In the wake of the temporary partitioning of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference of 1954, the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration was determined to do what it could to ensure that South Vietnam remained out of the hands of Communists. Eisenhower suggested in a 1954 speech that if the Communists were victorious in Vietnam, the rest of Southeast Asia would “topple like a row of dominoes” to Communist ideology. The Eisenhower administration believed that if Southeast Asia turned Communist it would effect the United States in a great number of ways, including economically and politically. Representative John F. Kennedy, in 1952, said that Asia is an area “where Communists are attempting to seize control?where the tide of events has been moving against us. The Communists have a chance of seizing all of Asia in the next five or six years.” The assumption of Eisenhower and his administration that Communism would spread like a bad virus was a false one. Not only was their ample evidence during the actual fighting of the Vietnam War that this was not the case, but from declassified papers and notes it can be shown that the domino theory was notably inaccurate. Some even thought the domino theory might adverse effects on the United States. Senator Frank Church said, “I think too much intervention on our part may well spread Communism through the ex-colonial world rather than thwart it.” The two major Communist powers, China and the Soviet Union, were too busy with internal affairs to worry about external adventures, such as Vietnam. Also, who was to say that the type of guerrilla warfare and other tactics utilized by the Viet Cong would work in other parts of the world? Vietnam was a case unlike many others and the idea that other acts of nationalism could be as effective as the Vietnamese was a far-stretched idea. All in all, it can be proven that the United States’ assumption of a domino effect was a poor one in predicting the way things would pan out in Southeast Asia. The domino theory was also incorrect because the United States’ relationship with China and the Soviet Union would have a much greater impact on the world than the outcome in Vietnam.
The United States’ main reason for entering the war in Vietnam was to contain Communism. Their main reason for containing Communism was that it would fuel the fire in such monolithic, expansionist countries like China and the Soviet Union. However, this was an inaccurate assumption. This argument will be divided into 2 parts: China and the Soviet Union. The US military and economic aid programs, the US’s choice of allies, the US’s priorities and commitment to oppose Communism in Vietnam were all directly related to the central goal of containing the expansion of Communist power. First, China’s power in Asia depended more on factors other than the outcome in Vietnam. China was more concerned with her ability to develop a modern industrial power, her capacity to influence the policies of other Asian countries by non-military means and her opportunities to exploit interstate rivalries in Asia. China was having a lot of trouble internally and needed to concentrate on those issues first and foremost. China’s economy had been growing at three percent per year, a rate not much higher than India’s, which was far from impressive. Also, there is much evidence suggesting that opposition to Mao Zedong wanted to attach greater priority to modernizing China’s economy then to frittering away China’s resources in external adventures like Vietnam. China found it impossible to do perform a balancing act. They could not woo underdeveloped countries towards Communism while supporting anti-government oppositions in the same places. China also made it clear that revolutionaries would have to come to power only through their own efforts without help from China. China had realized that in the past their greatest gains came from not supporting revolutionaries, but by supporting one Asian power against another in local disputes. Such cases included Indonesia, Cambodia and Pakistan; however, China could not turn any of these countries into permanent allies. To summarize, China had too much happening at home to try and help a small country gain its independence and turn Communist.
The Soviet Union, like China, was not engulfed in what the outcome in Vietnam would be. In the period of pluralistic Communism, the Soviet Union believed that each party was free to follow a strategy tailored to its own local needs and conditions. The Soviet Union believed that each country needed to fight its own battles and use their own methods to help them gain independence. Situations are different in every country and each country knows what is best for them. The Soviet Union does not know what is best for other countries. Even if it is assumed that Communism pursues the same subtle and destructive course in every country, the obvious differences in its achievements throughout the world indicate that the obstacles it meets vary, region by region and country by country. Several Asian Communist parties, like the Thai and Burmese, pursued guerrilla tactics without great success. However, in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese used guerrilla tactics and were successful in defeating their enemy. Also, it seems likely that in each of the cases stated above past experience in that country determined their strategy more than how the Vietnamese won their war. Finally, conditions in Vietnam were not duplicated anywhere else in the world. Only in Vietnam were the Communists able to take charge of a national independence movement at the end of World War Two. The Viet Cong had an upper hand because they controlled much of the area in South Vietnam that the Viet Minh controlled as early as 1944 during the struggle against the Japanese.
In addition to the Communist superpowers looking inward and concentrating more heavily on internal affairs, there had never been a monolithic, expansionist world Communist system dominated by Moscow and/or Beijing, although every US president since Harry Truman claimed to be fighting it. If there was, then why were China and the Soviet Union fighting each other instead of working together to spread Communism? The relationship between the Communist superpowers and their relationship with Vietnam was not as evident as the Pentagon thought. First, each of the major powers, including China and the Soviet Union, had its own agenda. A Chinese-Soviet partnership was not on the Communist agenda and a united sovereign Vietnam was also not on anyone’s list. Second, the Chinese were being exhausted by the strain of civil war from 1946 to 1949 and then the Korean War soon after. When these “problems” were eradicated China felt it would be in their best interest to turn their full energy towards internal development, not in concentrating on their affairs with the Soviet Union or Vietnam. Third, in October of 1973, Hanoi’s head of government Pham Van Dong traveled to Moscow and Beijing to ask for aid, but his appeal was rejected. China and the Soviet Union said it was a new world where relations with the United States was important and they were not in a place to offer aid to the North Vietnamese. Finally, it was evident that China and the Soviet Union were not commandeering an expansionist Communist system, because they were not looking to control Vietnam during the Geneva Accords in 1954. Both were more accommodating to the West then to the Viet Minh.
