The Pentagon Papers
Gravel Edition
Volume 1, Chapter 3, "The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954"
(Boston: Beacon Press, 1971)

Section 2, pp. 146-178



While the French and British pondered the implications of the Seven Points, bargaining continued behind the scenes against a background of further military advance by the Viet Minh. At about the same time the Viet Minh made their first specific partition proposal, their forces in the field completed their deployment from the Dienbienphu area. By mid-June, according to American intelligence, the Viet Minh were believed prepared for a massive attack in the Delta. Another report spoke of their renewed attention to southern Annam and of an apparent buildup of military strength there. Not surprisingly in light of these developments, the Viet Minh, in late June, responded to the French proposal of a division at the 18th parallel with a plan for a line in southern Annam running northwest from the 13th to the 14th parallel, i.e., from Tuy Hoa on the coast through Pleiku to the Cambodian border. Moreover, in secret talks with the French, the Viet Minh's vice-minister for national defense, Ta Quang Buu, also insisted on French withdrawal from the Delta within two months of a cease-fire, in contrast to French demands for a four-month interval. [Doc. 69] As suggested by Lacouture and Devillers, the Viet Minh may have been seeking to capitalize not only on their improved military position in the Delta, where French Union forces were still in retreat, but also on Mendès-France's reputation as a man of peace obviously desirous of a settlement.

This resurgence of Viet Minh toughness on terms for a cessation of hostilities applied also to Laos and Cambodia. In the military staff conferences that had begun separately on those two countries in late June, no progress was made. The Viet Minh indicated, in the Laotian case, that they had already withdrawn; if forces opposing the royal government remained (as in fact some 15,000 did), negotiations with the resistance groups would have to be undertaken. Thus, despite Chou En-lai's claim that Viet Minh withdrawal from Laos and Cambodia could easily be accomplished, the Viet Minh were hardly ready to move out unless they received substantial guarantees (such as a permanent regroupment area), which the royal governments refused to give.

Whether because of or in spite of Viet Minh intransigence, the Chinese forcefully made known their earnest desire to keep the conference moving. In an important encounter at Bern on June 23, Chou En-lai several times emphasized to Mendès-France that the main thing was a cease-fire, on which he hoped progress could be made before all the heads of delegation returned to Geneva. Regarding Laos and Cambodia, Chou thought regroupment areas for the insurgents would be necessary, but reiterated that national unity was the affair of the royal governments; he hoped the resistance elements might find a place in the national life of their respective countries. Chou told the French premier, as he had told Eden previously, that no American bases could be permitted in those countries; yet Chou spoke sympathetically of the French Union. Turning finally to the Viet Minh, Chou urged that direct contact be established between them and the Vietnamese. He promised that for his part, he would see that the Viet Minh were thoroughly prepared for serious discussions on a military settlement. Clearly, the Chinese were far more interested in moving forward toward a cease-fire than were their Viet Minh counterparts.

Even though the Viet Minh were making demands that the French, Cambodians, and Laotians could not accept, the debate was narrowing to specifics. The question when national elections in Vietnam should be held is illustrative. The Viet Minh did not budge from their insistence that elections occur six months after the cease-fire. But the French, attempting to make some headway in the talks, retreated from insistence on setting no date (a position the Vietnamese had supported) and offered to hold elections 18 months after completion of the regroupment process, or between 22 and 23 months after the cessation of hostilities. [Doc. 69] The French now admitted that while they still looked forward to retaining Haiphong and the Catholic bishoprics as long as possible, perhaps in some neutral environment, total withdrawal from the north would probably be necessary to avoid cutting up Vietnam into enclaves. [Doc. 66] But partition in any manner faced the French with hostile Vietnamese, and it was for this reason that Chauvel not only suggested American intervention to induce Vietnamese self-control, but also received Pham Van Dong's approval, in a conversation July 6, to having the military commands rather than governments sign the final armistice so as to avoid having to win Vietnamese consent. As Ngo Dinh Diem, who became prime minister June 18, suspected, the French were prepared to pull out of Tonkin as part of the cease-fire arrangements.

On the matter of control and supervision, the debate also became more focused even as the gulf between opposing views remained wide. The chief points of contention were, as before, the composition and authority of the neutral supervisory body; but the outlines of an acceptable arrangement were beginning to form. Thus, on composition, the Communist delegations, in early July, began speaking in terms of an odd-numbered (three or five) neutral commission chaired by India, with pro-Communist and pro-Western governments equally sharing the remaining two or four places. Second, on the powers of that body, dispute persisted as to whether it would have separate but parallel authority with the joint commissions or supreme authority; whether and on what questions it would make judgments by unanimous vote; and whether it would (as the French proposed) be empowered to issue majority and minority reports in case of disagreement. These were all fundamental issues, but the important point is that the Communist side refused to consider them irremovable obstacles to agreement. As Molotov's understudy, Kuznetsov (the deputy foreign minister), put it, the Soviet and French proposals on control and supervision revealed "rapprochement in the points of view on certain questions. It is true with respect to the relationships between the mixed commission and the international supervisory commission. This rapprochement exists also in regard to the question of the examination of the functions and duties of the commission..." In fact, a "rapprochement" did not exist; but the Soviets, interestingly, persisted in their optimism that a solution could be found.


While the negotiations went on among the second-string diplomats, a different kind of diplomacy was being carried on elsewhere. Chou En-lai, en route to Peking, advanced Communist China's effort, actually begun in late 1952, to woo its Asian neighbors with talk of peaceful coexistence. This diplomatic offensive, which was to have an important bearing on the outcome at Geneva, had borne its first fruit in April 1954, when Chou reached agreement with Nehru over Tibet. At that time, the Chinese first introduced the "five principles" they vowed to follow in their relations with other nations. The five principles are: mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, nonaggression, noninterference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.

Chou's first stopover was in New Delhi, the scene of his initial success. On June 28 he and Nehru reaffirmed the five principles and expressed the hope that a peaceful settlement in Indochina would be concluded in conformity with them. Similar sentiments appeared in a joint statement from Rangoon, scene of talks with Prime Minister U Nu. Promises were exchanged, moreover, for the maintenance of close contact between China and Burma, and support was voiced for the right of countries having different social systems to coexist without interference from outside. "Revolution cannot be exported," the joint statement proclaimed; "at the same time outside interference with the common will expressed by the people of any nation should not be permitted."

Peking made full use of these diplomatic achievements by contrasting them with the American policy of ruthless expansionism, which Peking said was carried out by Washington under the label of opposing Communism. Peking proclaimed that the era of colonialism which the United States was seeking to perpetuate in Indochina had come to an end. "A new era has dawned in which Asian countries can coexist peacefully and establish friendly relations on the basis of respect for each other's territorial integrity and sovereignty and mutual nonaggression," said Jen-min jih-pao. Another newspaper, Kuang-ming jih-pao, offered similar testimony to the inspirational effect of the Sino-Indian and Sino-Burmese agreements, considering them to conform to the interests of all Asian peoples. The daily castigated the American "policy of strength" as being totally incompatible with the five principles. Clearly, China was exploiting its gains through diplomacy not simply to acquire Asian support (and thus detract from pro-Westernism in the region), but more broadly to muster recognition for China as the leading Asian power in the fight against "imperialism" and "colonialism."

Chou's diplomatic efforts took a different turn, it seems, when he met with Ho Chi Minh at Nanning, on the Sino-Vietnamese frontier, from July 3-5. Although the final communique merely stated that the two leaders "had a full exchange of views on the Geneva Conference with respect to the question of the restoration of peace in Indochina and related questions," it subsequently appeared that much more may have taken place. According to observers in Hong Kong, Chou pressed for the meeting out of fear that the Viet Minh might engage in intensified military action that would destroy chances for an armistice and upset China's budding role as an Asian peacemaker. Conceivably, Chou sought to persuade Ho that his territorial gains were about as much as he could expect at that juncture without risking an end to negotiations and renewed American attempts to forge a military alliance for intervention. To judge from the Viet Minh reaction to the talks, Ho was not completely satisfied with Chou's proposed tactics.

Momentarily leaving aside Chou's motivations, it is vital to note the impact of the talks on the Geneva negotiations. On July 9, Chauvel dined with Li K'enung and Chang Wen-t'ien, a vice-minister for foreign affairs and CPR ambassador to the Soviet Union. Chauvel opened the conversation--as he later recounted to Johnson--by complaining that discussions with the Viet Minh were not going well, that Viet Minh demands were exorbitant and well beyond Chou En-lai's stated position. The Chinese delegates evinced surprise but said nothing in direct reply. However, Chang did report that Chou had had a "very good meeting" with Ho Chi Minh, the results of which "would be helpful to French." Chauvel received the impression--one which seems, in retrospect, to have been accurate--that the Viet Minh had been given a free hand by the Soviets and Chinese up to the point where their demands were unacceptable to the French, at which time the Soviets and/or Chinese felt compelled to intervene. [Doc. 66] If such was the case, Chou's talk with Ho, coming after Mendès-France and his negotiators showed no sign of being more compromising than their predecessors, Laniel and Bidault, may have been intended to inform the Viet Minh that the "point" had been reached and that they had to soften their demands if a settlement were ever to be attained.


Precisely how Chou's stopover in Nanning would be "helpful" to the French did not become apparent until four days after Chauvel's conversation with Li and Chang. By that time, the French had been engaged in intensive conversations with the Americans, the aim of which was to convince Washington that the United States, to be truly influential at the conference-to realize, in other words, a settlement in line with the Seven Points-had to back the French with a high-level representative in Geneva. Unless the United States did more than offer its views from afar on an acceptable settlement, Mendès-France argued, France could not be expected to present a strong front when Molotov and Chou resumed their places. As though to prove his determination to stand fast against Communist demands, Mendès-France told Ambassador Dillon in Paris that if a cease-fire was not agreed to by July 20, the premier would approve the dispatch of conscripts to Indochina and would introduce a law into Parliament to that effect on July 21. His government would not resign until that law passed; the ships would be prepared to transport the conscripts to Indochina beginning July 25. {Doc. 62]

Despite Mendès-France's willingness to establish a deadline and, for the first time in the history of French involvement in Indochina, to conscript soldiers for service there, Washington remained opposed to upgrading its Geneva delegation. Sensitive as much to any proposal that might implicate the United States in the final settlement terms as to Mendès-France's difficulties at the conference table, Dulles believed the French would end by accepting a settlement unsatisfactory to the United States whether or not the USDEL were upgraded. As he explained to Dillon, were he (the Secretary) or Smith to return to Geneva only to find the French compelled to negotiate an unacceptable agreement anyway, the United States would be required to dissociate itself in a manner "which would be deeply resented by the French as an effort on our part to block at the last minute a peace which they ardently desire," with possible "irreparable injury to Franco-American relations The least embarrassing alternative, Dulles felt, was to avoid the probability of having to make a "spectacular disassociation" by staying away from the conference altogether. [Doc. 65]

When Dulles' position was reported to Mendès-France, the premier said he understood the Americans' reluctance but considered it misplaced. The American fear of in some way becoming committed to the settlement, he said, was precisely his dilemma, for he had no idea what the Communists would propose in the crucial days ahead. The French negotiating position was the Seven Points, he went on, and would not deviate substantially from them. With great feeling, Mendès-France told a member of the American Embassy that the presence of Dulles or Smith was "absolutely essential and necessary"; without either of them, the Communists would sense and seek to capitalize on a lack of unity in the allied camp. "Mendès indicated that our high-level presence at Geneva had di rect bearing on where Communists would insist on placing line of demarcation or partition in Vietnam."

