United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense/III. C. Viet Minh Position and Sino–Soviet Strategy

United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense  (1967) 
the Pentagon
III. C. Viet Minh Position and Sino–Soviet Strategy




It has been charged that Ho Chi Minh was robbed at the conference table of what he had won on the battlefield, that the Geneva Accords were prejudicial in content and implementation to legitimate Viet Minh interests, and that, therefore, the subsequent actions of the Viet Minh are understandable in light of these disappointments. While it is fair to state that the immediate implications of the Accords did not reflect (even according to CIA reports) Viet Minh strength and control in Vietnam at the time of the conference, it is equally important and revealing to understand why. Viet Minh ambitions were thwarted, not so much by Western resistance or treachery, as by Sino–Soviet pressures on them to compromise. If the Viet Minh were to look for villains at the Geneva Conference, in honesty they would have to admit that their interests were compromised by their own communist allies, not the West.

Viet Minh ambitions were broad. The Viet Minh were not only interested in gaining rights to the three-quarters of Vietnam they claimed to have controlled, but in extending their authority throughout Indochina into Laos and Cambodia. Although their offshoots, the Pathet Lao and the Free Khmers, controlled little territory in Laos and Cambodia, the Viet Minh pressed for their full representation in these countries. Arguing that they spoke for all the Indochinese people, the Viet Minh wished to compel or persuade the French to leave the area and then to settle directly with the indigenous and weakened non-communists. They were pressing for a political settlement prior to a military armistice, or, in other words, they wanted to fight while talking. Their specific objectives were: partition at the 13th parallel, a deadline for complete French withdrawal from the North, and nation-wide elections to be held six months after an armistice (Tab 1).

The source of DRV disappointments with the Accords can be traced not so much to Western strength and unity or Western "treachery" as to efforts by the Soviet Union and Communist China to make the conference a success; that is, to bring stability to the area and a settlement to the fighting. Together and separately, Moscow and Peking pressed concessions on the Viet Minh. Invariably, the two principal communist delegates, Chou En-lai and Molotov, played major roles in breaking deadlocks with conciliatory initiatives. While the exact motives of the Soviet Union and Communist China must remain a matter of speculation, the most acceptable explanation for their behavior is that both sought to achieve their objectives in Southeast Asia without triggering U.S. intervention. "Peaceful co-existence" was the hallmark of their diplomacy. The Chinese, in particular, were interested in border security, buffers, preventing the formation of a U.S. alliance system with bases in the region, and reconstruction at home. The two big communist powers did not hesitate in asserting the paramountcy of their interests over those of the Viet Minh (Tab 2).


III. C. Tab 1 – DRV Negotiating Position
Tab 2 – Sino-Soviet Objectives and Strategy
III. C. 1.



1. The DRV is Determined to Press a Very Hard Line C-4
a. The DRV Recognizes Its Own Strong Position C-4
b. The DRV Attitude is Defiant C-4
c. The DRV Outlines Its Proposals C-4
d. The DRV Proposals Demand a Political Settlement Before a Cease-Fire C-6
e. The DRV Indicates Ambitions for Pathet Lao and Free Khmer C-7
f. The Initial DRV Demands are Excessive C-8
2. Later DRV Positions Represent a Compromise C-8
a. The DRV Begins to Soften Its Position C-8
b. A Weak Laniel Position Delays DRV Concessions C-9
c. The DRV Presents a New Series of Proposals C-9
d. The DRV Agrees to a Separate Solution for Laos and Cambodia C-10
e. The DRV Reluctantly Accepts Partition C-10
f. The DRV is Disappointed on Elections C-12
g. The DRV Does Not Achieve Its Goals at Geneva C-12
1. The DRV is Determined to Press a Very Hard Line
a. The DRV Recognizes Its Own Strong Position

The victory at Dien Bien Phu cost the DRV 21,000 men. Ho realized he had paid dearly for this psychologically crippling stroke against the French, and he was determined to make the most of his advantage at Geneva. The effect of Dien Bien Phu on the Western delegations at the conference was evident not only in the initial shock, but also in the continued sensitivity to military developments in Indochina. Thus, of primary importance to the DRV negotiating position was the goal of making political capital from battlefield supremacy. Closely allied with this sense of military invincibility was the Viet Minh belief that France was in political turmoil and, therefore, psychologically weak.

b. The DRV Attitude is Defiant

To the DRV, the victories of their troops and the impending collapse of France in Indochina were quite clear. Less clear was the possibility that the U.S., either unilaterally or in some form of united action might intervene. The DRV gambled, however, on the French struggling on alone. In the opening phase of the conference, the Viet Minh released a communication that indicated there was no need to hasten the conclusion of the war:

"We still remember the Korean lesson which taught us that one could negotiate and fight at the same time..."1

This attitude of mild defiance was intended not only for consumption in the West but also for the communist countries. The DRV was resisting early pressures of the USSR and the PRC who feared U.S. intervention and a wider war to move quickly to a solution. Instead, the DRV moved rapidly to increase its own forces in the Tonkin Delta,2 to compress the French forces there to a smaller territory, and they apparently instructed their delegation to continue pressing a hard line on political concessions. The goal was to delay a settlement until they bettered the military position even further. The DRV was determined to gain every inch that the French could be forced to concede.

c. The DRV Outlines Its Proposals

The initial Viet Minh gambit came at the second plenary session of the Conference on 10 May.3 Pham Van Dong stated that the DRV was the "stronger" force in "more than three-fourths of the country." He went on to describe the successful administration of this territory by his government, which he said "represents the will of the entire Vietnamese nation..." The opposition, characterized as "the government of the temporarily occupied zone," did not enjoy popular support, he said, and was merely a tool of the French. Pham Van Dong did not, however, propose that France recognize "the sovereignty and independence of Vietnam throughout the territory of Vietnam," a statement which amounted to a rejection of the Franco–Vietnamese treaties approved on 28 April by Laniel and Nguyen Trung Vinh. He instead offered an eight-point proposal for a political settlement and a cease-fire:

1. Recognition by France of the sovereignty and independence of Viet-Nam throughout the territory of Viet-Nam, and also recognition of the sovereignty and independence of Khmer and Pathet Lao.

