United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense/III. D. The Intent of the Geneva Accords




One of the principal controversies surrounding the Geneva Conference concerns the intent of the Armistice and the Final Declaration. While it is clear that the Armistice between the French and the Viet Minh was designed to end the actual hostilities, the political intent of the belligerents, and that of the Conference participants expressed in the Final Declaration, is in doubt. The central issue in dispute is whether or not the participants intended to unify Vietnam, and if so, whether the subsequent actions of the U.S. and the GVN in frustrating that intent make them culpable for the present war.

China and Russia were, in general, pleased with the results of the Geneva Conference, even though they had been forced to accept a settlement considerably at variance from their initial demands. Since these powers were primarily interested in attaining their political goals without triggering a massive response from a united West, cessation of the war on even minimally advantageous terms would allow them time to consolidate gains and to extend their control further into Southeast Asia with fewer risks. They recognized that the DRV did not receive concessions commensurate with its military power and political control, but the Communists, probably miscalculating the future U.S. commitment to South Vietnam, no doubt felt that they could safely transfer the combat from the battlefield to the sphere of politics. However, the final settlement severely compromised DRV expectations and objectives: the line of partition was at the 17th parallel, not the 13th; elections were envisaged after two years, not immediately; supervision was to be by an international body, not by the belligerents themselves; and Communist movements in Laos and Cambodia were denied identity and support, not sanctioned by the Conference. Yet, despite these setbacks and disappointments, the DRV apparently expected to fall heir to all of Vietnam in fairly short order, either through a plebiscite on unification, or by default when the GVN collapsed from internal disorder. (Tab 1)

For the United Kingdom as well as for France, the final outcome at Geneva was in the main satisfactory. The bloodshed had ceased; the danger of broadened conflict was averted. The U.S. understanding of the Accords is more difficult to fathom. Immediately upon the conclusion of the conference, the U.S. representative, Under Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, stated that the results were the best possible under the circumstances. Both he and President Eisenhower stated that the U.S. "would view any renewal of the aggression in violation of the [Geneva] agreements with grave concern and as seriously threatening international peace and security." President Kennedy in December 1961 used this quote as justification for his support of South Vietnam. But the purpose of the U.S. declaration remains obscure. It can be argued that its intent was not a long-term U.S. commitment, but an attempt to deter the DRV from attacking the GVN in the two-year period prior to elections. According to this argument, the Eisenhower Administration would have accepted any outcome if assured that the voting were free. A counterargument is that Smith was throwing down the gauntlet to the Communists. An NSC action immediately following the Conference considered the Accords a "major disaster for U.S. interests" and called for affirmative political action to foreclose further loss. In other words, while the specifics of the Accords were much in line with the U.S. negotiating position, the overall U.S. evaluation of the Conference held that territory had been yielded to the Communists. In this light, the Smith declaration marks the jumping-off point for the concerted U.S. efforts to devise a collective security system for Vietnam and all of Southeast Asia, which culminated in the Manila Pact of September, 1954 (SEATO), and the aid program for Ngo Dinh Diem. (Tab 2)

Interpretations of the spirit of the Accords are as disparate as the interests of the Geneva conferees. Yet, it is difficult to believe that any of the participants expected the Geneva Accords to provide an independent and unified Vietnam. The Communist states — the Soviet Union, Communist China, and the DRV — apparently assumed that the development of a stable regime in the South was very unlikely, and that the DRV would eventually gain control of the entire country. They, in any event, had sound evidence that the GVN was unlikely to last out the two years before elections. It may well be, then, that the conciliatory posture of the Communist states at the conference can be explained by their presumption that the specific terms of agreement were less important than the detente itself — that their future successes, however slow in coming, were inevitable. Western reactions and expectations, on the other hand, were no doubt quite different. While France was interested in extricating itself from its military failure, it was no less interested in maintaining its cultural and economic position in Vietnam. Even the United Kingdom gave every indication that it wished to prevent a general Communist takeover. Hence, it would appear that these powers, like the U.S., wanted to stop the fighting, but not at the sacrifice of all of Vietnam to the Communists. Thus, the spirit of the Accords may have been much less significant than the letter of the Accords. In other words, by dividing the country at the 17th parallel, with each zone under a separate "civil administration," by providing for the regroupment of forces and the movement of people North and South, and by putting off elections for two years, the Geneva participants jeopardized, if not precluded, the unification of Vietnam. Whatever the parties intended, the practical effect of the specific terms of the Agreement was a permanently divided nation. (Tab 3)


III. D. Tab 1 – The Outcome for the Communists
Tab 2 – The Outcome for the West
Tab 3 – The Spirit and the Practical Effect of Geneva