These arguments did not prove convincing to Washington. On July 10, Dulles wrote Mendès-France a personal message reiterating that his or General Smith's presence would serve no useful purpose. And Dulles again raised doubts that France, Britain, and the United States were really agreed on a single negotiating position:

What now concerns us is that we are very doubtful as to whether there is a united front in relation to Indochina, and we do not believe that the mere fact that the high representatives of the three nations physically reappear together at Geneva will serve as a substitute for a clear agreement on a joint position which includes agreement as to what will happen if that position is not accepted by the Communists. We fear that unless there is the reality of such a united front, the events at Geneva will expose differences under conditions which will only serve to accentuate them with consequent strain upon the relations between our two countries greater than if the US does not reappear at Geneva, in the person of General Smith or myself. [Doc. 67]

The Secretary questioned whether the Seven Points truly represented a common "minimum acceptable solution" which the three Allies were willing to fight for in the event the Communists rejected them. Charging that the Seven Points were actually "merely an optimum solution" for Paris no less than for London, Dulles sought to demonstrate that the French were already moving away from the Seven Points. He cited apparent French willingness to permit Communist forces to remain in northern Laos, to accept a demarcation line "considerably south of Donghoi," to neutralize and demilitarize Laos and Cambodia, and to permit "elections so early and so ill-prepared and ill-supervised as to risk the loss of the entire area to Communism" as evidences of a "whittling-away process" which, cumulatively, could destroy the intent of the Seven Points. [Doc. 67] Unquestionably, the Secretary's firm opposition to restoring to the American delegation its high rank was grounded in intense suspicion of an ultimate French sell-out, yet suspicion based on apparent misinformation concerning both the actual French position and the degree of French willingness to stand firm.

Thus believing that the French had already gone far toward deflating some of the major provisions of the U.S.-UK memorandum, Dulles reiterated the Administration's position that it had the right "not to endorse a solution which would seem to us to impair seriously certain principles which the US believes must, as far as it is concerned, be kept unimpaired, if our own struggle against Communism is to be successfully pursued." Perhaps seeking to rationalize the impact of his rejection, Dulles wrote in closing that the American decision might actually assist the French: "If our conduct creates a certain uncertainty in the minds of the Communists, this might strengthen your hand more than our presence at Geneva [Doc. 67] Mendès-Fraiice had been rebuffed, however, and while Dulles left the door slightly ajar for his or Smith's return if "circumstances" should change, it seemed more probable that France would have to work for a settlement with only the British along side.
The Dulles-Mendès-France exchanges were essentially an exercise in credibility, with the French premier desperately seeking to persuade the Secretary that Paris really did support and really would abide by the Seven Points. When Mendes-France read Dulles' letter, he protested that France would accept nothing unacceptable to the United States, and went so far as to say that Dulles' presence at the conference would give him a veto power, in effect, on the decisions taken. Beyond that, Mendès-France warned of the catastrophic impact of an American withdrawal on the American position in Europe no less than in the Far East; withdrawal, he said, was sure to be interpreted as a step toward isolationism. Asked what alternative his government had in mind if the conference failed even with an American high-level presence, Mendès-France replied there would have to be full internationalization of the war.*

* Dillon from Paris priority tel. No. 134, July 11, 1954. [Doc. 68] The same day, Mendès-France had told Dillon again of France's intention to send conscripts, with parliamentary approval, by July 25, with two divisions ready for action by about September 15. The premier said that while he could not predict how the Assembly would react, he personally saw the need for direct American involvement in the war once negotiations broke down and the conscripts were sent. Dillon from Paris priority tel. No. 133, July 11, 1954.

Mendès-France's persistence was sufficiently persuasive to move Dulles, on July 13, to fly to Paris to document the premier's support of the Seven Points. On the 14th, the Secretary and the premier signed a memorandum which duplicated that agreed to by the United States and Great Britain. In addition, a position paper was drawn up the same day reiterating that the United States was at the conference as "a friendly nation" whose role was subordinate to that of the primary non-Communist parties, the Associated States and France. The Seven Points were described, as they had been some two weeks earlier, as those acceptable to the "primarily interested nations" and which the United States could "respect." However, should terms ultimately be concluded which differed markedly from the Seven Points, France agreed that the United States would neither be asked nor expected to accept them, and "may publicly disassociate itself from such differing terms" by a unilateral or multilateral statement.

One of Dulles' objections had been that a true united front did not exist so long as agreement was lacking on allied action in the event of no settlement. On this point, too, the French were persuaded to adopt the American position. In the event of a settlement, it was agreed in the position paper that the United States would "seek, with other interested nations, a collective defense association designed to preserve, against direct and indirect aggression, the integrity of the non-Communist areas of Southeast Asia Should no settlement be forthcoming, U.S.-France consultations would take place; but these would not preclude the United States from bringing "the matter" before the UN as a threat to the peace. Previous obstacles to French objections to UN involvement were nonexistent, for France reaffirmed in the position paper its commitment under the June 4 treaty of independence with Vietnam that Saigon, as well as Vientiane and Phnom Penh, was an "equal and voluntary" partner in the French Union, and hence no longer subject in its foreign policy to French diktat.

On all but one matter, now, the United States and France were in complete accord on a negotiating strategy. That matter was, of course, the American delegation. Mendès-France had formally subscribed to the Seven Points and had agreed to American plans for dealing with the aftermath of the conference; yet he had gained nothing for the French delegation. Writing to the Secretary, the premier pointed out again:

In effect, I have every reason to think that your absence would be precisely interpreted as demonstrating, before the fact, that you disapproved of the conference and of everything which might be accomplished. Not only would those who are against us find therein the confirmation of the ill will which they attribute to your government concerning the reestablishment of peace in Indochina; but many others would read in it a sure sign of a division of the western powers. [Doc. 70]

Once more, Mendès-France was putting forth the view that a high-level American representation at the conference would do more to ensure a settlement in conformity with the Seven Points than private U.S.-French agreement to them.

For reasons not entirely clear, but perhaps the consequence of Eisenhower's personal intervention, Mendès-France's appeal was now favorably received in Washington. Dulles was able to inform the premier on July 14: "In the light of what you say and after consultation with President Eisenhower, I am glad to be able to inform you that the President and I are asking the Under Secretary of State, General Walter Bedell Smith, to prepare to return at his earliest convenience to Geneva to share in the work of the conference on the basis of the understanding which we have arrived at." [Doc. 70] For the first time since late 1953, the United States and France were solidly joined in a common front on Indochina policy.

In accordance with the understandings reached with France, Smith was sent new instructions on July 16 based upon the Seven Points. After reiterating the passive formal role the United States was to play at the conference, Dulles informed his Under Secretary he was to issue a unilateral (or, if possible, multilateral) statement should a settlement be reached that "conforms substantially" to the Seven Points. "The United States will not, however, become cosignatory with the Communists in any Declaration," Dulles wrote with reference to the procedure then being discussed at Geneva of drafting military accords and a final declaration on a political settlement. Nor should the United States, Smith's instructions went on, be put in a position where it could be held responsible for guaranteeing the results of the conference. Smith's efforts should be directed, Dulles summed up, toward forwarding ideas to the "active negotiators," France, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

This last point of guidance referred to the possibility of a breakdown in the negotiations. Should no settlement be reached, the United States delegation was
to avoid permitting the French to believe that outcome was the result of American advice or pressure, and that in some way the United States was morally obligated to intervene militarily in Indochina. The United States, Dulles wrote, was "not prepared at the present time to give any commitment that it will intervene in the war if the Geneva Conference fails..." While this stricture almost certainly reflected the President's and the Joint Chiefs' extreme reluctance to become committed, in advance, to a war already past the point of return, it was also doubtless a reaction to Mendès-France's intimations to Dillon of French willingness to reconsider active American involvement if the conference failed.

With French and British adherence to the Seven Points promised by written agreement, the United States had gone about as far as it could toward ensuring an acceptable settlement without becoming tied to it. The Administration still apparently believed that the final terms would violate the Seven Points in several significant respects;* but by making clear in advance that any settlement would be met with a unilateral American declaration rather than Bedell Smith's signature, the United

* Thus, on July 15 (one day after the Franco-American agreements), the National Security Council, after being briefed on the Geneva situation, decided that the likely settlement would go against the Seven Points. The NSC was told the Communists would: (1) seek partition of Vietnam somewhere between the 14th and 18th parallels; (2) demand control of some part of Laos, neutralization of the remainder, and agreement on the formation of a coalition government; (3) ask neutralization of Cambodia and some form of recognition for the Free Khmer movement. Were the Communists to accept the Dong Hoi line for Vietnam, they would then demand an enclave in southern Vietnam plus part of Laos, or simply extend the Dong Hoi line through Laos.

States had at least guaranteed its retention of a moral advantage, useful particularly in placating domestic public opinion. In the event of an unsatisfactory settlement, Washington would be in a position to say that it had stood steadfastly by principle only to be undercut by "soft" Allies and Communist territorial ambitions.


Prior to Smith's return, positions had tended to harden rather than change at Geneva, although the Viet Minh had yielded a trifle on partition. Chang Wen-t'ien's encouraging remark to Chauvel of July 9 had been fulfilled four days later, as already indicated. The final signal was Chou's comment to MendèsFrance on the 13th that both sides, French and Viet Minh, had to make concessions on the demarcation problem, but that this "does not signify that each must take the same number of steps." That same day, Pham Van Dong told the French premier the Viet Minh were willing to settle on the 16th parallel.

Dong's territorial concession meant little to the French, however, and, as the negotiations continued, it became plain that the Viet Minh were not concerned about Mendès-France's July 20 deadline. Yet the Chinese remained optimistic, at least publicly. Jen-min jih-pao's Geneva reporter, for instance, wrote July 12 that while no solution had yet been worked out on the control and supervision problem, "there seems no reason why agreement cannot be reached." As for defining the regroupment areas, the correspondent asserted that "speedy agreement would seem probable after the return of the Foreign Ministers of the Big Powers..." So long as all parties were "sincere," he wrote, agreement would indeed come about.

The minuscule progress made on settling the Vietnam problem loomed large in comparison with the seemingly unbreakable log jam that had developed over Laos and Cambodia. Since the major Communist concessions of mid-June, which had at least paved the way for separating Laos and Cambodia from Vietnam for discussion purposes, virtually nothing had been accomplished toward cease-fires. Debate on Laos and Cambodia occupied the spotlight again on July 9 when, from the remarks of the Chinese delegate (Li K'e-nung), it quickly became apparent that for all their willingness to discuss the withdrawal of Viet Minh troops, the Chinese remained greatly concerned about possible Laotian and Cambodian rearmament and alignment. Simply put, the Chinese were negotiating for their own security, not for Viet Minh territorial advantage.

As Chou had pointed out to Eden in June, the CPR's major concern was that Cambodia and Laos might, after a settlement, be left free to negotiate for a permanent American military presence. In his presentation, therefore, Li K'e-nung insisted that the two countries not be permitted to acquire fresh troops, military personnel, arms, and ammunition except as might be strictly required for self-defense; nor should they, he held, allow foreign military bases to be established. Li formalized Chou's passing remark to Eden that China was not much disturbed by French Union (as opposed to American) technicians. Li allowed that French military personnel to assist the training of the Laotian and Cambodian armies was a matter that "can be studied."