2. Conclusion of an agreement on the withdrawal of all foreign troops from the territory of Viet-Nam, Khmer, and Pathet Lao within the time limits to be agreed upon by the belligerents. Pending the withdrawal of troops, the dislocation [sic] of French troops in Viet-Nam shall be agreed upon — particular attention being paid to limit to the minimum the number of their dislocation points. Provision shall be made that the French troops should not interfere in the affairs of local administration in the areas of their dislocation.

3. Holding of free general elections in Viet-Nam, Khmer, and Pathet Lao with a view to constituting a single government in each country, convening of advisory conferences of the representatives of the governments of both sides in Viet-Nam, Khmer, and Pathet Lao — in each of the States separately and under conditions securing freedom of activity for patriotic parties, groups, and social organizations; the preparation and the holding of free general elections to establish a unified government in each country. Interference from outside should not be permitted. Local commissions will be set up to supervise the preparation for and the carrying out of the elections. Prior to the establishment of unified governments in each of the above-mentioned States, the governments of both sides will specifically carry out the administrative functions in the districts which will be under their administration, after the settlement has been carried out, in accordance with the agreement on the termination of hostilities.

4. The statements by the Delegation of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam on the readiness of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam to examine the question of the entry of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam into the French Union in conformity with the principle of free will, and on the conditions of this entry corresponding statements should be made by the Governments of Khmer and of Pathet Lao.

5. Recognition by the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam as well as by Khmer and Pathet Lao, of the economic and cultural interests of France in those countries. After the establishment of unified Governments in Viet-Nam, Khmer, Pathet Lao, the economic and cultural relations of these States with France should be subject to the settlement in conformity with the principles of equality and mutual interest. Pending the establishment of the unified governments in the Three States, the economic and cultural relations of Indochina with France will temporarily remain without a change such as they exist now. However, in the areas where communications and trade ties have been broken off, they can be re-established on the basis of understanding between both sides. The citizens of both sides will enjoy their privileged status to be determined later in matters pertaining to domicile, movement, and business activities on the territory of the other side.

6. The belligerent sides undertake not to prosecute persons who collaborated with the other side during the war.

7. There shall be mutual exchange of prisoners of war.

8. Implementation of measures that are referred to in paragraphs one through seven should be succeeded by the cessation of hostilities in Indochina, and by the conclusion to this end of appropriate agreement between France and each of the Three States which should provide for a complete and simultaneous cease-fire throughout the whole of the Indochinese territory by all armed forces of the belligerent sides, ground, naval, and air force. Both sides, in each of the Three States of Indochina, for the purpose of strengthening the armistice, will carry out a necessary settlement of territories and of the areas occupied by them, and it should also be provided that (a) both sides should not hinder each other during the passage, for the purpose of the above mentioned settlement, by the troops of the other [sic] side over the territory occupied by the other side; (b) the complete termination of transportation into Indochina from abroad of new ground, naval, and air units of personnel, or of any kind of arms of ammunition; (c) to set up control over the implementation of the terms of agreement on the cessation of hostilities, and to establish, for this purpose, in each of the Three States, mixed commissions composed of the representatives of the belligerent sides.4

d. The DRV Proposals Demand a Political Settlement Before a Cease-Fire

The meaning of Dong's list of proposals was clear. A political settlement would precede a military agreement (cease-fire) rather than the reverse, which the French preferred. Elections would take place under the supervision of local commissions, and the DRV preference was for holding them country-wide and soon. By first removing the French, and then by dealing directly with the non-Communist Vietnamese on the issues of control and supervision of the cease-fire, regroupment, and general elections, the Viet Minh could legitimately expect a quick takeover of power from the relatively weak Vietnamese National Army. As Dong well knew, the relocation of French forces in the Tonkin Delta into a tighter perimeter was having, and would continue to have, major repercussions on Vietnamese army morale.5 Once the French were persuaded to withdraw, the VNA would undoubtedly collapse under Viet Minh military pressure. Moreover, inasmuch as Dong's plan made no allowance for the disarming, much less the regrouping, of indigenous forces on either side, the Viet Minh would be militarily in a virtually unassailable position to control any general election that might be held (if, in fact, the political process were ever to advance that far). Dong's proposal, then, amounted to a request that the French abandon Vietnam.

e. The DRV Indicates Ambitions for Pathet Lao and Free Khmer

In the same speech, Dong evidenced that the DRV's ambitions extended beyond Vietnam. Acting as spokesman for the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer — whose representatives had formally come under Viet Minh direction with the announcement on 11 March 1951 of formation of a Viet Minh–Free Khmer–Pathet Lao "National United Front" — Dong argued that these two movements enjoyed widespread popular support and controlled most of the territory of their respective countries. With considerable distortion of history (subsequently corrected by the Laotian and Cambodian delegates), Dong sought to demonstrate that the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer were de facto governments carrying out "democratic reforms" in the areas their armies had "liberated." The negotiating objective was to gain the status of lawful governments for the Pathet Lao and the Free Khmer. Dong seemed strongly to imply that the DRV spoke not only for itself, but for all the Indochinese peoples.