1. The Major Communist Powers Achieve Their Objectives D-5
a. Communists See Complete Takeover as Inevitable D-5
b. Chinese Not Adverse to Permanent Partition D-5
c. China Sees Creation of a Neutral Buffer Zone D-6
d. China's Domestic Economy is Protected D-6
e. U.S. Threat of Massive Intervention is Forestalled D-6
f. Prospects of Short-Run Stability Please the Russians D-6
g. Russians See Influence on French View of EDC D-7
2. The Major Communist Powers Perceive Certain Losses D-7
a. Communist Consolidation of All Indochina is Not Achieved D-7
b. U.S. Influence in Indochina is Not Prevented D-7
3. The DRV Views its Gains and Losses D-8
a. Advantages are Gained, but at a Price D-8
b. The DRV is Insured of Territorial Consolidation D-8
c. Election Plans Point to Eventual DRV Domination D-9
4. The DRV is Satisfied with the Geneva Outcome D-9
1. Major Communist Powers Achieve Their Objectives

To judge from the public commentaries of the communist delegation leaders — Molotov and Chou — China and the Soviet Union were satisfied with the outcome at Geneva. The final settlement seemed to meet most of their objectives, measured not simply in terms of their narrow interests in Indochina, but more broadly in terms of their global interests. The Viet Minh, however, accepted a settlement considerably at variance not only with their initial demands and their actual military control in Vietnam, but with their compromise position as well. Yet, even the Viet Minh appeared content with the results of Geneva. The reason — the belief that time was on their side.

a. Communists See Complete Takeover as Inevitable

At the final plenary session on 21 July, the Soviet, Chinese, and North Vietnamese delegates agreed that the Accords, if properly implemented, would end hostilities and give the DRV a territorial base in the North. The stage would thus be set for general elections in Vietnam and produce the desired communist takeover. The political situation in South Vietnam was precarious. In addition, there was a multitude of armed sects and other groups hostile to the central government of Bao Dai who continually relied on the French. The communists certainly had good cause for considering that South Vietnam could not cohere sufficiently within the two-year period prior to national elections, stipulated by the Final Declaration, to pose a viable alternative to the DRV. The communists had good reason to believe that a stable regime in the southern zone would never be formed; hence the DRV would assume control of the entire country almost by default.

b. Chinese Not Adverse to Permanent Partition

Interestingly, however, the Chinese accepted the notion that the Geneva Accords had, at least temporarily — and perhaps permanently — created two separate political entities. As early as June, Chou told Jean Chauvel that the Chinese recognized the existence of Viet Minh and Vietnamese governments. In talking of a final political settlement, Chou again stated that this should be achieved by direct negotiations between the two Vietnamese governments.1 So far as the CPR was concerned, partition meant not a simple division of administrative responsibility — which is the implication of the Vietnam armistice provision (Article 14a) for the conduct of "civil administration" by the "parties" who were to regroup to the two zones — but the establishment of governmental authority in North and South Vietnam. What still remains unclear, of course, is the permanency which Chou privately attached to that arragnement.

c. China Sees Creation of a Neutral Buffer Zone

Beyond Vietnam, the Chinese apparently believed that the final agreements would preclude the three Indochinese states from involvement in the American security system. When Chou communicated to Eden his concern about Laotian, Vietnamese, and Cambodian participation in a Southeast Asia treaty organization, the Foreign Secretary said he knew of no proposal for those States to join.2 The next day Eden told Molotov that a security pact in Southeast Asia was inevitable and completely in line with British policy; but he added that no consideration was being given to the inclusion of Cambodia and Laos (a comment which Smith regarded as a "mistake" inasmuch as the U.S. hoped to use the threat of their inclusion to get a better settlement).3 When the conference closed, the Chinese felt sufficiently assured about the matter, it would seem. On 23 July, a Chinese journalist confided: "We have won the first campaign for the neutralization of all Southeast Asia."4

d. China's Domestic Economy is Protected

China, at this time, was greatly concerned with her own internal problems, and anxious to consolidate at home before moving further into Asia. The Korean War had exacerbated the pressing economic and political problems within China, as had the attempts by Peking to push an economic reconstruction beyond the limits of possibility. The Chinese were satisfied that the Indochina situation after Geneva allowed, at least, temporary assurance that a major effort could be turned inward, without fear of repercussions along China's southwestern border.

e. U.S. Threat of Massive Intervention is Forestalled

The USSR and China had watched warily the sporadic attempts of the U.S.; first, to keep the Indochina problem out of Geneva, and second, to gather the Western nations into united action to prevent communist consolidation of Indochina. There was an element of unpredictability concerning U.S. action in Southeast Asia, fostered purposely to a great extent by the U.S. and UK (with calculated moves such as the bilateral military talks in Washington), but also emphasized by the inordinate number and wide variety of public statements on Indochina that were made by official and semi-official Washington during the months of June and July, while the Geneva Conference sat. Peking and Moscow, then, had some reason to believe that they had pre-empted U.S. military moves by diplomacy.

f. Prospects of Short-Run Stability Please the Russians

The Soviet government was not dedicated to the furtherance of Chinese goals in Southeast Asia, nor did the USSR want to see an increase in U.S. influence in this area. For these reasons, it was greatly in the interest of the Soviets to press for the withdrawal of French power from Indochina — but in a way calculated to inhibit any major increase in U.S. or Chinese power to replace the French. The creation, therefore, of a neutral state in Vietnam (or even the creation of two opposed half-states) met the immediate requirements of the USSR in the best manner possible under the circumstances — and it was the short-range solution that the Soviets, as well as the other delegations, were seeking at Geneva. The future would take care of itself.

g. Russians See Influence on French View of EDC

Whether or not the cause and effect relationship can be proved with any accuracy, the fact remains that the French did not ratify the EDC agreements when these were presented to the French Assembly a month after Geneva. The reaction in the USSR was described as "jubilant," hailing the French rejection as "an important event in the political history of Europe."5 This event, following closely on the termination of the Geneva Convention, was seen by the Soviets as, at least in part, influenced by the communist strategy of letting the French off the hook in Geneva.