The Cambodian case, presented by Foreign Minister Sam Sary, revealed a stubborn independence that was to assist the country greatly in the closing days of the conference. Sam Sary said that foreign bases would indeed not be authorized on Khmer soil "only as far as there is no menace against Cambodia. . . . If our security is imperiled, Cambodia will keep its legitimate right to defend itself by all means." As for foreign instructors and technicians, his government wished to retain those Frenchmen then in Cambodia; he was pleased to note Li K'e-nung's apparent acceptance of this arrangement. Finally, with regard to the importation of arms, Sam Sary differentiated between a limitation on quantity (which his government accepted) and on quality (which his government wished to have a free hand in determining).

While the Chinese publicly castigated the Cambodians for working with the Americans to threaten "the security of Cambodia's neighboring countries under the pretext of self-defense," the Americans gave the Cambodians encouragement. In Washington, Phnom Penh's ambassador, Nong Kimny, met with Dulles on July 10. Nong Kimny said his Government would oppose the neutralization and demilitarization of the country; Dulles replied that hopefully Cambodia would become a member of the collective security arrangement envisaged in American-British plans. Cambodia, the Secretary said, possessed a kind of independence superior to that in Vietnam and Laos, and as such should indeed oppose Communist plans to neutralize and demilitarize her. As an independent state, Cambodia was entitled to seek outside military and economic assistance.

The Laotian delegation was also experiencing difficulties, though with the Viet Minh rather than the Chinese. The Viet Minh negotiators, in the military command conferences, insisted on making extraneous demands concerning the Pathet Lao. The Laotians were concerned not so much with the demands as with the possibility of a private French deal with the Viet Minh that would subvert the Laotian position. A member of the royal government's delegation went to Johnson to be assured that a behind-the-scenes deal would not occur. The delegate said Laos hoped to be covered by and to participate in a Southeast Asia collective security pact. Johnson did not guarantee that this arrangement could be worked out; but as the conference drew to a close, as we shall see, the United States made it clear to the Cambodians and Laotians that their security would in some fashion be taken care of under the SEATO treaty.

Irresolution over Cambodia and Laos, a continuing wide gap between French and Viet Minh positions on the partition line, and no progress on the control and supervision dilemma were the highlights of the generally dismal scene that greeted General Smith on his return July 16 to the negotiating wars. Smith apparently took heart, however, in the steadfastness of Mendès-France, although the Under Secretary also observed that the Communists had reacted to this by themselves becoming unmoving. Smith attributed Communist intransigence to the probability that "Mendès-France has been a great disappointment to the Communists both as regards the relatively firm position he has taken on Indochina and his attitude toward EDC. They may therefore wish to force him out of the government by making settlement here impossible."

Actually, what had disturbed the Communists most was not so much MendèsFrance's firmness as Smith's return. That became clear following a private meeting requested by a member of the CPR delegation, Huang Hua, with Seymour Topping, the New York Times correspondent at Geneva. Topping, as the Chinese must have expected, reported the conversation to the American delegation. He said Huang Hua, speaking in deadly earnest and without propagandistic overtones, had interpreted Smith's return as an American attempt to prevent a settlement. Indeed, according to Huang Hua, the Paris talks between Dulles and Mendès-France on July 13 and 14 had been primarily responsible for Mendès-France's stubbornness; the French premier had obviously concluded a deal with the United States in which he agreed to raise the price for a settlement. [Doc. 78]

Overt Chinese statements in this period lent credence to Topping's report. First, Peking was far from convinced that continued discussions on the restoration of peace in Indochina removed the possibility of dramatic new military moves by the United States. Washington was accused, as before the conference, of desiring to intervene in Indochina so as to extend the war there into "a new military venture on China's southern borders. In support of this contention, Peking cited such provocative moves as trips during April and June by General James A. Van Fleet ("the notorious butcher of the Korean War") to Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, for the purpose of establishing a North Pacific military alliance; American intentions of concluding a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan as the first step in Chiang Kai-shek's invasion plans; American efforts, through the five-power and later Eisenhower-Churchill talks, to create a Southeast Asia alliance for a military thrust into Indochina; and stepped-up U.S. military assistance, including training, for the Thai armed forces.

Second, Peking was clearly disturbed that the French were still heeding American advice when the path to a settlement lay before them. In a People's Daily editorial of July 14, for instance, the French people and National Assembly were said to be strongly desirous of peace. Thus: "A policy running counter to French interests cannot work. France is a major world power. She should have her own independent and honorable path. This means following an independent foreign policy consistent with French national interests and the interests of world peace." The American alternative--a Southeast Asia coalition with French participation--should be rejected, the editorial intoned, and a settlement conforming to the five principles achieved instead. In keeping with its line of previous months, Peking was attempting to demonstrate--for Asian no less than for French ears--that it had a keen interest in resolving the Indochina problem rather than seeing the conference give way to new American military pressures and a possibly wider war.

Finally, Peking paid considerable attention to DutIes' stay in Paris and to his dispatch of Smith to Geneva. Duties' sudden trip to the French capital was said to reveal American determination to obstruct progress in the negotiations by pressuring Mendès-France not to grasp the settlement that lay just around the corner. Duties originally had no intention of upgrading the American delegation, according to Peking. "But Bedell Smith had to be sent back to Geneva because of strong criticism in the Western press, and Washington was fearful lest agreement could be reached quickly despite American boycotting of the conference." Yet China's optimism over a settlement did not diminish: "Chinese delegation circles," NCNA reported, "see no reason whatsoever why the Geneva Conference should play up to the U.S. policy and make no efforts towards achieving an agreement which is acceptable and satisfactory to all parties concerned and which is honorable for the two belligerent sides." If Smith's return, then, was viewed from Peking as a challenge to its diplomatic ingenuity, the Chinese (and, we may surmise, the Soviets) were prepared to accept it.

In doing so, however, the Chinese evidently were not about to sacrifice in those areas of dispute where they had a special interest, namely, Laos and Cambodia. On July 14, Chou called on Nong Kimny to state China's position. The premier said first that, in accord with his recent talks with Nehru, U Nu, and Ho Chi Minh, he could report a unanimous desire for peace in Indochina, for the unity of each of the three Associated States, and for their futOre cordial relationship with the Colombo Powers. Chou then asked about the status of Cambodian talks with the Viet Minh. When Nong Kimny replied that Pham Van Dong, in two recent get-togethers, had insisted on interjecting political problems into discussions of a military settlement--as by requesting Cambodia's retention of certain provincial officials appointed by the Free Khmers, and by suggesting the royal government's preservation of a Free Khmer youth movement--Chou is said to have laughed off these claims and to have replied that these were indeed matters for Cambodia to handle by herself.

Chou had his own views on what Cambodia should and should not do; however, Khmer sovereignty should not mean discrimination against the resistance elements, the establishment of foreign military bases in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, or the conclusion of military alliances with other states. Chou was less adamant only on the subject of Cambodia's importation of arms and military personnel; when Nong Kimny flatly stated that Phnom Penh would absolutely reject any limitations inasmuch as these would be incompatible with Cambodian sovereignty, Chou did not contradict him. Instead, he promised to study the matter further and asked to know precisely what quantities of arms and personnel the royal government had in mind. Later on, he became a bit more flexible by saying that a prohibition on arms and personnel should apply only to the armistice period, not permanently. Only in Vietnam, Chou said, would there be a flat proscription against military equipment and troops.

Chou and Nong Kimny met again three days later, on July 17. On this occasion, Chou was obviously less conciliatory (as Nong Kimny reported), stating China's position more in terms of demands than suggestions. He urged the Cambodian government to incorporate resistance elements into the army, police, and civil service. But he reserved his emphasis for Cambodia's future security position. In a thinly-veiled warning, Chou said that should Cambodia join the pact, permit foreign bases on its territory, or accept American military instructors, "the consequences would be very serious and would aggravate the situation with unfortunate consequences for Cambodian independence and territorial integrity" (Smith's paraphrase). Cambodia could have French or British instructors, Chou said. But his three-fold limitation, obviously directed at assuring against future Cambodia-U.S. defense ties, remained-and, he added, it applied to Laos and Vietnam as well.

The Chinese were clearly out to get from the conference what they could, without Russian assistance, before a settlement was concluded. Chou did not stop at warning Nong Kimny, either. On July 17 he took his case to Eden, telling the foreign secretary that while the CPR stood ready to join in guaranteeing the freedom and independence of all three Indochinese states, membership in a Southeast Asia pact would change everything. Evidently intent on removing what he may have sensed was a possible last-minute obstacle, Eden implied that he knew of no proposal for including the United States in the pact, although he did not deny American interest in forming a defense organization for Southeast Asia. Chou said he had no objections to ANZUS (it was directed against Japan, he thought), but he went into a lengthy discourse on the danger to China of having foreign bases in Indochina.

Eden's assurances evidently did not [words illegible] Chou deeply. On July 18 Chou met with the Laotian foreign minister and presented "unofficial" but extravagant demands which the latter found totally unacceptable. Laos was willing to provide the resistance elements with [words illegible] zones in the northern provinces of Phong Saly and Sam Neua; Chou proposed, additionally, portions of Luang Prabang and Xien Khouang provinces. The royal government was further willing to concede the insurgents freedom of movement in those zones, but Chou demanded administration by joint royal-insurgent committees and a supervisory joint committee in Vientiane until the general elections of August 1955. Finally, where the Laotians thought the issue of French Union bases had been resolved in their favor, Chou now said the bases should be completely eliminated even though established by Franco-Laotian treaty.

Chou's obsession with foreign military bases and related issues led to an effort to make a settlement contingent upon Western acceptance of Chinese neutralization plans. A Chinese informant (probably Huang Hua) told Seymour Topping that Western willingness to bar foreign military bases from Indochina and to deny the Associated States admission to any military blocs would assure agreement by July 20. More than that, the informant said, the United States had also to subscribe to and guarantee the final settlement, evidently in the belief that America's signature would make Indochinese participation in SEATO illegal. [Doc. 74] A more direct statement was made by NCNA's "special correspondent" in Geneva, who drew a harsh characterization of a cease-fire agreement that left the door open to Indochinese involvement in a military alliance:

If efforts are made at the same time negotiations for peace are taking place to drag the three Indochinese countries into an aggressive military bloc whose purpose is to unleash war, then the cease-fire would mean nothing other than a respite for adjusting battle lines and dispositions of strength in order to start the fighting again on an even larger scale. In such circumstances, the armistice agreement would become no more than a scrap of paper.

Whether the Chinese seriously believed that the United States would sign the accords in order to achieve a settlement, or that Laos and Cambodia [words missing] Out of the Southeast Asia collective defense is at best debatable. There seems little doubt, however, that Peking sincerely considered a written prohibition on
o the accords against Indochinese alliances or foreign bases as a major step toward the neutralization of Southeast Asia and the area's eventual dissociation from the American defense system.