Dong included the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer in his settlement plan. He demanded that France recognize the "sovereignty and independence" of those movements no less than of the DRV:

"...the Peoples of Khmer and Pathet Lao have liberated vast areas of their national territory. The governments of resistance have exerted all their efforts in creating a democratic power and in raising the living standards of the population in liberated areas. That is why the government of resistance of Khmer, as well as that of Pathet Lao enjoy the support of and warm affection of the population in liberated areas and they enjoy great prestige and influence among the population of both countries.

"These governments represent the great majority of the people of Khmer and Lao, the aspirations of whom they symbolize..."6

French forces alone were to withdraw from Cambodia and Laos; the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer were not "foreign" troops. As in Vietnam, elections then would be held — but, without neutral or international supervision. During these elections, Dong insisted there must be "conditions securing freedom of activity for patriotic parties, groups, and social organizations...," agreement to which would have guaranteed the functioning with impunity of various communist fronts.

f. The Initial DRV Demands are Excessive

Viet Minh ambitions in Indochina, it must be concluded, were not simply oratorical gestures intended strictly for the establishment of a bargaining position. In the absence of Sino–Soviet pressure and the threat of U.S. participation, it seems clear that the DRV would not have reduced their demands. Viet Minh ambitions were extensive and partially realized. They were, however, excessive and contrary to the compromise mood of their communist allies and to the relatively firm Western position.

2. Later DRV Positions Represent a Compromise
a. The DRV Begins to Soften Its Position

The implacable DRV position ran contrary to Chinese and Soviet desires to forestall American intervention in Indochina, and after as early gesture of unity, it was soon evident that the large communist powers were bringing pressure to bear on the DRV. By 17 May, Pham Van Dong was ready to withdraw from his strong position requiring a political settlement before a cease-fire, and also to give up his demands for seating Khmer and Pathet Lao delegations, although he still insisted that recognition of these two movements was a part of the Vietnam solution:

"As regards procedure, [Dong stated that] his delegation was in full accord with the Soviet proposal that both political and military questions be dealt with together. He also agreed to treating the military questions first not because they were more important but more urgent. The questions of Khmer and Pathet Lao were closely linked to that of Vietnam and could not be separated. He did not see any real question [sic] for considering first the question of Khmer and Pathet Lao."7

This softening of the DRV position at Geneva was not reflected in the military operations in Indochina, where the Viet Minh were still determined to achieve control of as much of the Tonkin Delta as possible; in fact, the Viet Minh were planning heavier operations in the Tonkin Delta. A captured document in the last days of May directed Viet Minh commanders in that area to continue their harassing and guerrilla activities for an unspecified period "pending commitment of the battle corps."8

b. A Weak Laniel Position Delays DRV Concessions

The Viet Minh were considering further concessions in late May and early June when it became evident that the Laniel government was cracking at the seams, and that a harder communist line might force either the fall of Laniel or some significant concessions from France. Either of these results would be profitable, since any government replacing Laniel's would certainly be more willing to end the Indochina war. For this reason, the DRV hard line once more came to the fore, to the point that Pham Van Dong was able to reverse himself on same points he had been ready to concede. On 8 June, he insisted once again on the necessity for a political solution prior to discussions of the cease-fire. As a psychological inducement, he added the hint that, whatever the outcome, France would remain influential in cultural and economic fields, and even suggested that seme vestige of the French Union concept would continue to exist:

"To this effect, finally, the Delegation of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam invites the conference to embark without delay upon the consideration of political questions such as the recognition by France of the sovereignty and of the real independence of Viet-Nam and of the other countries of Indochina, the organization of general elections in Viet-Nam, the relations of Viet-Nam and of France; that is, the question of the economic and cultural interests, as well as the question pertaining to the association of the Democratic Republic of Viet-Nam to the French Union, and the conditions under which such associations should be effected, and so on and so forth."9

Possibly the words "and so on and so forth" give a truer indication of the environment in which this projection of future ties was made. The main point was a demand for immediate general elections in exchange for a cease-fire.

c. The DRV Presents a New Series of Proposals

The USSR backed the DRV at this time, insisting on independence for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, free elections in these states, and withdrawal of all foreign troops.10 With the continued demand by the DRV for even more territory than its units held on the ground, and with General Ely stating privately in the field that the French Union troops were "very, very tired,"11 the Laniel government staggered, lost a vote of confidence, and fell on 12 June. It was replaced, on 18 June, by the government of Mendes-France, pledged to end the war in Indochina by 20 July or step down. While the new French government was being formed, the DRV brought forth a new position, embodied in six points to be agreed on prior to a cease-fire:

1. Complete and real sovereignty and national independence of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. 2. Free general elections by secret ballot throughout the territory of Vietnam.

3. No prosecution of collaborators.

4. Establishment of economic and cultural relations between France and the DRV.

5. Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to respect the independence, unity and internal regime of the other states.

6. Other political questions concerning Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia must be settled at a later time in the interests of consolidating peace and the guarantee of democratic rights and national interests of the peoples of Indochina.12

d. The DRV Agrees to a Separate Solution for Laos and Cambodia

The speech by Chou En-lai at this meeting seemed to support the DRV view, although it was more mildly stated. In retrospect, however, it appears that this meeting marked a turning point, at least for the DRV on their insistence for including the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer in a settlement. Chou's proposals, contrary to Pham Van Dong's, implied the withdrawal of Viet Minh forces from Laos and Cambodia and also suggested the postponement of a political settlement for those two states:

"I have stated, on several occasions at this conference, that the situations in the three states are not completely alike. That is to say, that the situation in Vietnam is not completely the same as that in Laos, while the situation in Laos is not completely the same as that in Cambodia. Therefore, the concrete situations in Laos and Cambodia should be taken into consideration in working out solutions for the problems of these two countries." 13

Two days later, Pham Van Dong, in the fifteenth restricted session, announced the decisive termination of efforts to include all of Indochina in the political agreement:

"...I would like to say there have been Vietnam volunteers which fought on the side of the resistance elements of Laos and Khmer. They have been withdrawn. Today if there are such forces they will be withdrawn."14
e. The DRV Reluctantly Accepts Partition

In its early proposals, the DRV did not recognize the possibility of partition, aiming instead at a unification of all Vietnam. In conjunction with their demands for immediate elections, this was calculated to give them control of the whole country. Lacking support from Peking and Moscow, the DRV was forced to give in on this point. Molotov, on 17 May, opened the door by agreeing that military solutions should precede political solutions, and Eden, on 25 May, moved to include on the agenda the question of "regrouping areas for Vietnam." Pham Van Dong, in reply, accepted this concept of including a demarcation line and made the following points:

1. There should be a recognition of the principles of readjusting the areas under control of each state;

2. Readjustment would mean an exchange of territory taking into account actual areas controlled including population and strategic interests;

3. Each side would get territory in one piece to include complete control of the area both economic and administrative;

4. A line of demarcation should be established following the topographical line of territory so that it is easy to follow and would make transportation and communications possible within each state.15

The subsequent discussions of a cease-fire and partition were stymied initially by the DRV demand for a demarcation line at the 13th parallel. After two weeks, by 16 June, the DRV reduced this demand to "all of Tonkin and the entire delta area." The French, "without agreeing," said if such an arrangement were made, they "would demand a free hand in the South, indicating area south of the line starting approximately 18th parallel..."16 Discussions continued through the rest of June. The French Ambassador, Bonnet, commented on 28 June that the Viet Minh disposition to negotiate arose, in the French opinion, from a fear that the conflict might expand to include the U.S.;17 in other words, the DRV had come around to the view of China and the USSR. From this time on, the French increasingly threatened the DRV with the possibility of U.S. intervention, even though, ironically enough, the U.S. was moving further away from such a position:

"Chauvel reports that he spoke most firmly to Dong regarding military discussions. He said French have accepted Viet Minh proposal that Viet Minh receive Tonkin area, including Capitol, but that further Viet Minh proposal for demarcation line is unacceptable. Chauvel reiterated in strongest terms fact that French proposal for demarcation line just north of Dong Hoi would be acceptable to conference and would thus eliminate danger of extension of war."18

By 6 July, Pham Van Dong was almost willing to accept the 17th parallel. His attitude indicated that he, personally, was ready to compromise and that he felt his government was coming around:

"Chauvel had seen Dong this morning. On question of demarcation lines, Dong again referred to status of populations sympathizing with Viet Minh who would be left south of demarcation line proposed by French. He said this question would be easier for him if he could get some general political assurances regarding eventual status these people. Chauvel said Dong indicated that with such assurances he might be able to accept Dong Hoi line."19
f. The DRV is Disappointed on Elections

In Pham Van Dong's 10 May plan, a take-over of all Vietnam by the DRV was almost certain. "Foreign" troops would be withdrawn and elections would take place as soon as possible. "Local government" would fill in during the interval. Supervision of the elections themselves would be by locally composed commissions. The French and the GVN vehemently opposed both immediate elections and elections unsupervised by some kind of international commission. There was no movement in this impasse until 16 July when Molotov opened new possibilities by suggesting that a decision on elections be left up to the GVN and DRV after a military settlement was made. The Chinese were willing to concede that elections might not take place for two or three years. Even under these pressures, there was no progress until very near the time set by the French for termination of Geneva talks. On 19 July, at an extraordinary meeting attended by Molotov, Eden, Mendes-France, Chou En-lai, and Pham Van Dong agreement was reached on postponing elections for two years.20 This, of course, represented a severe setback for the ambitions of the DRV.

g. The DRV Does Not Achieve Its Goals at Geneva

The DRV, by the end of the conference, had moved a long way from its initial position on every important consideration. The ceasefire was considered ahead of the political decisions. The country was partitioned, giving the GVN about half the total territory, which was probably much more than it deserved on the basis of France–GVN military strength. Elections were put off for two years instead of being held immediately, and control of the elections was to be international rather than local. The Pathet Lao and Free Khmer movements were not represented at the convention, and the DRV had drawn its Viet Minh troops out of Laos and Cambodia. Bernard Fall's comment that the DRV was forced "to accept conditions far less favorable than the military situation warranted"21 is reinforced by a detailed analysis of the French military position in the Tonkin Delta by Lacouture and Devillers in La fin d'une guerre, in which the French situation is described as on the verge of collapse.22 The DRV, according to Kahin and Lewis, probably expected, however, that the concessions they had made were only temporary:

"...in evacuating its military units from the South, the Viet Minh was not being called upon to abandon its struggle for power, but only to transfer the competition from the military to the political plane. And whether in a military or an exclusively political contest, the Viet Minh confidently expected victory."23

This, as Victor Bator points out, was a serious mistake:

