8 May-21 July 1954: The Geneva Conference

A day after the French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ, the Geneva Conference opened discussions over Vietnam and French claims to Indochina as a whole. With six initial nations at the Conference aimed at resolving issues over Indochina including France, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK), it looked like another battle was due to commence. However, for Hồ Chí Minh and the DRV, it was another battle against the odds where they would be fighting actors with more clout and very foreign interpretations of what independence meant for Vietnam.

Delegates from France, the UK and the US posed the biggest ideological challenges – to the DRV, as well as each other. They came to the Conference at the start on the 26 April 1954 as Western allies bound by the international fight against communism. Viewed as a dangerous threat that would develop into a fear that eventually fuelled the Cold War, the continuation of communism in Vietnam presented a foothold for the PRC and the USSR in Southeast Asia – a reality that openly anti-communists like John Foster Dulles[1] could not except. For US President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his Republican administration, the potential continued existence of communism in Vietnam resembled too closely the Roosevelt/Truman administrations who were accused of losing part of Europe to the USSR after the Yalta Conference in 1945.

Not surprisingly, Georges Bidault[2] favoured a solution that maintained French influence in Indochina. Not only Vietnam, the regions of Laos and Cambodia were also under consideration as part of the Indochina negotiations. As both Laos and Cambodia had gained partial independence from the French in 1953, Vietnam remained the last opportunity to preserve French influence in Southeast Asia. While diametrically opposed to communism, Bidault’s wish to ensure continued French involvement in Vietnam stemmed more from a justification over his nation’s sacrifices in the past over anything else. Anthony Eden,[3] embodying British diplomacy typified by Neville Chamberlain’s[4] appeasement policy before World War II, favoured a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Vietnam.

When Bidault opened discussions on 8 May, two different factions represented Vietnam. Bảo Đại symbolised the southern State of Vietnam as the last emperor of the Nguyễn dynasty, and lead the delegation for the State of Vietnam. His uncle Bửu Lộc served as the State of Vietnam’s Prime Minister at the time. Initially refusing to participate in the Conference, Bảo Đại eventually agreed to take part after Bidault wrote to him ensuring there would be no partition of Vietnam. It proved to be the first in a number of duplicitous actions taken at the Conference that ultimately created an environment without real closure allowing for a continued situation of conflict in Vietnam.

The delegation for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) represented North Vietnam, led by Phạm Văn Đồng.[5] In opposition to the State of Vietnam, the DRV proposed a partition of the country along with a ceasefire; separation of the opposing forces; a ban on the introduction of new forces into Indochina; the exchange of prisoners; independence and sovereignty for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; elections for unified governments in each country; the withdrawal of all foreign forces; and the inclusion of the Pathet Lao[6] and Khmer Issarak[7] representatives at the Conference. The proposed inclusion of Pathet Lao and Khmer Issarak indicated one of DRV’s main objectives – to protect the involvement of Việt Minh forces in Laos and Cambodia as a way to ensure Vietnamese-communist influence in the region.

As the discussions progressed, this position threatened to undermine the negotiations in June. Only after Phạm Văn Đồng met with Chinese delegate Zhou Enlai[8] did the DRV agree to remove Việt Minh military forces from Laos and Cambodia under the condition that no foreign bases would be established in Indochina – another condition that was ignored in the future. While this appeared to be a rare softening of communist intent in the region, it could be argued that China’s motives stemmed largely from ensuring that Laos and Cambodia continued under Chinese influence, not Vietnamese. Even so, it is clear that both China and the USSR both sympathised with DRV and their goals for the Geneva Conference based on previously classified documents released by China in 2004 relating to the Conference.[9]

It did not take long for the US delegation to make their thoughts on continued military intervention in Vietnam clear. By 29 May, in backroom talks, the US and the French had reached an agreement that if the Conference failed to deliver an acceptable peace deal, President Eisenhower would seek Congressional approval for military intervention in Indochina. By early to mid-June, the US thought it might be preferable for the French to leave and for the US to support the new Indochinese states. However, by mid-June, the US decided to withdraw major participation in the Conference, unwilling to support proposed partition plans. When the Conference reconvened in July, US delegate Walter Bedell Smith arrived in Geneva on 16 July under instructions to avoid direct association with the negotiations.

