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The Geneva conference of 1954 ranks as one of the most important international gatherings in the history of the post-World War II international system.

The death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953 and the end of the shooting in Korea a few months later opened the way for a thaw in what had until then been very tense East–West relations spanning much of the globe. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 pitted American-led United Nations troops against Soviet-backed Chinese and Korean ones. Since 1950, the Chinese and to a lesser extent the Soviets had supported the Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s (DRV) forces against those of the French Union, backed by the Americans. With Stalin gone and the guns silent in Korea, the new leadership emerging in Moscow made it clear that it wanted to reduce tensions in both Europe and Asia in order to focus on internal economic matters. A détente would facilitate this process. Their Chinese allies shared this view. The Korean War had proved a heavy drain for Beijing in terms of materials and manpower. The revolutionary restructuring of the economy and the society along communist lines, including radical land reform, had exhausted the country. Having been isolated by the United States diplomatically, Chinese leaders also felt that a great power conference on Asia would allow them finally to join the international concert of nations. The Soviets concurred.

The French and the British agreed that the time was ripe to ease tensions in the international system. In 1953, French president Joseph Laniel understood that the French could no longer afford the Indochina War in light of its building military commitments to Western European defense. In mid-1953, Laniel sent Henri Navarre to Indochina to create the necessary military conditions for reaching an honorable end to the Indochina War at the negotiating table. Easing tensions over Germany was first on the list of topics to discuss, when French, British, Soviet, and American foreign ministers convened in Berlin in early 1954. However, it was decided at Berlin that the next meeting, to be held in the Swiss capital of Geneva, would discuss the two major global hotspots in the international system, in Asia – Korea and Indochina.

Like the Americans, the Chinese were deeply involved in both conflicts, and thus expected to play an important role in their resolution. The Soviets supported the Chinese bid and the British, who had formally recognized communist China, tended to agree. The Americans, however, continued in their refusal to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC), blocking its entry into the United Nation’s Security Council and its attempt to serve as the fifth power hosting the upcoming Geneva talks dealing with Asia. If the Soviet Union failed to get communist China recognized as one of the official powers at Geneva, the Americans agreed that the four main powers could invite delegations of their choosing. This allowed the Chinese to take part in their first major international conference, while the Americans could avoid recognizing the reality of the PRC. Nonetheless, despite the thaw in East–West relations in 1953–1954, the Sino-American split cast a long shadow over the conference and its negotiations from beginning to end, as Laurent Césari has demonstrated. American secretary of state John Foster Dulles instructed his diplomats to refrain from sitting at the same table as the Chinese, nor were they to shake the adversary’s hands (McCarthyism was building to a crescendo by mid-1954). The Chinese foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, never forgot Dulles’s refusal to shake his outstretched hand during the Geneva Conference.

Dulles had agreed in Berlin to put Indochina on the agenda for two main reasons. First, he wanted to avoid seeing the hawkish French government led by Joseph Laniel and Georges Bidault replaced by a dovish one, capable of caving into communist demands or having elections that could end in a “peaceful” communist take-over at the negotiating table. Dulles also agreed to let the Geneva Conference take up Indochina in the hope that he could get the Laniel government to push forward the ratification of the European Defense Community (EDC), a top concern for the American’s in their containment of the Soviet Union in Europe. Besides the “four powers plus China”, the conference included the main Indochinese parties concerned with the war: the Associated States of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The DRV failed in its attempts to get its associated states in Laos and Cambodia accepted at Geneva. India also participated unofficially in the person of Krishna Menon, India’s specialist on Indochina and a close confidant of Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Soviets and the British, co-presidents of the conference, tacitly agreed not to let the Sino-American break spin out of control during the negotiations. As for Zhou Enlai, he wanted a solution to the Indochina War in order to keep the United States from replacing the French on China’s southern flank, worried by Eisenhower’s expanding web of alliances, and aware of the fact that the Korean problem was not going to be solved and that the Americans would not leave South Korea any time soon. Zhou had already begun developing a policy of “peaceful co-existence” with non-communist countries in Asia in order to neutralize Indochina and non-communist postcolonial Asia against American attempts to bring these states into collective security alliances aimed at containing and perhaps even “rolling back” communist China. Shortly before arriving in Geneva, the Chinese statesman had signed an agreement with Nehru over Tibet, contributing to a major thaw in relations between the two Asian giants. In a series of negotiations held with the Indians between December 1953 and June 1954, the Chinese reassured the Indians and other non-communist, newly decolonized neighbors of China’s peaceful intentions in the form of the “five principles of peaceful co-existence” or Panchseel.

