The Viet Minh capture of Dien Bien Phu seemed to offer a perfect opportunity to resolve the long Indochina War. Two days later the Western powers resisted a demand by the communist powers that the "resistance governments" of Laos and Cambodia (the Pathet Lao and the Free Khmer, respectively) be represented at the talks. On 17 June longtime critic of the Indochina War Pierre Mendès-France became French premier and foreign minister. On 20 June he imposed a thirty-day timetable for an agreement, promising to resign if one was not reached. The Geneva Accords were signed on the last day of the deadline, 20 July, but only because the clocks were stopped; it was actually early on 21 July.
The leading personalities at Geneva were Mendès-France, PRC Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai (Chou Enlai), Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, DRV Premier Pham Van Dong, and State of Vietnam Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dinh. Dulles left the conference after only a few days. He saw no likelihood of an agreement on Indochina that Washington could approve, and he disliked the idea of negotiating with Zhou (the United States had yet to recognize the PRC), whom he deliberately snubbed. Dulles ordered the U.S. delegation not to participate in the discussions and to act only as observers.
The Geneva Conference produced separate armistice agreements for Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. But Pham Van Dong found himself pressured by Zhou and Molotov into an agreement that gave the Viet Minh far less than it had won on the battlefield. Pending unification of Vietnam, there was to be a temporary dividing line ("provisional demarcation line") at the 17th Parallel (Pham had wanted the 13th Parallel). A demilitarized zone would extend 5 kilometers (3 miles) on either side of the line in order to prevent incidents that might lead to a breach of the armistice. The final text provided that "the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary." Vietnam's future was to be determined "on the basis of respect for the principles of independence, unity, and territorial integrity" with "national and general elections" to be held in July 1956. Troops on both sides would have up to 300 days to be regrouped north or south; civilians could also move in either direction if they so desired. An international supervisory and control commission (ISCC) composed of representatives from Canada, Poland, and India (a Western state, a communist state, and a nonaligned state) would oversee implementation of the agreements.
Pham was bitterly disappointed that nationwide elections were put off for two years. Eager to take advantage of the Viet Minh's military successes, he had initially sought a delay of only six months after conclusion of a cease-fire. The DRV accepted the arrangements only under heavy pressure from the PRC and USSR and because it was confident that it could control southern Vietnam. There is every reason to believe that the Chinese leadership was willing to sabotage their ally in order to prevent the formation of a strong regional power on their southern border.
As it worked out, in 1956 the new government of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) headed by Ngo Dinh Diem claimed that it was not a party to the Geneva Agreements and was thus not bound by them. Supported by the Eisenhower administration in this stand, Ngo refused to authorize the previously agreed upon elections to reunify Vietnam. This decision led to a resumption of the war, with the Americans taking the place of the French. Spencer C. Tucker
Devillers, Philippe, and Jean Lacouture. End of a War: Indochina, 1954. Translated by Alexander Liven and Adam Roberts. New York: Praeger, 1969.; Randle, Robert F. Geneva 1954: The Settlement of the Indochinese War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Spencer C. Tucker