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The Domino Theory

The Cold War “containment” notion was born of the Domino Theory, which held that if one country fell under communist influence or control, its neighboring countries would soon follow. Containment was the cornerstone of the Truman Doctrine as defined by a Truman speech on March 12, 1947. The Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO and the United Nations then became the foundation of American foreign policy through the Reagan administration and beyond, for about 50 years.


Potsdam. The Potsdam Conference, a meeting of the victorious Allied leaders in post-World War II Europe, confronted the delicate balance of power of two opposing ideologies: democracy and communism. The conference was held near Berlin in July 1945 and reunited Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, and American President Harry S. Truman.

Potsdam also confirmed British and American suspicions about Stalin's intentions. The Soviet Union had been an expedient ally in the war to stop Nazi Germany, but there was little time to bask in victory. Stalin had already reneged on his promise, given at the February 1945 Yalta Conference, to allow free democratic elections in Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. More importantly, the British and Americans feared that the massive Red Army, which occupied all of Eastern Europe, was poised to extend its influence over Western Europe.

Soviet duplicity. American policy toward the Soviet Union did not change immediately. The Truman administration, operating on the basis of JCS 1067* and the Potsdam agreements, was determined to get along with the Soviets. Those agreements made clear that their principal mission was the unification of Germany, and therefore, cooperation with the Soviets seemed essential. Germany would be administered as a single economic unit by the Allied Control Council under General Lucius D. Clay, but Stalin sealed all land access to East Germany, and West Berlin (in East Germany) became isolated. Clay said to his staff, "We have to make it work. If the four nations cannot work together in Berlin, how can we get together in the United Nations to secure the peace of the world?" Obviously, there had to be some give and take; within the Allied Control Council, that was going to be the American policy.

The Soviet view of postwar Europe. Growing tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union can be explained in part by different visions of postwar Europe. Stalin aimed above all to guarantee the Soviet Union's security. The Soviet Union had been attacked from the West once by France in the 19th century (the Napoleonic Wars) and twice by Germany in the 20th century (World War I and World War II). Stalin was thus determined to array “friendly” governments alongside the Soviet Union’s western border by maintaining extensive influence over Central and Eastern Europe. Stalin also insisted that the U.S.S.R. was fully entitled to its "sphere of influence," on account of the staggering casualties it had suffered while waiting for its allies to open a second front during the war. To many Americans, however, that sphere of influence looked more like an ill-gained empire. Doubting that Soviet goals were purely defensive, they remembered the earlier expansionism of the Bolsheviks and their call for world revolution. That antagonism underscored the centrality of ideology in the struggle that would oppose those two powers for the next 50 years.

Churchill: communism's nemesis

Winston Churchill had recognized the threat of communism's spread long before World War II. As Britain’s war secretary 26 years earlier, he had sought in vain to "strangle [it] in its cradle" in Russia. But less than a year after the celebrated defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, Churchill was brooding over a renewed threat to freedom: Soviet communism.

Churchill had reluctantly entered the World War II British-American-Russian alliance to decisively defeat Germany and watched the Americans stop at the west bank of the Elbe River (dividing eastern and western Germany). Even though he had been voted out of office as prime minister, Churchill still had a powerful voice in international politics. On March 5, 1946, Churchill appeared as President Truman’s guest at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. The address Churchill delivered became known as the Iron Curtain Speech, as momentous as any he had ever given as prime minister.

Churchill's address. With striking clarity, the statesman defined the problems and challenges of a new and potentially dangerous era, and pointed the way to solutions that proved in time to be remarkably successful. The key problem he addressed was one of which no one on either side of the Atlantic had wished to speak publicly — namely that the alliance with Russia was dead, and in its place lay conflict between it and the non-communist world.

Tellingly, Churchill’s speech was not titled "The Iron Curtain," but "The Sinews of Peace." For peace was his aim. The question was how to achieve it without sacrificing freedom or capitulating to tyranny. Churchill held that peace was to be achieved through strength. He said, "I do not believe that Russia desires war (but) the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and their doctrines. . . . There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect for than weakness, especially military weakness." He stressed that a new world war was preventable if the West banded together to deter aggression.

Perhaps most importantly, Churchill reminded his listeners: "...I saw [war] coming and cried aloud in the wilderness, but no one paid any attention." The meaning was unmistakable: Though he had warned the West about Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, the West had ignored him. The tragic result was World War II. Now, in 1946, he was warning the West again. If they wished to avoid another cataclysm, they would do well to pay heed this time.