General Smith felt that Topping's report dovetailed with growing Communist intransigence in the past few days, particularly on the part of Molotov. He believed that Molotov, who had urgently requested a restricted session for the 18th, would likewise raise the question of explicit American acquiescence in a final settlement. [Doc. 74] When the meeting came, however, Molotov did not reiterate Huang Hua's implication that American failure to sign the accords might scuttle the conference. Perhaps aware that a warning of that kind would not work, Molotov instead limited himself to talking of the conference's achievements to date. He complimented those who had been engaged in private negotiations, and went so far as to voice confidence that a settlement of outstanding problems relating to Laos and Cambodia could be achieved. He closed by pointing out that two drafts were before the conference relating to the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam and Laos, two on Cambodia, and two on a final declaration dealing with political matters. That ended Molotov's contribution, leaving the Americans, and probably others, wondering why the Soviet foreign minister had hastily summoned the meeting. [Doc. 76]


If Molotov's refusal at the July 18 restricted session to warn the conference of failure signaled renewed Communist efforts toward agreement, his subsequent actions proved the point. Between July 18 and 21, the conferees were able to iron out their differences sufficiently to produce agreements now commonly referred to as the Geneva "accords." In fact, the accords consist of military agreements for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to fulfill the conference's primary task of restoring peace to Indochina, and a Final Declaration designed to establish the conditions for future political settlements throughout Indochina. The nature of the eleventh-hour compromises reached, and a broad outline of the settlement, are treated below.


The Geneva accords temporarily established two zones of Vietnam separated by a line running roughly along the 17th parallel and further divided by a demilitarized zone. Agreement to the demarcation line was apparently the work of Molotov, who gained French acceptance of the 17th parallel when he found the French flatly opposed to the 16th, a late Viet Minh compromise perhaps prompted by Molotov himself. [Doc. 72] Precisely what motivated Molotov to make his proposal is not clear. Speculatively, he may simply have traded considerable territorial advantage which the Viet Minh enjoyed for a specific election date he, Chou, and Pham Van Dong wanted from the outset. The Western negotiators certainly recognized the trade-off possibility: Eden considered a line between the 17th and 18th parallels worth exchanging for a mutually acceptable position on elections; and Mendès-France observed in a conversation with Mob-toy that the election and demarcation questions might be linked in the sense that each side could yield on one of the questions. {Doc. 72]

Whether or not a trade-off actually took place, the fact remains that the French came off much better in the matter of partition than on elections, which they had
insisted not be given a specific date. On July 16, Molotov had proposed holding elections in 1955, with the exact date to be decided between Vietnamese and Viet Minh authorities. [Doc. 72] The Chinese were more flexible. In a talk with a member of the British delegation, Li K'e-nung argued for a specific date, but said his government was willing to set it within two or three years of the ceasefire. [Doc. 76] The compromise formula was reportedly worked out by Molotov, who, at a meeting July 19 attended also by Eden, Mendès-France, Chou, and Dong, drew the line at two years. It was agreed in the Final Declaration that the Vietnamese of the two zones would consult together in July 1955 and reunify Vietnam by national plebiscite one year later. Importantly for the Viet Minh, the demarcation line was said to be "provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary." Representatives of the member states on the ICC would act as a commission to supervise the national elections, which were to be freely conducted by secret ballot. As shall be pointed out later, however, the evident intention of all the conferees (including the United States and the Government of South Vietnam) to see Vietnam reunified was to a large extent undercut by the nature of the military and political settlements.

The military accords on Vietnam also stipulated that the Joint Commission, which was to take over the work of the military commission that had met at Trung Gia, would have general responsibility for working out the disengagement of forces and implementation of the cease-fire. French Union soldiers were to be removed from North Vietnam in stages within 300 days (article 15), a lengthy period in keeping with French demands. Thereafter, the introduction into the two zones of fresh arms, equipment, and personnel was prohibited with the exception of normal troop rotation and replacement of damaged or destroyed materiel (articles 16 and 17). The establishment of new military bases in Vietnam, and the adherence of either zone to military alliances, were also proscribed under articles 18 and 19.

The membership and powers of the International Control Commission were finally resolved (Chapter VI of the accords). Apparently through Chou En-lai's efforts, agreement was reached that India, Poland, and Canada should be the member states of the ICC. The ICC was empowered to form fixed and mobile inspection teams and to have full freedom of movement in both zones of Vietnam. In the performance of these tasks, the ICC was to expect complete cooperation from local civil and military officials. Its functions extended to control of the movement of armed forces and the release of prisoners of war, and to supervision of the demarcation line, frontiers, ports, and airfields.

Less clearly decided was the delicate question of the ICC's relationship to the Joint Commission. Generally, the plan adopted was close to that originally submitted by the French in early July, wherein the ICC's supremacy was tacitly admitted. The ICC was to be informed by the Joint Commission of disputes arising out of differences of interpretation, either of a provision or of fact, that the Joint Commission could not resolve. The ICC would then (article 40) have the power of recommendation; but, quite aside from the limited effectiveness of a recommendation, there remained the problem of majority or unanimous voting by the ICC in reaching agreement to recommend. Under article 42, the rule of unanimity was to apply to "questions concerning violations, or threats of violations, which might lead to a resumption of hostilities," namely, a refusal to regroup is provided in the accords, or an armed violation by one party of the territory of the other. The West, which had pushed hard for majority rule, had to settle for its application to those less volatile questions that would not be considered threats to the peace. Furthermore, under article 43, recognition was taken of possible splits among the three members by providing for majority and minority reports; but these, like ICC decisions, could be no more than suggestive, and as such wholly dependent upon the cooperativeness of the conference members who had created it.

Cambodia and Laos

In conflict with the wishes of the Cambodian and Laotian delegations, cease-fires in their countries occurred simultaneously with the cessation of hostilities in Vietnam. Nevertheless, in most other respects, their persistence was largely responsible for settlements highly favorable to their respective interests.

In the first place, the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Cambodia called for the removal of nonnative Free Khmer troops, whether Communist Vietnamese or Cambodians, ninety days from the cease-fire date (July 20). (French Union units, but not instructors, were also scheduled for departure.) As the Cambodian delegation had promised, those insurgents still in the country would be guaranteed the right to rejoin the national community and to participate, as electors or candidates, in elections scheduled under the constitution for 1955; but the agreement assured their demobilization within one month of the cease-fire. Separate joint and international supervisory commissions for Cambodia were established, as Phnom Penh had demanded. Finally, a declaration issued July 21 by the Cambodian delegation was incorporated into the accord proclaiming, in effect, Phnom Penh's inherent right of self-defense. The royal government vowed not to enter into military alliances "not in conformity with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations"; nor, so long as its security was not threatened, would Cambodia permit the establishment of foreign military bases. As for war materiel and military personnel, the delegation made clear that these would not be solicited during the period July 20, 1954, to the election date in 1955 "except for the purpose of the effective defence of the territory." Thus, after the elections, Cambodia proclaimed itself free to take any steps it considered necessary for its security, whether or not such steps were absolutely necessary for self-defense.

Cambodia's acquisition of considerable latitude was entirely in keeping with the royal government's expressed insistence on not being either neutralized or demilitarized. On this point, the Cambodians received indirect assurance from the United States that their security would in some way be covered by the Southeast Asian pact despite their unilateral declaration. Toward the end of the conference, Philip Bonsal of the State Department and the American delegation, told Sam Sary that he (Bonsal) "was confident U.S. and other interested countries looked forward to discussing with Cambodian government" the security problem upon implementation of a cease-fire. When Sam Sary called a few days later on Smith in the company of Nong Kimny, the Under Secretary recommended that Phnom Penh, at the conference, state its intention not to have foreign bases on its territory and not to enter into military alliances. At the same time, though, Cambodia would be free to import arms and to employ French military instructors and technicians. Cambodia might not be able to join SEATO under this arrangement, Smith said, but it could still benefit from it. Smith:

assured the Cambodian Foreign Minister that, in our view, any aggression overt or covert against Cambodian territory would bring pact into operation even though Cambodia not a member. I took position that French Union membership afforded Cambodia adequate desirable means of securing through France necessary arms some of which would be American as well as necessary instructors and technicians some of which might well be American trained.

Nong Kimny replied that Cambodia relied heavily on the United States for protection against future aggression. The way was thus cleared for the subsequent inclusion of Cambodia in the Protocol to the SEATO treaty.

The cease-fire agreement on Laos followed lines similar to those drawn for Cambodia. A separate joint commission was set up to supervise the withdrawal of Pathet Lao units, although provision was made for their prior regroupment in the provinces of Phong Saly and Sam Neua.* Although Laos was prohibited from seeking to

* The Laotian delegation also issued a declaration averring the government's willingness to integrate former insurgents into the national community without reprisal. Elections in Laos were scheduled for September 1955, and former Pathet Lao were promised the right to participate in the balloting as electors or candidates.

augment its military establishment, the royal government was specifically permitted a maximum of 1,500 French training instructors. Moreover, the prohibition against the establishment of foreign military bases on Laotian territory did not apply to two French bases in operation under a 1949 treaty, and employing 3,500 Frenchmen. Laos, like Cambodia, was allowed to import arms and other military equipment essential for self-defense; but Vientiane also issued a unilateral declaration on July 21 making clear, in terms that nearly duplicated those used in Cambodia's declaration, that its refrainment from alliances and foreign military bases was limited to situations in which Laotian security was not threatened. In view of Vientiane's expressed hope for American protection, its delegates had succeeded admirably in getting a settlement containing terms that restricted, but did not eliminate, Laotian control over their security requirements.


No delegate at the final plenary session on Indochina July 21 should have been surprised when Under Secretary Smith issued a unilateral statement of the American position. The United States had frequently indicated, publicly and privately, directly and indirectly, that it would not be cosignatory with the Communist powers to any agreement and that, at best, it would agree only to "respect" the final settlement. At the restricted session of July 18, Smith had, moreover, indicated the points which were to become basic features of his final statement. Despite the fact that the accords were in line with the Seven Points in nearly every particular, it would have been presumptuous of any delegation to believe that the United States, given the implacable hostility of Administration leaders to Communist China and to any agreement that would imply American approval of a territorial cession to the Communists, would formally sign the Geneva accords.

Bedell Smith, revealing a considerably more pliant approach to dealing with the Communist world, was able to exact from Washington agreement to partial American acceptance of the Final Declaration. On July 19 he had been approached by Mendès-France, who from the beginning had sought to identify the United States as closely as possible with the final terms, with the proposal that Washington not simply respect any military agreements reached, but in addition take note of them and the political statements that comprised the first nine paragraphs of the proposed conference declaration. Mendès-France indicated the French would be sharply disappointed if the United States could not at least take note of those portions of the declaration. Smith, apparently swayed by the premier's views, recommended to Washington that his instructions be amended to provide for taking note in the event the Final Declaration was substantially as the French had indicated. [Doc. 80] Dulles gave his approval, demurring only on the second part of paragraph 9 (in the final version, paragraph 13), which the Secretary said "seems to imply a multilateral engagement with Communists which would be inconsistent with our basic approach and which subsequently might enable Communist China to charge us with alleged violations of agreement to which it might claim both governments became parties." [Doc. 81] When Smith, therefore, issued his unilateral statement, note was taken only of the first twelve paragraphs of the Final Declaration; but this was much more than had been called for in his revised instructions of July 16.

In line with his instructions, Smith declared on behalf of the Government that the United States would "refrain from the threat or the use of force to disturb" the accords. Moreover, the United States "would view any renewal of the aggression in violation of the aforesaid agreements with grave concern and as seriously threatening international peace and security." Finally, Smith reiterated a U.S. policy declaration of June 29, made during the visit of Eden and Churchill, that registered Washington's support of UN supervision of free elections to reunify countries "now divided against their will Smith mentioned on this point that the United States could not associate itself with any arrangement that would hinder "its traditional position that peoples are entitled to determine their own future..."

