Undergraduate Fellows Annual Theme

2020-21: The Domino Theory and Eisenhower's Foreign Policy


The Undergraduate Fellows program for 2020-21 examines the U.S. role in the attempted or successful overthrow of foreign governments that the U.S. considered too closely aligned with the Soviet Union. One excerpt from President Eisenhower’s diaries is illustrative of his thinking:

Gen. de Lattre is to be here in a few minutes (at 8:45 am) to see me reference his request for reinforcement for Indo-China: The French have a knotty problem on that one – the campaign out there is a draining sore in their side. Yet if they quit & Indo China falls to the Commies, it is easily possible that the entire S.E. Asia & Indonesia will go, soon to be followed by India."

There is no doubt that the spread of communism, primarily the totalitarian version exported by the Soviets but eventually also that emanating from China, worried President Eisenhower. He saw it as an existential threat if left unchecked, one that would infect neighboring countries and eventually turn entire regions (Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America) into satellite blocs of the Soviet Union.

To counter that threat, Eisenhower’s foreign policy apparatus, both officially via the State Department and unofficially via the CIA, tried to shore up pro-Western governments and, when that failed, actively assisted local forces in deposing governments without sufficient sense to resist communism and its cousin, socialism.

The year will be one of deep exploration of the historical record on the U.S. role in three particular cases: Indonesia, Iran, and Guatemala. The countries are chosen to give broad geographic coverage, but also to allow us to explore how the U.S. and the world are still reaping what was sown many years ago. Our meetings in the U.S. will be with many players in the DC political world: the foreign service, elected officials and their staffs, think tanks, and academics.

The goal of the year is to understand what motivated the President and those around him through the luxury of looking back at history. We cannot know the true urgency of the threat that Eisenhower thought was global expansion of communism, so we should be reluctant to sit in judgment of the man or his advisors. On the other hand, the values that the President understood the U.S. specifically and the West more generally to embody have something to say about the righteousness – or not – of U.S. actions in toppling foreign governments.

Image via Nyenyec. Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported.