United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense/III. A. U.S. Military Planning and Diplomatic Maneuver
It is charged that the U.S. tried to sabotage the Geneva Conference, first by maneuvering to prevent the conference from taking place, then by attempting to subvert a settlement, and finally, by refusing to guarantee the resulting agreements of the conference. The documentation on this charge is complete, but by no means unambiguous. While "sabotage" may be a strong word, it is evident that the U.S. by its actions and statements during this period did seek to down-play the conference, disassociate itself from the results, and thereby did cast doubt on the stability of the accords.
After the Big Four Conference at Berlin in February, 1954, U.S. efforts were directed at preventing a French collapse in Vietnam prior to a settlement at Geneva. If the conference were to take place, the U.S. believed that any settlement likely to result would be contrary to U.S. interests. The U.S. aim was, therefore, to take the emphasis off the conference and put it back onto the battlefield. This renewed emphasis on a military approach was put in the context of what Washington referred to as "united action," of the same character as UN intervention in Korea — broad, multilateral, and military. Even as the French–Vietnamese military position continued to deteriorate on the battlefield, the U.S. became more convinced than ever of the need for decisive military victory. The recent experience of Korea only served to convince Washington that meaningful compromise with the communists was impossible. The U.S., however, did have to react to French proposals for a peace conference, and did so by insisting on a strong French stand, bolstered by continued fighting while negotiations were in progress. Moreover, the U.S. threatened to "disassociate" itself from the conference if the results were not favorable to the West (Tab 1).
As the conference became more of a reality, the U.S. aim was to keep the united action option open in the event that France would find the course of negotiations at Geneva unpalatable. Washington was convinced that the conference would fail because of communist intransigence and that, therefore, France would have no choice but to turn to the united action alternative. France wanted U.S. military support, but was reluctant to pay its price. The price was U.S. insistence on complete independence for the Associated States of Indochina as soon as possible. The U.S. would make no pledges to France, moreover, without firm and broad allied support — support which was never forthcoming on the military side. France, unwilling to accept the prerequisites for U.S. intervention, and under domestic pressure, decided to pursue a political settlement at the conference table rather than united military action. Nevertheless, France used these U.S. conditions and the united action option as a lever at the conference. When the French situation in Indochina deteriorated beyond the point that U.S. military assistance would be profitable, and after seeing the futility of organizing united action, Dulles withdrew the option (Tab 2).
As the negotiations at the conference progressed, Washington shifted its weight away from intervention through united action and instead concentrated on unifying the West into a regional military pact and creating a united diplomatic front at the conference to obtain the best possible settlement for the West. The implied threat of U.S. intervention, however, was allowed to remain. Throughout July of 1954, then, united action took on a futuristic bent — as a Free World Regional Defense Organization (ultimately to become SEATO) to secure Laos, Cambodia, and a "retained Vietnam" — after the conference completed, its work. Diplomatically, the U.S. took the initiative in forming a seven-point negotiating position with the British, a position which was, in large part, ultimately accepted by France. Except for a provision admitting the inescapability of a partitioned Vietnam, the seven-point program was a maximum western position. Yet, even as we urged our desires on France, we made clear that we would not be able to sign, guarantee, or associate ourselves with any accord. The U.S. role was to be passive and formal and firmly against co-signing any document with the communists. In effect, the U.S. delegation attempted to forward its ideas on a proper settlement to the "active negotiators" representing western interests. The U.S. would do nothing to impair its future flexibility with respect to Indochina. As matters turned out at the conference, the final terms of the settlement came close to meeting seven Anglo–American conditions (Tab 3).
