The Geneva Accords of 1954 were an attempt to end eight years of fighting between France and Vietnam. They did that, but they also set the stage for the American phase of fighting in Southeast Asia.
Vietnamese nationalist and communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh expected that the end of World War II on September 2, 1945, would also be the end of colonialism and imperialism in Vietnam. Japan had occupied Vietnam since 1941; France had officially colonized the country since 1887.
Because of Ho's communist leanings, however, the United States -- which had become leader of the western world after World War II -- did not want to see him and his followers, the Vietminh, take over the country. Instead it approved France's return to the region. In short, France could wage a proxy war for the U.S. against communism in Southeast Asia.
The Vietminh waged an insurgency against France which culminated in the siege of the French base in northern Vietnam at Dienbienphu. A peace conference at Geneva, Switzerland, sought to extricate France from Vietnam and leave the country with a government suitable to Vietnam, Communist China (a Vietminh sponsor), the Soviet Union, and western governments.
On May 8, 1954, representatives of Democratic Republic of Vietnam (communist Vietminh), France, China, the Soviet Union, Laos, Cambodia, the State of Vietnam (democratic, as recognized by the U.S.), and the United States met in Geneva to work out an agreement. Not only did they seek to extricate France, but they also sought an agreement that would unify Vietnam and stabilize Laos and Cambodia (which had also been part of French Indochina) in the absence of France.
The United States -- committed to its foreign policy of containment of communism, and determined not to let any part of Indochina go communist and thereby put the domino theory in play -- entered the negotiations with doubt. It also did not want to be a signatory to any agreement with the communist nations.
Personal tensions were also rife. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles reportedly refused to shake the hand of Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-Lai.
Main Elements Of The Agreement
By July 20, the contentious meeting had agreed that:
- Vietnam would be divided in half along the 17th Parallel (in the the thin "neck" of the country).
- The Vietminh would control the northern section, the State of Vietnam would control the south.
- General elections would occur in both north and south on July 20, 1956, to decide which Vietnam would govern the whole country.
The agreement meant the Vietminh, who occupied significant territory south of the 17th Parallel, would have to withdraw to the north. Nevertheless, they believed that the 1956 elections would give them control of all Vietnam.
A Real Agreement?
Any use of the term "agreement" with respect to the Geneva Accords must be done loosely. The U.S. and the State of Vietnam never signed it; they simply acknowledged that an agreement had been made between other nations. The U.S. doubted that, without United Nations supervision, any election in Vietnam would be democratic. From the outset, it had not intention of letting Ngo Dinh Diem, president in the south, call the elections.
The Geneva Accords got France out of Vietnam, certainly. However they did nothing to prevent an escalation of discord between free and communist spheres, and they only hastened American involvement in the country.
Guenter Lewy. America In Vietnam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
George Herring. America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.