The World Is Our Domino!

President Bush’s decision to talk about Iraq in the context of Vietnam has engendered some (predictably) contentious commentary on that conflict. Here’s Ross Douthat at The Atlantic responding to his colleague Matt Yglesias:

the Communist victory in Vietnam did lead to the rest of Indochina going Communist, as the domino theorists predicted, and it played a role in the Soviet advances across the Third World during the rest of the 1970s - from Ethiopia and Mozambique to Afghanistan and Nicaragua, with various other proxy wars thrown in for good measure.

This is factually inaccurate. First of all, what the domino theorists were arguing was not that “Laos and Cambodia would go Communist and therefore we couldn’t abandon our/the French position in Indochina.” Rather, it was that basically all of Asia, from India to Japan, was going to go Communist, which would indeed have been an incredibly bad development. George Kennan was warning in 1948 that we should be worried about Indonesia, since, if it fell, “it would only be a matter of time before the infection would sweep westward through the continent to Burma, India, and Pakistan.” John Foster Dulles in 1953 testified before the Senate foreign relations committee, telling them ominously that Japan was a likely domino. Kennan later came to his senses. Dulles never did.

Douthat continues:

our enemies in al-Qaeda, Iran and elsewhere probably won’t make the kind of gains that, say, Rick Santorum and other feverish voices anticipate if we pull out of Iraq, and they simply aren’t strong enough to pose an existential threat to the U.S. over the long run. But they will win a real victory, just as Soviet Communism won a real victory in the early 1970s, and that victory will have real repercussions around the globe. I think we were right to pull out of Vietnam when we did, and wrong to be there in the first place, but it’s too simplistic to say that the domino theory looks “completely wrong” or “crazy” in hindsight; there are an awful lot of dead people in Indochina, Latin America and Africa who would quibble with that assessment.

What does Douthat mean by “a real victory”? A propaganda victory? Iran and al Qaeda will hail it as a sign of our weakness? You bet. But no one’s arguing that. The fact that people in Indochina, Latin America and Africa died after we left Vietnam says little about the domino theory, just as the fact that millions died during our war in Vietnam says little about the strategic judgment of the war. The question is about who predicted the results, and whose theory was vindicated. I think we have a clear enough result here that “completely wrong” or “crazy,” while shrill, could apply. If we don’t, then I don’t know how clear it would have to be.