|III. A. Tab||1 – U.S. Pre-conference Maneuvers – January–April 1954|
|2 – U.S. and French on United Action, May–Mid June 1954|
|3 – U.S. Negotiating Position During the Conference|
|a.||U.S. Opposed to Geneva Conference||A-5|
|b.||Alternatives to Military Victory Appear Infeasible||A-5|
|c.||Elections Would Be Subverted||A-5|
|d.||The U.S. Proposes "United Action"||A-6|
|e.||U.S. Discourages Early Cease-fire||A-7|
|a.||U.S. Plans Initial Geneva Position||A-8|
|b.||NSC Recommends Strong U.S. Stand||A-8|
|c.||Dulles Announces Possibility of U.S. Disassociation||A-8|
|d.||Dulles Deprecates Partition||A-9|
|a.||French Inform U.S. of Opening Proposals||A-9|
|b.||JCS Study French Proposals||A-9|
|c.||Eisenhower Suggests Possibility of United Action||A-9|
|d.||NSC Recommends Continued Study of United Action||A-10|
|e.||U.S. to Be an "Interested Nation," Not a Negotiator||A-10|
|f.||U.S. Takes Hard Line for Geneva||A-11|
|g.||French Military Situation Deteriorates||A-11|
|h.||Viet Minh Successes Merely Confirm U.S. Hard Line||A-12|
Negotiation of a settlement of the Indochina War was never happily accepted by the United States. Consistently, Washington took the position that France should negotiate only from a posture of clear military advantage which, assuming success of the Navarre Plan, would not come about until some time in 1955. While recognizing strong pressures in the French National Assembly and among the French public for peace, the U.S., clearly influenced by the experience at Panmunjom, hoped to convince the Laniel government against making a premature commitment to talks with the Viet Minh. The U.S. could not prevent Laniel from expressing publicly his administration's desire for peace, but sought to persuade him against actually sitting down at the bargaining table. As late as December 1953, Laniel agreed that Washington's approach was the correct one.1 Two months later, however, the picture had changed. At Berlin, the Big Four decision to convene an international conference on Indochina at Geneva evidenced the irresistible pressure in French government circles for talks with the Viet Minh.
Compelled to go along with Anglo–French preference for negotiating with the communists, the U.S. nevertheless did not shake its pessimism over the probable results. Our position remained that nothing short of military victory could settle the Indochina War in a manner favorable to Free World interests. The rationale behind this unequivocal perspective on negotiations was first set out fully by the JCS in March 1954, when the Chiefs examined the alternatives to military victory and found them all infeasible or unacceptable to the U.S. A cease-fire prior to a political settlement, the JCS paper stated, probably would "lead to a political stalemate attended by a concurrent and irretrievable deterioration of the Franco–Vietnamese military position." A coalition government would lead to communist seizure of power from within, with the U.S. helpless to prevent it. Partition, on the other hand, would amount to recognition of communist success by force of arms, cession to the communists of the key Tonkin Delta, and undercutting of our containment policy in Asia.
The Chiefs also commented at some length on the difficult question of elections. They took the position that even if elections in Vietnam could be carried out along democratic lines (which they doubted), a communist victory would almost certainly result because of communist territorial control, popular support, and superior tactics:
- "Such factors as the prevalence of illiteracy, the lack of suitable educational media, and the absence of adequate communications in the outlying areas would render the holding of a truly representative plebiscite of doubtful feasibility. The Communists, by virtue of their superior capability in the field of propaganda, could readily pervert the issue as being a choice between national independence and French Colonial rule. Furthermore, it would be militarily infeasible to prevent widespread intimidation of voters by Communist partisans. While it is obviously impossible to make a dependable forecast as to the outcome of a free election, current intelligence leads the Joint Chiefs to the belief that a settlement based, upon free elections would be attended by almost certain loss of the Associated States to Communist control."
The JCS views, together with their recommendation that the U.S. not associate itself with any settlement that "would fail to provide reasonably adequate assurance of the future political and territorial integrity of Indochina..." were approved by the Secretary of Defense on 23 March.2
Secretary Dulles on March 29 publicly proposed collective military operations as a future course of action for the "free world" in Indochina. Dulles suggested the organization of a ten-nation collective defense alliance for Southeast Asia.3 Such a coalition was the U.S. Government's preferred alternative to unilateral U.S. intervention, either at Dien Bien Phu, or subsequently in a more general context. With the climax at Dien Bien Phu approaching, the inter-agency debate in Washington had made clear that American intervention there solely with air and naval forces was neither desirable nor feasible, and there was little support for a ground, intervention. United action also was the result of the Eisenhower's Administration's inability to marshal support among Congressional leaders for a unilateral U.S. intervention without participation by the allies. President Eisenhower himself clearly preferred intervention through united action to a purely American undertaking.