Smith's caution against "any renewal of aggression" deserves additional comment inasmuch as it was cited by President Kennedy (in a letter to President Ngo Dinh Diem on December 14, 1961) as the basis for the American commitment to South Vietnam's defense. Viewed in the context of the conference, the statement does not seem to have been intended as an open-ended American commitment to South Vietnam against possible aggression from the North. Rather, the Administration apparently intended the statement as a warning to the Viet Minh that should they, within the two-year interval before general elections, "renew" what Washington and Saigon regarded as their "aggression" since 1946, the United States would be gravely concerned. Smith's statement, in short, seems to have been limited to the period July 1954 to July 1956.

That part of Smith's unilateral statement dealing with United Nations supervision of elections is also noteworthy. Coming in the wake of Dulles' expressed concern over provision in the accords for ICC supervision, [Doc. 81] Smith's reference to the UN may have forecast American unwillingness to back an electoral process not supervised by the Organization. Inasmuch as the United States delegation had consistently pushed at Geneva for United Nations rather than any other form of international machinery, Smith may have meant to give an advance signal of American displeasure with free Vietnamese elections that the UN would be prevented from overseeing.

American qualifications to the Geneva accords paled beside those made by the South Vietnam delegation. However naively, the "South" Vietnamese refused to accept a divided country and believed, to the end of the conference, that the French had brazenly and illegally sold out Vietnamese interests. Vietnam's anger at French manipulation of its political future was reflected in a note handed to the French delegation on July 17 by Nguyen Huu Chau. [Doc. 73] The note maintained that not until the day before (an exaggeration by about three weeks, it would appear) did Vietnam learn that at the very time the French High Command had ordered the evacuation of troops from important areas in the Tonkin Delta, the French had also "accepted abandoning to the Viet Minh all of that part situated north of the eighteenth parallel and that the delegation of the Viet Minh might claim an even more advantageous demarcation line." The Vietnamese delegation protested against having been left "in complete ignorance" of French proposals, which were said not to "take any account of the unanimous will for national unity of the Vietnamese people."

While it may have been absurd for the Vietnamese to believe that partition was avoidable given Viet Minh strength, their rationale for keeping the country united was, as matters developed, eminently clear-sighted. In speeches during June and July, their leaders had warned that partition would be merely a temporary interlude before the renewal of fighting. When the Viet Minh first proposed a temporary division of territory, the Defense Minister, Phan Huy Quat, said in Saigon on June 2 that partition would "risk reviving the drama of the struggle between the North and the South." Diem, in his investiture speech of early July, warned against a cease-fire that would mean partition, for that arrangement "can only be the preparation for another more deadly war..." And General Nguyen Van Hinh, head of the Vietnamese National Army, declared:

To realize a cease-fire by partition of Vietnamese territory can be only a temporary measure to stop the bloodshed but not to end the war. And it is possible that we shall have to face a cold war as in Korea where both sides' troops have their fingers on the triggers of their guns all the time, and people are thinking only of recovering what has been given up under the pressure of the circumstances.

Although their struggle against partition, which reached a climax in the aftermath of the signing of the accords with huge rallies in the major cities, proved futile, the Vietnamese early gave notice that they would accept neither partition nor a fixed date for national elections. We need only recall the statements by Bao Dai's cabinet in Paris on the eve of the conference to find evidence of Vietnam's early determination that it would not be party to a sell-out of its own territory. When partition became certain in July with the circulation of draft final declarations, the Vietnamese delegation became more vocal. At the final plenary session, Tran Van Do said: ". . . the Government of the State of VietNam wishes the Conference to take note of the fact that it reserves its full freedom of action in order to safeguard the sacred right of the Vietnamese people to its territorial unity, national independence, and freedom." When asked to consent to the military accords and the Final Declaration, Do requested insertion of the following text into the Declaration:

The conference takes note of the Declaration of the Government of the State of Viet-Nam undertaking:

to make and support every effort to reestablish a real and lasting peace in Viet-Nam;

not to use force to resist the procedures for carrying the ceasefire into effect, in spite of the objections and reservations that the State of Viet-Nam has expressed, especially in its final statement.

The request was denied.

As for elections, the Vietnamese believed that the war situation compelled the postponement of elections until the country had achieved a measure of internal stability. As early as May, Diem indicated his opposition to elections for a National Assembly, much less to national elections for the presidency. In its note to the French delegation, moreover, the Vietnamese asserted that a cease-fire without disarmament was incompatible with elections; the regroupment of the armed forces of the belligerents into separate zones was said to compromise their freedom in advance. In Vietnam's view, elections could only be considered after security and peace had been established, thereby excluding a set time interval of two years. [Doc. 73]

Having taken these positions, the Vietnamese could hardly adhere to the Final Declaration. At the same time, they protested against the "hasty conclusion of the Armistice Agreement by the French and Vietminh High Commanders only . . ." (as Tran Van Do put it at the July 21 session). Inasmuch as the military accords, by prearrangement, were signed by French and Viet Minh commanders precisely to avoid seeking Vietnamese consent, there was nothing Saigon could do but protest. Nevertheless, by having protested, they were asserting that the treaties with France of June 4 had indeed made Vietnam a sovereign state, that the interests of non-Communist Vietnamese were deeply involved in the settlement, and that France's by-passing of the Bao Dai government only made the settlement possible, not legal. Despite article 27 of the agreement on Vietnam, which bound "successors" (such as Vietnam) to the signatories to respect and enforce the agreement, Vietnam was in a legally persuasive position to argue that France could not assume liabilities in its behalf, least of all to the political provisions contained in the Final Declaration, which was an unsigned document. *

* Article 27, which is frequently cited to demonstrate that Vietnam was bound to abide by the accords, and particularly the elections provision, refers to "signatories of the present [military] Agreement..." Hence, the article would seem not to obligate France's "successor" with respect to any provisions of the Final Declaration, a document to which South Vietnam did not adhere.


Throughout the rapid series of compromises in the last thirty days of the Geneva Conference, American diplomacy revealed a constancy of purpose fully in line with the Eisenhower Administration's global foreign policy. Based largely on the unfortunate experiences at Panmunjom, the Administration could not reconcile itself to the notion that Sino-Soviet negotiating tactics in the post-Stalin period of peaceful coexistence had changed. Consequently, even as the realization dawned that the Communists could not be expelled from Indochina and that some compromise with them by France was inevitable, the Administration stuck fast to the position that the United States delegation to the conference would only assist, but not take an active part, in bringing about an acceptable settlement. From June on, the delegation was under instructions to remain clear of any involvement in the negotiations such as might implicate or commit the United States to the final terms reached, yet simultaneously was to maintain an influential role in making the best of difficult circumstances. British and French agreement to the Seven Points proved a diplomatic victory, not because their acceptance of them assured a reasonable settlement but because, quite contrary to American expectations, they returned to Geneva prepared to hold the line against exorbitant Communist demands. Allied agreement to future discussions of a regional defense system for Southeast Asia was really a hedge against a French sell-out at Geneva; in the event Vietnam, and parts of Cambodia and Laos, were ceded to the Communist insurgents, the United States would at least have Anglo-French consent to protect the security of what remained of Indochina and its neighbors.

The Seven Points represented principles, not American objectives. They constituted not a statement of goals to be achieved by the United States, but of principles to be adopted by the British and French negotiators toward concluding a satisfactory settlement. In this manner, the Administration could preserve its dignity before anticipated Vietnamese outrage at partition and domestic displeasure at further Communist inroads in the Far East without losing its ability to influence the terms. Under Secretary Smith's final statement taking note of the agreements and vowing not to disturb them thus culminated a careful policy that rejected an American commitment to the accords such as might identify the Administration with a cession of territory and people to the Communist bloc.

The Geneva Conference left much work undone, especially on a political settlement for Vietnam. The State of Vietnam, like the United States, had refused to adhere to the Final Declaration and was not signatory to the military accord that partitioned the country. In the next section, the focus is therefore on the practical effect of the Geneva accords, the expectations of the conferees concerning them, and the extent to which the major powers, in reaching a settlement, achieved the objectives they had set for themselves.


Much of the controversy surrounding the American involvement in Vietnam relates to the post-Geneva period, in particular to the two-year interval before national elections were to bring about Vietnam's reunification. To address the question whether the United States instigated or colluded with the Government of Vietnam to defy the Final Declaration's stipulation for national elections would broaden this paper beyond its intended scope. What is relevant, however, are the documented or presumed expectations and objectives of the major participants concerning Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Laos, at the time the conference closed. How had the accords met the aims of the participants, and to what extent were objectives intertwined with, or perhaps divorced from, expectations? To anticipate, the present argument over the failure to hold elections in July 1956 overlooks the relative unimportance of them, for a variety of reasons, to the five major powers at the Geneva Conference; their objectives only secondarily took into account the expectations of the Vietnamese, north and south.

An assessment of the hopes and goals of the Geneva conferees in the immediate aftermath of the conference should, in the first place, be differentiated from the practical effect of the accords they drew up. The distinction not often made, yet highly important to an understanding of the conference and its achievements, is between the intent of the parties regarding Vietnam and the seemingly contradictory consequences of their agreement.


With the exception of South Vietnam, every nation represented at the conference came to believe that partition was the only way to separate the combatants, settle the widely disparate military and political demands of the French and Viet Minh, and conclude an armistice. It might further be argued (although the evidence available does not actually permit a definitive statement one way or the other) that these eight delegations intended the partition line to be temporary inasmuch as they all desired Vietnamese elections in 1956. But what needs to be pointed out is that the accords themselves did not further that intent. By creating two regimes responsible for "civil administration" (article 14-a of the Vietnam armistice agreement), by providing for the regroupment of forces to two zones and for the movement of persons to the zone of their choice, and by putting off national elections for two years, the conferees had actually made a future political settlement for Vietnam extremely unlikely. Certainly, the separation of Vietnam at the 17th parallel was designed to facilitate the armistice, not to create political subdivisions; but its unintended effect was to allow time for the development of two governments, headed by totally divergent personalities and committed to antithetical political philosophies, foreign policies, and socio-economic systems. Thus, the call for elections in the Final Declaration had as little chance of implementation in Vietnam as previously in Korea and Germany, a point brought home by Vietnamese officials and reinforced by the failure of the same Geneva conferees to agree on a political settlement in Korea. "Elections," Victor Bator has commented "can, indeed, decide secondary problems of coexistence in circumstances where some measurable minimum basis for political agreement exists. But they are incapable of acceptance by two opposing states, or parts of a state, when diametrically opposite philosophies are involved." If the intent of the Geneva accords was subverted, the subverters were the conferees themselves, who aspired to an ideal political settlement incompatible with the physical and psychological dismemberment of Vietnam on July 21, 1954.


Whether or not one accepts the view offered here that the central political provision of the Final Declaration was decisively undercut by provisions of the military accords and the Declaration itself, an examination of the objectives of the Soviet Union and Communist China can go far toward determining, albeit by surmisal, the importance they, as distinct from the DRV, attached to Vietnamese unity. For it is the conclusion here that Vietnamese unity, whether achieved by free elections or the disintegration of South Vietnam, was not a priority objective of Moscow or Peking even though both powers may well have anticipated an all-Communist Vietnam by July 1956. If this is so, we may ask, what were the primary aims of Moscow and Peking in supporting a settlement? Why did the Communists apparently strive for a settlement, and why did Molotov in particular, who was not personally identified in Western eyes at the time as a vigorous proponent of détente, play such a key role in keeping the conference from the brink of failure?