2. The Major Communist Powers Perceive Certain Losses
a. Communist Consolidation of All of Indochina is Not Achieved

At least for the immediate future, a communist consolidation of all of Indochina was out of the question. Regardless of how inevitable the surge of communist control into the area might seem, the move had come to a halt temporarily at the 17th parallel. In effect, the communists were not prepared to take the risks in pursuing their very real superiority, if not on the battlefield, then in the psyche. The communist assertion at Geneva that the Viet Minh controlled three quarters of the area of Vietnam was close to the truth. The decision to relinquish this local control throughout Vietnam must have been viewed as a loss.

b. U.S. Influence in Indochina is Not Prevented

A major political and military objective of China was the prevention of U.S. bases in Southeast Asia. This aim, paralleling the Soviet objective of blocking U.S. influence in Europe, was an important part of overall Chinese strategy at Geneva. But, if the Chinese Government considered the Geneva provisions a first step toward Southeast Asia's neutralization, this estimate was quickly disabused. The governments of Laos and Cambodia issued declarations on 21 July, which left room for the conclusion of alliances and the stationing of foreign forces on their territory. To ease the communist outcry, both countries vowed not to ally themselves in any manner "not in conformity with the principles of the Charter of the United Nations," nor to permit foreign bases while their security was not threatened.6 Nevertheless, their delegates indicated even before the Conference that U.S. protection of their countries against aggression was desirable. The two zones of Vietnam, in contrast, were categorically enjoined from permitting the establishment of foreign military bases and from adhering to military alliances (Article 19 of the armistice agreement). The Chinese, because they were unable to obtain a U.S. guarantee of the Accords, could not prevent the U.S. from subsequently bringing Cambodia and Laos within the security perimeter of SEATO through the Protocol, a device broached by Under Secretary Smith at Geneva. Later, the U.S. spread this umbrella over SVN as well.

3. The DRV Views Its Gains and Losses
a. Advantages are Gained, but at a Price

In terms of advantages, the military accords signed 21 July by Ta Quang Buu, Vice-Minister of National Defense of the DRV, and Brigadier General Delteil, Commander of French Union Forces in Indochina, ceded the DRV full control of all Vietnamese territory north of the line set roughly at the 17th parallel. French attempts to acquire enclaves in the area of the bishoprics and around. Haiphong had been rejected, and all French forces were to be withdrawn from Haiphong within 300 days. Moreover, the Final Declaration of the Conference specified, that the demarcation line was provisional and, under Article 7; would be expunged by elections to be held in July, 1956. The DRV, therefore, could look forward to a possible legal victory at the ballot boxes within two years.

But, the disappointments to the Viet Minh must have weighed heavily also. National unity was specifically compromised by the creation of two zones divided by a demilitarized area at the 17th, rather than the 13th or 14th, parallel. A fast political solution in six months had to be bargained away as well; elections would not be held, for two years, and even then under international, not strictly Vietnamese, supervision. Finally, the Viet Minh had been forced to yield completely on their claims advanced in support of the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer forces. In Laos and Cambodia, as in Vietnam, international rather than indigenous inspection teams were to be admitted. The so-called resistance forces would either have to be withdrawn (in Laos, following temporary regroupment) or demobilized (in Cambodia) on the spot. The Viet Minh could, only salvage promises from the governments of Laos and Cambodia — contained, in their separate delegations of 21 July — that "citizens" of the two countries would, be able to participate as candidates or electors in elections to be held during 1955. The Viet Minh accepted these results even though they went well beyond compromise positions which they advanced through the talks.

b. The DRV is Insured of Territorial Consolidation

The Viet Minh had no desire to surrender their de facto control over considerable areas of Vietnam outside the Tonkin Delta. During June and July, according to CIA maps, Viet Minh forces held down the larger portion of Annam (excepting the major port cities) and significant pockets in the Cochin-China delta. Their consequent claim to all the territory north of a line running northwest from the 13th to the 14th parallel (from Tuy Hoa on the coast through Pleiku to the Cambodian border)8 was far more in keeping with the actual military situation than the French demand for location of the partition line at the 18th parallel. Yet, the French would never consent to admitting communist control on the borders of both Cambodia and Laos. The final decision to partition the country at the 17th parallel was, nevertheless, a success to the extent that it provided the DRV with absolute, unchallenged political control of haif of Vietnam — a situation which the Viet Minh began then to view as the first crucial step in the series of political moves that would achieve goals commensurate with their military power: the quick political conquest ("liberation") of the rest of the country.

c. Election Plans Point to Eventual DRV Domination

In keeping with their desire for haste in achieving an "all-Vietnamese" political settlement, the Viet Minh, while agreeing to partition, wanted it to be temporary and to be followed quickly by elections. The Viet Minh delegates, therefore, had argued that elections should be held six months after a cease-fire. But, the French retorted elections should be held 18 months after completion of the regroupment process, or between 22 and 23 months after the cease-fire.9 The compromise, urged by the USSR and China, accomplished what was in fact the most important aim of the election talks: the fixing of a date, thus providing insurance that the elections would take place. In a very real sense, though, the two year lag gave the GVN invaluable time, and communist strategy on this issue seemed to have backfired.