The united action proposal, however, was not acceptable either to the British or to the French before the Geneva Conference. The British thought that any military intervention under united action possible Chinese intervention. London, therefore, was only willing to consider the establishment of a collective defense alliance in Southeast Asia the Geneva Conference. France saw Dulles' proposal for united action as a parry of the urgent French request for immediate U.S. intervention at Dien Bien Phu. Initially, the French feared that united action would internationalize the war and thereby place it beyond control of Paris. Later, the French came to fear that united action would be used as a device to impede negotiations. For these reasons, the American proposal for united action failed to gather support either in Paris or in London before Geneva.to Geneva would impede a political settlement at the Conference and most likely lead to a further expansion of the war, including a
In the months before the conference, the U.S. maintained an adamant opposition to any course other than full prosecution of the war. Dulles told French Ambassador Henri Bonnet on 3 April, for instance, that a negotiated settlement would lead only to face-saving formulae for either a French or a Viet Minh surrender. The Secretary termed a division of Indochina "impractical" and a coalition government the "beginning of disaster." Writing to on 4 April, Eisenhower echoed this line, asserting: "There is no negotiated solution of the Indochina problem which in essence would, not be either a face-saving device to cover a French surrender or a face-saving device to cover a communist retirement." And it was precisely to bring about the latter — China's "discreet disengagement" — that the President wanted British cooperation in "united action."4
The U.S. was concerned that a disaster at Dien Bien Phu would propel the French into acceptance of an immediate cease-fire even before the conference could begin. Dulles obtained assurances from Bidault that the French would not adopt that approach.5 The British did not share U.S. fears. Eden doubted that a cease-fire would lead either to a massacre of the French or to large-scale infiltration of French-held terrain by Viet Minh forces.6
Assured that the French would not cease fire prior to the conference, Washington forged ahead in late April and early May in search of a policy that would guide the American delegation. The National Security Council, less than a week before the opening conference session, carefully examined American alternatives.7 The NSC urged the President not to join the Geneva deliberations without assurance from France that it was not preparing to negotiate the surrender of Indochina. Again, the Korean example was foremost: Communist tactics, the NSC said, will likely resemble those at Panmunjom: a cease-fire with lack of compliance by the communists because of ineffective supervision, a wilting French position before the communists' typical dilatory tactics, all resulting in the French accepting almost any terms.
The NSC, therefore, decided that the French had to be pressured into adopting a strong posture in the face of probable communist intransigence. The NSC urged a policy of informing Paris that its acquiescence in a communist takeover of Indochina would bear not only on France's future position in the Far East, but also on its status as one of the Big Three; that abandonment of Indochina would grievously affect both France's position in North Africa and Franco–U.S. relations in that region; that U.S. aid to France would automatically cease upon Paris' conclusion of an unsatisfactory settlement; and, finally, that communist domination of Indochina would be of such serious strategic harm to U.S. interests as to produce "consequences in Europe as well as elsewhere [without]...apparent limitation." In addition, the NSC recommended that the U.S. determine immediately whether the Associated States should be approached with a view to continuing the anti-Viet Minh struggle in some other form, including unilateral U.S. involvement "if necessary."
The NSC's adamant attitude was reflected in Dulles' extreme pessimism over the prospects for any meaningful progress in talks with the communists. At Geneva on April 25, the Secretary said that the solution of the Indochina problem was the primary responsibility of France, the non-Communist Vietnamese, and the Viet Minh. The U.S. would not normally expect to "interpose [its] veto" except "where we felt that the issues involved had a pretty demonstrable interest to the United States itself." And he went on to say that if highly disadvantageous solutions were proposed at the conference which the U.S. could not prevent, "we would probably want to disassociate ourselves from it [the Conference]."8
This first official indication for public consumption of U.S. refusal to join in a settlement contrary to our interests, was coupled with a comment by Dulles on the possibility of partition. In views that would change later, Dulles said he did not see how partition could be arranged with the fighting not confined to any single area. Although he did not actually rule out partition, he made it clear that the U.S. would agree only to a division equivalent to a communist surrender, one that would place all the communist troops in a small regroupment area out of harm's way. But that arrangement "might not be acceptable to them," he said coyly.