The Soviet Union was also keen on easing tensions in Asia in order to achieve a détente with the non-communist anti-colonialist states emerging in the South as decolonization moved its way westward on a South-South axis and into the United Nations General Assembly. Providing Paris with an honourable way out of the Indochina War could also help the Soviets pressure the French into torpedoing the EDC and opposing the rearmament of Germany, which was of much greater geopolitical importance to the Kremlin than Indochina. The British also wanted to reduce tensions and the threat of world war, one which would have placed Britain – more than the United States – in the nuclear line of fire of the Soviet Union. Winston Churchill even hoped that the Geneva Conference could prepare the ground for a great power summit to create a “new treaty of Locarno”.

The DRV, at war with the French over Indochina since 1945–1946, was represented by Pham Van Dong. Despite their military victory at Dien Bien Phu on 7 May, Vietnamese communists agreed to concentrate their efforts now on the diplomatic front, in concert with the Soviets and the Chinese. Almost a decade of war had taken its toll on the Vietnamese people and army, and the DRV leaders knew it. The Vietnamese had won a major battle victory at Dien Bien Phu, but not necessarily the war. They also worried, like the Chinese, that the Americans would replace the French if an accord were not reached.

On 8 May, the day after Dien Bien Phu fell, the conference took up the question of Indochina. Unsurprisingly, the French and DRV adopted hard-line opening positions. With a green light from the Soviets to take the lead in solving this prickly Asian problem, Zhou Enlai immediately went to work bringing the two sides together in view of reaching an acceptable political solution. He started by getting both belligerents to sit down together in private on 17 May to discuss the issue of recovering wounded soldiers at Dien Bien Phu. On that same day, Soviet foreign minister Viatcheslav Molotov proposed the debut of negotiations on the armistice.

In a concession designed to advance negotiations, Zhou Enlai announced on 20 May that the situation in Laos and Cambodia was different than that of Vietnam. In short, the Chinese premier did not support the DRV’s revolutionary associated states of Indochina and would eventually agree that DRV troops in western Indochina were as foreign as the French ones and would have to go. Not only did this respond to Western demands, but it was also part of Zhou’s plan to win over Indian support and neutralize the region. Rolling back Vietnamese communist claims to Indochina allowed Zhou to show to his Indian counterpart that the communists were no longer trying to export communism beyond Vietnam’s borders. The second concession was the communist agreement to partition Vietnam at the 13th, 14th, or 16th parallels. On 10 June, working through the joint military commission, Ta Quang Buu informed his French counterparts that the DRV would be open to the idea of dividing Vietnam provisionally until general elections could be held to unify the country.

However, the negotiations hardly advanced beyond that. And when the conference on Korea broke down in mid-June, things looked equally bleak for Indochina, where an armistice had not even been reached. To head off a diplomatic impasse, on 16 June Zhou Enlai informed Anthony Eden that he would be able to get Pham Van Dong to agree to pull DRV troops out of Laos and Cambodia. This coincided with the fall of the Laniel government on 13 June and Laniel’s replacement by Pierre Mendès France, determined, like Zhou Enlai, to reach a settlement. Not only did Mendès France up the ante by announcing that he would personally negotiate at Geneva and resign in one month’s time if an agreement were not reached, but he also threatened to institute the draft and bring in the US in order to put added pressure on his communist counterparts to negotiate further. John Foster Dulles’s hawkish comments about American action seemed to add credence to Mendès France’s words. Bluff or not, this the Chinese, the Soviets, and the DRV did not want. The communist partners began preparing concessions to make sure a deal could be reached.

