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An Imperial Recessional: The “Domino Theory” Revisited

Few concepts in contemporary world politics have been the center of as much controversy as the ubiquitous “domino theory.” The domino theory was first publicly articulated in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, although oblique references to such an idea had occasionally appeared earlier. This concept, which was developed concurrent with the globalization of the doctrine of containment during the Cold War, largely reflected an assumption that any defeat incurred by the United States or its allies in one part of the world would necessarily have adverse consequences for the West elsewhere. In its original (and most restricted) form, the domino theory was applied to Southeast Asia in general, and to the non-Communist states of Indochina in particular. Thus, it was first argued that if any of the Indochinese states “fell” to communism the others (and ultimately the remainder of Southeast Asia itself) would topple in rapid succession like “a row of dominoes.” Therefore, in order to safeguard American interests in Asia, the United States undertook to oppose the extension of Communist power into Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam.1 Eventually, as the fighting in South Vietnam intensified, and as the American military involvement in that country expanded in the mid-1930s, the survival of non-Communist Indochinese regimes came to be seen as a test of the credibility of American policy.2 Even after the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Indochina in 1973, there remained a strong belief in many circles that the character of the eventual settlement in Indochina would have a major impact on the future shape of American foreign policy.3

That settlement has now been reached, and the “final solution” of the Indochina Question is being put into effect. With the Communist victories in Cambodia and South Vietnam in the spring of 1975, the “peace” once heralded by Henry Kissinger became a reality.4 For the United States, however, and especially for its Indochinese allies, the coming of that “peace” meant bitter defeat. The extreme precariousness of the political-military situation throughout Indochina, of course, had long been apparent to most observers. Whatever else they may have accomplished, neither the 1973 Paris accords nor the Nobel Peace Prizes awarded to two of their principals had produced anything more substantial than a poor caricature of stability in the region. In the end, the final settlement of the Indochina conflict was wrought not by negotiations, but by force of arms. And in fact, that is the only way that a settlement there could have been reached, given the unabated aggressiveness of the Communist forces and the war-weariness that prevailed in Washington.5 We had finally reached the long-sought “light at the end of the tunnel.” Unfortunately, that light turned out to be, as Warren Demian Manshel succinctly put it, a “funeral pyre.”6 The United States had lost its first war.

Despite the passing of overt dissension over the U.S. involvement in Indochina, it is likely that the denouement there will be the subject of an extensive (if not necessarily intense) debate, at least within the academic community.7 And in many respects, the central issue therein is not why that defeat occurred. It is rather what impact the Indochina debacle has had on the American role in, and conducting of, world affairs. On this point, however, nothing approaching a consensus has yet begun to appear. Some have suggested that American power remains intact, and that our Indochina experience can only adversely affect U.S. policy elsewhere if we convince ourselves that such an outcome is inevitable.8 Others have argued that although what happened in Indochina is likely to have profound implications for U.S. foreign policy, events there were really “only part of a larger process of change” that would have taken place regardless of how the Indochinese conflicts were ultimately resolved.9 And still others have echoed the assertion that, with the surrenders of Phnorn Penh and Saigon, “a full thirty years of American policies lie in ruins,”10 with all of the consequences for the United States and the world that such a ruination would entail.

Each of these general positions, as well as their several variants, basically reflects different assumptions about the importance of the Indochina conflict for a wide range of developments in the international system. In addition, however, each isa lso a critique of the validity of the domino theory itself. Other factors are certainly involved as well. But since so much of the debate on the U.S. role in Indochina was expressed in terms of the relative validity of the domino theory, it seems appropriate to assess the ramifications of the U.S. defeat in Indochina within the context of that concept. The precise implications of Indochina for the future role of the United States in world affairs may well not become clear for some time, or at least until this country faces its next major international crisis. Some “dominoes” which now seem to be tottering may demonstrate an underlying degree of strength, while others which now appear firm may collapse. But in the interim, we cannot simply await later developments. If we are to improve our understanding of the parameters within which the United States will be conducting its foreign policy in the coming years, it is imperative that we (a) assess the validity of the “domino theory,” and (b) explore its meaning for American foreign policy. Only by doing so can we begin to draw from the Indochina experience those “lessons” of the past11 that must be learned if U.S. foreign policy is to be conducted effectively in coming years.


