Geneva Conference (1954)

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For other similar events, see Geneva Conference.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954[1]) was a conference which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, whose purpose was to attempt to find a way to settle outstanding issues on the Korean peninsula and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina.[2] The Soviet Union, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China were participants throughout the whole conference while different countries concerned with the two questions were also represented during the discussion of their respective questions,[3] which included the countries that sent troops through the United Nations to the Korean War and the various countries that ended the First Indochina War between France and the Việt Minh.

The part of the conference on the Korean question ended without adopting any declarations or proposals. On Indochina, the conference produced a set of documents known as the Geneva Accords. These agreements temporarily separated Vietnam into two zones, a northern zone to be governed by the Việt Minh, and a southern zone to be governed by the State of Vietnam, then headed by former emperor Bảo Đại.

A Conference Final Declaration, issued by the British chairman of the conference, provided that a general election be held by July 1956 to create a unified Vietnamese state. Although presented as a consensus view, this document was not accepted by the delegates of either the State of Vietnam or the United States. In addition, three separate ceasefire accords, covering Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, were signed at the conference.


On February 18 1954, at the Berlin Conference it was agreed that "the problem of restoring peace in Indochina will also be discussed at the Conference [on the Korean question] to which representatives of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the Chinese People's Republic and other interested states will be invited."[4][4]:436

The conference was held at the Palace of Nations, commencing on April 26. The first agenda item was the Korean question to be followed by Indochina.[4]:549


Main article: Korean War

The armistice signed at end of the Korean War required a political conference within three months—a timeline which was not met—“to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.”[5]


Main article: First Indochina War
The Geneva Conference.

After the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the Provisional Government of the French Republic restored colonial rule in French Indochina. Nationalist and communist movements in Vietnam led to the First Indochina War in 1946. This colonial war between the French Union's Expeditionary Corps and Hồ Chí Minh's Việt Minh guerrillas turned into a Cold War crisis in January 1950.[6] The communist Việt Minh received support from the newly proclaimed People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, while France and the newly created Vietnamese National Army received support from the United States.

The Battle of Điện Biên Phủ started on March 13, 1954 and continued during the conference. The course of the battle hung over the conference as both sides sought a strategic victory that would strengthen their negotiating position.

On the Korean question[edit]

The South Korean representative proposed that the South Korean government was the only legal government in Korea, that UN-supervised elections should be held in the North, that Chinese forces should withdraw, and that UN forces—a belligerent party to the war—should remain as a police force. The North Korean representative suggested that elections be held throughout all of Korea, that all foreign forces leave beforehand, that the elections be run by an all-Korean Commission that is made up of equal parts from North and South Korea, and to generally increase relations economically and culturally between the North and the South.[7]

The Chinese delegation proposed an amendment to have a group of “neutral nations” supervise the elections, which the North accepted. The U.S. supported the South Korean position and saying that the USSR wanted to turn North Korea into a puppet state. Most allies remained silent and at least one, Britain, thought that the U.S.-South Korean proposal would be deemed unreasonable.[8]

The South Korean representative then made a new proposal where there would be all-Korea elections but that they would be held according to South Korean constitutional procedures and still under UN-supervision. On June 15, the last day of the conference on the Korean question, the USSR and China both submitted declarations in support of a unified, democratic, independent Korea, and that negotiations to that end should resume at an appropriate time. The Belgian and British delegations said that while they were not going to accept “the Soviet and Chinese proposals, that did not mean a rejection of the ideas they contained.”[9] In the end, however, no declaration was adopted.

On Indochina[edit]

"Charles DeGaulle and Ho Chi Minh are hanged" in effigy by students demonstrating in Saigon, July 1964, on the tenth anniversary of the July 1954 Geneva Agreements.