Although it would appear that, on the major issues at least, the Soviet Union coordinated its actions with Communist China, the two Communist powers were clearly pursuing separate national interests in working toward a settlement of the war. The reconciliation of those interests seems to have been achieved not so much through Soviet ability (which did exist) to compel Chinese acquiescence as through a common desire for a settlement.

Soviet Objectives at the Conference

In retrospect, the Soviet Union seems to have had four major objectives at the conference: (1) to avert a major war crisis over Indochina that would stimulate Western unity, enable the United States to gain support it previously lacked for "united action," and conceivably force Moscow into a commitment to defend the Chinese; (2) to reduce the prospects for successful passage of EDC in the French National Assembly; (3) to heighten the prestige of the Soviet Union as a world peacemaker; (4) to bolster the prestige of Communist China, probably more as an adjunct to the Soviet drive for leadership of the "peaceful coexistence" movement than as a means of supporting any Chinese claim to unrivaled leadership in Asia.

On the first point, the Soviets were surely aware that the United States, under certain conditions, was prepared to consider active involvement in the war. While united action was a dead issue in Washington by mid-June, the Soviets (and the Chinese as well) could not have known this. Moreover, newspaper reports of the time added both credence and uncertainty to American military plans. In the course of private discussions at Geneva, Molotov indicated his concern that a breakdown of the conference might lead to continued fighting right up to the point of World War III. The French and British did nothing to dispel those fears. Chauvel, for instance, told the Russian delegate, Kuznetsov, that France's proposed division of Vietnam at the 18th parallel would be more acceptable to the other conferees than the unreasonable Viet Minh demand for the 13th parallel, and that a settlement along the French line would thereby avert the risk of an internationalization of the conflict. And Mendès-France vowed to back his call for conscripts by informing Molotov he "did not intend Geneva would turn into a Panmunjom."

The possibility of renewed fighting leading to a wider war was particularly influential on the Soviets, it would seem, as a consequence of Moscow's inner debate during 1953 and 1954 over American strategic intentions and their meaning for the Soviet defense system. The views of the so-called Khrushchev wing apparently won out in the spring of 1954: The United States was considered fully capable of initiating a nuclear exchange and a new world war. Free-wheeling discussion in the Western press on the foreign policy implications of Eisenhower's "New Look" and Dulles' "massive retaliation" speech of January 12, 1954, was closely followed by the Soviets, who may have been persuaded in their pessimistic assumptions regarding American strategy by the very ambiguity of American "reliance" on nuclear weapons to combat Communist aggression. In fact, it can be argued that even though the United States and its allies went to the conference table from a position of diplomatic weakness, their hands were considerably strengthened because of Soviet uncertainty over what the West might do in the event the conference failed. Inasmuch as Soviet analyses by no means excluded American recklessness with nuclear weapons, Moscow might have been highly reluctant to press too vigorously for the West's acceptance of exorbitant Viet Minh demands. Soviet awareness that the United States had seriously considered active involvement in Indochina prior to the fall of Dienbienphu may therefore have been a significant lever for the West in the Geneva negotiations. Had the opposite perception been true-had the Soviets, that is, been confident that the American Administration would be highly sober, conservative, and cautious in responding to war situations-Molotov might have been instructed to play a far more audacious game while the Viet Minh intensified their military operations. Dulles' reputation as a militant anti-Communist with tremendous influence on Eisenhower probably served the Western cause well at Geneva.

As a result, to conclude on this point, one of the Soviets' principal aims at the conference was to diminish the possibility of American unilateral or multilateral intervention in the likely belief that intervention would have built up tremendous pressure on Moscow to make new commitments in Southeast Asia. While this
outlook did not prevent the Soviets from at first seeking to capitalize on the change in government in Paris from Laniel to Mendès-France, it did work in the general direction of a reasonable settlement that would be honorable for the French and still valuable to the Viet Minh. The Russians evidently believed that so long as the French (and the British) were kept interested in a settlement, the Americans would be hard-pressed to disregard their allies and intervene.

That Moscow may have been anxious about a wider war does not, however, address the incentives it may have had in concluding the cease-fire. Here, the European Defense Community treaty must have been uppermost in Molotov's mind. No evidence has been found to support the contention that Molotov explicitly baited Mendès-France with a lenient Indochina settlement in return for Assembly rejection of EDC. But Molotov need not have been that obtrusive. Throughout 1953 and into 1954, Soviet propaganda was dominated by comments on EDC and the danger of a rearmed Germany. It was certainly in Soviet interests to pressure the Viet Minh for concessions to the French, since removal of the French command from Indochina would restore French force levels on the Continent and thereby probably offset their need for an EDC. Soviet interests thus dictated the sacrifice of Viet Minh goals if necessary to prevent German remilitarization. Given Moscow's belated attention to the Indochina war, it appears that the consolidation of Viet Minh gains short of complete reunification of Vietnam was more than sufficient to justify termination of the struggle in Soviet eyes--and this perception, it might be added, dovetailed with what seems to have been the Chinese outlook.

Thirdly, the worldwide Soviet peace offensive which gained priority in the aftermath of Stalin's death could be given added impetus through vigorous Soviet support of an Indochina settlement. This point, in fact, was the theme of Molotov's closing remarks to the conference on July 21. He called the accords "a major victory for the forces of peace and a major step towards a reduction of international tensions." Considering that the conference had demonstrated the value of international negotiations to settle dangerous disputes, Molotov said: "The results of the Geneva Conference have confirmed the rightness of the principle which is fundamental to the whole foreign policy of the Soviet Union, namely, that there are no issues in the contemporary international situation which cannot be solved and settled through negotiations and by agreements designed to consolidate peace." At a time when the United States was alleged to be jeopardizing world peace with its "policy of strength," the Soviet Union could lay claim to sparing no effort in the struggle for ways to avoid a nuclear holocaust.

In this light, Communist China was important to the USSR as a partner in the peace offensive. While Moscow could not have wished to see China so gain in prestige as to rival the Soviet Union in Asia or elsewhere, the Russians do seem, in 1954, to have considered a gain in Chinese influence highly desirable if only because the United States would be bound to suffer a corresponding loss. As Molotov phrased it on July 21:

...the Geneva Conference indicated the great positive importance that the participation of the People's Republic of China has in the settlement of urgent international problems. The course of work at this Conference has shown that any artificial obstacles on the road to China's participation in the settlement of international affairs, which are still being put up by aggressive circles of some countries, are being swept away by life itself.

Noteworthy is Molotov's omission of the additional claim made at the time by Peking that China's participation was absolutely essential to the solution of Asian
problems. While the Soviet foreign minister was perhaps thinking in terms of CPR admission to the United Nations, the Chinese apparently were looking beyond the UN to the kind of full-scale diplomatic effort that would earn them Asia's respect as founders of what was later termed the "Bandung spirit." Nor did Molotov assert that China's work at the conference had earned it a status equivalent to one of the major powers. The Soviets were willing to admit that Peking had gained a new importance as a result of the conference, but they refused to go as far as the Chinese in asserting China's first-rank status either in Asia or worldwide.

The Soviets, then, had much to gain from an honorable settlement of the Indochina war and much to risk in permitting the talks to drag on inconclusively. The Viet Minh had proven their strength as a national liberation movement and had been amply rewarded with a firm territorial base assured by international agreement. With overriding interests in Western Europe, Moscow no doubt found great appeal in giving the French a face-saving "out" from Indochina. That EDC was eventually defeated in the National Assembly (in August) was testimony not to the cleverness of any Soviet "deal" with Mendès-France, but simply to a low-cost Soviet diplomatic gamble that paid off handsomely.

Chinese Objectives

For Peking, a negotiated settlement of the Indochina war represented an important opportunity to propel China forward as a major Asian power whose voice in Asian councils could not be ignored. When the Berlin Conference decided in February 1954 to hold an international conference on Indochina, the Chinese applauded the move and prophesied then that the People's Republic, as an invitee, would thereby gain recognition of its major role in Asian affairs. With the Geneva Conference coming at a time of vigorous Chinese diplomatic activity in India and Burma, Peking probably considered a settlement short of a complete Viet Minh victory acceptable, since it would prove China's sincere commitment to peace. Had the CPR spurred the Viet Minh on, it not only would have been in conflict with the Soviets, whose aid was vital to China's economic recovery plans, but would also have lost considerable ground in the support Chou En-lai's travels had earned. The war in Indochina had become, for China, a demonstration test of its sincerity in promoting peaceful coexistence. From the tactical standpoint, devotion to peaceful coexistence may also have been seen as reducing the prospects of widespread Asian support of, or participation in, the American plan for a regional alliance. With the conference ended, China was in a position to offer Asian nations an alternative to alliance with the United States-the concept of "collective peace and security," sustained by mutual agreement to foster the five principles.

The motive force behind China's drive for Asian leadership during the period of the Geneva Conference was the theme that negotiated solutions were possible for all outstanding world problems. By the time of Geneva, Peking had already been party to the armistice in Korea, to agreement with India over Tibet, and to statements of mutual respect issued bilaterally with India and Burma. Moreover, China had joined with Moscow in supporting negotiations of the Indochina war as early as September 1953, while the Sino-Indian and Sino-Burmese statements also contained calls for an early settlement. The major role played by Chou En-Lai at Geneva therefore not simply affirmed China's interest in peace, but as importantly established China's reputation as a flexible bargainer willing to negotiate disputes and make concessions to resolve them. Indeed, once the conference ended, Peking declared that the conference had proved that negotiations could resolve such other East-West problems as a final Korea settlement, arms control, nuclear weapons proliferation, German unification, and European security.

Relatedly, China urged that the Geneva Conference was a benchmark in the rise of the People's Republic to new prominence on the international scene. "The great significance of the convening of the Geneva Conference," the People's Daily proclaimed before its close, "lies in the fact that the Chinese People's Republic is participating in the settlement of Asian questions as one of the Great Powers, thus putting an end to the era when the Asian peoples were denied their say in their own problems." China stood not only for a resurgent, decolonialized Asia, but also as a Great Power. As stated by the authoritative World Culture:

The contributions of the CPR at the Geneva Conference to the search for peace, and its efforts to establish collective security in Asia, have received the universal recognition and trust of the world's peace-loving peoples and nations. Because of this, the position of the CPR as one of the world's great nations has been even more affirmed and its international prestige greatly elevated. The Chinese people feel extraordinary glory because of this.

The fact that China had, in Indochina and as was not the case in Korea, been invited to join with the Big Four in discussing measures for the restoration of peace was considered by Peking to have given the CPR still more international authority.

Augmentation of Chinese prestige in Asia and throughout the world was a benefit due to the conference; but it does not fully explain why China apparently pressed for a settlement when she did rather than prolong the talks until better terms were available. Having negotiated at Panmunjom for two years, why did she take less than three months to conclude a cease-fire in Indochina? There seem to have been three reasons for China's reluctance to engage in extended discussions: (1) agreement with the Soviets that the United States could intervene to spark a wider war; (2) consideration that Laos and Cambodia had been effectively neutralized; (3) satisfaction that a communist state had been established on China's southern flank.