The “Dominoes”: What They Were, How They Fared

There is little doubt that the most immediate, and most obvious consequences of the Indochina debacle have been felt in Southeast Asia itself. In general, there now seems to have been considerably more substance to the original interpretation of the much-denigrated domino theory than some critics of American foreign policy had been willing to grant. In the wake of the collapse of the pro-American regimes in Phnom Penh and Saigon, the Pathet Lao assumed control of Laos virtually without a struggle. Australia and Japan have raised serious questions about the credibility of U.S. defense guarantees, despite continued reassurances by the highest American officials. The Philippines and South Korea have expressed similar reservations, but in a sharper manner, with the Philippines in particular taking steps to “correct” its image as an American client state. Indonesia, one of the staunchest anti-Communist states since the abortive Communist coup in 1965, has moved toward an accommodation with Hanoi, as have Malaysia and Singapore. Thailand has undertaken both the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by 1976 and a political accommodation with Hanoi and other Communist states. Finally, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO)—once considered by many to provide a framework for both regional security and the projection of U.S. power—is being phased out in accordance with what have been called “the new realities of the region.”12

Even with these developments, however, it is clear that (except for Laos) military defeat in Cambodia and South Vietnam did not mean, and had never really meant, that the remainder of Southeast Asia would be militarily overrun by Communist forces. Moreover, there is little doubt that the defenders of U.S. policy in Indochina weakened their own case over the years by raising such an increasingly implausible spectre. The image of Southeast Asian states toppling like a “row of dominoes” in the aftermath of a U.S. defeat in Indochina was always too simplistic to be truly credible. It was, at best, a poor metaphor for what would at least initially be only a shift away from the United States by the remaining non-Communist states in the region, as they adjusted to the changing balance of power there. Yet even if the “falling dominoes” analogy was overdrawn in its literal interpretation, there was certainly an element of truth even in that restricted sense. It is undeniable that there has been a substantial deterioration in the U.S. position in South‑east Asia. And while the states there may not all be falling like that proverbial row of dominoes, it is clear that the United States is no longer the preferred player in the game in that region.

In addition, it seems that there were other dominoes at stake besides those in Southeast Asia proper, and that the fate of those perhaps less obvious but more fundamental dominoes was closely tied to the outcome of the fighting in Indochina. That is, the domino theory was always more complex than most of its detractors would accept. It was even more complex than many of its supporters recognized, although there is little doubt that its broader implications became increasingly clear to some of them as the end of the war approached in Indochina. Correctly or not, both the credibility of U.S. foreign policy and the legitimacy of U.S. leadership in world affairs had come to be linked in large part with the successful defense of American interests in Indochina. But one of the problems with linkage politics at any level is that failure in one geographical or functional area is even more likely than success to spill over into other areas, especially when that failure occurs in what is generally perceived to be a “test case” for American policy. In other words, while success in such a test case may increase the possibility of successes elsewhere, either the anticipation or the fact of failure in that instance will almost certainly have adverse effects in other areas as well.

The scope of the “domino effect” attending the American failure in Indochina, then, is considerably more substantial than a “mere” toppling of pro-Western governments in Indochina, or even an erosion of the pro-American stance of other Southeast Asian states. Broadly speaking, the other dominoes that are involved fall into four principal categories. First, there are two psychological dominoes: the political will of the American people, and the perceived credibility abroad of the steadfastness and the sense of direction in American foreign policy in general. Second, there are two military dominoes: the ability of the United State to wage limited war, and the barrier of self-restraint against the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. Third, there are three diplomatic dominoes: the viability of détente, the validity of the “Nixon Doctrine” (or, as many have called it, the Nixon-Kissinger Doctrine), and the stability of the American system of alliances. And finally,reflecting the combined impact of the first three sets of dominoes in addition to being a domino in its own right, there is a single geopolitical domino: the American leadership in world affairs: These dominoes will be discussed ad seriatim in the following pages. Each one, of course, could easily be the subject of a major study in and of itself, although such treatment is well beyond the scope of the present essay. Thus, what follows should be seen as but a preliminary assessment of an importance set of issues that will be dealt with at greater length at a later date.


