Geneva Conference (1954)
The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954) was a conference among several nations that took place in Geneva, Switzerland, in order to settle outstanding issues resulting from the Korean War and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina. The Soviet Union, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China were participants throughout the conference, while other countries concerned were represented during the discussion of questions of interest to them. These included the countries that contributed troops to the United Nations forces in the Korean War, and countries that participated in the resolution of 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, participants 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.":436
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.”
After the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the Provisional Government of the French Republic restored colonial rule in French Indochina, encompassing present-day Vietnam. Nationalist and communist movements in Vietnam fought for independence, resulting in 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. The communist Việt Minh received support from the newly proclaimed People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, while France and the newly established Vietnamese National Army received support from the United States.
The Battle of Điện Biên Phủ started on March 13, 1954, and continued during the Geneva 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
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 in 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.
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, 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.
The South Korean representative proposed all-Korea elections, to 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, saying 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.” In the end, however, the conference participants did not agree on any declaration.
While the delegates began to assemble in Geneva from late April, the discussions on Indochina did not begin until May 8, 1954. The Viet Minh had achieved their decisive victory over the French Union forces at Dien Bien Phu the previous day.:549
The Western allies did not have a unified position on what the Conference was to achieve in relation to Indochina. Anthony Eden, leading the British 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 the nation's military situation deteriorated.:559 The U.S. had been supporting the French in Indochina for many years and the Republican Eisenhower administration wanted to ensure that it could not be accused of another "Yalta" or having "lost" Indochina to the Communists. Its leaders had previously accused the Democratic Truman administration of having "lost China" when the communists were successful in dominating the country.
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. Eisenhower was wary of becoming drawn into "another Korea" that would be deeply unpopular with the American public. U.S. domestic policy considerations strongly influenced the U.S. position at Geneva.: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.":554 At the time of the Geneva conference, the U.S. did not recognize the People's Republic of China. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a strong anti-Communist, forbade any contact with the Chinese delegation, refusing to shake hands with Zhou Enlai, the lead Chinese negotiator.: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; he left Geneva on May 3, being replaced by his deputy Walter Bedell Smith.: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.: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 surrender at Dien Bien Phu the previous day in northwest Vietnam.:559–60
On May 10, Pham Van Dong, leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) delegation set out their position, proposing 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.:560 Pham Van Dong first proposed a temporary partition of Vietnam on May 25. Following 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. It appears that the DRV leadership thought the balance of forces was uncomfortably close and were worried about morale problems among their troops and supporters after 8 years of war.:561 Turner has argued that the Viet Minh might have prolonged the negotiations and continued fighting to achieve a more favorable position militarily, if not for Chinese and Soviet pressure on them to end the fighting. In addition, there was a widespread perception that the Diem government would collapse, leaving the Viet Minh free to take control of the area.
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, three enclaves near Saigon, large areas of Annam and Tonkin; 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.:562–3
Behind the scenes the U.S. and French governments continued to discuss the terms for possible U.S. military intervention in Indochina.: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.:568–9 However, following discussions with the Australian and New Zealand governments, in which it became evident 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. began to shift away from intervention. They continued to oppose a negotiated settlement.:569–73 By early-mid June, the U.S. began to consider the possibility that, rather than supporting the French in Indochina, it might be preferable for the French to leave and for the U.S. to support the new Indochinese states. This would remove the taint of French colonialism. Unwilling to support the proposed partition or intervention, by mid-June the U.S. decided to withdraw from major participation in the Conference.:574–5
On June 15 Vyacheslav 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. He proposed that 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.:581 This apparent softening of the Communist position appeared to arise from a meeting among 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. The Chinese likely also sought to ensure that Laos and Cambodia were not under Vietnam's influence in the future, but under China's.:581–3
On June 18, following a vote of no-confidence, the French 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.:579 Prior to the collapse of the Laniel government, France recognized Vietnam as "a fully independent and sovereign state" on June 4. A long-time opponent of the war, Mendès France had pledged to the National Assembly that he would resign if he failed to achieve a ceasefire within 30 days.:575 Mendès France retained the Foreign Ministry for himself, and Bidault left the Conference.:579 The new French government abandoned earlier assurances to the State of Vietnam that France would not pursue or accept partition, and engaged in secret negotiations with the Viet Minh delegation, bypassing the State of Vietnam to meet Mendès France's self-imposed deadline. On June 23, Mendès France secretly met with Zhou Enlai at the French Embassy in Bern, Zhou outlined the Chinese position that an immediate ceasefire was required, the three nations should be treated separately, and recognition that two governments existed in Vietnam.:584 Mendès France returned to Paris. The following day he met with his main advisers on Indochina. General Ely outlined the deteriorating military position in Vietnam, and Jean Chauvel suggested that the situation on the ground called for partition at the 16th or 17th parallel. The three agreed that the Bao Dai government would need time to consolidate its position and that U.S. assistance would be vital. The possibility of retaining Hanoi and Haiphong or just Haiphong was dismissed, as the French believed it was preferable to seek partition with no Viet Minh enclaves in the south.:585–7
On June 16, 12 days after France granted full independence to the State of Vietnam, Bao Dai appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as Prime Minister to replace Bửu Lộc. Diem was a staunch nationalist, both anti-French and anti-Communist, with strong political connections in the U.S.:576 Diem agreed to take the position, on the condition that he receive all civilian and military powers. Diem, and his foreign minister Tran Van Do, were strongly opposed to partition of Vietnam. At Geneva, the State of Vietnam's proposal included "a ceasefire without a demarcation line" and "control by the United Nations...of the administration of the entire country [and] of the general elections, when the United Nations believes that order and security will have been everywhere truly restored."
On June 28 following an Anglo-U.S. summit in Washington, the UK and US issued a joint communique that included a statement that if the Conference failed, "the international situation will be seriously aggravated." The parties also agreed to a secret list of seven minimum outcomes which both parties would "respect;" these included preserving a non-Communist south Vietnam (plus an enclave in the Red River Delta if possible), future reunification of divided Vietnam, and the integrity of Cambodia and Laos, including removal of all Viet Minh forces.:593–4
Also on June 28, Tạ Quang Bửu, a senior DRV negotiator, called for the line of partition to be at the 13th parallel, the withdrawal of all French Union forces from the north within 3 months of the ceasefire, and the Pathet Lao to have virtual sovereignty over eastern Laos.:595–6
From July 3–5, Zhou Enlai met with Ho Chi Minh and other senior DRV leaders in Liuzhou. Most of the first day was spent discussing the military situation and balance of forces in Vietnam, General Giáp explained that while
"Dien Bien Phu had represented a colossal defeat for France... she was far from defeated. She retained a superiority in numbers - some 470,000 troops, roughly half of them Vietnamese, versus 310,000 on the Viet Minh side as well as control of Vietnam's major cities (Hanoi, Saigon, Hue, Tourane (Da Nang)). A fundamental alteration of the balance of forces had thus yet to occur, Giap continued, despite Dien Bien Phu.
Wei Guoqing, the chief Chinese military adviser to the Viet Minh, said he agreed. "If the U.S. does not interfere," Zhou asked, "and assuming France will dispatch more troops, how long will it take for us to seize the whole of Indochina?" In the best-case scenario, Giap replied, full victory could be achieved in two to three years. Worst case? Three to five years.".:596
That afternoon Zhou "offered a lengthy exposition on the massive international reach of the Indochina conflict...and on the imperative of preventing an American intervention in the war. Given Washington's intense hostility to the Chinese Revolution...one must assume that the current administration would not stand idly by if the Viet Minh sought to win complete victory." Consequently, "if we ask too much at Geneva and peace is not achieved, it is certain that the U.S. will intervene, providing Cambodia, Laos and Bao Dai with weapons and ammunition, helping them train military personnel, and establishing military bases there....The central issue," Zhou told Ho, is "to prevent America's intervention" and "to achieve a peaceful settlement." Laos and Cambodia would have to be treated differently and allowed to pursue their own paths, provided they did not join a military alliance or permit foreign bases on their territory. The Mendes France government, having vowed to achieve a negotiated solution, must be supported, lest it fall and be replaced by one committed to continuing the war.":597 Ho pressed hard for the partition line to be at the 16th parallel while Zhou noted that Route 9, the only land route from Laos to the South China Sea ran closer to the 17th parallel.:597
Several days later the party's Sixth Central Committee plenum took place. Ho Chi Minh and General Secretary Trường Chinh took turns emphasising the need for an early political settlement so as to prevent a military intervention by the United States, now the "main and direct enemy" of Vietnam. "in the new situation we cannot follow the old program." Ho declared. "[B]efore, our motto was, "war of resistance until victory." Now, in view of the new situation, we should uphold a new motto: peace, unification, independence, and democracy." A spirit of compromise would be required by both sides to make the negotiations succeed, and there could be no more talk of wiping out and annihilating all the French troops. A demarcation line allowing the temporary regroupment of both sides would be necessary..." The plenum endorsed Ho's analysis, passing a resolution supporting a compromise settlement to end the fighting. But Ho and Truong Chinh plainly worried that following such an agreement at Geneva, there would be internal discontent and "leftist deviation" and in particular that analysts would fail to see the complexity of the situation and underestimate the power of the American and French adversaries. They accordingly reminded their colleagues that France would retain control of a large part of the country, and that people living in this area might be confused, alienated and vulnerable to enemy manipulations.
"We have to make it clear to our people," Ho said, that "in the interest of the whole country, for the sake of long-term interest, they must accept this, because it is a glorious thing and the whole country is grateful for that. We must not let people have pessimistic and negative thinking; instead, we must encourage the people to continue the struggle for the withdrawal of French troops and ensure our independence.":597–8
The Conference reconvened on July 10, and Mendès France arrived to lead the French delegation.:599 The State of Vietnam continued to protest against partition but this had become inevitable, with the only issue being where the line should be drawn.:602 Walter Bedell Smith from the US arrived in Geneva on July 16, but the U.S. delegation was under instructions to avoid direct association with the negotiations.:602
All parties at the Conference called for reunification elections, but could not agree on the details. Pham Van Dong proposed elections under the supervision of "local commissions". The US, with the support of Britain and the Associated States of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, suggested UN supervision. This plan was rejected by Molotov, who argued for a commission composed of an equal number of communist and non-communist members, which could determine "important" issues only by unanimous agreement. The negotiators were unable to agree on a date for the elections for reunification. The DRV argued that the elections should be held within 6 months of the ceasefire, while the Western allies sought to have no deadline. Molotov proposed June 1955, then later softened this to any time in 1955 and finally July 1956.:610 The Diem government supported reunification elections, but only with effective international supervision, arguing that genuinely free elections were impossible in the totalitarian North.
By the afternoon of July 20 the remaining outstanding issues were resolved as the parties agreed that the partition line should be at the 17th parallel and that the elections for reunification should be in July 1956, two years after the ceasefire.:604 The "Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam" was signed only by French and Viet Minh military commands, completely bypassing the State of Vietnam. Based on a proposal by Zhou Enlai, an International Control Commission (ICC) chaired by India, with Canada and Poland as members, was placed in charge of supervising the ceasefire.:603 Because issues were to be decided unanimously, Poland's presence in the ICC provided the communists effective veto power over supervision of the treaty. The unsigned "Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference" called for reunification elections, which the majority of delegates expected to be supervised by the ICC. The Viet Minh never accepted ICC authority over such elections, stating that the ICC's "competence was to be limited to the supervision and control of the implementation of the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities by both parties." Of the nine delegates present, only the United States and the State of Vietnam refused to accept the declaration. Bedell Smith delivered a "unilateral declaration" of the US position, reiterating: "We shall seek to achieve unity through free elections supervised by the United Nations to insure that they are conducted fairly."
The Geneva Accords, which were issued on July 21, 1954, set out the following terms in relation to Vietnam:
- a "provisional military demarcation line" running approximately along the 17th Parallel "on either side of which the forces of the two parties shall be regrouped after their withdrawal".
- a 3 miles (4.8 km) wide demilitarized zone on each side of the demarcation line
- French Union forces to regroup to the south of the line and Viet Minh to the north
- free movement of the population between the zone for three hundred days
- neither zone to join any military alliance or seek military reinforcement
- establishment of the International Control Commission, comprising Canada, Poland and India as chair, to monitor the ceasefire:605
The agreement was signed by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, the People's Republic of China, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. The State of Vietnam rejected the agreement. while the United States stated that it "took note" of the ceasefire agreements and declared that it would "refrain from the threat or use of force to disturb them.:606
To specifically put aside any notion that the partition was permanent, an unsigned Final Declaration, stated in 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" 
Reactions to the Geneva Accords
The DRV at Geneva accepted a much worse settlement than the military situation on the ground indicated. "For Ho Chi Minh, there was no getting around the fact that his victory, however unprecedented and stunning was incomplete and perhaps temporary. The vision that had always driven him on, that of a "great union" of all Vietnamese, had flickered into view for a fleeting moment in 1945-6, then had been lost in the subsequent war. Now, despite vanquishing the French military, the dream remained unrealized...":620 This was partly as a result of the great pressure exerted by China (Pham Van Dong is alleged to have said in one of the final negotiating sessions that Zhou Enlai double-crossed the DRV) and the Soviet Union for their own purposes, but the Viet Minh had their own reasons for agreeing to a negotiated settlement, principally their own concerns regarding the balance of forces and fear of U.S. intervention.:607–9
France had achieved a much better outcome than could have been expected. Bidault had stated at the beginning of the Conference that he was playing with "a two of clubs and a three of diamonds" whereas the DRV had several aces, kings and queens,:607 however Jean Chauvel was more circumspect saying "There is no good end to a bad business.":613
In a press conference on July 21, President Eisenhower expressed satisfaction that a ceasefire had been concluded but stated that the U.S. was not a party to the Accords or bound by them as they contained provisions that his administration could not support.:612
Post declaration events
On October 9, 1954, the tricolore was lowered for the last time at the Hanoi Citadel and the last French Union forces left the city, crossing the Paul Doumer Bridge on their way to Haiphong for embarkation.:617–8
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. North Vietnamese, especially 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 ICC reported that at least 892,876 North Vietnamese were processed through official refugee stations, while journalists recounted that as many as 2 million more might have fled without the presence of Viet Minh soldiers who frequently beat and occasionally killed those that refused to turn back. 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.
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.
On May 20, 1955, French Union forces withdrew from Saigon to a coastal bases and on April 28, 1956 the last French forces left Vietnam.:650
North Vietnam violated the Geneva Accords by failing to fully withdraw Viet Minh troops from South Vietnam, stifling the movement of North Vietnamese refugees, and conducting a massive military build-up that more than doubled the number of armed divisions in the North Vietnamese army (while the South Vietnamese army was reduced by 20,000 men). 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 or American War in Viet Nam.
The historian John Lewis Gaddis 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."
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