In the first place, Peking was convinced, to judge from its published comments on the war, that influential men in Washington, including Secretary Dulles and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were quite prepared to move directly against China if circumstances permitted. Washington's warnings to Peking in 1953 left room for the continuation of Chinese aid to the Viet Minh, but Peking could never be certain when that aid might become the pretext for active American intervention. By 1954, moreover, the Chinese had evinced greater concern than before over the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons. Having been through a costly war in Korea, and having decided as early as the fall of 1952 to give priority to "socialist reconstruction" at home, Peking had nothing to gain from provoking the United States. Were the Viet Minh encouraged to strive for the maximum territorial advantage, the United States-Peking may have calculated-might withdraw from the conference and change the nature of the war. Once those events occurred, the Chinese advocacy of peace through diplomacy would have been irreparably undercut.

Peking, moreover, was made clearly aware of the dangers inherent in continued fighting. At the conference, Eden used the implied threat of American involvement against Chou in much the same way as Chauvel had used it against Kuznetsov. During late May, for example, Eden warned Chou "again" of the dangers in the Indochina situation; unpredictable and serious results could come about. When Chou said he was counting on Britain to prevent these from happening, the foreign secretary replied Chou was mistaken, since Britain would stand by the United States in a showdown. Furthermore, with the Eisenhower-Churchill warning of June 28 that unacceptable demands made against France would "seriously aggravate" the international situation, with Dulles' perceived pressure on Mendès-France at the Paris meeting of mid-July, and with the return of Smith to the conference table, the Chinese were given unmistakable signs that Western unity had finally been achieved and some kind of coordination worked out on the settlement. At that juncture, the outstanding issue for Peking was not how much territory the DRV would ultimately obtain, but how far Cambodia and Laos could be pressed before the July 20 deadline passed.

By the deadline, as we have seen, Chou En-lai's hardened attitude in conversations with the Cambodian and Laotian delegates had not swayed them from their hope of eventual security coverage by the United States. From China's standpoint, however, the vital agreement had been secured: None of the Indochinese states was permitted to join a military alliance or to allow the establishment of foreign military bases on their soil. Whether the Chinese recognized the alternative for the three states of obtaining protection through a device such as the SEATO Protocol is not known. When the accords were signed, Peking greeted them with the remark that the restrictions upon Indochina's military ties to the West had dealt a severe blow to American regional security ambitions. So long as the United States was not permitted to establish bases in the three countries and to introduce military personnel there, China's security requirements were fulfilled even though, in their internal political make-up, the three states might take a strong anti-Communist line. It was perhaps because the CPR had emerged with these advantages that a Chinese journalist confided on July 23: "We have won the first campaign for the neutralization of all Southeast Asia."

The supposed "neutralization" of Cambodia and Laos was coupled with the securance of a solid territory for the DRV along China's southern frontier. Further territorial gains by the Viet Minh would augment DRV resources, but would not significantly enhance China's security. With agreement by the conference to stabilize the military assets of both zones of Vietnam and to forbid their military alignment with other nations, China could feel some confidence that a divided Vietnam would not present an immediate threat. Thus, the agreements on Cambodia and Laos complemented the Vietnam accord in bolstering China's security from the south even as it also meant a sacrifice of the Viet Minh's capability for overrunning all Vietnam.

The argument here is, in summary, that the Soviet Union and Communist China were less concerned with the specific terms of the settlement than with attaining it once their basic objectives had been achieved. A settlement along lines that would satisfy the Viet Minh need for territory, give France the satisfaction that it had not sold out, go far toward fulfilling Chinese security requirements and political ambitions in Southeast Asia, and reduce the possibility of a precipitate American withdrawal from the conference was, to Moscow and Peking, acceptable and even desirable. They saw advantages to themselves in an early equitable agreement that clearly conflicted with Viet Minh terms, but not with their own objectives.

Precisely how Chou and Molotov reasoned with Ho Chi Minh-by threat, persuasion, or a combination of the two-will likely never be known; but it seems reasonable to suppose that, given the precarious political situation in South Vietnam, the multitude of armed sects and other groups hostile to the Saigon government, the continued exacerbating presence of the French, and the economic and social vulnerabilities of a society wracked by war, Peking and Moscow could argue convincingly that South Vietnam would never cohere sufficiently to pose a viable alternative to the DRV. It may thus have been the Communists' expectation that the DRV would as likely assume control of the entire country by default as by an election victory in 1956. The Chinese, to be sure, accepted the notion that the Geneva accords had, temporarily at least, created two Vietnamese governments rather than simply divided the country administratively. [Doc. 64] But it is improbable that either they or the Soviets anticipated that even an American-supported South Vietnam could survive. Put another way, the possibility of a prospering, anti-Communist South Vietnam may simply not have been a serious, and certainly was not an immediate, concern for either Communist power. The Geneva Conference had created French goodwill for Moscow and added security for Peking; what might happen in South Vietnam may, in 1954, have seemed inconsequential.

Viet Minh Objectives

The Viet Minh did not emerge as "losers" in the negotiations. They received the territorial benefits of the settlement without having to cede the French or any neutral body control of enclaves in northern Vietnam. 'In addition, the DRV was promised an opportunity within two years to gain full control of the country through a ballot box victory, although it appears that Viet Minh leaders put more stock in a collapse of the southern regime before the election date as the path to complete control of the country. In Laos, the Pathet Lao had not been disarmed immediately; instead, they were permitted to regroup over a wide expanse of terrain that would make disarmament difficult to accomplish. And in both Laos and Cambodia, the resistance elements were to be accorded full political rights to participate, as individuals, in the 1955 elections.

In their public commentaries on the Geneva accords, Viet Minh leaders displayed full satisfaction. Military victories had gained political recognition, they said, thanks to the support rendered by the Soviet and Chinese delegations. Vietnam's independence and territorial integrity were admitted by Paris, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed. Moreover, the regroupment to two zones in Vietnam was, as he put it, "a temporary action, a transitional step in the realization of a cease-fire, toward restoring peace and attaining the unification of our country by means of general elections." No "administrative partition" was intended; nor would the "zonal arrangements" be permitted to interfere with Vietnam's future unification:

North, Central and South Viet Nam are territories of ours. Our country will certainly be unified, our entire people will surely be liberated. Our compatriots in the South were the first to wage the war of Resistance. They possess a high political consciousness. I am confident that they will place national interests above local interests, permanent interests above temporary interests, and join their efforts with the entire people in strengthening peace, achieving unity, independence and democracy all over the country . . . . our people, armymen and cadres from North to South must unite closely. They must be at one in thought and deed.

And Ton Duc Thang vowed: "The Vietnam State will undoubtedly be unified through general elections."

Despite these protestations of satisfaction and confidence, Tillman Durdin's report from Geneva that members of the Viet Minh delegation were sharply disappointed by the results and vexed at pressure applied by their Chinese and Russian comrades seems on the mark. The Viet Minh command evidently believed--and no French authority on the spot doubted this--that they could eliminate the French from Tonkin with one major offensive and proceed from there against a weakened, demoralized Franco-Vietnamese army in Annam. Surely Ho Chi Minh must have considered the possibility of American intervention--although this concern does not emerge as clearly from Viet Minh public commentaries as it does from the official Moscow and Peking organs. But the Viet Minh looked to the Korea experience as having demonstrated that fighting and talking simultaneously was, as put by a mid-May VNA broadcast, a tactic they could pursue for two years (like the Chinese during the Panmunjom talks) in order to maximize territorial gains. Whether the Viet Minh ultimately envisaged the conquest of all Vietnam before reaching agreement with the French to cease fire is debatable; at the least, they, like the French, probably regarded maximum control of population and territory as insurance against future elections. Thus, to the Viet Minh, a settlement at the 17th parallel could only have been regarded as a tactical blunder in violation of the guerrilla war theory and practice they had mastered.

Forfeiture of considerable territory in Vietnam was undoubtedly not the only ground for the Viet Minh's displeasure. Their frequent pronouncements on the "indivisibility" of the Viet Minh, Free Khmer, and Pathet Lao were largely ignored by Chou and Molotov, whose agreement on Laos and Cambodia seems to have given priority to Chinese interests. Account had been taken, as Chou insisted, of the desirability of integrating the resistance forces into the national Khmer and Laotian communities, but those forces were eventually to be disarmed and disbanded, or withdrawn. Conceivably, the Viet Minh leaders never intended to leave Laos, or were assured by the Chinese and Soviets that the agreements reached regarding the Pathet Lao were not meant to exclude future North Vietnamese support. Nevertheless, any future Viet Minh contacts with the rebels would be a clear violation of the Geneva accords and provide the occasion for intensified Laotian ties to the West.

The Viet Minh also yielded ground on national elections. Their hopes for an all-Vietnamese political settlement soon after the cease-fire were quashed by the Soviets and Chinese, who were disposed to accept a longer waiting period. Furthermore, the political settlement itself was not given the priority the Viet Minh had originally demanded; it would be achieved, as phrased in the Final Declaration, "in the near future," as the result of rather than as the precondition to, a military (cease-fire) settlement. Finally, when the time for a political settlement was at hand, the Declaration specified that an international body would supervise it rather than the Viet Minh and "South" Vietnamese alone. The overriding interests of the Soviets and Chinese had taken the heart out of the initial Viet Minh proposals of May 10 and, in addition, had considerably undercut their "fallback" positions expressed in late May and June. Jean Chauvel was apparently correct when he perceived, after private talks with the Chinese, that the Viet Minh were really on the end of a string being manipulated from Moscow and Peking. When they moved forward too quickly, Chou and Molotov were always at hand to pull them back to a more accommodating position. Briefly put, the Viet Minh very likely felt they had been compelled to give away much of what they had earned even as they acquired the attributes of sovereignty for which they had fought.


The British

For Great Britain, the accords signalled the end of a war that more than once threatened to involve the United States and risk a regional conflagration. Had the point of direct American intervention been reached, the Churchill government would have been faced with an extraordinarily difficult decision: whether to join with an old ally in a war venture that Britain considered politically wrong and militarily foolish, or to break with Washington and thereby throw into question the Anglo-American alliance. Britain's consistent advice to delay irreversible military steps, including formation of a Southeast Asia defense organization, until the Communists had been given an opportunity to make good on their proclaimed devotion to a peaceful solution over Indochina had been grudgingly accepted by the United States; the choice of following or ignoring American leadership was averted.

A diplomatic untangling of the Indochina problem, as Britain's first hope, also became in large measure its responsibility. If the allies were not to be pressed into a military response, it was as much up to Eden as to Bidault (and, later, Mendès-France), to establish the grounds for a settlement. Although final agreement at the conference required Soviet and Chinese preparedness to offer equitable terms, Eden's own contributions cannot be exaggerated. Working closely with Molotov and Chou, Eden apparently earned their respect as a forthright, flexible, but firm negotiator. That the accords were drawn up testified to Eden's persistence. They were a triumph of British diplomacy to the extent that the Chinese and Soviets, in press commentaries immediately following the close of the Conference, accorded the UK delegation the unusual accolade of having, along with their delegations, rendered the most important services in the agonizing process of reaching agreement.

At the same time as the British successfully pushed through a settlement by diplomatic rather than military means, they also reserved the right to join with the United States in a regional security arrangement immediately after the conference. As Eden had told Chou, the formation of a SEATO would not be put off, even though the Associated States would not become members. British membership in SEATO represented another significant diplomatic victory. They had on several occasions informed the United States that a Southeast Asia pact formed in advance of or during the Geneva deliberations might be interpreted as provocatory by the Chinese and reduce, if not eliminate, chances for a settlement. The British never opposed the concept of SEATO, but they cautioned against poor timing. SEATO's establishment in September 1954 was thus doubly welcomed by London: It satisfied Britain's conviction that a much-needed regional organization should be formed to preserve what remained of Indochina, not to take action to recover it all from the Viet Minh.