The Psychological Dominoes

The psychological dominoes are at one and the same time the most important and the least amenable to precise analysis, for they reflect a subjective assessment of sometimes ill-defined and often unstable perceptions of probable U.S. responses to future events. Nevertheless, it seems likely that the stability of the domino labeled “American political will” has been badly eroded. It is not that the will of the American policy community has been irrevocably weakened by the U.S. failure in Indochina, although the consensus and sense of purpose that once obtained within it has yet to be reconstituted. On the contrary, there are some indications that many of those who comprise the American foreign-policy elite are determined to reassert this country’s credibility and influence in the world, if only to forestall a precipitous unraveling of the American-led structure of international security. A quite different situation obtains, however, among the public at large. Put bluntly, the will of the American people was tested in Indochina, and in the long run—found wanting, with all of the consequences that experience has for Americans’ understanding of the United States and its place in the world.13 The political will of the American people was always, as Leslie Gelb aptly put it in 1972, “the essential domino,”14 and it remains so in any future engagement. But in reality, that domino had fallen long before the end in Indochina in 1975, even though American inaction and near-indifference as its Indochinese clients collapsed served to illuminate its fall. In tact, the earlier toppling of the “political will” domino largely made possible the defeat of the United States and its allies. Had it not fallen, the United States would not have abandoned its allies. And had the Communist forces not been certain that, in the words of one North Vietnamese officer, “the Americans had lost the will, if not (the) capability, to intervene militarily,”15 it is doubtful that their spring offensive would have been pressed as vigorously as it was. The erosion of the power of the U.S. Presidency in the wake of Watergate certainly contributed to Communist confidence that the United States would not reintroduce its forces to stave off defeat. In the spring of 1972, for example, the North Vietnamese thought that the United States would not bring its air and sea power against them if they attacked; but when they began their offensive, they “found that Mr. Nixon had not been bluffing.”16 In 1975 there was a different President in office, constrained both by his own inexperience in foreign affairs and by a lack of support within the Congress for any further aid to Indochina. But the American incapacity to act decisively in support of its Indochinese allies in 1975 was rooted in a more fundamental problem: the virtual absence of any substantial support among the general public for any reintroduction of U.S. forces, regardless of the fate of our erstwhile allies. The American people had becomedisenchanted with the war, and wanted it finished; they had been beaten, and wanted no more of it. The raw power to intervene was still available to the United States in 1975, but not the political will to employ it.

The apparent erosion of American political will during the “end-game” in Indochina also has implications for the second psychological domino: the perceived credibility abroad of the steadfastness and sense of direction in American foreign policy in general. This, of course, goes well beyond an assessment of the apparent ability of the United States to sustain its formal commitments to other nations. It also includes judgments on the willingness of this country to act in a manner commensurate with the status of a leading world power, on behalf of the much broader set of interests that such a power has in the international community. But on what are those evaluations based? By and large, it is much more a matter of perceptions of American political will than it is of this country’s objective capability, although the latter consideration is certainly not ignored. Yet for a nation such as the United States, which either has or can mobilize great power, the crucial question for all other nations is not whether this country can act when and where its interests are involved. It is whether it will do so with a high degree of reliability.

Here, however, it seems clear that the perceived credibility of American foreign policy has suffered significantly. As late as the spring of 1975, as the Communist offensives gained momentum, a member of a senatorial fact-finding committee asserted in his report to the U.S. Senate that “If the United States does not fulfill its responsibility to South Vietnam, there may be a domino effect of our lack of credibility throughout the world.”17 Now that it is generally (and in most circles, accurately) perceived that the United States did not “fulfill its responsibility” in Indochina, even the most constant U.S. ally must entertain more reservations than before about the consistency and the reliability of U.S. foreign policy, while the perceived credibility in all nations of an American response to challenges has likewise declined. It is not so much a concern that the United States might fail to initiate actions in support of its friends or interests overseas. It is rather that there are serious and wide, spread doubts about the willingness of the United States to sustainthose policies over time, especially under conditions of protracted adversity.18 And in the light of the Indochina experience, it must be acknowledged that those doubts have some basis in fact.

