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The Geneva Conference (May 8 – July 21, 1954) was a conference between various countries that ended the French Indochina War between France and the Vietminh. It produced a set of documents known as the Geneva Accords. These agreements separated Vietnam into two zones, a northern zone to be governed by the Vietminh, and a southern zone to be governed by the State of Vietnam, then headed by former emperor Bao Dai. A "Conference Final Declaration," issued by the British chairman of the conference, provided that a "general election" be held by July 1956 to create a unified Vietnamese state. Although presented as a consensus view, this document was not accepted by the delegates of either South Vietnam or the United States. In addition, three separate ceasefire accords, covering Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, were signed at the conference.



Geneva Conference

After the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the Provisional Government of the French Republic restored colonial rule in French Indochina. Nationalist and communist popular movements in Vietnam led to the First Indochina War in 1946. This colonial war between the French Union's Expeditionary Corps and Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh guerrillas turned into a Cold War crisis in January 1950.[1] The communist Viet Minh received support from the newly proclaimed People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, while France and the newly created Vietnamese National Army received support from the United States.

The Battle of Dien Bien Phu started in March 13 and continued during the conference. Its issue became a strategic turnover as both sides wanted to emerge as the victor and forge a favorable position for the planned negotiations about "the Indochinese problem". After fighting for 55 days the besieged French garrison was overrun and all French central positions were captured by the Viet Minh.

This war was significant in that it starkly demonstrated the reality that a western colonial power could be defeated by an indigenous revolutionary force; the French previously pacified a similar uprising in the Madagascar colony in March, 1947. A few months after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, troops were deployed in Algeria and a second guerrilla-warfare-based war of independence started in November 1954. Growing distrust and defiance among the army's Chief of Staff toward the Fourth French Republic after the contested defeat of the First Indochina War led to two military coups d'état in March 1958 and April 1961. Most of the rebel Generals were Indochina veterans including their leader, Raoul Salan.

The Geneva Accords

Students demonstration in Saigon, July 1964, observing the tenth anniversary of the July 1954 Geneva Agreements

On April 27, 1954, the Conference produced a declaration which supported the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Indochina thereby granting its independence from France. In addition, the Conference declaration agreed upon the cessation of hostilities and foreign involvement (or troops) in internal Indochina affairs. Northern and southern zones were drawn into which opposing troops were to withdraw, to facilitate the cessation of hostilities between the Vietnamese forces and those that had supported the French. Viet Minh units, having advanced to the far south while fighting the French, retreated from these positions, in accordance with the Agreement, to north of the ceasefire line, awaiting unification on the basis of internationally supervised free elections to be held in July 1956[2]. Most of the French Union forces evacuated Vietnam, although much of the regional governmental infrastructure in the South was the same as it had been under the French administration. An International Control Commission was set up to oversee the implementation of the Geneva Accords, but it was essentially powerless to ensure compliance. It was to consist of India, Canada, and Poland.

The agreement was among Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, Laos, the People's Republic of China, the State of Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The United States took note and acknowledged that the agreement existed, but refused to sign the agreement, to avoid being legally bound to it.

Geneva Agreements and response

The Geneva Agreements carefully worded the division of northern and southern Vietnam as a "provisional military demarcation line",[3] "on either side of which the forces of the two parties shall be regrouped after their withdrawal".[3] To specifically put aside any notion that it was a partition, they further stated, in the Final Declaration, Article 6: "The Conference recognizes that the essential purpose of the agreement relating to Vietnam is to settle military questions with a view to ending hostilities and that the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary" [3]

Then U.S. Under-Secretary of State Walter Bedell Smith said, "In connection with the statement in the Declaration concerning free elections in Vietnam, my government wishes to make clear its position which it has expressed in a Declaration made in Washington on June 29th, 1954, as follows: 'In the case of nations now divided against their will, we shall continue to seek unity through free elections, supervised by the United Nations to ensure they are conducted fairly'"[3]

Post declaration events

Anticommunist Vietnamese refugees moving from a French LSM landing ship to the USS Montague during Operation Passage to Freedom in August 1954.

Communist forces had been instrumental in the defeat of the French; the ideology of communism and nationalism were closely interlocked. Many viewed the South Vietnamese leadership as a French colonial, and later, an American puppet regime. Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam looked forward to being fairly comfortably elected in the forthcoming elections.

After the cessation of hostilities, a large migration took place. 450,000 North Vietnameses, mostly Catholics, moved to south of the Accords-mandated ceasefire line during Operation Passage to Freedom. The CIA attempted to further influence Catholic Vietnamese with slogans such as 'the Virgin Mary is moving South'. At the same time, 52,000 people from the south went north in the opposite direction. Communist supporters were urged to remain in the south to vote in the coming elections.

The U.S. replaced the French as a political backup for Ngo Dinh Diem, then Prime Minister of the State of Vietnam, and he asserted his power in the south. A referendum rigged by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu saw Diem gain 98% of the vote, with 133% in Saigon. American advisors had suggested that he win by a lesser margin since it was felt that he would be able to win any fair poll against Emperor Bao Dai. Diem refused to hold the national elections, noting that the State of Vietnam never signed the Geneva Accords and went about attempting to crush all remnant of communist opposition. The prospect of democratic elections dwindling away led South Vietnamese who opposed Diem to form the Communist National Liberation Front[citation needed], better known as the Vietcong, which engaged in guerrilla attacks against the RVN government and desired the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule. The Việt Cộng were supported by the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) of the North.

Both sides violated multiple provisions of the Accords, with both communists and capitalists engaging in military buildups contrary to the accords.

Guerrilla activity in the South escalated, while U.S. military advisors continued to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which was created as a replacement for the Vietnamese National Army. The result was the Second Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War.

Sino-British relations

The British and Communist Chinese delegations reached agreement on the sidelines of the Conference to upgrade their diplomatic relations.


  1. ^ Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam, Kathryn C. Statler, University Press of Kentucky, July 2007
  2. ^ (Article 3) (N. Tarling, The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Volume Two Part Two: From World War II to the present, Cambridge University Press, p45)
  3. ^ a b c d The United States in Vietnam: An analysis in depth of the history of America's involvement in Vietnam by George McTurnan Kahin and John W. Lewis Delta Books, 1967.

See also

External links



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