Britain's opposition to forming SEATO before or during the conference so as, in part, not to provoke the Chinese fitted with London's aspirations for better Sino-British relations. Quite unlike the dominant voices in Washington, Churchill and Eden were amenable to attempting to achieve some kind of working relationship with Peking, particularly in view of the ongoing guerrilla war in Malaya. The conference, as Eden noted in his June 23 speech to the Commons, had resulted in an improvement of Sino-British relations, demonstrated by Peking's agreement on June 17, after four years of silence, to exchange charges d'affaires. In the remaining month of the conference, moreover, British youth delegations traveled to China, and there were hopeful comments from both countries on the possibilities for stepped up trade and the exchange of cultural delegations. Thus, in sharp contrast to the United States, Great Britain fully exploited this period of harmony through diplomacy to change, rather than preserve, its pattern of contact with Peking.

The French

France probably had as much cause for satisfaction with the outcome at Geneva as any other party to the conference. Paris had extricated itself from la sale guerre with honor, yet had also retained a foothold in South Vietnam and a close relationship with Cambodia and Laos. The French Union lost much of its strength, but not all of its appeal, in Indochina. At least in mid-1954, it appeared that French cultural and economic interests in all three former colonies would be substantially preserved; and even the DRV had indicated, at the close as well as at the beginning of the negotiations, that it aspired to membership in the Union. French military power would have to be surrendered, of course;* but French influence could (and did) remain in all three countries.

* Even as most French troops were withdrawn, a French military presence remained for some time. The last troops did not leave Vietnam until February 1956 while, under the military accords, French instructors remained in Laos and Cambodia and two bases continued to function in Laos.

While the British were ready to join with the United States and other interested nations in SEATO, the French clearly intended, as evidenced by their concern over the location of the demarcation line, that South Vietnam have a defensible territory within which to establish a stable regime competitive with the DRV. * * As already

** French interest was not confined to South Vietnam after July 21, 1954. Soon thereafter, Paris dispatched Jean Sainteny, its former chief negotiator with the Viet Minh at Fontainebleau and Dalat in 1946, to Hanoi to represent French interests without conferring recognition on the DRY. France recognized only one Vietnam but in fact dealt with two.

observed, Paris was not motivated by altruism alone; a substantial territorial base was as much for the preservation of French economic holdings in the South as for the future security of the Saigon government. To judge from the French attitude, the Paris government, no less than the American administration, looked forward to participating fully in the consolidation and rehabilitation of the GVN at least in the two years before nationwide elections.

The Americans

The United States viewed the conference results with mixed emotions. On the one hand, the terms of the settlement conformed surprisingly well to those the Administration had agreed with the French and British would be acceptable. Even as the Administration could not do more than agree to "respect" and "take note" of the Geneva accords, it had to concede that they represented a reasonable outcome given the chaotic state of Allied relations before the conference, the rejection by France of a possible military alternative, and the undeniable military superiority of the Viet Minh beyond as well as within Vietnam. On the other hand, the settlement, viewed through the special lenses of the Eisenhower-Dulles Administration, also contained the elements of defeat. Part of the Free World's "assets" in the Far East had been "lost" to the Sino-Soviet bloc (much as China had been "lost" to Mao Tse-tung's forces); our allies had begged off when offered a chance to deal with the Communists by force of arms and, later, by an Asian-Western anti-Communist alliance ready for action; and the United States had been compelled to attend an international conference which not only confirmed to the Communists by diplomacy what they had gained by force, but also enhanced their image elsewhere in Asia and worldwide as standard-bearers of peace.

The view that Geneva had come out better than could have been expected was the one offered publicly. The President, at a July 21 news conference, declined to criticize the accords. He said they contained "features which we do not like, but a great deal depends on how they work in practice." He announced the Government's intention to establish permanent missions in Laos and Cambodia, and said the United States was actively "pursuing discussions with other free nations with a view to the rapid organization of a collective defense in Southeast Asia in order to prevent further direct or indirect Communist aggression in that general area."

Under Secretary Smith likewise was very guarded in remarks two days later. Denying that Geneva was another "Munich," Smith said: "I am . . . convinced that the results are the best that we could possibly have obtained in the circumstances," adding that "diplomacy has rarely been able to gain at the conference table what cannot be gained or held on the battlefield." When Dulles spoke (also on July 23), he was much less interested in the past than in the future. Referring to "the loss in Northern Vietnam," the Secretary expressed the hope that much would be learned from the experience toward preventing further Communist inroads in Asia. Two lessons could be culled, he observed. First, popular support was essential against Communist subversion; "the people should feel that they are defending their own national institutions." Second, collective defense should precede rather than come during the aggression-a pointed criticism of British policy during the crisis. A collective security system now in Southeast Asia, he concluded, would check both outright aggression and subversion.

A point-by-point comparison of the Seven Points with the provisions of the accords indicates that quite apart from what had happened to American interests in Southeast Asia as a consequence of the conference, American diplomacy had, on balance, succeeded:

(1) The integrity and independence of Laos and Cambodia were preserved, and Viet Minh forces were to be withdrawn or disarmed and disbanded.
(2) Southern Vietnam was retained, although without an enclave in the North and with the partition line somewhat south of Dong Hoi.
(3) Laos, Cambodia, and "retained" Vietnam were not prevented from forming "non-Communist regimes" (in the case of Vietnam, within the two-year preelection period); nor were they expressly forbidden "to maintain adequate forces for internal security." Vietnam's right to import arms and other war materiel was, however, restricted to piece-by-piece replacement, and its employment of foreign advisers to the number in the country at the war's close.
(4-5) Recalling Dulles' interpretation of July 7 that elections should "be only held as long after cease-fire agreement as possible and in conditions free from intimidation to give democratic elements best chance," the accords did not "contain political provisions which would risk loss of the retained area to Communist control"; nor did they "exclude the possibility of the ultimate reunification of Vietnam by peaceful means." Although Dulles and Mendès-France preferred that no date be set for the elections, the compromise two-year hiatus gave the Americans, the French, and the South Vietnamese a considerable breathing spell. The first priority, therefore, was to "give democratic elements best chance"; as was subsequently determined by Washington, this meant providing South Vietnam with economic assistance and political support. Elections, as Dulles indicated then, and as the OCB concurred in August, were agreeable to the United States; but they were two years away, and the immediate, primary task was "to maintain a friendly non-Communist South Vietnam..." Thus, the corollary objective (stated by the NSC in August and approved by the President) "to prevent a Communist victory through all-Vietnam elections" did not connote American intention to subvert the accords; read in context, the phrase meant that American influence would aim at assuring that the Communists not gain an electoral victory through deceitful, undemocratic methods in violation of the Final Declaration's stipulation that they be "free."
(6) The accords expressly provided for the transfer of individuals desiring to move from one zone to another.
(7) The accords did seem, at the time, to have basically fulfilled the precondition of providing "effective machinery for international supervision of the agreement." Although the machinery would be the ICC's rather than the UN's, Under Secretary Smith noted that the ICC would have a veto power on important questions (referring, evidently, to the unanimity rule); would be composed of one genuine neutral (India) and one pro-Western government (Canada); and would be permitted full freedom of movement into demilitarized zones and frontier and coastal areas. Smith gave this assessment:

Taking everything into consideration, I strongly feel this [the control and supervision arrangement] is satisfactory and much better than we were able to obtain in Korea. French feel, and Eden and I agree, that with such composition built-in veto will work to our advantage. This setup is best French or anybody else could get, and I feel it is within spirit of point 7. [Doc. 79]

Despite the overall concordance of major provisions of the accords with the Seven Points, the fact that another piece of territory had been formally ceded to the Communists obviously weighed heavily on the Administration. When, in August, papers were drawn up for the National Security Council, the Geneva Conference was evaluated as a major defeat for United States diplomacy and a potential disaster for United States security interests in the Far East. The Operations Control Board, in its progress report on the then-current NSC paper 5405, stated that the Final Declaration of the conference "completed a major forward stride of communism which may lead to the loss of Southeast Asia. It therefore recorded a drastic defeat of key policies in NSC 5405 and a serious loss for the free world, the psychological and political effects of which will be felt throughout the Far East and around the globe." In a separate report, the NSC was somewhat more specific concerning the extent of the damage, but no less restrained. The Communists had acquired "an advance salient" in Vietnam for use in military and nonmilitary ways; the United States had lost prestige as a leader in Asia capable of stemming Communist expansion; the Communist peace line had gained at America's expense; and Communist military and political prestige had been enhanced as the result of their proven ability to exploit unstable situations in Southeast Asian countries without resort to armed attack.

The conclusion that emerges from the obvious contrast between the public and private comments of Administration officials and organs is that where American diplomacy fell down was not at the conference but during the Indochina crisis as a whole. Nearly alJ the revised American negotiatory principles had emerged unscathed; but American objectives in Indochina--the elimination of the Viet Minh threat, preservation of the strategically vital Tonkin Delta, and obstruction of Communist political and military expansionist policies in the region (all of which were enumerated in NSC 5405--had still been defeated. The United States had admirably maneuvered at Geneva in its self-limited role of interested party; but the Administration, convinced that any attrition of what had been regarded as "Free World" territory and resources was inimical to American global interests, could only view the settlement as the acceptance of terms from the Communist victors. The task in Vietpam in the two years ahead was therefore to work with what had been "retained" in the hope, by no means great, that the Diem government could pull the country up by its bootstraps in time to present a meaningful alternative to Ho Chi Minh's DRV.

Go Back to the First Section of Volume 1, Chapter 3 of the Pentagon Papers

Glossary of Acronyms and Terms

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "Background to the Conflict, 1940-1950." pp. 1-52

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Involvement in the Franco-Viet Minh War, 1950-1954," pp. 53-107

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 3 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Geneva Conference, May-July, 1954," pp. 108-178.

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 4 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. and France in Indochina, 1950-56," pp. 179-241

Go to Volume 1, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "Origins of the Insurgency in South Vietnam, 1954-1960," pp. 242-314

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Kennedy Commitments and Programs, 1961,"pp. 1-127

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Strategic Hamlet Program, 1961-1963," pp. 128-159.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "Phased Withdrawal of U.S. Forces, 1962-1964," pp. 160-200.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem, May-November, 1963," pp. 201-276.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 5 of the Pentagon Papers, "US-GVN Relations, 1964-1967," pp. 277-407.

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 6 of the Pentagon Papers, "The Advisory Build-up, 1961-67," pp. 408-514

Go to Volume 2, Chapter 7 of the Pentagon Papers, "Re-Emphasis on Pacification: 1965-1967," pp. 515-623.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 1 of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Programs in South Vietnam, Nov. 1963-Apr. 1965," pp. 1-105.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 2 of the Pentagon Papers, "Military Pressures Against North Vietnam, February 1964-January 1965," pp. 106-268.

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 3, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam: Rolling Thunder Begins, February-June, 1965," pp. 269-388

Go to Volume 3, Chapter 4, of the Pentagon Papers, "American Troops Enter the Ground War, March-July 1965," pp. 389-485

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 1, of the Pentagon Papers, "The Air War in North Vietnam, 1965-1968," pp. 1-276.

Go to Volume 4, Chapter 2, of the Pentagon Papers, "U.S. Ground Strategy and Force Deployments, 1965-1968," pp. 277-604.

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