Yet there is one additional element that influences the perceived credibility of American policy, especially outside of Western Europe. And that is linked to the idea, “Do the Americans care about the people they choose to help?” It must be scant comfort to many peoples that the United States proclaims its willingness to stand by Western Europe, Israel, or a wealthy and useful ally such as Japan (or Korea, on the route to Japan). After all, the United States may well support those countries, at least for a while, if for no other reason than an interest in minimizing the negative consequences of the Indochina affair. But many states must now realize that they have no such claim on American assistance, while even those whose protectionis still nominally guaranteed cannot help but wonder at what point that protection will be withdrawn. The remark on April 2, 1975, of Tran Kim Phuong, the last South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States, to the effect that “Probably it is safer to be an ally of the Communists and it looks like it is fatal to be an ally of the United States”19 must haunt many decision-makers whose nations depend, either directly or indirectly, on the United States for their security. Nor is this situation altered significantly by the Mayagüez affair of May 1975, despite the general acclaim which the U.S. actions received. For all that was really demonstrated in that instance was that the United States may act against de facto pirates in defense of U.S. citizens and property, but that at least some other peoples tend to be seen in Washington as Kiplingesque “lesser breeds without the Law” who are more or less expendable. Until that image can be altered, there is little likelihood that our credibility will be enhanced in the “world arena.”


The Military Dominoes

The first of the military dominoes is itself linked to the apparent decline in the credibility of U.S. foreign policy. That domino is the ability of the United States to wage and to win a limited war, if it chose to commit its power to the conflict. And here, there can be no doubt; it is now clear that the United States cannot successfully wage a protracted limited war. Nothing in the American political culture prepares Americans for, or makes them receptive to the demands of, alimited war. Despite the late President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s inaugural claims in 1961, Americans are simply not good (in anything short of a crusade, at least) at paying prices, bearing burdens, and meeting hardships when the price becomes high, the burden heavy, and the hardship great. Military intervention, it seems, is really only possible in those circumstances in which (a) there is a “clear and present danger” to American interests, (b) there is a strong public consensus as to the immediacy of that danger, and (c) it is diplomatically and militarily feasible for the United States to intervene forcefully and directly with overwhelming strength. Otherwise, success is unlikely.

The problem here, of course, is that the first two pre-conditions for the successful use of military force by the United States appear to be incompatible with the third in all but isolated cases such as the Mayagüez incident of May 1975. Few threats to American security that are so great and so immediate as to give rise to a strong public consensus that action is necessary are likely to be manageable in a limited-war context. But those potential conflict situations which might be resolved within that context are unlikely to command the degree of popular support required for the limited use of force in a protracted war. Thus, for an American government to adopt a “limited war” strategy in virtually any foreseeable situation is tantamount to accepting the near certainty of eventual defeat, barring the rapid and credible attainment of easily-identifiable successes that may bring the war to a close.

This development places the United States at significant disadvantage in a confrontation, particularly when that confrontation occurs in a potential limited-war conflict situation. For in the absence of a viable limited-war option during such a confrontation, the United States essentially has a choice between waging (or threatening) a general war with the risk of Armageddon, or withdrawing from the dispute and accepting a diplomatic defeat. Neither option is desirable, and the fact that this is, in virtually all possible instances, a Hobson’s choice weighted heavily in favor of the latter option underscores this point. We may proclaim once again, as we did after the Korean War, that we will not (because we know now that we cannot) wage another limited war. But it is precisely this type of war which is most likely to occur in the future,20 aside from the fact that our potential adversaries are unlikely to oblige us by allowing us to wage those wars that favor us. Our Achilles’ heel is now all too obvious, and future challenges are all too likely to take advantage of that weakness. And this our allies, our adversaries, and “neutral” nations also know.

A second military domino that has been weakened, but not yet toppled, is the barrier against the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.21 Other considerations will certainly influence a nation’s decision to cross the nuclear threshold, but it is also quite possible that the events in Indochina, plus the now-doubtful long-term credibility of American foreign policy, will prompt several threshold nuclear powers to proceed with the development and deployment of their own nuclear weapons systems, non-proliferation treaty or no. Caught between the unlikelihood that the United States would risk a nuclear holocaust to defend at least some of its interests or its allies, and the inability of the United States to wage limited war successfully, a number of states may see in the possession of a national nuclear deterrent force a more reliable guarantee of their own security. After all, the belief that a nation could not entirely rely on the American nuclear deterrent was a key factor behind France’s development of an independently controlled nuclear capability (or force de dissuasion, as it came to be called), and there is no sound reason to assume that other states will feel differently inthe future. It is not that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would necessarily pose a direct threat to the security of the United States. But it will have an adverse effect on the stability of the nuclear balance, and thereby increase the uncertainties with which the United States must deal in international affairs.