The Soviet Union once again had a similar outlook on Vietnam as China did. When US advisors asked how Communist Ho Chi Minh was the answer came back that he was definitely a Communist, but that he put nationalism first and had no direct ties to the Soviet Union. He was not a tool of Communism, in fact, Ho was relentless in his pursuit of direct ties to the United States. Also, the Soviet Union was more anxious to pursue d?tente and had no special concern for Southeast Asia. The Soviet Union would not even recognize the freedom and independence of Vietnam. They only recognized the state of Vietnam after the Chinese recognized them when the People’s Republic of China gained its independence in 1949. Finally, the Soviet Union and China both made it clear that in the face of an American threat to intervene, the Vietnamese would have to compromise. This meant the political reality of Viet Minh power in Vietnam would have to yield to the larger political reality of its powerlessness in the world at large. All in all, both Communist superpowers were not ready to compromise their position in the world to support Vietnam in their quest for independence or in the Soviet Union’s case to even recognize them.
Another argument that finds the domino theory as an inaccurate premise is that Vietnam was doing fine on its own after elections in early 1946. Elections were held on January 6, 1946 and within six months of taking power, under their own government and without assistance from any other country, the people of North and Central Vietnam were free of famine and colonial taxation and were on the way to universal literacy. Vietnam was doing well and prospering as a country. Yet, the US still feared this success was Communist-driven and would cause the toppling of other Southeast Asian countries. Also, Master Sergeant Donald Duncan, a militant anti-Communist when he arrived in Vietnam, said, “In the long run, I don’t think Vietnam will be better off under Ho’s brand of Communism, but it’s not for me or my government to decide. That decision is for the Vietnamese.” Vietnam showed the world they could sustain themselves without aid from other countries. In turn, they could become a viable economic force in Southeast Asia with their resources of rice, tungsten, rubber, and tin; and all this time there was not a Communist power overlooking their every move or supporting them.
Not only were the Vietnamese doing well on their own, but the argument for the domino theory was not even accepted across the Atlantic by the United States’ allies. Britain was one country that did not believe in the total collapse of Southeast Asia if Vietnam fell to Communism. British military chiefs did not subscribe to the total collapse predicted by the domino theory. They sustained that Malaya could be held regardless of what happened in Indochina. Winston Churchill considered sustaining Malaya to be a sufficient contribution to stopping the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia. So, according to Churchill, Vietnam was not the key in halting the spread of Communism, for Malaya would not necessarily succumb to Communism after the outcome in Vietnam.
The domino theory can also be shown to be false in that Vietnam would eventually want American help after the war. It seemed likely that any future government in South Vietnam, even if Communists dominated it, would want American aid in rebuilding the country. This meant that Vietnam could not get to friendly with the Communist superpowers because they knew the US would not help them if they were also getting aid from the Soviet Union and China. Neither a Communist government in North Vietnam or South Vietnam was likely to throw itself into the arms of China unless it was permitted no alternatives. So, the United States could have been that alternative making sure that North Vietnam and South Vietnam did not become reliant on China or the Soviet Union for material and financial support.
People also argued that a settlement in Vietnam would weaken the confidence of US allies in American determination to defend them and in turn create a wave a Communism throughout Southeast Asia. However, this statement was just a smokescreen to keep America from settling with the North Vietnamese. After an investment of 500,000 troops and spending more than $20 billion per year in Vietnam, the only thing in doubt was the United States’ ability to shore up governments that did not have the support of their own people. The US showed, with these massive numbers, that they were willing to support causes they believe in and a settlement would not affect their standing in the world. Also, Asian governments and their people knew that the problem in South Vietnam was the failure of South Vietnamese leadership, not of American resolve.
If the domino theory was correct, why did the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948 not result in the collapse of Western Europe? And why was Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba not followed by a wave of successful revolts throughout Latin America? The reason is that situations vary in different regions and countries. The United States made it seem like Communism was the only place for countries to turn to if they needed help. But, that was not the case because Communism was not for everyone. Different countries have different needs. Those needs can call for a Democratic society or a Communist society or whatever will help that country the most in feeding its people and surviving in the world at large.
During a visit to Vietnam, twenty-two years after the war, Robert McNamara, former US Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968, said, “Human beings have to examine their failures. We’ve got to acquaint people with how dangerous it is for political leaders to behave the way we did.” McNamara was in favor of escalating the Vietnam War in 1964, but he realized that what the US was fighting for was not in the best interest of the people of Vietnam. The war was now over and it had resulted in the reunified, Communist Vietnam that Hanoi had desired and the US had fought so hard against. But, Vietnam had not become the agent of Soviet and Chinese Communism that Washington had feared. Communism in Indochina had not toppled the dominoes of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asian countries as predicted. Moreover, the United States lost the war and lives of thousands without realizing the true goals of the war. Tran Quang Co, a former First deputy Foreign Minister in Vietnam, pointed out during McNamara’s visit that “the nature of the struggle was not to undermine neighboring countries.” Co added, “The US failed to understand the objective of our war. It was for our own national liberation and reunification.” This negates America’s purpose for entering the war and stopping the spread of Communism. The North Vietnamese were fighting for nationalism, not for the sake of the Communist superpowers. In addition, Co pointed out what is now obvious since the demise of the Soviet Union: Vietnam was not a tool of world Communism. The domino theory was a false assumption and taught the United States a great lesson in foreign diplomacy. Vietnam was fighting for the same things the US fought for in the 1770’s. To simplify an issue, people’s basic instincts are to want freedom and independence. In Vietnam, that was all they wanted. If that was what the people of Vietnam wanted then they should have been able to decide that for themselves. It was not up to the United States or any other country to choose Vietnam’s future for them. This is what the United States did not understand. They also did not understand that an independent Vietnam meant freedom for millions of people, which is what the US should want for all people, not the spread of Communism throughout the world.