While the delegates began to assemble in Geneva from late April, the discussions on Indochina only commenced on May 8, 1954; the Viet Minh had acheived their decisive victory over the French Union forces at Dien Bien Phu the previous day.[4]:549

The Western allies did not have a unified position on what the Conference was to acheive in relation to Indochina. Anthony Eden leading the French delegation favored a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Georges Bidault leading the French delegation vacillated - keen to preserve something of France's position in Indochina and justify past sacrifices even as its military situation deteriorated.[4]:559 The U.S. had been supporting the French in Indochina for many years and the Eisenhower Administration wanted to ensure that it could not be accused of having "lost" Indochina to the Communists as they had accused the Truman Administration of having "lost China" previously. The Eisenhower Administration had considered air strikes in support of the French at Dien Bien Phu, but were unable to obtain a commitment to united action from key allies such as the United Kingdom and Eisenhower was wary of becoming drawn into "another Korea" that would be deeply unpopular with the American public. U.S. domestic politics heavily influenced the U.S. position at Geneva.[4]:551-3 Columnist Walter Lippman wrote on April 29 that "the American position at Geneva is an impossible one,so long as leading Republican senators have no terms for peace except unconditional surrender of the enemy and no terms for entering the war except as a collective action in which nobody is now willing to engage."[4]:554 At the time of Geneva the U.S. did not recognize the People's Republic of China and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a virulent anti-Communist, forbade any contact with the Chinese delegation, even refusing to shake hands with Zhou Enlai, the lead Chinese negotiator.[4]:555 Dulles fell out with the UK delegate Anthony Eden over the perceived failure of the UK to support united action and U.S. positions on Indochina and left Geneva on May 3 being replaced by his deputy Walter Bedell Smith.[4]:555-8 The State of Vietnam refused to attend the negotiations until Bidault wrote to Bao Dai assuring him that any agreement would not partition Vietnam.[4]:550-1

Bidault opened the conference on May 8 by proposing a cessation of hostilities, a ceasefire in place, a release of prisoners and a disarming of irregulars, notwithstanding the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu the previous day.[4]:559-60

On May 10, Pham Van Dong, leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) delegation set out their position which proposed a ceasefire, separation of the opposing forces, a ban on the introduction of new forces into Indochina, exchange of prisoners, independence and sovereignty for Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, elections for unified governments in each country, withdrawal of all foreign forces and the inclusion of the Pathet Lao and Khmer Issarak representatives at the Conference.[4]:560Following their victory at Dien Bien Phu and given the worsening French security position around the Red River Delta, a ceasefire and partition would not appear to have been in the interests of the DRV, however it appears that the DRV leadership saw the balance of forces as uncomfortably close and were worried about morale problems among their troops and supporters after 8 years of war.[4]:561

On May 12, the State of Vietnam rejected any partition of the country and the U.S. expressed a similar position the next day. The French sought to implement a physical separation of the opposing forces into enclaves throughout the country, known as the "leopard-skin" approach. The DRV/Viet Minh would be given the Cà Mau Peninsula, 3 enclaves near Saigon, large areas of Annam and Tonkin, however the French Union forces would retain most urban areas and the Red River Delta, including Hanoi and Haiphong allowing it to resume combat operation in the north if necessary.[4]:562-3

Behind the scenes the U.S. and French Governments continued to discuss the terms for possible U.S. military intervention in Indochina.[4]:563-6 By May 29 the U.S. and the French had reached agreement that if the Conference failed to deliver an acceptable peace deal Eisenhower would seek Congressional approval for military intervention in Indochina.[4]:568-9 However, following discussions with the Australian and New Zealand Governments where it became clear that neither would support U.S. military intervention, reports of the plummeting morale among the French Union forces and opposition from Army Chief of Staff Matthew Ridgway the U.S. position began to move away from intervention, however they could still not support a negotiated settlement.[4]:569-73 By early-mid June the U.S. began to consider the possibility that rather than supporting the French to stay in Indochina, it might be preferable for the French to leave Indochina and for the U.S. to support the new Indochinese states without the perception of French colonialism. As they were unwilling to support the proposed partition or intervention, by mid-June the U.S. decided to withdraw from major participation in the Conference.[4]:574-5