The test of U.S. policy came May 5 when the French informed Washington of the proposals they intended to make in the first round of talks. The proposals included a separation of the Vietnam situation of "civil war" from the communist aggressions in Cambodia and Laos; a ceasefire supervised by international authority, to be followed by political discussions aimed at free elections; the regrouping of regular forces of the belligerents into defined zones upon signature of a cease-fire agreement; the disarming of all irregular forces (., the Viet Minh guerrillas); and a guarantee of the agreements by "the States participating in the Geneva Conference."
Once more, the Chiefs, in reviewing the proposals, fell back on the Korean experience, which they said demonstrated the certainty that the communists would violate any armistice controls, including those supervised by an international body. An agreement to refrain from new military activities during armistice negotiations would be a strong obstacle to communist violations; but the communists, the JCS concluded, would never agree to such an arrangement. The Chiefs therefore urged that the U.S. not get trapped into backing a French armistice proposal that then could be taken up by the communists and exploited to bind us to a cease-fire. The only way to get satisfactory results was through military success, and since the Navarre Plan was no longer tenable, the next best alternative was not to associate the U.S. with any cease-fire in advance of a satisfactory political settlement. The first step, the Chiefs believed, should be the conclusion of a settlement that would "reasonably assure the political and territorial integrity of the Associated States..."; only thereafter should a cease-fire be entertained.
As previously, the Joint Chiefs' position became U.S. policy, in this case with only minor emendations. The President, reviewing the JCS paper, agreed that the U.S. could not back the French proposal with its call for a supervised cease-fire that the communists would never respect. Eisenhower further concurred with the Chiefs' insistence on priority to a political settlement, with the stipulation that French forces continue fighting while negotiations were in progress. He added that the U.S. would continue aiding the French during that period and would, in addition, work toward a united action coalition "for the purpose of preventing further expansion of communist power in Southeast Asia."10
These statements of position paved the way for a National Security Council meeting May 8 which set forth the guidelines of U.S. policy on negotiations for the delegation at Geneva. The decision taken at the meeting simply underscored what the President and the Chiefs had already stated:
- "The United States will not associate itself with any proposal from any source directed toward a ceasefire in advance of an acceptable armistice agreement, including international controls. The United States could concur in the initiation of negotiations for such an armistice agreement. During the course of such negotiations, the French and the Associated States should continue to oppose the forces of the Viet Minh with all the means at their disposal. In the meantime, as a means of strengthening the hands of the French and the Associated States during the course of such negotiations, the United States will continue its program of aid and its efforts to organize and promptly activate a Southeast Asian regional grouping for the purpose of preventing further expansion of Communist power in Southeast Asia."11
Before receiving detailed instructions from Dulles, Smith spoke twice at the first round of plenary sessions, once on May 10 (the second plenary) and again on May 12 (at the third). At these sessions, Smith brought home two major points of U.S. policy: first, he declined to commit the U.S. in advance to a guarantee of the settlement, despite Bidault's call for all the participants to make such a guarantee;12 second, he proposed that national elections in Vietnam be supervised by an international commission "under United Nations auspices." Smith stressed that the UN should have two separate functions — overseeing not only the cease-fire but the elections as well. Both these points in Smith's speech were to remain cardinal elements of U.S. policy throughout the negotiations.13 On 12 May Smith received instructions clearly designed to make the U.S. an influential, but unentangled and unobligated, participant. The U.S., Dulles cabled him, was to be "an interested nation which, however, is neither a belligerent nor a principal in the negotiation." Its primary aim would be to:
- "...help the nations of that area [Indochina] peacefully to enjoy under with the opportunity to expand their economies, to realize their legitimate national aspirations, and to develop security through individual and collective defense against aggression, from within and without. This implies that these people into the Communist bloc of imperialistic dictatorship."
Accordingly, Smith was told, the U.S. should not give its approval to any settlement or cease-fire.
- "...which would have the effect of 14 of the three aforementioned states or of or of placing in jeopardy the forces of the French Union of Indochina, or which otherwise contravened the principles stated...above."