Of all the proposed outcomes, the issue of partition firmly established an allegiance between the UK, the US and the State of Vietnam. On 12 May, the State of Vietnam rejected any partition of the country, a position supported by the US the next day. Originally, rather than a demarcation line, the French had proposed a “leopard-skin” approach, whereby Vietnam would be split into enclaves and throughout the country opposing forces would be given control of certain areas. The DRV/Việt Minh would be given the Cà Mau Peninsula, three enclaves near Saigon, as well as large areas of Annam[10] and Tonkin. French Union forces would retain most urban areas and the Red River Delta, including Hanoi and Haiphong, allowing it to resume combat operations in the north if necessary. Hardly different from previous French involvement in Vietnam during colonial rule, the plan was soon dropped. By 10 June, the idea of partition seemed an inevitable outcome, with the only issue being where the demarcation line should be drawn. However, following an Anglo-US summit in Washington on 28 June, the UK and the US issued a joint communique in which they agreed to a secret list of seven minimum outcomes that both parties would “respect”, including future reunification of a divided Vietnam.

Further solidifying the allegiance between the US and the State of Vietnam, Ngô Đình Diệm was appointed Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam by Bảo Đại on 10 June, replacing Bửu Lộc. A staunch anti-communist and anti-French nationalist, with deep roots in the south’s Catholic minority group, he would develop strong ties with the US and largely be responsible for America’s future involvement in the Second Indochina War.

On the afternoon of 20 July, the issues surrounding the Conference were resolved. Over the issue of partition, it was agreed that the demarcation line should be at the 17th Parallel. For the DRV and Hồ Chí Minh, not to mention their Chinese supporters, this was an ideal outcome. Reminiscent of General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s decisive victory at Hòa Bình in February 1952, the 17th Parallel ran closest to Route 9, solidifying the only land route from Laos to the South China Sea in North Vietnam. It was also agreed that the elections for reunification would run in 1956, two years after the ceasefire had been in effect.

As to the all-important ceasefire, the “Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam” was signed only by French and Việt Minh military commands, completely bypassing the State of Vietnam. Based on a proposal by Chinese delegate Zhou Enlai, India was appointed as chair of the International Control Commission (ICC) to supervise the ceasefire, supported by Canada and Poland. Although India and Canada guaranteed a certain amount of impartiality, Poland’s involvement queered the stipulation that decisions in the ICC were to be taken unanimously. Poland’s presence in the ICC provided the communists with effective veto power over supervision of the treaty. As if the growing connection between the US and the State of Vietnam needed any more validation, both governments were the only parties that refused to sign the “Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam” declaration.

The Geneva Accords were signed on the morning of 21 July 1954, a day later than France’s thirty-day deadline. But, considering the progress that had been made in ending a long war punctuated by devastating conflicts, no one much cared. The final provisions of the Accords included:

  1. 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”.
  2. A 3 miles (4.8 km) wide demilitarized zone on each side of the demarcation line
  3. French Union forces to regroup to the south of the line and Viet Minh to the north
  4. Free movement of the population between the zone for three hundred days
  5. Neither zone to join any military alliance or seek military reinforcement
  6. Establishment of the International Control Commission, comprising Canada, Poland and India as chair, to monitor the ceasefire.

For Hồ Chí Minh, however, the Geneva Accords did not signify an absolute victory for the DRV and the Lao Động Party. Considering the Việt Minh had all but vanquished French forces – or at least would have done should the war have continued in the same vein – the idea of a demarcation line, two Vietnamese states, with two separate governments, fell well short of Hồ Chí Minh’s vision of a totally united Vietnam. From an outside perspective, it is also worth remembering that France was not instructed to pay any form of reparations to North or South Vietnam, a condition previously levied on Germany at the Potsdam Conference after the end of World War II.

Perhaps of greater note was the position of the United States. Having categorically removed itself from the Geneva Conference in June, their lack of support for the Geneva Accords implied they remained outside of the agreed provisions, escaping through a back door, as it were, with the freedom to act with a determinist foreign policy in the future.


[1] US delegate at the Geneva Conference Dulles walked away from the Conference on 3rd May in opposition to Anthony Eden’s lack of support for America. He was replaced by Walter Bedell Smith, a highly decorated senior officer in the U.S. Army that held posts as the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Director of Central Intelligence Agency and Under Secretary of State.

[2] Leader of the French delegation.

[3] Leader of the UK delegation.

[4] British Prime Minister from May 1937 to May 1940.

[5] Who would later become Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

[6] A communist political movement and organisation in Laos.

[7] An anti-French and anti-colonial movement in Cambodia.

[8] First Premier of the People’s Republic of China who served alongside Chairman Mao Zedong.

[9] “The Geneva Conference of 1954 New Evidence from the Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 16.

[10] Central Vietnam, historically ruled by Emperor Bảo Đại’s Nguyễn dynasty.

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