The domino theory, revisited

The domino theory is with us again. It goes like this:

Cuba is exporting ''violent revolution.'' It has already converted Nicaragua to Marxism. Nicaragua is supplying arms to El Salvador. If El Salvador goes, Guatemalamay be next. After that the infection could spread to Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama.

All of which could come true -- just as the dire fears of the '60s might have come true.

The dire fears of the '60s did not come true.

That is no proof that the current fears embodied in today's version of the domino theory will also prove untrue. History seldom repeats itself precisely, although it does have its lessons.

But the reuse of the old domino theory sent me to the library to refresh my memory of what really did happen to the domino theory back in the '60s.

In 1965 Lyndon Johnson was pouring American troops into Vietnam (there were to be half a million before he decided enough was enough). Lin Piao was one of the top people in China and a widely known and much quoted figure. He was at one timelisted as the appointed heir to Chairman Mao Tse-tung. He liked to make big, bold speeches full of threats to the ''imperialists'' of this world. He made such a speech in September of 1965. It was published in full in all Chinese newspapers of Sept. 3 and reprinted widely in the outside world. Our library has nearly a full page just of ''excerpts'' from our issue of Sept. 4.

Here are a few passages from that speech:

''Wherever there is armed aggression and suppression by imperialism and its lackeys, there are bound to be peoples' wars. . . . The revolutionary people of the world will sweep away everything that stands in the way of their advance. . . .

''. . . there is no doubt that the revolutionary peoples of the world will stage still more splendid dramas in the theater of people's war in their countries and that they will wipe off the face of the earth once and for all the common enemy of all the people, US imperialism and its lackeys.''

Incidentally, the speech treats the Soviet Union as being one of the ''lackeys'' of US imperialism.

Scores, perhaps hundreds, of anxious columns were written by pundits and scores of speeches made by politicians about that speech. It was interpreted as a ''blueprint' for world conquest. China was treated as the number one enemy of the West. Secretary of State Dean Rusk told a press conference audience that the United States was in Vietnam because ''by the year 2000 there will be a billion Chinese, and all of them hostile to the US.''

Experts interpreted the speech to mean that China expected and intended to expand southward through Southeast Asia, jump from there to Africa, and from Africa to South America. Many a scenario was sketched out in which triumphant ''peoples' revolutions'' would break out all over the world and isolate the industrial centers of the Western capitalist countries just as China's cities had been isolated in China's own revolution.

Believe it or not, a lot of important people took it seriously and trembled as they read and read again Lin Piao's words from that speech. He seemed for a time to'be as dangerous an ogre as ever did Adoph Hitler. All of which was why in the popular wisdom of those times the US had to send its soldiers to Vietnam.

So what did happen?

Well, Lin Piao himself disappeared. The official Chinese story is that he tried to defect from China, but that his plane crashed near the Soviet frontier on Sept. 12, 1971.

Meanwhile, the ''Tet offensive'' had shaken American confidence in Lyndon Johnson's leadership. He chose not to run for reelection in 1968. He was succeeded by Richard Nixon in 1969. Mr. Nixon wound down the US involvement in Vietnam. The last US soldiers left Vietnam on March 29, 1973. Two years later, on April 29, 1975, the North Vietnamese entered Saigon and completed their conquest of South Vietnam.

But then the victorious Vietnamese started bickering with China. They took sides with Moscow against the Chinese. Soviet influence rose. The Chinese reopened relations with the US, and backed Cambodian rebels against both Vietnam and the Soviets. The Chinese raised the level of their troops along the Soviet frontier. Moscow built up an army of 46 divisions across the frontier.

Southeast Asia is now a scene of struggle between Soviet and Chinese influence. Chinese expansionism has become defensive. Lin Piao has been forgotten. No one in Washington trembles at the thought of Chinese-inspired revolution surrounding and isolating the capitalist nations from the rest of the world. Domino theories don't always work.

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