Outstanding issues included determining the line of partition for Vietnam and setting a date for general elections. Mendès France wanted to draw a line at the 17th parallel to provide Laos with an outlet to the sea via route no. 9. He also wanted to avoid setting a precise timetable for the elections, hoping to buy time so that the State of Vietnam could regroup, consolidate, and compete with the DRV in the future national elections. The French were opposed to according regrouping zones to the Pathet Lao and Khmer Issarak. As for the DRV, its leadership was opposed to accepting the 17th parallel as the demarcation line, since it would surrender to the enemy vast territories the DRV had ruled since 1945, including those of Inter-Zone V for which Pham Van Dong had been responsible during a good part of the Indochina conflict.

On 23 June, Zhou Enlai informed Mendès France that the questions of elections and partition would have to be negotiated one way or another to reach an agreement. He then left the conference to consult his government, regional neighbors, and the DRV. In Asia, Zhou Enlai stopped over in New Delhi, where he reassured Nehru of communist China’s peaceful intentions in exchange for the implicit neutrality of non-communist Asia. Zhou Enlai informed Nehru that the kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia would be neutral, part of what he and Nehru called “Southeast Nations of a New Type”, that is “non-aligned”, non-communist postcolonial Asian states. Zhou then made his way to the southern Chinese city of Liuzhou, where he held a crucial meeting with Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Hoang Van Hoan on the final negotiating strategy to be adopted at Geneva to reach a final agreement. Between 3 and 5 July 1954, Zhou argued to Ho that direct American intervention was possible, even likely, in the event that the Geneva talks failed. Such a scenario, the Chinese statesman stressed, would greatly complicate the DRV’s battle, not to mention China’s own security. Ho concurred and both sides agreed to coordinate their policies so as to reach an agreement with Mendès France, their best last chance. It was agreed that the 16th parallel could serve as the temporary dividing line for Vietnam; a non-communist political solution was accepted for Cambodia; the Chinese and Vietnamese would negotiate strongly to acquire concentration zones for the Pathet Lao in Samneua and Phongsaly provinces in Laos. Upon his return home, Ho Chi Minh argued successfully to the Vietnam Worker’s Party that all these concessions, including the division of Vietnam at the 16th parallel, were vital to obtaining an accord and preventing the Americans from intervening directly as they had in Korea in 1950. Vietnamese communists also backed away from their right to speak for all of Indochina. As Zhou reported to the Chinese government in August 1954 on the Liuzhou meeting, Ho Chi Minh “expressed the opinion that the five principles [of co-existence] were completely applicable to the consolidation and development of friendly relations among Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia”.

Meanwhile, Anthony Eden had traveled to Washington between 25 and 28 June, during which time he agreed to the American project to create a Southeast Asian Treaty of Defense, the future South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). The signatories of this treaty would guarantee the final solution reached at the Geneva Conference. However, in the event that an armistice were violated, the signatories could respond militarily, even individually if the coalition was not of the same mind. While Eden had hoped to turn the Southeast Asian idea into something of an Asian Locarno agreement covering the security of both communist and anti-communist states in the region, Dulles and Republicans in the United States refused. The future SEATO was open to neutral states like India, but not to communist ones. SEATO, for Dulles, was at least to some extent a response to Zhou’s attempts to neutralize non-communist Asia against the Americans, thus explaining Dulles’s anger at India, Burma, and Indonesia’s neutral tack. One cannot grasp the historical significance of Geneva without placing it within this wider global dimension.

Back in Geneva, Zhou, Eden, Molotov, and Mendès France accelerated their efforts to reach an agreement before Mendès France had to face his rapidly approaching 20 July deadline. Under intense pressure, the DRV finally agreed to pull its troops out of Laos and Cambodia and, far from its initial proposition, accepted the partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, with the DRV taking charge of the territory north of that line and French Union forces the south. DRV troops and personnel in Cambodia, Laos and southern Vietnam would be regrouped to northern Vietnam, whereas those of the Associated State of Vietnam and French Union forces would regroup to the south. Khmer Issarak forces laid down their arms and were reintegrated into the royalist forces or returned to civilian life. In Laos, two regrouping zones were created for the Pathet Lao in Phongsaly and Samneau provinces.

The Conference approved the creation of the International Commission for Supervision and Control (usually referred to as the ICC) for Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Its leadership reflected the Cold War of the time: Poland, Canada, and India. The ICC was designed to supervise the armistice, the regrouping of cadres and soldiers, and help organize the general elections. On this point, elections were scheduled to be held in mid-1956 in all of Vietnam in order to decide under which Vietnam, the DRV or the emerging Republic of Vietnam (until October 1955 the State of Vietnam), the country would be unified (technically both states claimed territorial legitimacy over all of Vietnam). In the early hours of 21 July 1954, the French and the DRV initialized the armistice ending the fighting in Vietnam, followed by separate agreements for Laos and Cambodia. The first Indochina war had come to an end.

The Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities consisted of six chapters, 47 articles, and an annex. The Geneva cessation agreement was signed on July 21 by General Henri Delteil for the French Union forces and Vice Defense Minister Ta Quang Buu for the DRV. The agreement came into force on 22 July 1954. On 21 July, a “final declaration” consisting of 13 articles was issued that “noted the accords that put an end to hostilities in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and that organized the international control and surveillance of the disposition of these accords”. Among other things, the articles called for elections to be held in July 1955 in Laos and Cambodia and in July 1956 in Vietnam in order to create governments of national unity. Article 4 ruled out the entry of foreign troops, personnel, and arms into Vietnam, while Article 5 ruled out the establishment of foreign military bases there. Article 6 repeated that the 17th parallel was only provisional in nature. In no way was it to constitute a political or territorial border.

The State of Vietnam, led by Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem, was adamantly opposed to the partition and the obligation to hold elections in 1956. On 21 July 1954, the delegate of the State of Vietnam deposed a formal declaration protesting against the French decision to agree to the holding of elections in 1956 and insisted that the United Nations implement the armistice. The State of Vietnam also indicated that it “reserved its full freedom of action in order to safeguard the sacred right of the Vietnamese people to territorial unity, national independence, and liberty”. The Americans also issued a separate declaration in which they took note of the accords and recognized Articles 1 to 12. Significantly, Dulles’s diplomat at Geneva, Walter Bedell Smith – who was sent to Geneva in the hope of prodding the French to move on the EDC – abstained from taking note of Article 13 of the declaration, which held that Washington should participate in follow-up consultations to ensure the application of the agreements. Moreover, he stated that concerning Article 7, the United States, like the State of Vietnam, only approved of the holding of elections under United Nations control, not under that of the ICC. As Laurent Césari has noted, the American refusal to recognize Article 13 made it clear that the Americans were as hostile to holding elections as the State of Vietnam.

While the conference members at the time referred to the 13 articles of the “final declaration” as the “accords”, technically speaking there were no legally binding “accords” other than the three armistices or ceasefires signed on 21 July. In their haste to reach an agreement, the architects of the Geneva accords produced a flawed peace. The ICC had little if any power for implementing much less enforcing the declaration’s articles on the ground. The communist bloc, including the DRV, had bet on elections and a political solution, but nothing legally bound the State of Vietnam to participate. The Americans now were determined to build up a truly postcolonial, non-communist Vietnam under the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem. To back up this nation-building project at the international level, in September 1954 Dulles succeeded in creating SEATO and extending its protection to the three former states of French Indochina. See also GENEVA ACCORDS, CAMBODIA; GENEVA ACCORDS, LAOS; NEUTRALIZATION OF INDOCHINA.