthrow] succeeded, the Israelis would almost certainly take pre-emptive measures against a Syrian-dominated radical government in Jordan; the Egyptians were tied to Syria by military alliances; and Soviet prestige was on the line with both the Syrians and the Egyptians. Since the United States could not stand idly by and watch Israel being driven into the sea, the possibility of a direct US-Soviet confrontation was uncomfortably high.” So high indeed that Nixon wrote: “It was like a ghastly game of dominoes, with a nuclear war waiting at the end.” To get to that end, it would be necessary for an Israeli offensive against Jordan to result in an Israel driven into the sea; for the Soviet Union to risk all its gains and its very life force in behalf of Syria and Egypt; and for both the United States and the Soviet Union to escalate a struggle, in which neither of them was directly involved, to the point of nuclear war—and all for a domino that was nothing more than saving Hussein’s throne in Jordan! ↩
“Credibility” is a word much beloved by domino addicts. It was pressed into service, once again, by former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig, Jr., in connection with his testimony before the special presidential commission on Central America, headed by Henry A. Kissinger. Haig warned that the “international credibility” of the United States was at stake in the way that the Central American problem was handled (The New York Times, September 1, 1983). One wonders whether the “international credibility” of the United States is not inexhaustible if it could survive the policies that Mr. Haig has previously espoused—or, alternatively, whether our credibility has been so exhausted that little El Salvador can do away with what is left of it. The Department of State must desperately need a machine to measure “credibility.” ↩