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The Geneva Conference: Lessons in terms of national interests

(LLCT) - Sixty years ago, on 20 July 1954, a conference in Geneva aimed at putting an end to the war in Indochina concluded. This was an important event in the contemporary Vietnamese history and was the first time Vietnam had participated in a diplomatic activity on an international scale. Commenting on this event, many confirmed the victory of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) while others believed Vietnam agreed to superpowers’ arrangements which were not beneficial to itself and which caused the country to be divided into halves for the following two decades.

Following is a perspective on the event.

(The Geneva Conference, 20 July 1954)

Evaluating an event, especially an international one related to different countries or parties like the Geneva Conference, requires a comprehensive, historical, specific perspective. In that spirit, it is ne-cessary to reach agreement on the following points.

1. The Geneva Conference was what Vietnam, the other Indochinese countries and France desired

As a matter of fact, the Vietnamese fight against the French had lasted for eight years by 1953. Vietnamese forces were now stronger than before, especially on the Northern battlefield. However, on the entire Indochina battlefield, they did not necessarily outnumber French and South Vietnamese troops. In fact, on the Central and Southern battlefields, French and South Vietnamese troops outnumbered North Vietnamese troops and had better equipment and weapons. In late 1953, the North launched the 1953 - 1954 Winter-Spring Campaign, aiming to create an important change in the balance between the two sides and drive the French into greater passivity so they would have to accept a peace solution, it could benefit from. On 26 November 1953, President Ho Chi Minh stated,

“If French colonialists continue their invasive war, Vietnamese people will continue our patriotic war until it is victorious. However, if the French government has drawn their lessons from the war over the last years and would like to put an end to the war through negotiations and solve the Vietnam issue by peaceful means, then the Vietnamese people and government are willing to discuss that possibility.” (Ho Chi Minh’s Complete Works, vol. 7, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 1996, p. 168) On 15 December 1953, Ho Chi Minh reaffirmed his viewpoint, “If the French government would like to put an end to the war through negotiations and solve the Vietnam issue by peaceful means, then the Vietnamese people and government are willing to talk with them.” (op. cit., p. 192)

On the part of the French, given their serious damage and bleak future after eight warring years, the protest of French people, and having realized that they could not defeat Viet Minh, they intended to end the war through negotiations. However, they hoped to join negotiations in a most advantageous position after they had beaten Viet Minh on the battlefield. Therefore, discovering that Viet Minh were sending their troops to Northwestern regions, the French considered that to be an opportunity to beat Viet Minh’s regular troops, so they quickly moved their troops to Dien Bien Phu, where they would build a concentration of fortified defense stations awaiting Viet Minh’s troops. On the part of Viet Minh, they also regarded that as an opportunity to annihilate an important part of the French expeditionary force, so they were determined to destroy French fortification at Dien Bien Phu. That was why Dien Bien Phu became “a historical rendezvous point” between the two sides, according to the late General Vo Nguyen Giap.

Meanwhile, in the early 1950s, the Cold War was taking shape between two wings with one consisting of the United States, Great Britain and France and the other containing the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries. In Europe, NATO was founded in order to impose a blockade on the Soviet Union. In Asia, the US was campaigning for the establishment of the SEATO. The US was a factor behind the Korean War. However, the confrontation between the US and China on the peninsula led to the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in May 1953. This was the model which the superpowers, especially the US and China, wished to apply to Indochina. In February 1954, foreign ministers of Great Britain, France, the US and the Soviet Union in a meeting decided to open a conference discussing a ceasefire in Indochina. This was part of the larger global chessboard between the two wings. At the invitation of the Soviet Union and China, Northern Vietnam agreed to attend the Geneva Conference with a view to ending the war according to Ho Chi Minh’s earlier announcement. They began preparation for the Conference in March 1954 and, at the same time, got themselves ready for the upcoming fight at Dien Bien Phu.

After 56 days’ fighting, Northern Vietnam won the decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu. The victory did not only shake the world militarily but also politically. It provided Northern Vietnam with advantages in negotiations in Geneva and put France at a disadvantage.

2. Superpowers’ intervention complicated and prolonged the Conference 

Why was the Geneva Conference one among many parties including the US, Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union and China rather than one between Vietnam and France, just like the March 6 Preliminary Agreement or the Temporary Agreement of 14 September 1946 between the DRV and France and later, among one side were the DRV, the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Southern Vietnam and the other one were the US, the Republic of Vietnam? What role did the superpowers play? What was the voice of the Indochinese countries?

It must be agreed that the Indochina war in the 1953-1954 period was no longer one between Vietnam and France. In order to have enough funds and weapons for the war, France had become increasingly dependent on the US, which was one of the winners of the World War II with the least damage and which was now the strongest imperialist country and led the capitalist world. US plots were to gradually replace France by providing aid for it. Therefore, at the later stage of the Indochina war, the US increased its pressure on the French and forced it to follow its plans. On the part of DRV, they was received greater support from the Soviet Union and China with the latter sending in its military advisors. Such support was an important factor behind Vietnam’s victory at Dien Bien Phu.

Although both Vietnam and France intended to carry out negotiations in order to put an end to the war, the situation was different from that in the 1945 - 1946 period since the war no longer involved just them. The superpowers of both wings wanted to take advantage of this situation to gain their own benefits. That was why they convened the Geneva Conference and participated in it as negotiating parties. It was the interests of the superpowers that the Geneva Conference became complicated and lasted for 75 days, from 8 May to 21 July 1954. The participating countries’ interests found expression in their positions at the Conference.

Although the Soviet Union supported the stance of the DRV, it wanted some détente with the West so that it could develop its economy and race with the US. Therefore, the Soviet Union accepted the solution to which the the DRV agreed.

The People’s Republic of China, which was founded five years earlier, now wanted to have its voice heard on the international arena. It would use the Geneva Conference as an occasion to gain recognition from the US and the West, simultaneously ease confrontation with the US after the Korean War had ended. Therefore, China would compromise with the US and France as much as it could. In fact, it was China which initiated a meeting with France on 23 June 1954 to discuss the division of Vietnam into halves. China advised Vietnam to accept the 17th parallel as the dividing line instead of the 14th or 16th parallels. It suggested that a general election should be held in two years in a unified Vietnam while the DRV itself asked for a six-month waiting period.

On the part of Western countries, Great Britain always supported France as they did in 1945-1946. Although the French suffered a heavy defeat at Dien Bien Phu, they wanted to uphold its honor and secure its remaining expeditionary forces, especially those in Central and Southern regions of Vietnam. It tried to separate Laos and Cambodia solutions from Vietnam ones so it could maintain its influence in these two countries. After the meeting with China on 23 June 1954, France recommended the dividing line being placed on the 19th parallel, which was unrealistic given their battlefield strength and especially their defeat at Dien Bien Phu.

Because the US was trying to replace France in Indochina, it urged France not to compromise on every clause. If the temporary military frontier could not be agreed on the 19th parallel, it should not go lower than the 18th parallel. The US recommended other plans aimed at restraining the power of the DRV and creating favorable conditions for its subsequent involvement in the war.

3. The final result was acceptable to Vietnam and was an important victory which served as a prerequisite for its later fight for reunification.

With the hope of ending the war by peaceful means, the DRV accepted the invitation to the Geneva Conference. Laos and Cambodia also participated in the Conference as independent parties with the rights to negotiate and agree on their own behalf. However, unlike Vietnam, representatives of the Khmer Itsarak and Pathet Lao did not win recognition from Western countries. As a result, they did not have their own voices at the Conference, which was exactly what France had expected. Thus, instead of nine parties, there were only seven at the Conference.

Vietnam, one of the three countries fighting the war with the French, should have jointly chaired the conference with France. However, it was only one of the seven negotiating parties.

DRV maintained the position that France and the rest of the world should recognize its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as those of Cambodia and Laos and that France should withdraw from Indochina. The Soviet Union and China supported this position. However, France and the West did not. France recommended the conference dealing only with military issues rather than political ones and separating the Cambodia and Laos issue from the Vietnam one.

Due to the differences in their positions, the conference did not conclude until 31 meeting sessions were held. Of which, seven were plenary sessions and the remaining 24 sessions were among heads of the delegations. At the end of the Conference, the parties adopted important documents including three armistice agreements for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the final announcement of the conference, notes between Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and French Prime Minister Mendes France and two separate announcements by the US and French delegations.

Key issues of the negotiations which were agreed on in the documents included the followings. As for the Indochina countries:

- France recognized the inde-pendence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Vietnam and the other Indochina countries.

- Fighting had to stop simultaneously in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. French forces had to withdraw from Indochina and Vietnamese voluntary troops to withdraw from Laos and Cambodia. The Indochinese would host no foreign military bases and would not enter into any military alliances with foreign countries.

- General elections would be held in each of the Indochinese countries. No country would take revenge on those who cooperated with its enemies. Prisoners and detainees would be exchanged.

- A joint international committee monitoring and supervising the implementation of the Geneva Accords would be established. 

