Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401
by Prof. Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
In Spring 1954, a U.N. Peace Conference was held at Geneva, Switzerland. It was convened by the major powers for the purpose of devising terms for a negotiated end to the conflict between France and the communist-dominated Viet Minh in Indochina. War in Indochina between these armies continued throughout the conference. Ultimately, on July 20, 1954 a 47 Article agreement was signed by the French and the Vietnamese, ending the First Indochina War.
The US attitude toward the Conference, and toward the Geneva Agreements which came out of it, shaped later US policy. In essence, guided by goals of containment and liberation, the US viewed negatively any settlement that rewarded communists. We adopted policies consistent with these goals and held to them before, during and after the conference.
1. Before the conference, in August 1953, the NSC stated that "any negotiated settlement would mean the eventual loss to Communism not only of Indochina but of the whole of Southeast Asia. The loss of Indochina would be critical to the security of the US" (Pentagon Papers: 10).
2. During the Conference, the French Government secretly requested "immediate armed intervention" by the US to break the Vietminh siege of the French fort at Dienbienphu. Initially, Eisenhower administration officials were sympathetic and formally prepared for submission to Congress a draft authorization approving just such a response. This document circulated among Defense, State, and Justice Department officials in April-May, 1954. But as weeks passed, the situation on the ground in Indochina militarily became untenable: not only at the highland fort of Dienbienphu but elsewhere (e.g., the Red River delta) the situation shifted decisively against the French. In Paris, the will to join in a prospective US-French effort to turn back the communist tide broke apart, as the French Cabinet shifted its position and conveyed a new reluctance to US officials. Finally, division surfaced within the US administration, with the Joint Chiefs of Staff stating that "Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives and the allocation of more than token US armed forces to that area would be a serious diversion of limited US capabilities" (Pentagon Papers: 44).
3. This divergence in perspective among important US officials was not reconciled into a single, clear set of objectives by the Eisenhower administration. Instead, even while the Geneva Conference was in session, during June 1954, a CIA sabotage team headed by Col. --later Gen.-- Edward Lansdale was sent into northern Vietnam. It also should be noted that the Joint Chiefs' position against direct US intervention in the First Indochina War was not absolute: they argued in the same memorandum cited above that whether or not the Chinese Communists might have intervened to help the Viet Minh, the use of atomic weapons, rather than ground troops should be the preferable US military response. It is some measure of the reckless brinksmanship of that age that Pentagon officials in 1954 seriously advocated using the ultimate weapons not merely against a Vietnamese insurgent force with whom we were not at war but also against military targets in China, against whom only one year earlier we had disengaged, in Korea! (Pentagon Papers: 45-47).
4. The Geneva Conference of 1954 was attended by the major powers and the combatants in the First Indochina War and resulted in the "Final Declaration" (commonly known as the Geneva Agreements), signed on July 20, 1954 by the Viet Minh and the French. (This document also can be found in the Pentagon Papers: 49-52). While the document ran 47 Articles long, the gist of the whole agreement was that in exchange for release of French prisoners of war, France agreed to an orderly withdrawal from the region. Troops of the two combatant forces were to regroup: Viet Minh combat forces were to move to areas north of the 17th parallel; French forces were to regroup south of this line. Within one year, an election was to be held for the purpose of reunifying Vietnam under a single administration. During this transition, France was expected to continue to play a role in the area. But, no further foreign armed forces were to be introduced into the area (i.e., US forces were limited to no more than the 342 military advisors then present there). All powers were asked not to interfere with a national reconciliation process which would lead to an orderly and complete withdrawal of France after the election. These terms were witnessed by the Chinese (PRC), Soviets and British governments. In a separate, unilateral statement, US observer Gen. Bedell Smith stated in writing that the US will "continue to seek to achieve unity through free elections supervised by the United Nations to insure that they are conducted fairly" (Pentagon Papers: 52).
5. While the US observers appeared publicly to have assented to the Geneva Agreements, no US official actually signed them.
6. In August 1954, the NSC concluded that the agreement was a "disaster," that amounted to "a major forward stride of Communism which may lead to the loss of Southeast Asia" (Pentagon Papers: 14).
7. Despite objections raised by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA's National Intelligence Board, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles persuaded the NSC and President Eisenhower to follow a policy designed to advance containment goals in direct disregard of the terms of the Geneva Agreements. US aid, which formerly had been given to the French, began to be supplied to a new Vietnamese non-Communist administration, then led by Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. The number of US military adivsors gradually were increased. But, until 1964-65, the primary role of the US in Indochina was one of arming, training and financially supporting the non-Communist southern Vietnam government and army we helped to establish. Behind the scenes, however, US CIA operatives actively attempted to exacerbate problems for the new communist government in northern Vietnam and to create political conditions in the south conducive to the expansion of authority of the government we recognized there.
Neil Sheehan, et.al, eds. The Pentagon Papers (New York: Bantam, 1971).
"Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Viet Nam, July 20, 1954" online at the Avalon Project of Yale University Law School.
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