"...there must have been some miscalculation at that time on the part of Democratic Republic of Vietnam. They must have thought that South Vietnam Government would never be able to assert its independence and become strong enough to demand the French withdrawal. They underestimated the American interest in South Vietnam and expected to exploit the chaotic conditions in the South for gaining their political ends. However, as has already been observed, the events took a different turn in the South."24

Ho commented much later on his personal feelings about the results of the Geneva Conference, and from these comments comes an indication of his feelings on later situations:

"We thought we had achieved something with the French by compromising and it turned out to be shaky. Only through full and unconditional independence can we achieve stability...We are determined to continue to fight until we achieve total victory, that is, military and political..."25

III. C. 2.



1. USSR and China are Motivated by Different Objectives C-18
a. Atmosphere at Geneva is Different from Panmunjon C-18
b. Soviet Objectives C-18
(1) USSR Seeks to Avert a Major International Crisis
(2) USSR Wishes to Prevent French Support of EDC
(3) USSR Seizes the Opportunity to Create a New Communist State
c. Chinese Objectives: The Need for Border Security C-19
(1) China's Policy Calls for Assistance to "Wars of National Liberation"
(2) China Wary of U.S. Intervention
(3) China Wishes to Prevent Laos and Cambodia from Becoming U.S. Allies
(4) China Attempts to Enhance the Image of "Peaceful Co-existence"
2. USSR and China Serve as Moderating Influences on the Viet Minh C-21
a. Opening Position of Both Countries Supports DRV Hard Line C-21
b. Shift to Support of Bilateral French–DRV Discussions is Apparent Early C-22
c. USSR and China Change DRV Approach to Cease-fire C-22
d. DRV Responds to Sino–Soviet Pressure on Partition C-22
e. Molotov Proposes Compromise on Elections C-23

f. DRV is Pressed to Give up Claims for Pathet Lao and Free Khmer Representation C-23
g. Chinese Play a Major Role in Pathet Lao–Free Khmer Exclusion C-24
h. USSR and China Agree to a Control Commission C-25
i. Sino–Soviet Influence Has Significant Effect C-25
1. USSR and China Motivated by Different Objectives
a. Atmosphere at Geneva is Different from Panmunjom

During the Korean War, the initial communist move toward negotiations came at a time of fairly clear-cut military stalemate. Discussions at Panmunjom extended over two years while UN and communist armies fought over small parcels of strategically valuable terrain. In Indochina, to the contrary, the first communist indications of willingness to negotiate came in September 1953 (from both Peking and Moscow), while the Viet Minh were preparing for the "general counteroffensive," and with the French Union forces constricting their defensive perimeter and desperately seeking to prevent large-scale desertions by the Vietnamese. Moreover, a final settlement was reached after only two months of bargaining. The reasons for this unexpectedly rapid and compromise settlement lie in Moscow and Peking. For reasons that were either the same or complementary, these two communist powers created an atmosphere for serious negotiations.

b. Soviet Objectives

Unlike the Chinese, the Soviet Union was never explicit about its motivations for working toward a settlement. Nevertheless, there are strong grounds for believing that the Soviets had these goals in view: (1) averting a major war crisis over Indochina that would stimulate Western unity, provide the U.S. with support previously lacking for "united action, and conceivably force Moscow to help defend the Chinese; (2) reducing the prospects for successful passage of the European Defense Community in the French National Assembly; (3) seizing the opportunity to create a communist controlled enclave in Vietnam which could, then be expanded into a new communist state.

(1) USSR Seeks to Avert a Major International Crisis

On the first point, the Soviets were surely aware that the United States probably would be prepared, under certain conditions, to consider active involvement in the war. Newspaper reports of the time added both credence and uncertainty to American plans for "united action." The Soviets during this period were caught up, moreover, in a full-fledged policy debate over the import of Eisenhower's defense program for Soviet national security. When the debate was resolved, sometime in April 1954, apparently First Secretary Khrushchev's perception of the continued danger of a new world, war that might be touched off by a reckless American nuclear strike won out over the relative optimism of Premier Malenkov. Specifically, Moscow probably reasoned that a failure to settle at Geneva would lead to U.S. involvement and escalation in Indochina, that at one point there might be another direct clash between American and Chinese forces, and that the Soviet Union therefore would be called upon to come to the aid of its Chinese ally.

As the Soviets entered the Geneva Conference, then, it seems that one of their primary aims was to diminish the possibility of U.S. intervention, either in the guise of a united action or unilaterally, in Indochina. While this outlook did not prevent the Soviets from seeking to capitalize on the change in administration in Paris from Laniel to Mendes-France, it did work in the general direction of a reasonable settlement that would be honorable for the French and generally acceptable to the Viet Minh. The Russians evidently believed, however, that so long as the French (and the British) were agreeable to a settlement, the Americans would be hard-pressed to disregard their allies and intervene.

(2) USSR Wishes to Prevent French Support of EDC

EDC was also almost certainly on Molotov's mind during the negotiations. There is no evidence to support the contention of some Writers that Molotov explicitly baited Mendes-France with a lenient Indochina settlement in return for Assembly rejection of EDC, but Molotov need not have been that explicit. Throughout 1953 and into 1954, Soviet propaganda was dominated by comments on EDC and the danger of a rearmed Germany. It was certainly in Soviet interest to pressure the DRV for concessions to the French, since removal of the French command from Indochina would restore French force levels on the Continent and thereby somewhat offset the need for an EDC. Soviet interests, in short, probably dictated the sacrifice of Viet Minh goals if necessary to prevent German re-militarization.

