The noun domino is used figuratively of a theory that a political event or development in one country, etc., will lead to its occurrence in others.
The image is of a falling domino causing an entire row of upended dominoes to fall—here, domino denotes a small rectangular block, divided on one side into two equal areas, each of which is either blank or marked with from one to six dots.
These are the earliest figurative uses of domino that I have found, in chronological order:
1-: The U.S. general and Republican statesman Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969), 34th President of the U.S.A. from 1953 to 1961, used the falling domino principle during the press conference that he held in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday 7th April 1954—as transcribed in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, January 1 to December 31, 1954 (Washington, D.C.: Published by the Office of the National Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration – 1960):
Q. Robert Richards, Copley Press: Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world? I think there has been, across the country, some lack of understanding on just what it means to us.
The President. You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things.
First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.
Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.
Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the “falling domino” principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.
Now, with respect to the first one, two of the items from this particular area that the world uses are tin and tungsten. They are very important. There are others, of course, the rubber plantations and so on.
Then with respect to more people passing under this domination, Asia, after all, has already lost some 450 million of its peoples to the Communist dictatorship, and we simply can’t afford greater losses.
But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people.
Finally, the geographical position achieved thereby does many things. It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand.
It takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go—that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live.
So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world.
2-: The phrase the falling domino theory occurred in several U.S. newspapers on Wednesday 5th May 1954—for example in an editorial published in the Mexico Evening Ledger (Mexico, Missouri):
Our National Security Council—perhaps, the most powerful organization in our government—reviewed the Indochina problem and came up with the conclusion that Indochina must not be lost.
The conclusion can be called the “falling domino theory.” If Indochina fell into Red hands, then Thailand and Burma would fall in time. And with them, Malaya. With these countries in Red hands, Indonesia would fall and, later, probably, India. In short, Indochina—the rice bowl of the Orient—was the key to Southeast Asia with its teeming millions and rich natural resources.
3, 4 & 5-: From accounts of the press conference held on Tuesday 11th May 1954, in Washington, D.C., by the Secretary of State John Foster Dulles (1888-1959):
3-: The phrase the domino theory occurs in the account by Howard Handleman, published in the Corsicana Daily Sun (Corsicana, Texas) of Tuesday 11th May 1954:
The cabinet officer was asked about the “domino” theory in which President Eisenhower said that the nations of Southeast Asia could be likened to a row of dominoes and that is [misprint for ‘if] Indochina fell the remainder would be in danger of falling.
4-: The phrase the domino effect occurs, together with the domino theory, in the account by Gerald Griffin, published in The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) of Wednesday 12th May 1954:
Asia could be held even if Indo-China were lost, represented a change in the theory advanced previously by President Eisenhower. The President had compared the situation in Indo-China to a number of domino pieces, predicting that if one (Indo-China) fell it would take others down with it.
Dulles said the situation in Southeast Asia, as he found it, was that it was adaptable to the domino effect, so that if one went down the others would follow.
That is the situation which the free nations are trying to check, he explained. What is being undertaken, he said, is to bring about in Southeast Asia a situation in which the domino theory would not apply.
5-: The phrase the domino situation occurs, together with the domino theory and the falling domino principle, in the account by Walter H. Waggoner, published in The New York Times (New York City, New York) of Wednesday 12th May 1954:
While backing off somewhat from the “domino” theory—if Indo-China fell, then all free countries of Southeast Asia would topple, one after the other, to Communist aggression—Mr. Dulles, nevertheless, announced that the United States itself was ready to join an alliance that would go to the rescue of Indo-China now.
“You mean that if one went, another would go?” said the Secretary in response to a question. “We are trying to change it so that would not be the case. That is the whole theory of collective security.
“You generally have a whole series of countries which can be picked up one by one. That is the whole theory of the north Atlantic Treaty. As the nations come together, then the ‘domino theory,’ so-called, ceases to apply. And what we are trying to do is create a situation in Southeast Asia where the domino situation will not apply.”
President Eisenhower has subscribed to the “falling domino” principle on at least two occasions in recent months. In fact, he gave that name to the theory at his news conference of April 7, when he outlined his concept of the strategic value of Indo-China.
He said that, as the last domino in a line falls inevitably from the toppling of the first, the loss of Indo-China would lead to the loss of Burma, of Thailand and Indonesia, and to a threat to Australia and New Zealand.
6-: Dwight David Eisenhower used the phrase the domino result during the press conference that he held in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday 12th May 1954—as transcribed in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, January 1 to December 31, 1954 (Washington, D.C.: Published by the Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration – 1960):
Q. George Herman, CBS Radio: Mr. President, since we seem to be going into the past, a few weeks ago you told us of your theory of dominoes about Indochina, the neck of the bottle—
The President. Yes.
Q. Mr. Herman: Since the fall of Dien Bien Phu, there has been a certain amount of talk of doing without Indochina. Would you tell us your administration’s position; is it still indispensable to the defense of southeast Asia?
The President. Again I forget whether it was before this body I talked about the cork and the bottle. Well, it is very important, and the great idea of setting up an organism is so as to defeat the domino result. When, each standing alone, one falls, it has the effect on the next, and finally the whole row is down. You are trying, through a unifying influence, to build that row of dominoes so they can stand the fall of one, if necessary.