Vietnam War Explained: Part 6

Geneva Conference and increasing US involvement in Vietnam

The Geneva Conference was a series of negotiations that took place in the Swiss city of Geneva from April 26, 1954, till July 20, 1954. It was co-chaired by Great Britain and the Soviet Union and was convened to discuss some of the outstanding issues resulting from the Korean War and the First Indochina War.

With regard to Korea, the parties at the conference couldn’t reach a consensus, with no resolutions being adopted, consequently. Therefore, the part of the conference that dealt with the Korean question is considered less relevant. However, the part of the conference that dealt with the Indochina question had far-reaching consequences and had a devastating impact on Indochina.

Indochina was not to be discussed so early at the conference and was originally scheduled to be discussed on a later date. However, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu propelled Indochina to the top of the conference agenda. So, on May 8, that is, a day after the French garrison capitulated to the Viet Minh, parties at the Geneva Conference set aside other issues and began to discuss the future of Indochina.

The Geneva Conference, 1954
Attribution: CenturionWolf, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A State of Mistrust

The Geneva Conference was marked by a state of mistrust among the participants with each pursuing their own individual interests. Even the communist block had its own set of internal disagreements and wasn’t acting in complete unity.

The tone of the conference was set when the then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake hands with the chief Chinese negotiator Zhou Enlai. The United States had still not been able to reconcile with the defeat of its nationalist ally Chiang Kai-shek and had not yet recognized the new communist regime in China. Dulles even protested to China being given a seat at the conference and called the conference a communist sellout. He left the conference early and left his deputy to handle the negotiations.

To make matters worse, Bao Dai, who was a French puppet and the head of State of Vietnam, refused to negotiate with the Viet Minh. Though he did not have much power at the negotiating table, he made it clear to the French that any settlement involving the division of Vietnam was not acceptable to him.  

On May 10, Phạm Văn Đồng, who was heading the Viet Minh delegation, stated his demand for a total French withdrawal from all of Indochina, that is, including neighboring Laos and Cambodia as well.

Chinese Pressure

An important point to note is that the French surrender at Dien Bien Phu did not mark the end of hostilities between the French and the Viet Minh. Although, the battle of Dien Bien Phu was a decisive victory for the Viet Minh in the First Indochina War, the fighting between the two continued with the French continuing to face severe reverses and humiliating defeats. By the time when the Geneva Conference was in full swing, Viet Minh had 4/5th of Vietnam under its control. But this ground reality did not translate into a position of strength at the negotiation table as both the Chinese and the Soviets refused to back the Viet Minh. Both had their own reasons.

China had just finished fighting a bloody war in Korea in which almost a million of its troops had perished. For this reason, it did not want the Viet Minh to overplay their hand, just as Kim Il Sung had done, provoking an American-led intervention in Korea. China, therefore, did not want any such action that may lead to American presence along the Chinese border. Another important factor why the Chinese did not back the Viet Minh demand was them being weary of Viet Minh’s domination of Indochina. It was common knowledge that the Viet Minh had a presence in both Laos and Cambodia, although the Viet Minh continually denied it. The Chinese wanted to exert their own hegemony over the Indochina region and for this reason they wanted to contain the Viet Minh influence in this region.

“I have come to Geneva to make peace, not to back the Viet Minh.

Zhou Enlai to a French delegate

Soviet Pressure

Likewise, the Soviet Union did not want to provoke the United States any further. Almost 80% of the French war effort in the First Indochina War had been underwritten by the Americans. Had the United States been provoked further, it was quite likely that it would have put boots on the ground, the way they finally did in 1965. Also, the long-time Soviet premier Joseph Stalin had died in March 1954, and for the time being, the Soviets wanted to ease tensions with the West

Because of these reasons both the Chinese and the Soviets brought great pressure on the Viet Minh to accept a settlement that did not conform to the ground situation. Taking Korea as a precedent, they convinced Ho Chi Minh to accept a temporary partition of Vietnam and to look for a political solution to unify his country.

A Bitter Acceptance

Ho Chi Minh had to do a great deal of convincing to explain to the Viet Minh cadres why even after expending torrents of blood, they ended up accepting such an unfair settlement. He also had to assess the situation realistically.

Ho knew that the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu had come at a great price, and after seven years of fighting Viet Minh troops were exhausted. While General Giap continued to plan new offenses against the French including a big assault on the red river delta area that contained the major cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, there was no guarantee of how long it would take the Viet Minh to drive the French completely from Vietnam. As per the Chinese advisers of Giap, it would have taken 3-5 years to achieve total victory. But then there was a lingering fear of US intervention and neither China nor Russia were willing to underwrite another war, especially after the conflict in Korea.    

“It is possible to gain all Vietnam through peace. It is possible to unite Vietnam through election when the time is ripe.”

Zhou Enlai to Ho Chi Minh

Zhou Enlai assured Ho Chi Minh that the whole of Vietnam could be gained through elections instead of fighting a war. Given Ho’s popularity at the time, it was common knowledge that he would definitely have won a reunification election. Therefore, Ho had no choice but to agree to a temporary division of Vietnam. Yet again, he had to postpone his dream of a unified and independent Vietnam.

Birth of North Vietnam and South Vietnam

On July 21, 1954, the following terms were declared as a final statement:

  1. Vietnam would be temporarily divided into two parts along 17th parallel North latitude.
  2. Neither of the two governments should enter into any military alliance.
  3. For a period of 300 days, free movement of people would be allowed. That is, people settled in North Vietnam could move to South Vietnam should they choose to, or vice versa. 
  4. Viet Minh troops in South Vietnam should relocate to North Vietnam. And, French troops in North Vietnam should move to South Vietnam.
  5. An International Control Commission should be established to monitor that both parties were following the terms of the agreement. This ICC would be jointly chaired by India, Canada, and Poland.
  6. Vietnam reunification elections should be held within two years, that is, by June 1956, to form a single government for the whole of Vietnam.
Map of French Indochina at the end of the Geneva Conference, 1954
Map of French Indochina at the end of the Geneva Conference, 1954
Attribution: SnowFire, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Road to the Vietnam War

Looking back at history, the Geneva Accords was a monumental failure. And the failure can chiefly be attributed to a lack of good faith and consensus between the negotiating parties. The Chinese and the Soviets had forced the Viet Minh into accepting an unfair settlement and undid a lot of their sacrifices.

On the other hand, the United States and the State of Vietnam refused to sign the agreements. Their refusal to sign meant that they were not bound by the terms of the agreement. However, both agreed to “respect” the terms of the agreement. In reality, even before the Geneva talks ended, American policymakers had determined that the State of Vietnam should not fall to the communists and everything must be done to strengthen it as a shining example of a strong anti-communist and prospering state.   


I have chiefly relied on the information from the following two books to write this article. For anyone interesting in getting a deeper and more insightful understanding of the Vietnam War, I would highly recommend these two books.

Vietnam War ExplainedArticle Series

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *