Leadership and The Domino Theory

By | June 9, 2016

[June 9, 2016]  In the 1960s, everyone in my high school class was intimately familiar with the war in Vietnam (and the military draft).  The U.S. policy was based on a theory that predicted all of Southeast Asia would fall under the spell of Communism if Laos and South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam forces.  Called the Domino Theory, it presented a compelling argument and the theory was the backbone of U.S. President Johnson’s decisions to increase troop strength.

It’s always good practice to go back in time to reevaluate government policies and compare the underlying theories to what we know now.  It helps us better develop new policies because such analyses can assist leaders avoid the types of mistakes made in the past.  The Domino Theory already had its critics during the 1960s – the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was one of them – but their view was rejected.

On this date, June 9th, 1964, the CIA issued a report that challenged the Domino Theory.  Today, I find it ironic that I’d not heard of the report despite thoroughly studying the Vietnam War as part of my officer training and preparation.  My studies were not limited to war tactics but looked at the grand strategy regarding Communism of the time.  Neither could I find the report on the public CIA website and I’m not sure whether the report was classified or not, so it’s not linked to here.1

Open sources note that the CIA report was correct in many aspects.2  It predicted that Southeast Asia would not fall under Communism and that Japan and the Philippines would help counterbalance its influence in the region.  President Johnson’s concerns about damage to America’s reputation was correct however and the report stated that if all of Vietnam fell, it “would be profoundly damaging to the U.S. position in the Far East.”  While this was initially true, it never fully developed into a real problem.

Of great interest to readers here is that a similar domino-like theory was used to justify the war in Iraq under U.S. President George Bush.3  It was believed at the time that by toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that it would foster the spread of democracy in the Middle East.  Often called the Democracy Domino Theory, it appears that similar mistakes were made; usually by oversimplifying the true nature of established cultures.

It is exceedingly difficult for a culture to move from one type of government to another without significant upheaval.  Witness today what is happening in Venezuela as its people try to move away from a Socialist-dominated economic and political system to a more democratic one.

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  1.  One CIA report that speaks to this issue is Why CIA Analysts Were So Doubtful About Vietnam: https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol40no5/html/v40i5a10p.htm
  2. https://randyroberts.wordpress.com/2009/06/09/on-this-day-june-9-the-domino-theory/
  3. https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/168/37413.html




Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.