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By early 1954, it had become increasingly apparent to U.S. policymakers that French efforts to re-establish their colonial control of Indochina, including Vietnam — which they had lost during World War II when the Japanese seized the area — were about to fail.
France appealed to the United States to intervene with massive military aid. Eisenhower declined to do so. Vietnamese nationalists, led by Ho Chi Minh, went on to defeat the French forces in the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu in early May.
It was in this political climate that Eisenhower responded to a question from Robert Richards, the Washington bureau chief of the Copley Press. “Mr. President,” Richards said, “would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world? I think there has been, across the country, some lack of understanding on just what it means to us.”
In response, Eisenhower cited the “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 …
“Then with respect to more people passing under this domination, Asia, after all, has already lost some 450 million of its peoples to the Communist dictatorship [in China], and we simply can't afford greater losses.
“But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the [Malaysian] 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.”
Eisenhower’s “domino” pronouncement had little short-term impact. An agreement was soon reached that divided the country, leaving Ho’s forces in control of northern Vietnam. Eventually, however, the domino theory laid the foundation for escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson used the theory to justify their calls for increased U.S. economic and military assistance to noncommunist South Vietnam and, finally, the commitment of U.S. armed forces in 1965.