The Truman Doctrine and the Domino Theory

Truman began his "get tough" policy in 1946 with strong protests against Russian troops in Iran, and denial of Soviet claims to share control of the Turkish Straits. The president also took at face value the Russian Report, produced for him by Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson. The report was a series of worst-case scenarios that outlined the Soviet desire for global conquest by subversion and force, as previously outlined by Churchill. The Greek Civil War was fought from 1944 to 1949 between a government backed by British and American support, and Greek communists. American intervention resulted in the Truman Doctrine, the policy of aiding nations defending themselves against communist forces. Acheson then articulated what became known as the Domino Theory and persuaded Congress to accept responsibility for supporting countries under communist pressure, i.e. containment. The wars in Korea; Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which was backed by the Chinese communists; Afghanistan; and the “police actions” and skirmishes around the globe in such places as Somalia and in Central and South America over the Cold War years, were all very much a part of the communist containment policies as defined in the Truman Doctrine. The value of Cold War policies Truman, Acheson and George Marshall helped put into place — the global ideological and strategic challenge to the Soviet Union — now seems eminently defensible by virtue of that empire's defeat. Yet, the true meaning of containment's legacy and what it implies for American foreign policy today and tomorrow remains a matter of intense debate.

Post-Cold War geopolitics

Fortunately, the West did heed what was said that day in Fulton, Missouri, by the old lion. Through the Marshall Plan and NATO, America as a leader of the non-communist world halted communism’s westward spread from Eastern Europe and vigorously opposed it elsewhere. During President Reagan’s second term, Soviet communism began to falter, and during President George H.W. Bush's tenure, it collapsed. Thus was Churchill vindicated.

The old barriers between eastern and western Europe have relaxed since the end of the Cold War. The European Union established a common currency in the year 2000, called the "Euro." The value of the Euro floats on the open market and is roughly equal to the American dollar. The degree of tension or "Détente" between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries has been greatly reduced, much of the attention now refocused upon democratization and free trade.

The World Trade Organization (WTO). The politics and economics of the World Trade Organization, for good or ill, are dominant now. American foreign policy no longer officially addresses containment of communism. Instead of containment, such treaties as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and WTO treaties have created a competitive global free marketplace, as defined by WTO-governed international rules. WTO has created a marketplace legal framework among democratic and communist countries around the globe. But all is not roses in the post-cold war garden. The native populations of some NAFTA and WTO treaty countries, once able to maintain a productive agrarian way of life, now find themselves hard put to feed themselves, much less to thrive.

China: The last communist bastion — Is the Cold War over? Communist China has opted for the free market in a big way, and has quickly become a force to be reckoned with. Western societies have never had to take China seriously in economic terms. China was too weak to defend itself in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, then it enshrouded itself behind its communist “Bamboo Curtain” since the end of its civil war in 1949. The Cold War was predominantly about containing Soviet Russian communism (Korea and Vietnam not withstanding). Communist China was finally accepted into the WTO in 2003. Specific conditions imposed upon China by the WTO treaty include opening China's domestic markets to foreign investments, establishment of a legal framework of business law, and creation of anti-piracy statutes that support intellectual property rights and patents.

Before the West realized it needed to refocus on communist containment in Asia, the Chinese leaped beyond containment. Serious problems have emerged already, because China is still a dictatorial communist state. By early 2005, the European Union and America felt compelled to initiate WTO sanctions (amidst howls of a double standard from the Chinese) against the Chinese textile industry, which is controlled by the Chinese government, for allegedly flooding the market with low-priced textiles and clothing. Dumping cheap, subsidized goods into a country's markets causes a trade imbalance and the closure of indigenous factories, thus creating increased unemployment and cause for reestablishment of high import tariffs.

The primary problem that exacerbates the Chinese threat is the value of Chinese currency, the yuan. The yuan is held artificially low by the Chinese government. The longtime exchange rate of about eight yuan to one American dollar has created a trade deficit that continues to shatter world records.

Recent developments caused consternation in the U.S. government. Flush with new, immense wealth from the worldwide trade deficit, China has aggressively pursued acquisition of American companies. In 2005, IBM's personal-computer manufacturing division was purchased by a Chinese company, and a bid on the Whirlpool company was tendered.

China has been building up its military machine in recent years and is increasingly an obvious threat to the former Chinese province of Taiwan. America has a longstanding mutual protection treaty with Taiwan that Richard Nixon diluted during his Ping-Pong Diplomacy in 1972. Recently, a Chinese general averred that China has nuclear missiles pointed at America and would use them if America attempts to intervene over a Taiwan crisis.

China also has purchased a small fleet of naval vessels from Russia, built during the Soviet era. Those ships were designed to sink American warships. Every army runs on the stomachs of its soldiers; every military machine runs on oil. A Chinese oil company is attempting to outbid an American oil company, Chevron, for the California-based Unocal Oil Company.

*Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067 was the essential policy instrument of the U.S. presence in Germany. The directive ordered the breakup of the Nazi party; oversight of the press, education and communications; the disarmament of Germany; the decentralization of the German government; and reparations.