Delegates to the 1954 Geneva conference on Korea and Indochina.
The Geneva Accords of 1954 were designed to secure peace in Vietnam but would eventually contribute to war. In April 1954, diplomats from almost a hundred nations – including the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France and Great Britain – attended a conference in Geneva, Switzerland. It was initially convened to discuss two other Cold War hotspots: Berlin and Korea. But the Viet Minh siege of Dien Bien Phu and the imminent French surrender forced Vietnam onto the agenda. By the start of May, Paris had announced its intention to withdraw from Indochina. Within weeks, French delegates informed the Geneva conference they intended to dismantle the colonial administration in Vietnam inside a year. The conference was left with the unenviable task: organise an interim government in Vietnam and arrange for Vietnam’s transition to independence.
The Geneva delegates noted similarities between Vietnam and post-war Korea. Until 1945 Korea was occupied by the Japanese; after their withdrawal it was divided at the 38th parallel. This division was intended to be temporary, however the Korean peninsula soon firmed into two distinct states: communist-controlled North Korea, backed by the Soviet Union and communist China; and South Korea, backed by the US and its Western allies. The rulers of both states believed themselves to be the rightful rulers of the entire peninsula. In 1950 North Korean troops launched an invasion of the South, triggering an international response. A United Nations military coalition, led by the United States, intervened to prevent South Korea from being overrun. A ceasefire ended the Korean War in July 1953, with the peninsula still divided.
Road-map to independence
In the case of Vietnam, the Geneva conference adopted a similar approach. Vietnam would be temporarily divided and equipped with a road map to free elections, reunification and self-government. But the plan was hobbled before it began, chiefly because of the intransigence of major players. American delegates attended the summit but scarcely participated. The US secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, a vehement anti-communist, refused to recognise, shake hands with or speak directly to the Chinese and Viet Minh delegates. British delegate Sir Anthony Eden later remarked that he had “never known a conference of this kind; the parties would not make direct contact and we were in constant danger of one or another backing out the door”.
On top of American recalcitrance, there was also division and disagreement in the communist bloc. Both China and the Soviet Union, for their own reasons, refused to back the Viet Minh’s claim to all of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s chief negotiator, Pham Van Dong, did not wish to align too closely with Moscow or Beijing, an indication that North Vietnam wanted to be in charge of its own destiny. The conference took until July 21st before it produced a formal agreement, which became known as the Geneva Accords. Among its terms:
- Vietnam was to become an independent nation, formally ending 75 years of French colonialism. Cambodia and Laos were also given their independence.
- Vietnam would be temporarily divided for a period of two years. The ‘border’ was defined as the line of latitude 17 degrees north of the equator (the 17th parallel). The Accords prescribed border purely as a means to “settle military questions with a view to ending hostilities … the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary”.
- Nationwide elections, conducted under international supervision, were scheduled for July 1956. The election result was to determine Vietnam’s political system and government.
- During the two-year transitional period, military personnel were to return to their place of origin: Viet Minh soldiers and guerrillas to North Vietnam, French and pro-French troops to South Vietnam. Vietnamese civilians could relocate to either North or South Vietnam.
- During the transition period, both North and South Vietnam agreed not to enter into any foreign military alliances or authorise the construction of foreign military bases.
The doomed accords
That the end envisioned by the 1954 accords (peace) proved elusive was not due to the means by which peace was to be attained. The fatal defect was to be found in the fact that the accords were not confirmed or assented to by all of the parties to the conflict. The US and the South are not bound by the accords, since they not only refused to sign… or endorse orally the declaration, but also stated affirmatively their opposition.
Roger H. Hull, US lawyer
On the surface, the Geneva Accords seemed a workable solution to a difficult problem. The Accords did generate some optimistic press coverage and a hope that Vietnam could be stabilised and eased into independence. In reality, however, the Accords were probably always doomed to fail. They had been hastily negotiated and drafted, rushed into being barely two months after Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva conference was an acrimonious affair, undermined by Cold War tensions and mistrust. Most stakeholders had either refused to sign or had signed under pressure. Both the Diem-led South Vietnam and its main benefactor, the United States, “acknowledged” the Accords – but refused to sign them, or give any commitment to honour their terms. The Viet Minh delegates would have preferred not to sign: not only were they sceptical about the scheduled 1956 elections, but agreeing to the 17th parallel meant surrendering a large amount of territory to the South. In the end, they signed on the instructions of Ho Chi Minh, who was himself under pressure from both the Soviets and China.
The Geneva Accords also provided a 300-day grace period during which civilians could relocate to North or South Vietnam, depending on their preference. The United States responded by hastily putting together a humanitarian mission to assist those wishing to move south. A joint US-French naval task force was assembled near Haiphong harbour, while US personnel and aid workers organised refugee camps, food and medical supplies in South Vietnam. The operation – pointedly titled Passage to Freedom – was a successful, if somewhat obvious propaganda ploy. American politicians described it as the generous act of a benevolent superpower, fulfilling its moral obligation to help freedom-loving people. Approximately 660,000 people chose to relocate from North Vietnam to the South, almost half of them on American ships. Many refugees were spurred by rumours, encouraged by the Americans, that the Viet Minh regime intended slaughtering Catholics. Around 140,000 Vietnamese moved in the opposite direction, south to north.
1. Delegates from several nations gathered in Geneva in mid-1954 to discuss post-war Korea and Indochina.
2. Discussions on Vietnam were tense and hindered by the unwillingness of some nations to negotiate directly.
3. The Geneva Accords determined that Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel.
4. Free elections were scheduled for July 1956 and would decide the government of a reunified Vietnam.
5. However the US and South Vietnam did not sign the Accords and the elections were destined not to take place.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Geneva Accords of 1954”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/vietnam/geneva-accords-of-1954/.