4. The DRV is Satisfied with the Geneva Outcome

The Viet Minh evidently believed — and no French authority on the spot doubted this — that it had the capability to eliminate the French from Tonkin with one major offensive, and to drive on for further gains in the South against a weakened, demoralized Franco–Vietnamese army. Fighting and talking simultaneously was pointed to with approval by the Viet Minh as a tactic capable of being pursued for two years (like the Chinese in Korea) in order to assure greater territorial control. Whether the Viet Minh ultimately envisaged the conquest of all Vietnam before reaching agreement with the French is not known; but, like the French, the Viet Mihh probably regarded maximum control of territory and population as insurance against future elections. Reporters covering the Geneva Convention quoted bitter comments of the DRV delegation after the final meeting, when the agreements were made public. There is good reason to believe, however, that, in reality, the Viet Minh were satisfied with the results attained at Geneva. This satisfaction was based in part on certain miscalculations on the part of the DRV, which underestimated the future commitment of the U.S. to the South Vietnamese and which also underestimated the survivability of Diem and his government. It is apparent that the DRV felt that its losses at Geneva amounted merely to delays that would set back the time schedules in Indochina, but that such a payment in time was well worth the territorial gains and the prevention of Western united, action in Vietnam. Unlike GVN and U.S. statements during and after Geneva, Viet Minh representatives publicly supported both the military agreements and the Final Declaration without qualification.

III. D. 2.


1. U.K. Diplomacy is an Unqualified Success D-12
a. British Prestige is Heightened D-12
b. Danger of a Wider War is Averted D-12
2. For France, The Results are Better Than Expected D-12
a. France is Extricated without Dishonor D-12
b. France Retains a Significant Foothold in Indochina D-13
3. GVN Achieves More Than Its Situation Warrants D-13
4. U.S. Attitude on Geneva is Mixed D-14
a. Initial U.S. Public View is Cautious D-14
b. Public and Private Reactions Vary D-14
c. U.S.–U.K. Seven-Point Program is Mostly Accomplished D-15
d. Smith States U.S. Position on Accords D-16


1. U.K. Diplomacy is an Unqualified Success
a. British Prestige is Heightened

The diplomacy of the Geneva Conference can be viewed as a success for the co-chairmen — the U.K. and the USSR. Although some have described Chou En-lai as the most influential delegate at Geneva,1 and though Molotov rightfully has been credited with a key role in the initiation of needed compromises, Anthony Eden's presence and leadership made a difference in the results of the conference and in Britain's world image. Eden repeatedly acted as an intermediary not only between the Communists and the West, but also among the U.S., France, and the GVN as well. He aided Molotov in seeing proposals for compromise through to agreements, but he was also capable of espousing and maintaining unyielding support for firm Western positions. In particular, he was able to keep the Soviets convinced that the U.K. would be at the side of the U.S. if Communist intransigence led to a stalemate at Geneva. One specific pay-off for the U.K. was Peking's agreement on 17 June (after four years of silence on the point) to exchange charges d'affaires with London.

b. Danger of a Wider War is Averted

Tensions at Geneva were high. The Viet Minh was forcing the initiative on the battlefield in Indochina, the French Government was unstable, and at that time it seemed to many that all of strategic Vietnam would fall into Communist hands. Convictions were strongly held by many that that fall was inevitable unless the West took some united military action, or unless the diplomacy of Geneva brought unsuspected agreement. The danger of a wider war was very real. The U.K. wanted to support France and the United States, but not at the price of British troops and money. London's goal was to terminate the war and reduce international tensions — to do all this without acceding to a Communist victory, and without adversely affecting British interests in that area of the world. The U.K. managed to steer a course close to its goals despite the fact that the British public was against U.K. military involvement in Indochina. In the end, Eden was able to help avert the risks of a wider war and to bring the U.K. into SEATO — presumably to help protect British gains at Geneva.

2. For France, the Results are Better Than Expected
a. France is Extricated without Dishonor

The French, probably more than any other party to the conference, had cause for satisfaction. With cooperation from the other major powers, needless to say, the French found themselves a political beneficiary at Geneva despite France's unstable domestic politics and its poor military posture in Indochina. The settlements at Geneva were respectable enough for the French Government to stay in power. If anything, the results of Geneva provided a greater measure of internal political cohesion than France had enjoyed in a number of years. It would have been very difficult for any French Government to continue the actual fighting in Indochina — especially when it appeared to many that France was losing.

b. France Retains a Significant Foothold in Indochina

The results at Geneva also allowed France to hold on to something very tangible — most of Indochina itself. The Viet Minh forces and auxiliaries in Cambodia and Laos were shunted aside, preserving paramount French influence in Vientiane and Phnom Penh. Moreover, in South Vietnam the French maintained clear title to their military, cultural, and economic interests; in North Vietnam, they had some prospect of salvaging their investments.

