Edwin E. Moïse

The Vietnam Wars, Section 4

The Geneva Accords

By the middle of 1954, the French realized that they had lost. The US, which by this time was paying most of France's war expenses, was unable to persuade the French to fight on. An international conference was held in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss the problems of Indochina. On July 20 and 21, 1954, this conference produced a number of agreements that were supposed to settle the war.

The Geneva Accords stated that Vietnam was to become an independent nation. Elections were to be held in July 1956, under international supervision, to choose a government for Vietnam. During the two-year interval until the elections, the country would be split into two parts; the North and the South. The dividing line chosen, at the seventeenth parallel a little north of the city of Hue, was quite close to the line that had separated the two halves of Vietnam in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but this was purely a coincidence. This line no longer corresponded to any natural division in Vietnamese society, in economy, political structure, religion, or dialect. It was an arbitrary compromise between French proposals for a line further north and Viet Minh proposals for a line further south.

All Viet Minh soldiers were to go to the North; all soldiers who had fought for the French were to go to the South. Civilians would also be able to move if they wished to do so. (Hundreds of thousands of North Vietnamese, mostly Catholics, did move from North to South Vietnam in 1954 and 1955. A smaller number of Viet Minh sympathisers moved from South to North.)

For the Viet Minh the Geneva Accords were a gamble. The Viet Minh controlled much more than half of Vietnam in 1954; when it allowed the country to be divided approximately in half, it was giving up a great deal of territory south of the seventeenth parallel that had been under Viet Minh control for years, exchanging this for only a small area under French control north of the seventeenth parallel. On the other hand, if the elections were actually held as promised in 1956, the Viet Minh appeared certain to win; it had far more political strength than all other political groups in Vietnam put together.

Under considerable pressure from China and the Soviet Union, both of which wanted to reduce international tension at this time, the Viet Minh decided to accept the Geneva Accords, and gamble by giving up territory in the short run in order to win control of all of Vietnam in 1956. The division of Vietnam was supposed to be purely temporary. Who was likely to prevent the two sections from being rejoined in 1956? The French had given up hope of retaining control in any part of Vietnam. The United States and the State of Vietnam had made it clear at the Geneva Conference that they did not like the results of the conference, which recognized Communist control of North Vietnam immediately, and created a likelihood that the Communists would take the South in two years. Both the US and the State of Vietnam conspicuously refused to promise that they would obey the Geneva Accords. (A great many books say that the US promised that it would not violate the Accords. This is an error based on careless misreading of the US declaration at the final session of the Geneva Conference, July 21, 1954.) However, the State of Vietnam was virtually powerless, and the influence of the United States was quite limited. The American leaders themselves were by no means confident that they would be able to prevent the reunification of Vietnam from occurring on schedule in 1956.

Next section: The Aftermath of Geneva: 1954-1960

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Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moïse. Revised November 4, 1998.