The Diplomatic Dominoes

The end in Indochina also shook three diplomatic dominoes which were key pillars of U.S. foreign policy: (1) détente with the Soviet Union (and, in a modified form, with China); (2) the so-called “Nixon Doctrine”; and (3) the stability of the American alliance system. None of these dominoes has yet fallen, of course, although the viability of each has become increasingly uncertain. This is perhaps most apparent in the case of détente. It seems that the utility to the United States of détente—already called into question because of developments in the Middle East and Portugal—received a serious blow with the collapse of the U.S. clients in Indochina. Détente all too clearly means an agreement by the United States to restrain itself and its allies, coupled with a willingness by the Soviet Union and China to take advantage of that restraint. Perhaps the Soviet and Chinese actions are part and parcel of Realpolitik; but if so, the American apostle of Realpolitikwho now heads the Department of State would do well to take note of the lesson.21a In its present form, détente is little but an illusion, all but devoid of substantive value for the United States. If the fact that this domino has been shaken prompts the United States into taking a more realistic policy toward its principal rivals, then at least some good may come of it all. But if the United States continues to hold to the policy of détente as it is currently practiced, despite increasing evidence that it is detrimental to the interests of this country, then the United States’ inability to act decisively where its own welfare is directly concerned will underscore both its failure in Indochina and the erosion of its position in the world.

Whereas the détente domino tottered as Indochina fell, the “Nixon Doctrine” domino began its own fall before the United States had even ended its own active military participation in the war. That doctrine, which essentially declared that hence-forth the United Stales would assume a lower profile in many conflict situations, rested (as one scholar has put it) on Nixon’s perception of the decline of American power, external and internal.22 That is, the Nixon Doctrine was both based on the partial erosion of American power, and a contributing factor in the further erosion of that power.

In some respects, the Nixon Doctrine symbolized the decline or fall of many of the other dominoes. Itwas simply an attempt to rationalize the loss of a sense of mission, a decline in our credibility, and an inability to wage limited wars. Had the outcome in Indochina been more favorable from the American perspective, it is possible that the Nixon Doctrine could have become the basis for a more realistic structure of peace in Asia. But with the collapse of the pro-U.S. Indochinese regimes, the viability of that doctrine could no longer be assured. Indochina had been, or least had become, atest case for the Nixon Doctrine as well;23 and in Indochina, that doctrine had failed its test.

The last of the diplomatic dominoes to be shaken, but not yet knocked over, was the American system of alliances. There is little doubt that both American security and the stability of the global balance of power have been, and would continue to be, enhanced by a strong alliance system centered on the United States, however much that might inconvenience the politburos in Moscow and Peking. Thus, there is much wisdom in arguments to the effect that maintaining such an alliance system would provide the soundest possible basis for future U.S. foreign policy.24 Yet as the unwillingness of the United States to sustain its commitments over time became apparent when Phnom Penh and Saigon capitulated while an American task force stood offshore, the value of our system of alliances to our allies and to international stability declined substantially.25 Secretary of State Kissinger might well assert that: “We will permit no question to arise about the firmness of our treaty commitments. Allies who seek our support will find us constant.26 It would be surprising, however, if our remaining allies, reflecting on similar assertions made for years on behalf of South Vietnam (and, later, Cambodia), would unskeptically accept that “guarantee” at face value. Once shaken, an alliance system is difficult to revitalize.