As early as 26 June, France made it privately clear that its intention was to maintain a viable Vietnamese state in the south. Thus, when in late June the Franco–Viet Minh "underground" talks were elevated to direct discussions between Jean Chauvel and Pham Van Dong, the French gave as one of their objectives the hope of arriving at an equitable territorial settlement "which will assure the State of Vietnam a territory as solid as possible..." Although aware of possible violent GVN reaction against partition, the French considered that arrangement best for the GVN inasmuch as it would enable the country "to consolidate herself in such a fashion as to create in the face of the Viet Mihh an authentically national and independent force."2 In agreeing to partition, the French Government, like Washington, was motivated in part by a desire to assure the State of Vietnam a defensible territory within which the Saigon regime could attempt to construct a stable authority competitive with the DRV.

3. GVN Achieves More Than Its Situation Warrants

Considering the fact that the newly independent State of Vietnam was still little more than a figurehead for French authority, that the French by far were carrying the burden of the fighting against the Viet Minh, and that the French and Vietnamese together were not doing well against the Viet Minh, the GVN received much more than they could have realistically expected from the Geneva Conference. Indeed, Geneva opened new opportunity to the GVN. Though territory had been lost, a way was gained for the establishment of governmental authority in the south. Only through consolidation of territory and regroupment of population could Bao Dai have hopes of being able to meet the challenges — whether at the polls or militarily — that the Viet Minh were sure to provide in the future. The GVN delegation at Geneva nonetheless took the view that the Accords were a sell-out to the Communists. While the Saigon Regime did not directly disavow these agreements in the sense that they rejected them altogether, or hinted at their intention of ignoring them, it clearly put a special interpretation on the agreements. For example, the GVN made it plain from the beginning that it would not countenance unsupervised elections. Moreover, it refused to contemplate elections unless and until it could secure and govern all its territory. This position was advantageous for the GVN, because it gave the DRV incentive to avoid actions south of the 17th parallel which might disrupt the election time-table, or give the GVN an excuse for refusing to hold elections. Through the concessions of the Communist countries and the firmness of its Western Allies, the GVN had been given time to consolidate itself.

4. U.S. Attitude on Geneva is Mixed
a. Initial U.S. Public View is Cautious

The U.S. viewed the Conference results with mixed emotions. Publicly, the American position was that the Accords represented the best that could have been obtained from a bad situation. The President, at a 21 July news conference, declined to criticize the Accords. He said they contain "features which we do not like, but a great deal depends on how they work in practice." He announced the U.S. intention to establish permanent missions in Laos and Cambodia, and said the U.S. was actively "pursuing discussions with other free nations with a view to the rapid organization of a collective defense in Southeast Asia in order to prevent further direct or indirect Communist aggression in that general area."3 Under Secretary Smith took the same line two days later. Denying that Geneva was another "Munich," Smith said: "I am...convinced that the results are the best that we could possibly have obtained in the circumstances," adding that "diplomacy has rarely been able to gain at the conference table what cannot be gained or held on the battlefield."4 Finally, Secretary Dulles, also on 23 July, made a statement to the press oriented toward the future. Referring to "the loss in Northern Vietnam," Dulles expressed the hope that much would be learned from the experience toward preventing further Communist inroads in Asia. Two lessons could be culled, the Secretary observed. First, popular support was essential against Communist subversion; "the people should feel that they are defending their own national institutions." Second, collective defense should precede an aggressive enemy move rather than occur as a reaction to it. A collective security system in Southeast Asia, he concluded, would check both outright aggression and subversion.5

b. Public and Private Reactions Vary

These initial public U.S. reactions to the Conference results were at considerable variance with what was being said within government councils. The fact that another piece of territory had been formally ceded to the Communists obviously weighed heavily on the Administration. When papers were drawn up for the National Security Council in August, the Geneva Conference was evaluated as a major defeat for Western diplomacy and a potential disaster for U.S. security interests in the Far East. The Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) stated that the Final Declaration of the Conference "completed a major forward stride of Communism which may lead to the loss of Southeast Asia. It, therefore, recorded a drastic defeat of key policies in NSC 5405 and a serious loss for the free world, the psychological and political effects of which will be felt throughout the Far East and around the globe."6 In a separate report, the NSC was somewhat more specific concerning the extent of the damage: the Communists acquired "an advance salient" in Vietnam for use in military and non-military ways; the U.S. lost prestige as a leader in Asia capable of stemming Communist expansion; the Communist peace line gained at America's expense; Communist military and political prestige was enhanced as the result of their ability to exploit unstable situations in Southeast Asian countries without resort to armed attack.7

c. U.S.–U.K. Seven-Point Program is Mostly Accomplished

The provisions of the Accords, however, should have furnished the U.S. grounds for some satisfaction. Comparing the U.S.–U.K. seven-point memorandum of 29 June with the final settlement nearly one month later, the Conference had very nearly satisfied the minimum U.S. objectives — despite Washington's apprehension over faltering British or French support.