(3) USSR Seizes the Opportunity to Create a New Communist State

Soviet efforts to gain control of Iran, Manchuria, Greece and Korea indicate a possible third objective of their diplomacy at Geneva. In these instances, the Soviet Union attempted to gain control of the target state by establishing a communist enclave in the target state itself. This enclave would become, then, "a first stage in the ultimate absorption of the whole state by the communist bloc." It may have been that, in the Soviet view, the timing for such a move in Vietnam was correct and that control of Vietnam would come without the necessity for military conquest.1

c. Chinese Objectives: The Need for Border Security

In contrast to the Soviet position, the Chinese made their goals at Geneva quite clear: (1) emphasizing the commitment to assist "wars of national liberation"; (2) guarding against the possibility of U.S. military intervention; (3) preventing the Indochinese states from becoming U.S. bases or joining the American alliance system; and (4) promoting the "five principles of peaceful coexistence" as part of China's effort to extend its influence across Asia. Central to each of these objectives was the need to create a zone of security that encompassed Laos, Cambodia, and the northern half of Vietnam, to insure China's southwestern flank against intrusion by the U.S. or any other large foreign power.

(1) China's Policy Calls for Assistance to "Wars of National Liberation"

From the moment Chinese troops arrived at the Sino–Vietnamese border, Chinese assistance to the Viet Minh was clearly in line with Peking's policy of assisting wars of national liberation. This theme was alluded to frequently by Chinese delegates at Geneva. The Chinese, however, carefully controlled the dispensation of that aid in support of the war, and only after the Berlin Conference did they significantly augment it to assure the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Regardless of Marxist rationale advanced by China for its policy toward the Viet Minh, China historically had acted to obtain vassal states on its periphery. China's domestic cohesion having been restored, it turned, consistent with centuries of policy towards Vietnam, to projecting its influence into Southeast Asia via Vietnam.

(2) China Wary of U.S. Intervention

In providing less assistance than it could, have, Peking may very well have been wary of prompting American intervention and a wider war. In this respect, U.S. warnings to China during 1953 from an American Administration which publicly vowed a very hard line toward the communist bloc could not be ignored by Peking. The Chinese by 1954 had evinced, moreover, greater concern than previously over the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons. Having been through a costly war in Korea, and having decided as early as the fall of 1952 to give priority to "socialist reconstruction" at home, Peking was in no position to risk provoking the United States. Its willingness to work for a settlement of the Indochina war may have stemmed, in this light, from the conviction that: (a) the DRV had made sufficient military gains for China, i.e., territorial control in northern Vietnam; and (b) that the DRV should not be allowed to provoke the West (and the U.S. in particular) into a precipitous military response that would change the nature of the war and perhaps of China's commitment as well.

(3) China Wishes to Prevent Laos and Cambodia from Becoming U.S. Allies

Besides assuring that a communist state would occupy the northern portion of Vietnam, China also sought to neutralize the two other Indochinese states. Chou indicated at the Conference that he had no objection to the introduction of arms and military personnel into Cambodia or Laos after the cease-fire;2 nor did he object to their monarchical form of government,3 to their independent handling of internal political problems,4 or to their joining the French Union.5 Surprisingly, Chou asked no concessions from the French on these counts, although the French had half-expected Chou to press for better trade relations, support for a CPR seat in the United Nations, or French diplomatic recognition of Communist China.6 Instead, Chou made clear that China was concerned preeminently about the establishment of U.S. bases in Cambodia and Laos for potential use against the mainland. Concessions to the French may have been seen by Peking as a way of keeping the French "in" and the Americans out. The rapid collapse of France could create a vacuum into which the U.S. would be forced to move.

The Chinese were disturbed about the prospect of Cambodia, Laos, and the State of Vietnam becoming members of the proposed U.S. security treaty system for Southeast Asia.7 When, for example, Chou met with the Cambodian Foreign Minister (Nong Kimny) on 17 July, the Chinese Premier implicitly warned against Cambodian participation in a Southeast Asia pact or acceptance of foreign bases. The consequences of either move by Cambodia, Chou said, would be very serious for Cambodian independence and territorial integrity. And he specifically stated that his remarks applied equally to Laos and Vietnam.8 Peking was not interested in new territorial acquisitions; but neither would it tolerate an American military threat close by.

(4) China Attempts to Enhance the Image of "Peaceful Coexistence"

A final Chinese objective was to enhance China's image as an Asian power sincerely dedicated to peaceful coexistence. The policy of "peaceful coexistence" was framed in terms of the five principles: mutual friendship, mutual non-interference in internal affairs, non-aggression, equality and mutual respect for territorial integrity. The Chinese invested much time and travel in convincing their Asian neighbors of Peking's sincerity. Seen in this larger context, the Indochina settlement, for which Chou must be credited with a major share, bolstered Peking's image as a dedicated worker for peace whose voice had to be heeded in Asian councils. Not inconsequentially, China's stock in the communist bloc must have risen as well.