In a number of ways, the entire Indochina experience provide American allies with a chilling lesson—one that makes an offer of U.S. military assistance in time of need nearly as fearful as its being withheld. For the possibility that the United States may initially assist, then tire, and finally withdraw would mean only that the allied nation’s demise would be postponed, while the costs sustained by it would be multiplied. In such circumstances, the threatened state could well consider accommodation—even surrender—preferable to a fruitless defense. After all, neither the lack of steadfastness demonstrated by the American people in the case of Indochina nor the shift in what Gabriel Almond has called the prevailing “moods” in the American body politic27 toward a post-Vietnam amalgam of pessimism, cynicism, and a variant of neo-isolationism are likely toreassure our allies of the worth of our guarantees of support. America’s remaining allies in Asia (and elsewhere) may continue to stand by it, if only for lack of a more attractive alternative. Still, all of them are likely to take a more cautious view henceforth of the value to them of U.S. support. Their own interest will require it, for few countries will see any advantage in relying on a “protector” whose dependability is, in the final analysis, problematical at best.


The Geopolitical Domino

The net effect of the Indochina experience on the psychological, military, and diplomatic dominoes has been an erosion of the stability of the principal domino: the paramount position of the United States in the international arena. When the United States entered the Vietnam conflict, it was clearly the most powerful and influential nation in the world. By the time this country withdrew from Vietnam and, later, saw its entire Indochina policy collapse into ruins, that was no longer the case.28 The war that had been undertaken in large part to contain the expansion of Communist power, reaffirm that credibility of American security commitments, and maintain U.S. influence in Asia had ended with Communist power in the ascendancy, U.S. credibility badly shaken, and American influence on the wane. It was, in retrospect, unwise of the United States to have staked so much of its prestige as a world leader on the outcome of a conflict in an area of secondary importance to its security. But once that was done, failure inevitably meant a contraction in the boundaries of American influence, and a diminution of the U.S. role in world affairs.

In some ways, the American intervention in Indochina (and especially in South Vietnam), however costly it ultimately became, was fully in keeping with the country’s assumption of the same responsibilities accepted by every imperial power for the maintenance of order in the world.29 Put colloquially, the United States was acting in Indochina as aself-ordained “world policeman.” But it would be well to consider what the post-1945 years would have been like without such an America, and to reflect on whether or not the world would have been well served by an equally strong but more steadfast “cop” in the 1930s. The real criticism of the United States is not that it waged the “wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Few events that challenge the stability of the existing international order occur at a time and a place favorable to the defender of that order, and Indochina was no exception. It is rather that the United States waged that war ineptly, thereby failing to preserve either the stability of the international order or its own position in it. Viewed from this perspective, the forced American withdrawal to an offshore strategy in the Pacific Basin, the passing of U.S. strategic superiority, and the legitimization at Helsinki in 1975 of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe are simply manifestations of the decline of the U.S. position in world affairs.

One must, of course, take care not to overreact to the defeat in Indochina, thereby magnifying the damage that has been done already.30 Much of our physical power is still intact, and many of our allies—although more apprehensive now than in the past—pin much of their faith on a continuation of American support. It is also possible that if the bitterness and divisiveness that once attended our intervention in Indochina is replaced by a great public awareness of the increased precariousness of the American situation in the world, a strong and more assertive consensus may be reforged. And such a consensus, being indicative of a renewed American self-confidence, would do much to strengthen our credibility and to reassure our allies.

Some might well be comforted by this scenario, but a more realistic assessment of the combined impact of falling and shaken dominoes suggests that even a renaissance of American political will might not suffice to rectify the situation. Our power is in retreat, despite some prospects in the Middle East and elsewhere for some short-term gains, and we cannot simply wish away that fact. By losing in Indochina, the United States did not “merely” acquiesce in a new order of things, or even in a slight modification of the old order which allowed it to retain its paramount position. Instead, this country served notice that it was in the ebbtide of its power, although less from a lack of means than from a lack of will, both of which are essential for the exercise of world power. Those who declaim against that reality are, for a variety of reasons, largely unwilling to reconcile themselves to a future world order in which the United States can no longer dominate the course of international affairs. Indochina has been a watershed in world history; both the structure of, and the trends in, the international system have been changed significantly by the U.S. defeat there. Further, those changes—needless to say—have not worked to this country’s advantage.31 Assertions to the effect that the defeat in Indochina was really not as great as it might have been, and that we still possess the lion’s share of our former power, are partially true and largely trivial. Such assertions, after all, are the hallmark—indeed, the clarion call—of every state that has experienced an imperial recessional.


A Final Assessment: Whither America?

To ask, “Whither America?” is really to ask what lessons have been learned from the conduct and the consequences of the U.S. involvement in Indochina. And in addition to the specific lessons that flow from the discussion of the individual dominoes, there are three general conclusions to be drawn here. First, it seems that the domino theory was hardly what one writer labeled a “small, rhetorical image” except in its narrowest sense: that which envisioned the rapid capitulation of neighboring countries to Communist forces in the aftermath of Communist successes in Indochina. The real dominoes at stake were (and remain) psychological, military, diplomatic, and geopolitical, and the impact of the U.S. defeat on thosedominoes cannot lightly be explained away. In fact, the initial preoccupation with the “dominoes” that might he endangered in Southeast Asia drew American attention from these other dominoes, and especially from the most important domino of all: the geopolitical paramountcy of the United States.

Second, the relative position of the United States in the international community has declined from what it was before this country escalated its involvement in Indochina in the mid-1960s. It is now acting under greater constraints than before. Its principal rival, the Soviet Union, is increasingly strong; China’s power in Asia is growing; the Western alliance is weakened, buffeted by a wide range of military, economic, and political problems: and the United States itself cannot overlook the reality of its own recent defeat. This does not mean, of course, that disaster is imminent; the fall of an imperial power is likely to be as slow or slower than its rise. But it does suggest that the situation of the United States is becoming increasingly precarious, while there is little—if any—chance that American power will undergo a renaissance in the coming years.

Finally, it seems that the central problem for those who direct American foreign policy in the aftermath of Indochina is not how best to maximize our gains in the global dialectic of power. It is, instead, how best to minimize our losses, making advances where possible, but by and large trying to conserve our remaining power as much as possible. By undertaking to lead the international order after the end of the Second World War, the United States performed a largely beneficial function. There were excesses by the United States, particularly in Central America, although on balance this country was an agent of progress as well as stability. Perhaps, on reflection, it would have been wiser for the United States to have pursued a less ambitious goal. Nevertheless, once America had set out on the path of paramountcy, its choices were sharply constrained by the parameters of the world order it had helped to create, and whose maintenance had become a cardinal principal of U.S. foreign policy. In the future, American policy may recover a sense of direction and purpose, but a substantial part of this nation’s prestige and credibility is gone.