(1) The integrity and independence of Laos and Cambodia were preserved, and Viet Minh forces were, in the main, withdrawn from those two countries.

(2) Southern Vietnam was retained (although without an enclave in the North), and the partition line was drawn somewhat south of Dong Hoi.

(3) Laos, Cambodia, and "retained" Vietnam were not prevented from forming "non-Communist regimes" (in the case of Vietnam, within the two-year pre-election period); nor were they expressly forbidden "to maintain adequate forces for internal security." Vietnam's right to import arms and other war materiel was, however, restricted to piece-by-piece replacement, and a ceiling was fixed on foreign military personnel at the number in the country at the War's close.

(4–5) Recalling Dulles' interpretation of 7 July that elections should "be only held as long after cease-fire agreement as possible and in conditions free from intimidation to give democratic elements best chance,"8 the Accords did not stipulate "political provisions which would risk loss of the retained area to Communist control...[or] exclude the possibility of the ultimate reunification of Vietnam by peaceful means." Although both Dulles and Mendes-France preferred that no date be set for the elections, the compromise two-year hiatus gave the Americans, the French, and the South Vietnamese a significant breathing spell. The U.S. priority in the aftermath was accorded to programs designed to "give democratic elements best chance" through economic assistance and political support for South Vietnam. Elections, as Dulles indicated during the Conference, and as the OCB concurred in August,9 were agreeable to the U.S.; but they were two years away, and the primary task in the interim was seen as "to maintain a friendly non-Communist South Vietnam..."10 The corollary objective (stated by the NSC in August, 1954, and approved by the President) "to prevent a Communist victory through all-Vietnam elections,"11 then did not connote U.S. determination to subvert the Accords; rather, it appears to have meant that U.S. influence would aim at assuring that the communists would not gain an electoral victory through force, deceit, or other undemocratic methods.

(6) The Accords expressly provided for the transfer of individuals desiring to move from one zone to another.

(7) The Accords did seem, at the time, to have basically fulfilled the precondition of providing "effective machinery for international supervision of the agreement." Although the machinery would be the ICC's rather than the UN's, Under Secretary Smith noted that the ICC would have a veto power on important questions, would be composed of one genuine neutral (India) and one pro-Western government (Canada), and would be permitted full freedom of movement into demilitarized zones and frontier and coastal areas. Smith, on 19 July, gave this assessment:

"Taking everything into consideration, I strongly feel this is satisfactory and much better than we were able to obtain in Korea. French feel, and Eden and I agree, that with such composition built-in veto will work to our advantage. This setup is best French or anybody else could get, and I feel it is within spirit of point 7."12
d. Smith States U.S. Position on Accords

The final statement by Under Secretary Smith, setting forth the U.S. position on the Accords, provides the only public measure of the U.S. commitment to them. At Smith's urging, Dulles agreed that the U.S. delegation could take note of the Final Declaration as well as of the military agreement. But, Smith was specifically instructed not to take note of paragraph 13 of the Final Declaration. That paragraph aimed at ensuring respect for the armistice accords in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by declaring the conferees' agreement "to consult one another on any question which may be referred to them by the International Supervisory Commission..." Dulles felt that provision implied:

"...a multilateral engagement with communists which would be inconsistent with our basic approach and which subsequently might enable Communist China to charge us with alleged violations of agreement to which it might claim both governments became parties.13

Aside from taking note of the three military armistice agreements and paragraphs 1 to 12 of the Final Declaration, Smith, in line with longstanding U.S. policy and his instructions of 16 July from Dulles, declared on the Government's behalf that the U.S. "will refrain from the threat or the use of force to disturb" the Accords. Moreover, the U.S. "would view any renewal of the aggression in violation of the aforesaid agreements with grave concern and as seriously threatening international peace and security." Finally, Smith reiterated a U.S. policy declaration of 29 June 1954 positing U.S. support of UN supervision of free elections designed to reunify countries "now divided against their will..." Smith mentioned on this point that the U.S could not associate with any arrangement that would hinder "its traditional position that peoples are entitled to determine their own future..."

