French statesman instrumental in bringing an end to the Indochina War during the Geneva Conference. Pierre Mendès France studied law at the École libre des sciences politiques and became heavily involved in socialist politics as a member of the Parti radical. He supported the left-wing Popular Front in the late 1930s and was in uniform in North Africa when World War II broke out. Following the fall of France in 1940, the Vichy government arrested this Jewish statesman, sentenced him to six years in prison for trying to escape to North Africa, and put him behind bars in Clermont-Ferrand (where he rubbed shoulders with the father of French revolutionary warfare in Indochina, Charles Lacheroy). Mendès France’s famous escape shortly thereafter allowed him to make his way to London where he joined Charles de Gaulle and the Free French movement. De Gaulle made him commissioner and then minister of National Economy in the provisional government in waiting. Following the liberation of France in 1944, Mendès France resigned from this position and was re-elected deputy of Eure in 1945.
He had first publicly criticized the government’s conduct of the Indochina war in 1950, following the French failure to hold the frontier town of Cao Bang (thus allowing Chinese communist aid to flow directly to the Viet Minh) and in light of the financial burden of the war. He called for the opening of negotiations to reach a political solution to the conflict or for the institution of the draft in order to fight the war correctly on the ground.
Four years later, as Vietnamese communist forces scored an even more stunning victory over the French army at Dien Bien Phu, Mendès France risked his position as head of the government to find a diplomatic solution to the conflagration. On the day of his investiture, he announced he would resign one month later, on 20 July, if a cease-fire were not reached in negotiations already underway in Geneva. To make sure it happened, he personally assumed the portfolio of minister of Foreign Affairs. His strategy sought to neutralize Laos and Cambodia and to divide Vietnam so that a non-communist state could survive in the south. He was largely successful in this endeavor thanks to the willingness of Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai to accept the neutralization of Laos and Cambodia and the division of Vietnam in order to keep the Americans from taking over the war from the French on China’s southern flank. In the early hours of 21 July 1954, the Geneva Accords on Indochina were signed.