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Geneva Agreement on Indochina

Geneva Agreement on Indochina (1954).The “Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam” ended the eight‐year war over the decolonization of Indochina between France and the Communist forces under the command of the leader of the League for Vietnamese Independence, Ho Chi Minh. It was the result of an international conference held in Geneva between 8May and 20 July 1954, following the fall of the French‐held fortress at Dien Bien Phu and the collapse of the French military effort to retain control over their colonial empire in Southeast Asia.

The agreement provided for a cease‐fire, established a provisional military demarcation line at the 17th parallel, empowered the two Vietnamese “parties” (later to be called North and South Vietnam) to administer their zones of control, and called for “general elections which will bring about the unification of Viet‐Nam” in July 1956. The representatives of the United States and of the state of Vietnam (which was to become South Vietnam) refused to sign the agreement. Three other agreements were issued, providing for cease‐fires in Laos and Cambodia and relating to international inspection arrangements. Conference participants also made seven declarations about intended compliance with the agreement.

The outcome at Geneva was a product largely of secret negotiations between China's foreign minister Zhou Enlai and Pierre Mendès‐France, the new prime minister of France. Mendès‐France had publicly denounced the war for some time; on taking office in June, he staked his prime ministership on achieving a “satisfactory solution” within four weeks.

The outcome, however, sowed the seeds of future war and ultimate intervention by U.S. military forces. The People's Republic of China used the threat of withholding future aid to the new Vietnamese Communist state to force the leaders in Hanoi to reach a settlement that ceded authority over much less than Ho Chi Minh's forces had actually won on the battlefield. Zhou thought he had written into the agreement a process leading to the eventual unification of the two Vietnams and the consolidation of Communist political control that would deny the United States any future pretext to intervene in Indochina, where its forces could then threaten China.

The final declaration of the conference, 21 July 1954, called for a prohibition on “the introduction into Viet‐Nam of foreign troops and military personnel as well as of all kinds of arms and munitions.” This provision was aimed at preventing U.S. aid from shoring up what was perceived to be a weak and also temporary government in the South. In fact, President Dwight D. Eisenhower began to provide military aid in October 1954, and U.S. military advisers to train South Vietnamese forces began arriving in February 1955.

Eisenhower, who rejected French requests for U.S. air support when they were under siege at Dien Bien Phu, responded much more positively to the request from the new South Vietnamese government under Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem for help, and was persuaded by his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, that it was important for South Vietnam to serve as bulwark against communism in Asia. Dulles was also against holding the prescribed plebiscite called for in the agreement on grounds that the elections in the North would not be conducted fairly and that the communists would win an overwhelming political victory.

By 1957, the Soviet Union, in part to weaken China's influence in Southeast Asia, proposed that the United Nations admit Vietnam as “two separate states… which differ from one another in political and economic structure.” The United States rejected this proposal, refusing to recognize any Communist country.

The negotiations surrounding the Geneva Agreement also prompted the United States to take the lead in forming a regional collective security pact “to deter and if necessary combat Communist aggression.” The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was organized in Manila in September 1954, and placed South Vietnam under its protection. A month earlier, the SEATO Treaty was debated in the U.S. National Security Council, where Secretary of State Dulles explained that a “line against aggression” needed to be drawn “to include Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam on our side.”
[See also Vietnam War: Causes.]


R. B. Smith , An International History of the Vietnam War, Vol. I: Revolution versus Containment, 1955–1961, 1983.
William J. Duiker , U.S. Containment Policy and the Conflict in Indochina, 1994.

Allan E. Goodman

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