The fortieth anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War passed last month. In looking back one fact is curious: the key policy argument for prosecuting the war began as a metaphor.

In 1954 Eisenhower gave a speech and to explain a complex situation on the other side of the world, he used a very good image of dominoes as countries falling under the grip of international communism. The image of falling dominoes is concise. It’s not clear whether Eisenhower invented it or a speech-maker gave it to him.

Despite its appeal it’s quite obvious that it’s a weak argument. It is a fallacy, the slippery slope fallacy to be precise, and yet this metaphor seems to have solidified from the authority of its originator into a policy and later into a fully formed strategic rationale to pursue military objectives.

The links in the formation of policy from the original speech may be much more complex than this sketch – but so far I haven’t discovered them. Even so, it’s quite possible that the connections are that facile. Politicians are not adept logicians and political debates rarely, if ever, succeed on the basis of demonstrating logical gaps and flaws. Many other leaders accepted the domino theory, but we may surmise it was not because they believed it was valid in the logical sense.

The causes of the First World War are normally characterized as tenuous considering the consequences. In the months leading to that conflict it started as a scramble for glory, adventure, and a means to settle long running disputes. Of foresight, there was none.

The greater irony in all this is, that at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy was reading Barbara Tuchman’s superb, The Guns of August, which covers the first months of the First World War, and he was troubled by the consequences of decisions committed in August 1914. He feared similar outcomes in 1962 should he and Khrushchev make the wrong choices.

As it was the world escaped from the missile crisis and Kennedy went on, by all accounts, to widen US engagement in Vietnam, decisions based on a policy that was founded on a metaphor.



©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.


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