On June 15 Molotov had proposed that the ceasefire should be monitored by a supervisory commission chaired by neutral India. On June 16, Zhou Enlai stated that the situations in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not the same and should be treated separately, Laos and Cambodia could be treated as neutral nations provided they had no foreign bases. On June 18 Pham Van Dong said the Viet Minh would be prepared to withdraw their forces from Laos and Cambodia provided no foreign bases were established in Indochina.[4]:581 This apparent softening of the Communist position appeared to arise from a meeting between the DRV, Chinese and Soviet delegations on June 15 where Zhou warned the Viet Minh that their military presence in Laos and Cambodia threatened to undermine negotiations in relation to Vietnam. This represented a major blow to the DRV as they had tried to ensure that the Pathet Lao and Khmer Issarak would join the governments in Laos and Cambodia respectively, under the leadership of the DRV. It is likely that the Chinese also sought to ensure that going forward Laos and Cambodia were not under Vietnam's influence, but China's.[4]:581-3

On June 18, following a vote of no-confidence the Laniel government fell and was replaced by a coalition with Radical Pierre Mendès France as Prime Minister by a vote of 419 to 47 with 143 abstentions.[4]:579 A long-time opponent of the war Mendès France had pledged to the National Assembly that he would resign if he failed to acheive a ceasefire within 30 days.[4]:575 Mendès France retained the Foreign Ministry for himself and Bidault left the Conference.[4]:579 On June 23, Mendès France secretly met with Zhou at the French Embassy in Bern.[4]:584

Geneva Accords and response[edit]

The Geneva Accords, which were issued on July 21, 1954,[10] carefully worded the division of northern and southern Vietnam as a "provisional military demarcation line",[11] "on either side of which the forces of the two parties shall be regrouped after their withdrawal".[11]

Northern and southern zones were drawn into which opposing troops were to withdraw, to facilitate the cessation of hostilities between the Vietnamese forces and those that had supported the French. Viet Minh units, having advanced to the far south while fighting the French, retreated from these positions, in accordance with the Agreement, to north of the ceasefire line, awaiting unification on the basis of internationally supervised free elections to be held in July 1956.[12]

Most of the French Union forces evacuated Vietnam, although much of the regional governmental infrastructure in the South was the same as it had been under the French administration. An International Control Commission was set up to oversee the implementation of the Geneva Accords, but it was essentially powerless to ensure compliance. It was to consist of India, Canada, and Poland.

The agreement was among Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, Laos, the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The State of Vietnam rejected the agreement.[13] The United States took note and acknowledged that the agreement existed, but refused to sign the agreement, to avoid being legally bound to it.[citation needed]

To specifically put aside any notion that it was a partition, they further stated, in the Final Declaration, Article 6: "The Conference recognizes that the essential purpose of the agreement relating to Vietnam is to settle military questions with a view to ending hostilities and that the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary" [11]

Then U.S. Under-Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith said, "In connection with the statement in the Declaration concerning free elections in Vietnam, my government wishes to make clear its position which it has expressed in a Declaration made in Washington on June 29, 1954, as follows: 'In the case of nations now divided against their will, we shall continue to seek unity through free elections, supervised by the United Nations to ensure they are conducted fairly.'"[11] However, this "American Plan" was rejected by the North Vietnamese and by the Soviet delegation.[14]

Post declaration events[edit]

Anticommunist Vietnamese refugees moving from a French LSM landing ship to the USS Montague during Operation Passage to Freedom in August 1954.

For Communist forces, which were instrumental in the defeat of the French, the ideology of communism and nationalism were linked. Many communist sympathisers viewed the South Vietnamese as a French colonial and later an American puppet regime. On the other hand, as many others viewed the North Vietnamese as a puppet of Communist International.