III. D. 3.


1. The Accords, in Theory, are Clearly Drawn D-20
a. The Primary Objective of the Accords is a Cease-Fire D-20
b. Key Provisions for Partition and Elections D-20
(1) Summary of the Cease-Fire Agreement D-20
(2) Summary of the Final Declaration D-23
2. Theoretical and Practical Interpretations Differ D-24
a. The Election Provision Causes Controversy D-24
b. Practical Views Vary D-24
c. Official Positions are in Agreement D-25
d. The Outcome Could Have Been Predicted D-25
1. The Accords, in Theory, are Clearly Drawn
a. The Primary Objective of the Accords is a Cease-Fire

The Geneva Accords — that is, the armistice agreements for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and the Final Declaration of the Conference — were designed primarily to end hostilities and re-establish peace in Indochina, and secondarily to provide conditions conducive to the future independent political development of the three States of the region. The signed armistice agreements were military, the only exception being the Declaration of the Royal Khmer Government, included in the Cambodia armistice, guaranteeing the political rights of all its citizens,1 The unsigned Geneva Final Declaration deals with a political settlement, but in terms of future events — elections to be held in Laos and Cambodia during 1955 as provided in their constitutions, and elections to reunify Vietnam following consultations within one year (by July, 1955), followed by a national plebiscite within two years (July, 1956). The goal for all of the powers at Geneva, both Western and Communists was a cessation of the war on terms that would permit subsequent progress toward their disparate political objectives in Southeast Asia. All participants desired what might be termed a profitable suspension of the fighting: the Communists wanted an agreement providing time for reconsolidation, and also a political arrangement that would facilitate future expansion; the West was willing to barter, holding out partition and elections in exchange for disengagement of French forces, establishment of the GVN as a viable political organization, and consolidation of the non-Communist Southeast Asian nations in a collective defense arrangement against the further encroachments of Communism.

b. Key Provisions for Partition and Elections

In retrospect, the key political provisions were those that produced the partition of Vietnam, and promised elections within two years. A short summation of the 47 articles and 2 annexes of the "Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Viet-Nam, July 20, 1954" signed only by the French and the DRV, follows below as a review of the final Geneva position to which, theoretically, all delegates agreed:

(1) Summary of the Cease-Fire Agreement


1. DMZ established; "Peoples Army of Vietnam regroups north and French Union forces" south.
2. Regrouping to be completed in 300 days.
3. ICC to control joint waterways.

4. The regrouping zones to include territorial waters, islands.
5. DMZ to be evacuated within 25 days.
6. Crossing of provisional military demarcation line prohibited.
7. Unauthorized entry in DMZ prohibited.
8. Rules for civil administration of DMZ.
9. ICC to have freedom of movement.
10. Military commanders of both sides to order complete cease-fire.
11. Times for cease-fire; information on planned regrouping movements to be exchanged within 25 days of Agreement's entry into force.
12. Minefields and other obstacles to be removed; regrouping moves will avoid contact.
13. Provision for air corridors.
14. Political and administrative measures in the two regrouping zones: conduct of civil administration; rules for transfer of territorial control; prohibition of reprisals; freely permitted transfer of residence by civilians.
15. Details covering disengagement and withdrawals of forces; timing, prohibition of hostilities; of sabotage; movement schedules.
16. Troop reinforcement prohibited; rotation permitted.
17. Military materiel augmentation prohibited, applicable to aircraft, naval craft, vehicles, etc; normal replacement authorized under specific ICC supervisory procedures.
18. Establishment of new military bases prohibited.
19. Foreign military bases, alliances, and hostilities prohibited.
20. Points of entry for rotation established.
21. PW liberation within 30 days of cease-fire, to include all PW's and civilian internees.
22. Commanders to insure punishment of violators of these Agreements.

23. Graves registration information to be exchanged.
24. Both forces to respect DMZ, undertake no operations, engage in no "blockade of any kind in Viet-Nam"; definition of "territory."
25. Commanders to assist ICC.
26. Cost of ICC to be shared by both parties.
27. "The signatories of the present agreement and their successors in their functions shall be responsible for ensuring and observance and enforcement of the terms and provisions thereof"; Commanders to comply in full; procedural refinements permitted, as necessary.
28. "Responsibility for the execution of the agreement of the cessation of hostilities shall rest with the parties."
29. ICC to insure control.
30. Joint Commission (JC) to be set up.
31. JC to have equal number from both sides.
32. President of the delegations to the JC shall hold General rank; joint sub-groups to be established by mutual agreement.
33. JC supervisory responsibilities: cease-fire, regroupment, observance of DMZ, liaison.
34. ICC to be Canada, India, and Poland; presided over by India.
35. ICC to set up mobile inspection teams; locations established.
36. ICC responsibilities: control movements, supervise DMZ, control release of PW's, supervise ports and airfields for replacements and nonreinforcement.
37. ICC to begin inspections as soon as possible.
38. Reporting procedures of ICC inspection teams.
39. ICC handling of violations.
40. ICC intermediates JC and parties.
41. Recommendation procedure for ICC.
42. ICC decisions relating to violations which might resume hostilities must be unanimous.

43. ICC to inform Geneva Conference members if a recommendation is refused.
44. ICC to be set up at the time of cease-fire.
45. ICC in Vietnam to cooperate with ICC in Laos, Cambodia.
46. ICC may progressively reduce its activities.
47. Provisions effective 2400 hours, 22 July 1954.