2. USSR and China Serve as Moderating Influences on the Viet Minh
a. Opening Position of Both Countries Supports DRV Hard Line

For a variety of reasons the Soviets and Chinese found it in their respective interests to work for a peaceful settlement of the Indochina War. Although giving the impression, at first, of being fully behind the Viet Minh negotiating position, Molotov and Chou En-lai gradually moved toward accommodation with the French. The two chief communist delegates were in fact instrumental in gaining concessions from the Viet Minh and in proposing acceptable alternatives to the French. At the outset of the Conference, Molotov and Chou outwardly supported without qualification Pham Van Dong's proposal for a political settlement to be followed by a cease-fire. When it became clear that the French were not going to accept that proposal, they evidently agreed that further progress required a separation of military from political discussions. Molotov's suggestion at the first restricted session of 17 May along these lines, and Chou's remark to Eden on 20 May that a cease-fire should have priority, represented real breakthroughs and probably were the cause of Pham Van Dong's willingness to engage in private military discussions with French General

b. Shift to Support of Bilateral French–DRV Discussions is Apparent Early

The Soviet and Chinese delegations — much more than the Viet Minh — were more anxious for direct Franco–Viet Minh discussions. The fact that Soviet officials on 30 March and again 5 May told Western officials that bilateral talks would be the most profitable form of negotiations for a cease-fire9 suggests that the communists' initial backing of Pham Van Dong's proposal may have been simply a trial balloon. Once the French, supported by the U.K. and U.S., refused to budge from their call for an immediate, closely inspected cease-fire, Chou and Molotov were left free to initiate talks in the direction of compromise.

c. USSR and China Change DRV Approach to Cease-fire

The pressure that the Chinese and the Soviets were able to bring to bear apparently forced the DRV to acquiesce in a cease-fire prior to a military settlement. Pham Van Dong had argued for a plan which would have made a cease-fire throughout Indochina contingent on the satisfaction of Viet Minh conditions for general elections and the formation of three united governments. But at the first restricted session of the Conference on 17 May, Molotov pointed out that French proposals up to that point had dealt only with military matters, and proposed therefore that these be dealt with before going on to political arrangements.10 The Chinese agreed with this approach. In a conversation with Eden, Chou En-lai concurred in the separation of military from political matters, with priority to a cease-fire.11 When, therefore, Hoang Van Hoan reportedly told Le Monde on 24 May that the DRV posed "not a single prior political condition," he was reflecting the views of the Soviets and Chinese as much as paying the way for Dong's initiative of the next day.

d. DRV Responds to Sino–Soviet Pressure on Partition

There is evidence to believe that both the Chinese and the Soviets were instrumental in bringing about a series of Viet Minh concessions on the issue of where to draw the demarcation line between North and South Vietnam. The possibility of partition had been suggested initially to U.S. officials as early as 4 March by a member of the Soviet Embassy in London, apparently out of awareness of Franco–American objections to a coalition arrangement.12 The partition line mentioned at that time was the 16th parallel, which would have placed Tourane (Da Nang) in the hands of the Viet Minh (the 16th parallel crosses a few miles south of the port). It was also the Soviets who, on the opening day of the conference, approached the U.S. delegation on partition — this time averring that the establishment of a buffer state to China's south would be sufficient satisfaction of China's security needs.13

In late June, after several rounds of secret Franco–Viet Minh military talks had failed to make headway, Ta Quang Buu (Vice Minister of National Defense) was still insisting on the 13th parallel, which strikes the coast just south of Tuy Hoa, as the partition line.14 As suggested by Lacouture and Devillers, the Viet Minh may have been seeking to capitalize on Mendes-France's reputation as a man of peace, and on the ongoing withdrawal of French Union forces from the southern Delta.15 This Viet Minh position underwent a drastic change by the middle of July; and the change can be traced to a meeting between Chou En-lai and Ho Chi Minh at Nanning near the China-Vietnam border. According to CIA reports, Chou applied pressure on Ho to accept a partition line much farther to the North, probably the 17th or 18th parallel.16 Pham Van Dong's subsequent compromise position indicating a willingness of the Viet Minh to discuss partition at the 16th parallel seems to have originated in the talks between Chou and Ho.17

The French, however, refused to budge from their opposition even though Molotov argued that the 16th parallel represented a substantial Viet Minh concession and demanded a French quid pro quo.18 The Soviet delegate then came forward with a new proposal to draw the demarcation line at the 17th.19 Precisely what motivated Molotov to make this proposal is not clear. Speculatively, Molotov may simply have traded considerable territorial advantage to the French (much more than was warranted by the actual Tonkin military situation) for some progress on the subject of elections. The Western negotiators, at least, recognized, this possibility: Eden considered a line between the 17th and 18th parallels worth trading for a mutually acceptable position on elections;20 and Mendes-France observed in a conversation with Molotov that the election and demarcation questions might be linked in the sense that each side could yield on one of the questions.21

e. Molotov Proposes Compromise on Elections

The French had consistently held out for general elections in Vietnam, but without a time limit. (Election dates for Laos and Cambodia were already set by their constitutions as August and September 1955, respectively.) Molotov, however, reflected Viet Minh thinking in proposing that a date be fixed, offering June 1955; but suggesting that elections might be agreed upon for 1955 with the exact date to be decided between Vietnamese and Viet Minh authorities.22 The Chinese proved much more flexible. In a talk with a member of the British delegation, Li K'o-nung argued for a specific date, but said his government was willing to set it within two or three years of the cease-fire.23 Once again, the compromise was worked, out on Molotov's initiative. At a meeting on 19 July attended by Eden, Mendes-France, Chou, and Dong, Molotov drew the line at two years.24 In view of the DRV demand, for six months, the French compromise position of 18 months, and the Soviets' own one-year plan, the West had good reason to accept Molotov's offer.

f. DRV is Pressed to Give Up Claims for Pathet Lao and Free Khmer Representation

A third instance in which Viet Minh ambitions were cut short by the diplomatic intrusion of their comrades concerned the status of the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer. Throughout the month of May, the DRV had demanded that representatives of these movements be invited to the Conference to sit, like the Viet Minh, as belligerents wielding governmental power. These demands were consistently rejected by the non-Communist side, which argued that the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer were creatures of the Viet Minh, guilty of aggression against the Cambodian and Laotian governments (in contrast to the "civil war" in Vietnam), and not deserving status which they had in no way earned. When Molotov, on 17 May, recommended that "military matters" should be considered first, the question of seating the Pathet Lao and Khmer delegations was dropped.