After the cessation of hostilities, a large migration took place. 1,000,000 North Vietnamese, many were Catholics, intellectuals, business people, land owners, anti-communist democrats, and members of the middle-class moved south of the Accords-mandated ceasefire line during Operation Passage to Freedom. The CIA attempted to further influence Catholic Vietnamese with slogans such as 'the Virgin Mary is moving South'. At the same time, 52,000 people from the South went North, mostly Viet Minh members and their families.[citation needed]

The U.S. replaced the French as a political backup for Ngo Dinh Diem, then Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam and he asserted his power in the South. Diem refused to hold the national elections, citing that the South did not sign and were not bound to the Geneva Accords and that it was impossible to hold free elections in the communist North, and went about attempting to crush communist opposition.[15]

North Vietnam established military operations in the South in violation of the Geneva Accords, by providing military supplies and equipment, weaponry, and military personnel and leadership to the Viet Cong in the South. Guerrilla activity in the South escalated, while U.S. military advisers continued to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which was created as a replacement for the Vietnamese National Army. The failure of reunification led to the creation of the National Liberation Front (better known as the Vietcong) by Ho Chi Minh's government. They were closely aided by the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) of the North, also known as the North Vietnamese Army. The result was the Second Indochinese War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War.[citation needed]

Sino-British relations[edit]

The British and Communist Chinese delegations reached agreement on the sidelines of the Conference to upgrade their diplomatic relations.[16]


John Lewis Gaddis, a historian, said that the 1954 accords "were so hastily drafted and ambiguously worded that, from the standpoint of international law, it makes little sense to speak of violations from either side."[17]


  1. ^ Young, Marilyn (1991). The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. New York: HarperPerennial. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-06-092107-1. 
  2. ^ "Indochina - Midway in the Geneva Conference: Address by the Secretary of State". Avalon Project (Yale Law School). May 7, 1954. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  3. ^ "The Geneva Conference". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China. 2000-11-17. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x Logevall, Fredrik (2012). Embers of War: The fall of an Empire and the making of America's Vietnam. random House. ISBN 978-0-679-64519-1. 
  5. ^ "Text of the Korean War Armistice Agreement". Findlaw. Columbia University. July 27, 1953. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  6. ^ Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam, Kathryn C. Statler, Unirvesity Press of Kentucky, July 2007
  7. ^ Bailey, Sydney D. (1992). The Korean Armistice. St. Martin's Press. p. 163. 
  8. ^ Bailey, Sydney D. (1992). The Korean Armistice. St. Martin's Press. p. 163. 
  9. ^ Bailey, Sydney D. (1992). The Korean Armistice. St. Martin's Press. pp. 167–168. 
  10. ^ "The Final Declarations of the Geneva Conference July 21, 1954". The Wars for Viet Nam. Vassar College. Retrieved 20 July 2011. 
  11. ^ a b c d The United States in Vietnam: An analysis in depth of the history of America's involvement in Vietnam by George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis Delta Books, 1967.
  12. ^ (Article 3) (N. Tarling, The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Volume Two Part Two: From World War II to the present, Cambridge University Press, p45)
  13. ^ Ang Cheng Guan (1997). Vietnamese Communists' Relations with China and the Second Indochina War (1956–62). Jefferson, NC: McFarland. p. 11. ISBN 0-7864-0404-3. 
  14. ^ The Pentagon Papers (1971), Beacon Press, vol. 3, p. 140.
  15. ^ Keylor, William. "The 20th Century World and Beyond: An International History Since 1900," p.371, Oxford University Press: 2011.
  16. ^ Lowe, Peter (January 1997). Containing the Cold War in East Asia: British Policies Towards Japan, China and Korea, 1948-53. Manchester University Press. p. 261. ISBN 9780719025082. Retrieved July 21, 2013. 
  17. ^ Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1997. 126.

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