I. Demarcation line.
II. Delineation of Provisional Assembly Areas.

On 21 July, the day following the armistice agreements, the members of the Geneva Conference approved a Final Declaration (by voice vote, with the U.S. and GVN abstaining; a signed agreement was avoided in order not to emphasize U.S. refusal to approve). The declaration is essentially a comment on the armistice agreements, "taking note" and otherwise stressing certain key points. A summary of the declaration follows:

(2) Summary of the Final Declaration

The Conference:

1. Takes note of cease-fire in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
2. Expresses satisfaction in cease-fire agreements.
3. Takes note of planned 1955 elections in Cambodia and Laos.
4. Takes note of prohibition of introduction of additional troops and materiel into Vietnam, and of declarations of Cambodia and Laos not to request foreign aid "except for the purpose of effective defense of their territory."
5. Takes note of prohibition of foreign bases in Vietnam, and declarations by Cambodia and Laos that they will not participate in any military alliances "not in conformity with principles of the Charter of the United Nations."
6. Recognizes the "essential purpose" of the Vietnam agreements is the end of hostilities, and that the DMZ is in no way a political or territorial boundary; the political settlement of Vietnam to be achieved in the near future.

7. Declares general elections should be held in July 1956, with mutual consultations to this end beginning on 20 July 1955
8. Emphasizes the provision for free movement of civilians.
9. Cautions against reprisals.
10. Takes note of French agreement to withdraw troops from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam "at the request of the government concerned."
11. Takes note of French recognition of sovereignty of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
12. Agrees as a group to respect sovereignty of Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam.
13. Agrees as a group to consult on questions presented by ICC.
2. Theoretical and Practical Interpretations Differ
a. The Election Provision Causes Controversy

The most serious controversy over the Accords has centered on the election provisions (Article 7) of the Final Declaration. The Declaration obviously envisaged elections to decide on a united Vietnam to be held by July, 1956. Since "the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary," the Geneva partition was a temporary, expedient measure. The Conference intended then to permit the Vietnamese people "to enjoy the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by democratic institutions," and to devise a political settlement for their country "in the near future." That settlement, the conferees declared, ought to come about (1) "on the basis of respect for the principles of independence, unity and territorial integrity" and (2) through "free general elections by secret ballot...in July 1956, under the supervision of an international commission composed of representatives of the Member States of the International Supervisory Commission...Consultation will be held on this subject between the competent representative authorities of the two zones from 20 July 1955 onwards."

b. Practical Views Vary

The difficulty with the election provisions of the Final Declaration, as with the Accords as a whole, relates not to their spirit, but to their practicality. It remains a matter of conjecture whether the members of the Convention genuinely thought that a political solution to unification had been postponed by only two years, or whether they felt that partition, even with the resultant risk of renewed military confrontation was, in reality, the best and only solution that the conflicting aims and pressures at Geneva could provide. The British, like the Russians, thought partition achieved their goal of re-establishing a stability, however precarious, in Southeast Asia. The Chinese did not gain as extensive a buffer zone as they had sought, but probably were satisfied to see the territorial establishment of the DRV; they could not (at that time) have been seriously concerned over a future threat from South Vietnam, since the Accords ruled out an extensive U.S. military presence there. The U.S. viewed the loss of North Vietnam as a political disaster, and immediately set about making treaty arrangements to prevent the loss of more Asian territory to Communism; but the U.S. was willing to accept partition as all that could be salvaged from a bad military situation. The Southeast Asia policy of the U.S. in the aftermath of the Geneva Conference was focused on organizing free Asian states against further inroads of Communism. The two Vietnams faced each other across a demilitarized zone. The DRV, manipulating a Viet Minh infrastructure in the South, waited for the elections, or for voracious political forces in the South to plunge the Saigon Government into chaos before election time arrived. South Vietnam began its attempt to establish complete control over its own countryside, and constantly decried the DRV's undemocratic handling of would-be migrants.

c. Official Positions are in Agreement

On the surface, however, the parties to the Geneva Accords — with exception of the South Vietnamese Government — officially subscribed to the view that partition was, as the Final Declaration stated, only temporary. Moreover, and again with the GVN the exception, all the parties concluded that partition was the only realistic way to separate the combatants, meet the widely divergent military and political demands of the French and Viet Minh, and conclude an armistice.

d. The Outcome Could Have Been Predicted

But such assertions did not affect the practical import of the Geneva documents. By creating two regimes responsible for "civil administration" (Article 14.a. of the Vietnam Armistice Agreement), by providing for the regroupment of forces to two zones and for the movement of persons to the zone of their choice, and by putting off national elections for two years, the conferees, whatever their intentions, made a future political settlement for Vietnam unlikely. The separation of Vietnam at the 17th parallel was designed to facilitate the armistice, but in fact it also facilitated the development of two governments under inimical political philosophies, foreign policies, and socio-economic systems. Thus, reunification through elections remained as remote in Vietnam as in Korea or Genmany. "Elections," as Victor Bater has commented,3 "can, indeed, decide secondary problems of coexistence in circumstances where some measurable minimum basis for political agreement exists. But they are incapable of acceptance by two opposing states, or parts of a state, when diametrically opposite philosophies are involved." If the Geneva Accords were subverted, the subverters were the Geneva conferees themselves, who postulated an ideal political settlement incompatible with the physical and psychological dismemberment of Vietnam they themselves undertook on July 21, 1954.