Nevertheless, the Viet Minh persisted in their position on an all-Indochina political settlement when the significant bargaining was reduced to "underground" military talks between them and the French beginning in early June.25 The first compromise of the Viet Minh's position came on 20 May when Chou En-lai, in the same conversation with Eden at which the chief Chinese delegate also agreed to separate military from political matters, admitted that political settlements might be different for the three Indochinese states. Chou thus moved a step closer to the Western position, which held that the Laotian and Cambodian cases were substantially different from that in Vietnam. Not surprisingly, the Viet Minh, at a secret meeting with the French on 10 June, suddenly indicated their preference for concentrating on Vietnam rather than demanding the inclusion of Laotian and Cambodian problems in the bilateral discussions.26

g. Chinese Play a Major Role in Pathet Lao–Free Khmer Exclusion

The Viet Minh's major concern, as indicated on 16 June, was that they at least obtain absolute control of the Tonkin Delta, including Hanoi and Haiphong.27 Neither Chou nor the Viet Minh, however, went so far as to dismiss the existence of legitimate resistance movements in Laos and Cambodia. But in ongoing talks with the British, Chou proved far more willing than the Viet Minh to push aside Pathet Lao–Free Khmer interests. On 17 June, at a time when four rounds of secret Franco–Viet Minh military talks had failed to make headway, Chou told Eden that it "would not be difficult" to gain Viet Minh agreement on withdrawing their "volunteers" from Cambodia and Laos. Eden, moreover, got the impression from his meeting with Chou that the latter earnestly wanted a settlement and was greatly concerned over the possible break up of the conference.28 Cambodian resistance forces were small, making a political settlement with the Royal Government "easily" obtainable. In Laos, where those forces were larger, regroupment areas along the border with Vietnam and China (Sam Neua and Phong Saly Provinces) would be required. Asked by Eden whether there might not be difficulty in gaining Viet Minh agreement to the withdrawal of their forces from the two countries, Chou replied it would "not be difficult" in the context of a withdrawal of all foreign forces.29

The Chinese, almost certainly with Soviet support,30 had made a major breakthrough in the negotiations by implicitly adopting the Western view that the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer forces did not represent legitimate indigenous movements and should be withdrawn. The Viet Minh volte-face came, as in the other cases, soon after. A Laotian delegate reported on 23 June that the Viet Minh were in apparent accord on the withdrawal of their "volunteers" and even on Laos' retention of French treaty bases. The Viet Minh's principal demand, was that French military personnel in Laos be reduced to a minimum. Less clearly, Dong made suggestions about the creation of a government of "national union," Pathet Lao participation in 1955 elections for the national assembly, and a "temporary arrangement" governing areas dominated by Pathet Lao military forces.31 But these latter remarks were meant to be suggestive; Dong had come around to the Western view (now shared by the Soviets and Chinese) on the important point of removing Viet Minh troops from Laos. Later in the conference, Dong would have to make a similar retreat on Cambodia.

h. USSR and China Agree to a Control Commission

While the Viet Minh from the beginning had pressed for no outside control or supervision of either military or political agreements concerning Indochina, all other delegations quickly moved in that direction. The Soviets took the lead on the communist side. The major issue was the composition and voting procedure of the proposed International Control Commission. From the Western standpoint, the ICC should not have had a communist representative, since no communist could be considered neutral. The Soviets retorted, as expected, that Western backing of a Colombo Power (India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Ceylon, or Burma) was subject to the same objection, namely, that each of these nations always would vote with the Western bloc. As the matter evolved, a compromise settlement provided for a three-nation formula including one communist state. Both aspects of this agreement were based, on Molotov's original plan.32

As to voting procedure, the communists not surprisingly insisted on unanimity, at least for "major questions." The West, while accepting that rule, considered pushing for acceptance of majority voting to determine whether a question was minor or major.33 The result (Article 42 of the Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam) was to specify unanimous agreement among the Commission representatives on matters pertinent to violations, or threats of violations, that might lead to the resumption of hostilities. However, minority reports could be issued where the Commission was unable to agree on a recommendation.

i. Sino–Soviet Influence Has Significant Effect

There is little doubt that the conference would not have been able to move against the initial DRV intransigence without assistance from the Soviets and Chinese. In the opening phase of discussion, both the major powers voiced complete agreement with the DRV in policy and aims, but through a series of moves both powers also made great efforts to soften the DRV hard line and to allow enough flexibility for concessions. The first problem, involving the seating of the Pathet Lao and Khmer, was solved by Soviet and Chinese agreement to postpone — indefinitely, as it turned out — any discussion of the question. The second stumbling block was the Viet Minh insistence on a political solution before a cease-fire. The ability of the Chinese and Soviets to overcome DRV resistance on this point was very encouraging early in the proceedings. Russia and China were active behind the scenes on the question of partition, with Russia taking the initiative even before the conference began, and with both major powers influencing the decisions as the French and Viet Minh moved toward a mutually agreeable demarcation line. The common-sense role that the USSR and China played with reference to Pathet Lao and Free Khmer inclusion brought about a key concession that had nearly stopped the conference — the need to separate the Vietnam question from the rest of Indochina. The final difficult question, the composition and function of the Control Commission, dragged along for several weeks, but was finally solved with no little assistance of the USSR and China.