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Geopolitical Determinism: Dominos

Traditional geopolitical theories have long concentrated on Europe as the center of their strategic universe, with the major exception of the sea power designs of the American naval officer, Alfred T. Mahan. But the classic geopoliticians have been Europeans. Halford Mackinder first introduced the subject in England in 1904 with his essay on the “Geographical Pivot of History,” involving control of his so-called “Heartland,” basically Eastern Europe and Eurasia, as the “pivot” for control of surrounding areas, termed the “World Island.” Opposed to this conception came Yale professor (but from the Netherlands) Nicholas J. Spykman’s later interpretation in 1943 in The Geography of the Peace. This theory stressed the importance of the “Rimlands” of western and southern Europe as the key to world power and is generally seen as the geopolitical foundation for the subsequent American foreign policy of “containment” against the Soviet Union.

But in a larger perspective, these competing interpretations of geopolitics mirror the actual shape and contour of most major wars and alliance systems that have dominated history over centuries. They also reflect the great geopolitical divide between armies versus navies, land power versus sea power, that have correspondingly divided the strategic world into two halves. World War I, pitting the armed strength of Germany and the Central powers versus Britain, the United States and France, was one example, but essentially the same geopolitical system dominated the strategic scenario of World War II, as well. The Soviet Union defeated Germany coming from the “Heartland,” while the U.S. and Britain came from the ocean, through Normandy and France, i.e. the “Rimlands.”

It is equally accurate to portray containment and the Cold War through a similar geopolitical lens, with NATO representing a continuation of Rimland power, i.e. maritime-air, and the Soviet Union, heartland power, Eurasia.

The dominant geopolitical interpretations of the twentieth century’s focus on Europe reflect the political and strategic realities of that period of history. But the second half of that century witnessed a sharp turn in strategic focus, when Asia emerged to replace an exhausted and war-torn Europe. Compared to Europe, however, Asia was terra incognita, a geostrategic void.

While U.S. power created NATO and saved Western Europe from communist domination, there were neither the resources, historical perspective, nor geopolitical focus about how to save Asia, especially China, from a similar fate. The result was a series of disastrous and tragic situations in Asia beginning right after the Second World War and running throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

During the war, it became President Roosevelt’s “geopolitical assumption,” as it was called then, that China under the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek would stay unified and take its place as one of the great powers in the new world order. But as the civil war against the communists under Mao Tse-tung glaringly demonstrated the failures of nationalist rule, this assumption gradually crumbled and gave way to U.S. efforts to find a way to keep China unified and non-communist. Former Secretary of War George Marshall conducted negotiations between the sides from 1945 to 1947 but went home discouraged and braced for the eventual communist victory.  

When that victory came in October 1949, the U.S. was completely unprepared as to how to combat the loss of the world’s largest population to world communism and automatically assumed that Mao would align with Stalin against the West. This assumption proved wrong, but equally incorrect was the assumption that the U.S. had “lost” China by withholding massive support for the nationalists.

By 1950, after great success in Europe, American policies in Asia were in shambles, and Republicans were making political advances against the Truman Administration for the “loss” of China. In his infamous anti-communist crusade, Senator Joseph McCarthy blamed the U.S. for the fall of China in a “…a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black so as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

The sudden outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, only months after the fall of China, seemed to confirm Americans’ fear of Asian communism and reinforced the conspiracy theories of the new Cold War, without any geopolitical ideas to guide policy. The election of war hero Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 helped end the Korean War in July 1953 but introduced a brand new interpretation of geopolitics as the communist threat shifted from China and Korea to Southeast Asia and, eventually, the tragedy of the Vietnam War.

America had been blindsided twice into Asian wars (Pearl Harbor and Korea) and had suffered the allegation that China was “lost” because of treason and lack of resolve. The Republicans swept into victory in 1952, determined not to repeat such fiascos. With the French evacuation of Indochina in 1954, it appeared that Southeast Asia was about to be added to this dismal list.

By 1954, the U.S. had firmly committed to South Vietnam as the new “last stand,” and this commitment arrived with a revolutionary geopolitical interpretation, introduced by Eisenhower as the “domino” theory. Should South Vietnam fall, the president announced in April 1954, a “domino effect” will occur: “…you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly.” The net result is the certain loss of the entire subcontinent, Indonesia, India and beyond – i.e. the loss of the Cold War itself.

Geopolitics had taken on a new and deterministic bent with, as Eisenhower stated, possibilities “incalculable to the free world.”