As for Vietnam:

- The parties would have to cease fire. Displacement of troops had to be completed within 300 days. The two sides would exchange prisoners.

- The temporary military frontier would be on the 17th parallel. The frontier was only meant to be temporary and not to be a political or territorial one. People from either side of the frontier could cross it freely.

- The two regions would conduct consultative meetings in July 1955 and hold the general election in July 1956. People in the regions would have the freedom of residence. Either region would not take revenge on those who cooperated with its enemies.

Thus, Vietnam did not have all of its original demands satisfied. It did not succeed in establishing the temporary military frontier on the 14th or 16th parallels. It could not hold the general election within six months. It did not manage to set up an assembly zone for Lao and Cambodian resistance forces. However, according to CPV and historians, given the contemporary international context, the above results were acceptable. They were the best possible diplomatic victory Vietnam could achieve. The Geneva Accords put an end to the 117-year French rule in Vietnam. For the first time, all world superpowers were committed to respecting Vietnam’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, which was an important legal basis for the country’s subsequent fight for “peace, unity, independence and democracy” as was mentioned in the Party’s slogan at its 6th Central Plenum on 15 July 1954.

4. The later 20-year war was the result of the US and its hirelings dishonoring the Geneva Accords.

After the Geneva Accords were signed, while people from both regions were looking forward to the general election and while the Government of the DRV was seriously abiding by them, the US and their hirelings in Southern Vietnam tried every way to dishonor them. US representatives did not sign the accords but issued a joint announcement with France on 21 July 1954. On the ground, the US launched a series of activities in order to supplant France in Vietnam. They established the Ngo Dinh Diem administration and increased weapon assistance and military consultation. They advocated the administration’s anti-Communist policy and its acts of terror against those who joined in the American resistance as well as those who supported the general election and national unification. Induced by the US, the Ngo Dinh Diem administration flatly refused to join in consultations for the general election and the election itself. To make matter worse, they promulgated the notorious 10/59 Bill, causing Vietnamese to fight a bloody war. The 20-year war after the Geneva Accords was in fact one of national salvation, resistance against American invaders and their hirelings, liberation of the South and national unification. To Vietnamese, it was a mandatory and just war led by the Communist Party of Vietnam.

5. Lessons in independent solution of national issues in complex international contexts

As the happenings of the Geneva Conference showed the DRV delegation did not achieve easily at all. Their success was partly attributable to the sacrifice of Vietnamese people and army during the nine years’ resistance and especially the glorious Dien Bien Phu victory. Furthermore, it was the country’s resolute, principled yet flexible struggle on the diplomatic front given the context where superpowers all intervened in the event in order to seek their own interests.

The Government and CPV knew how to take advantage of the support from socialist countries like the Soviet Union and China for the sake of the country’s fight against imperialists, particularly the US. However, they were aware of these countries’ goals and their possible compromises. Vietnam wished to fight for world peace together with other socialist countries, yet first of all it wanted to defend its fundamental national interests being independence, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Vietnam clearly understood the collusion among imperialist countries led by the US. They wanted to hold other world countries in check and, ultimately put an end to the socialist wing. Vietnam was also aware that there were conflicts and differences in interests among these countries, especially between the US and France. At the 6th Central Plenum of the CPV on 15 July 1954, President Ho Chi Minh pointed out the conflicts between Great Britain and the US and between the US and France, “In Indochina, when it comes to our resistance, both the US and France seem to be of one mind. Yet, in fact, the US wants to use their puppets in order to supplant France. The US has promoted Ngo Dinh Diem, one of its most devoted hirelings, to head of the puppet government” (Ho Chi Minh’s Complete Works, vol. 7, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, p. 313)  

With such vision, Vietnam considered superpowers’ recognition of its independence, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity to be its highest priority and was determined to obtain such recognition. Finally, Vietnam got it wanted, which was an undeniable victory. However, Vietnam was flexible enough to compromise some of its demands. If it hadn’t been for the US and its hirelings’ disrespect for Geneva Accords, Vietnam would have been peaceful and unified after term end of the Accords.

Nowadays, as superpowers’ relations contain both competition and cooperation, Vietnam’s struggle for its sovereignty and territorial integrity is a tough one. It is necessary for the country to learn from its experience in the Geneva Conference and stick to its position of independence and self-reliance to protect its legitimate interests and, at the same time, fight for peace, friendship, cooperation and mutual development in the world.


Assoc. Prof., Dr. Vu Hoang Cong

Political Theory Journal,

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics


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