In 1994 and 1999, Frank Ninkovich published two seminal works of American foreign policy history, Modernity and Power and The Wilsonian Century. In these volumes, Ninkovich brilliantly reinterpreted the domino theory as a metaphor for twentieth-century American foreign policy going back to Woodrow Wilson. According to Ninkovich, Wilson interpreted World War I as proof positive that any war, anywhere, could escalate into a world war involving the United States; America therefore had to prevent wars all over the world in order to ensure its own safety. Transmuted into the domino theory, this idea became the defining and tragic thrust of American cold war policy in the second half of the twentieth century, despite the fact that the dominoes never seemed to fall even where (as in Vietnam) the United States failed to stop them.
It's worth asking what impact the current wave of Middle Eastern revolutions has for Ninkovich's theory. After all, the revolutions are in fact a wave, aren't they? Doesn't that mean that the dominoes are falling this time, and that the domino theory is more useful than Ninkovich would like to admit? To answer that question, I want first to distinguish between two types of domino theory in a way that Ninkovich doesn't. The result, I think, bolsters Ninkovich's view while simultaneously salvaging a very different version of the domino theory that can help explain current events in the Middle East.
(Cross-posted from The Crolian Progressive.)
The idea that there are two different, yet related, domino theories, occurred to me when I was rereading Dwight Eisenhower's 1954 statement that gave the idea its name. Here's what Ike had to say in response to a question about "the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world":
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 the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences. ...
But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people.
Finally, the geographical position achieved thereby does many things. It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand.
It takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go -- that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live.
So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.
There are two domino theories at work in this statement, and the difference between them is in how many dominoes each contains. Domino Theory #1 states that, when a nation falls to a revolution, other nations in the region (or linked in some other way, such as France and Haiti in the 1790s) may fall too. This is what Eisenhower is getting at in the second paragraph quoted above. It is an obvious truism and has many precedents in history -- for instance, the Bolivarian revolutions in the 1830s, the 1848 "springtime of peoples" in Europe, the anticolonial revolutions in Africa and elsewhere from 1945-1965, and the current wave of revolutions in the Middle East.
On the other hand, when Eisenhower starts talking about Australia, New Zealand, and Japan falling too, he is asserting a fundamentally different version of the domino theory -- call it Domino Theory #2. This theory postulates a very specific consequence of the first domino falling: no matter where the first domino is located, the last domino in the chain will be the United States, triggering a world war. This, I believe, is the view Ninkovich is addressing with his "domino-theory-as-metaphor" idea. He rightly attributes this view to both Wilson and the Cold War presidents (with the possible exception of Carter).
Distinguishing between the two domino theories in this way points up the intellectual bankruptcy of the second one. For instance, the Wikipedia article on the domino theory errs in adducing the fall of Cambodia and Laos to Communism after American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 as evidence in favor of the domino theory. In fact, the fate of Indochina after the Vietnam War is evidence against Domino Theory #2: the regional dominoes fell without touching the United States or triggering a world war. Similarly, the 1830s Bolivarian revolutions and anticolonial nationalism in the 1950s failed to bring the great powers even close to the brink of war.
Why, then, do some revolutionary waves, such as 1848, result in world wars, while others do not? Actually, the difference seems to be in the desire of the great powers to fight such wars. In 1815 and 1848, the major European powers, acting on Westphalian balance-of-power considerations, decided it was more important to stem the tide of rebellion (or in 1815, of Napoleon) than to preserve peace. Similarly, in 1939-1941, the Allies decided (relying on the precedent of World War I) that the Nazis must be stopped before they destroyed Europe. In fact, with the single, tragic exception of World War I, there has never been a world war that at least one side, and usually both, didn't want to fight. Even World War I isn't really an exception if you consider that militarists in all the belligerent countries (except perhaps the United States) did want to fight a war, just not the grinding trench war WWI turned out to be.
We see, then, that world wars only come about when world powers want to fight them, not because of some uncontrollable domino effect that requires us to fight everyone, everywhere, to forestall it. Put another way, the United States is only the last domino if it wants to be. So we've preserved, indeed reified, Ninkovich's interpretation of the domino theory (#2) as tragic and misguided, while at the same time helping to explain why it's wrong. Yes, as we're seeing in the Middle East right now, dominoes do fall sometimes. Wilsonian and cold war policy to the contrary, though, if we're careful and considerate of other nations, there's no reason to fear that the dominoes will fall on us.