  1. For summaries of the origins of the “domino theory,” see Saul B. Cohen, Geography and Politics in a World Divided (2nd ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 59–63; John M. Collins, Grand Strategy: Principles and Practices (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1973), 240 –241; and Lawrence L. Whetten, Contemporary American Foreign Policy (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath and Company, 1974), 43–33.
  2. See, for example, Maxwell D. Taylor, Responsibility and Response (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 16: and Franz Michael, “The Stakes in Vietnam,” ORBIS, Vol. XII, No. 1 (Spring 1968), 121–131.
  3. James Chase, A World Elsewhere (New York: Charles Scritmer’s Sons, 1973), 73; and Robert L. Pfaltzgraff, Jr., “American-Asian Relations in Global Perspective,” South-East Asian SPECTRUM, Vol. 5, No. 2 (January 1975), 5.
  4. For a summary of the events attending the final defeat of the anti-Communist governments of South Vietnam and Cambodia, see the author’s unsigned “Reflection” in ORBIS, Vol. XIX, No. 1 (Spring 1975), 20-24.
  5. The likelihood that this outcome would obtain was explored in an analysis prepared before the deterioration of the situation in Cambodia and South Vietnam in early 1975. See Alan Ned Sabrosky, “The Indo-China Question: An Analysis of Policy Options,” South-East Asian SPECTRUM, Vol. 3, No. 3 (April 1975), 1–11.
  6. Warren Demian Manshel, “Judas and the Scapegoat,” Foreign Policy, No. 19 (Summer 1975), 147.
  7. For selected opening statements in this debate, see Alastair Buchan, “The Indochina War and World Politics.” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 53, No. 4 (July 1975), 638–650; Manshel, op. cit., 146–154; Robert W. Tucker, “Vietnam: The Final Reckoning,” Commentary (May 1975), 27–34; Earl C. Ravenal, “Consequences of the End-Game in Vietnam,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 53. No. 4 (July 1975), 651–667; Frank N. Trager, “After Vietnam: Dominoes and Collective Security,” Asian Affairs: An American Review, Vol. 2, No. 5 (May/June 1975), 267–275; and Walter F. Hahn, “American Introversion Post-Vietnam,” Strategic Review, Vol. III. No. 4 (Fall 1975), 18–26.
  8. See, for example, Stanley Hoffmann, “The Sulking Giant,” the New Republic, May 3, 1975; Henry Brandon, “The Sources of U.S. Power Are Intact,” New York Times, April 13, 1975; and Richard Holbrooke, “Escaping the Domino Trap,” The New York Sunday Times Magazine, September 7, 1975.
  9. Buchan, op. cit., 638.
  10. Editorial, Far Eastern Economic Review, April 4, 1975.
  11. Ernest R. May, “Lessons” of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
  12. New York Times, March 25, 1975. Indonesia and the Philippines have been among the more outspoken critics of U.S. policy in the last days of the Indochina conflict. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Adam Malik, anticipating the defeat of the pro-American regimes in South Vietnam and Cambodia in the absence of further U.S. aid, remarked in late March 1975 that “the Saigon Government expected too much of the Americans . . . but others would not make the same mistake [in the future]” (New York Times, March 27, 1975). After that defeat had occurred, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines observed that “it doesn’t pay to appear to do the bidding of the United States” (New York Times, September 7, 1975). Both nations have since been pursuing more independent policies with less reliance on the United States than had been the case in the past. For a summary of the shifts in Asian states since the Indochina debacle, see Trager, op. cit., 274–275: Hahn, op cit., 19–21; Time, May 12, 1975, 30–33; and Far Eastern Economic Review, May 2, 1975, 28–33.
  13. Cf. Buchan, op. cit., 649–650; and a symposium entitled “A Failure of Nerve?” in Commentary, July 1975, 16–87.
  14. Leslie H. Gelb, “The Essential Domino; American Politics and Vietnam,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 50, No. 3 (April 1972), 459–475.
  15. Quoted in Nayan Chanda, “Suddenly last spring,” Far Eastern Economic Review, September 12, 1975, 35. Seealso the concurring view expressed earlier by North Vietnamese Generals Vo Nguyen Giap and Van Tien Dung, as reported in the New York Times, July 11, 1975.
  16. Henry Brandon, The Retreat of American Power (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1973). 333–339.
  17. U.S., Congress, Senate, Report of Senator Dewey F. Bartlett, March 14,1973. 94th Cong., 1st Sess., 1975.
  18. A theoretical distinction has been made between (a) the probability of an action being initiated, and (b) the probability of that action being sustained, as elements in assessing the credibility of a given response. See J, David Singer, “Inter-Nation Influence: A Formal Model,” American Political Science Review, Vol. LVII (1963), 420–430.
  19. New York Times, April 3, 1975.
  20. Andre Beaufre, Strategy for Tomorrow (New York: Crane, Russak and Company, 1974), 2–4.
  21. I am indebted to Robert A. Schadler for raising this issue in private correspondence.
    21a. See James Dornan, “The Works of Henry A. Kissinger,” The Political fence Reviewer, Vol. V (Fall, 1975) for a thorough examination of this point.
  22. James Dornan, “the Nixon Doctrine and the Primacy of Deténte,” The Intercollegiate Review, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Spring 1974), 69.
  23. Sabrosky, “The Indo-China Question,” op. cit., 9–10.
  24. See, for example, Eugene V. Rostow, Peace in the Balance: The Future ofAmerican Foreign Policy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), 334–335.
  25. For an excellent discussion of this point, seeRavenal, op. cit., 657–660.
  26. Address to the Japan Society, June 18, 1975, asquoted in the New York Times, June 19, 1975.
  27. Gabriel A. Almond, The American People and Foreign Policy (2nd ed.; New York: Praeger, 1960), 53–65.
  28. See Raymond Aron, The Imperial Republic: The United States and the World, 1913–1973, trans, by Frank Jellinck (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973), 93–108, 148–157; Chase, op. cit., 9; and Whetten, op. cit., 43, 59.
  29. See George Liska, Imperial America: The International Politics of Primacy (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967), Ch. I–II.
  30. Cf. Manshel, op. cit., 154.
  31. Cf.Ravenal, op. cit., 660; and Aron, op. cit., 326.
  32. The term appears in Holbrooke, op. cit., 17.

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