Geneva Conference (1954)

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The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954[1]) was a conference which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, whose purpose was to attempt to find a way to settle outstanding issues on the Korean peninsula and to unify Vietnam and discuss the possibility of restoring peace in Indochina.[2] The Soviet Union, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China were participants throughout the whole conference while different countries concerned with the two questions were also represented during the discussion of their respective questions,[3] which included the countries that sent troops through the United Nations to the Korean War and the various countries that ended the First Indochina War between France and the Việt Minh. The part of the conference on the Korean question ended without adopting any declarations or proposals. On Indochina, the conference 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 Việt Minh, and a southern zone to be governed by the State of Vietnam, then headed by former emperor Bảo Đại. 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.



The armistice signed at end of the Korean War required a political conference within three months—a timeline which was not met—“to settle through negotiation the questions of the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Korea, the peaceful settlement of the Korean question, etc.”[4]


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 movements in Vietnam led to the First Indochina War in 1946. This colonial war between the French Union's Expeditionary Corps and Hồ Chí Minh's Việt Minh guerrillas turned into a Cold War crisis in January 1950.[5] The communist Việt 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 Điện Biên Phủ started on March 13, 1954 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 Việt 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 Điện Biên Phủ, 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.

On the Korean question[edit]

The South Korean representative proposed that the South Korean government was the only legal government in Korea, that UN-supervised elections should be held in the North, that Chinese forces should withdraw, and that UN forces—a belligerent party to the war—should remain as a police force. The North Korean representative suggested that elections be held throughout all of Korea, that all foreign forces leave beforehand, that the elections be run by an all-Korean Commission that is made up of equal parts from North and South Korea, and to generally increase relations economically and culturally between the North and the South. The Chinese delegation proposed an amendment to have a group of “neutral nations” supervise the elections, which the North accepted. The U.S. supported the South Korean position and saying that the USSR wanted to turn North Korea into a puppet state. Most allies remained silent and at least one, Britain, thought that the U.S.-South Korean proposal would be deemed unreasonable.[6] The South Korean representative then made a new proposal where there would be all-Korea elections but that they would be held according to South Korean constitutional procedures and still under UN-supervision. On June 15, the last day of the conference on the Korean question, the USSR and China both submitted declarations in support of a unified, democratic, independent Korea, and that negotiations to that end should resume at an appropriate time. The Belgian and British delegations said that while they were not going to accept “the Soviet and Chinese proposals, that did not mean a rejection of the ideas they contained.”[7] In the end, however, no declaration was adopted.

The Geneva Accords[edit]

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.[citation needed] In addition, the Conference declaration agreed upon the cessation of hostilities and the introduction of 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.[8] 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 Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The State of Vietnam rejected the agreement.[9] 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[edit]

The Geneva Agreements, which were issued on July 21, 1954,[10] carefully worded the division of northern and southern Vietnam as a "provisional military demarcation line",[11] "on either side of which the forces of the two parties shall be regrouped after their withdrawal".[11] 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" [11]

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 29, 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.'"[11] However, this "American Plan" was rejected by the North Vietnamese and by the Soviet delegation.[12]

Post declaration events[edit]

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

For Communist forces, which were instrumental in the defeat of the French, the ideology of communism and nationalism were linked. Many communist sympathisers viewed the South Vietnamese as a French colonial and later an American puppet regime. On the other hand, as many others viewed the North Vietnamese as a puppet of Communist International.

After the cessation of hostilities, a large migration took place. 1,000,000 North Vietnamese, many were Catholics, intellectuals, business people, land owners, anti-communist democrats, and members of the middle-class moved 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, mostly Viet Minh members and their families.

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.[citation needed] Diem refused to hold the national elections, citing that the South did not sign and were not bound to the Geneva Accords and that it was impossible to hold free elections in the communist North, and went about attempting to crush communist opposition.[13]

North Vietnam established military operations in the South in violation of the Geneva Accords, by providing military supplies and equipment, weaponry, and military personnel and leadership to the Viet Cong in the South. Guerrilla activity in the South escalated, while U.S. military advisers continued to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which was created as a replacement for the Vietnamese National Army. The failure of reunification led to the creation of the National Liberation Front (better known as the Vietcong) by Ho Chi Minh's government. They were closely aided by the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) of the North, also known as the North Vietnamese Army. The result was the Second Indochinese War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War.

Sino-British relations[edit]

The British and Communist Chinese delegations reached agreement on the sidelines of the Conference to upgrade their diplomatic relations.[14]


John Lewis Gaddis, a historian, said that the 1954 accords "were so hastily drafted and ambiguously worded that, from the standpoint of international law, it makes little sense to speak of violations from either side."[15]


  1. ^ Young, Marilyn (1991). The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. New York: HarperPerennial. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-06-092107-1. 
  2. ^ "Indochina - Midway in the Geneva Conference: Address by the Secretary of State". Avalon Project (Yale Law School). May 7, 1954. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  3. ^ "The Geneva Conference". Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China. 2000-11-17. Retrieved 29 April 2010. 
  4. ^ "Text of the Korean War Armistice Agreement". July 27, 1953. Retrieved 29 April 2010.  Unknown parameter |source= ignored (help)
  5. ^ Replacing France: The Origins of American Intervention in Vietnam, Kathryn C. Statler, Unirvesity Press of Kentucky, July 2007
  6. ^ Bailey, Sydney D. (1992). The Korean Armistice. St. Martin's Press. p. 163. 
  7. ^ Bailey, Sydney D. (1992). The Korean Armistice. St. Martin's Press. pp. 167–168. 
  8. ^ (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)
  9. ^ Ang Cheng Guan (1997). Vietnamese Communists' Relations with China and the Second Indochina War (1956–62). Jefferson, NC: McFarland. p. 11. ISBN 0-7864-0404-3. 
  10. ^ "The Final Declarations of the Geneva Conference July 21, 1954". The Wars for Viet Nam. Vassar College. Retrieved 20 July 2011. 
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ The Pentagon Papers (1971), Beacon Press, vol. 3, p. 140.
  13. ^ Keylor, William. "The 20th Century World and Beyond: An International History Since 1900," p.371, Oxford University Press: 2011.
  14. ^ Lowe, Peter (January 1997). Containing the Cold War in East Asia: British Policies Towards Japan, China and Korea, 1948-53. Manchester University Press. p. 261. ISBN 9780719025082. Retrieved July 21, 2013. 
  15. ^ Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1997. 126.

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