The NSC decision of May 8, Smith's comments at the second and third plenary sessions, and Dulles' instructions to Smith reveal the hardness of the U.S. position on a Geneva settlement. The U.S. would not associate itself with any arrangement that failed to provide adequately for an internationally supervised cease-fire and national elections that resulted in the partitioning of any of the Associated States; or that compromised the independence and territorial integrity of those States in any way. Smith was left free, in fact, to withdraw from the conference or to restrict the American role to that of observer.15
The pessimistic American view of the conference was founded also on the deterioration of the Franco–Vietnamese military effort, particularly in the Tonkin Delta. After the debacle at Dien Bien Phu, the French gradually shifted their forces from Laos and Cambodia into the Delta; but the Viet Minh naturally did likewise, moving several battalions eastward. U.S. Army intelligence reported on May 26, on the basis of French reports, that the Viet Minh were redeploying much faster than anticipated, to the point where only 2,000 of 35,000 troops originally in northwestern Tonkin remained. To thwart the communist military threat, General Ely told General Trapnell (on May 30) that French forces were forming a new defensive perimeter along the Hanoi–Haiphong axis; but Ely made no effort to hide the touch-and-go nature of French defensive capabilities during the rainy season already under way.16 The bleak picture darkened further after General Valluy reported in early June to U.S., British, Australian, and New Zealand Chiefs of Staff assembled in Washington that the Delta was in danger of falling to the communists, that neither Frenchmen nor Vietnamese would fight on in the south in that eventuality, and that only prompt allied intervention could save the situation.17
Valluy's presentation merely reinforced what the U.S. already was aware of, namely, that while the communists put forth unacceptable proposals at Geneva, they were driving for important gains in the Delta that would thoroughly demoralize French Union soldiers and set the stage for French withdrawal to the south. Deterioration on the battlefield and pessimism at the negotiating table, therefore, worked hand-in-hand toward confirming to Washingtonthat its goals for an Indochina settlement were unrealistic, but rather that the only way to attain them was through decisive military victory in conformity with the original "united action" proposal of March 29.
III. A. 2.
|a.||United Action Stressed as an Option||A-16|
|b.||French Request U.S. Terms for Intervention||A-16|
|c.||U.S. States Intervention Terms||A-16|
|d.||Eisenhower Still Favors United Action||A-17|
|e.||The French Reject Independence Options for Associated States||A-18|
|f.||Laniel Presents Two Additional Questions to U.S||A-18|
|g.||The U.S. Replies||A-18|
|h.||Other Concerned Western Nations are Kept Informed||A–18|
|a.||U.S. Begins Contingency Planning||A-19|
|b.||Three Regional Pacts Considered||A-19|
|c.||JCS Point Out Key Planning Considerations||A-19|
|d.||JCS Urge Limited U.S. Commitment||A-20|
|e.||JCS Call for Meeting of Interested Western Powers||A-20|
|f.||U.S. Again Requests Independence for Associated States||A-21|
|g.||French Response is Encouraging||A-21|
|h.||Question of Chinese Air Attack Again Arises||A-21|
|i.||Dillon Outlines French Position||A-21|
|j.||U.S. Repeats Initial Reply||A-22|
|k.||Other Obstacles to U.S.–French Accord||A-22|
|l.||The Continuing Issue of Independence for Associated States||A-23|
|a.||Issues Begin to Lose Relevance in Changing War||A-23|
|b.||Dulles Considers Withdrawing Option of United Action||A-23|
|c.||Dulles Withdraws Option||A-24|
|d.||U.S. Turns to Studies with U.K. on Intervention||A-24|
|e.||United Action Option Has Come Full Cycle||A-24|
|a.||French Do Not Intend to Request U.S. Involvement||A-25|
|b.||French Bring Out Possible U.S. United Action as a Lever in Bargaining||A-25|
|c.||United Action is an Alternative but not a Subverting Force||A-25|
The formulation of an American approach to negotiations was paralleled by a search for an appropriate military alternative. Perceiving the inevitable bogging down of talks at Geneva as the consequence of communist procrastination, but also mindful of the bankruptcy of the Navarre Plan, the Administration still hoped that "united action" could be achieved once Britain and France realized, as we had consistently tried to convince them, that negotiating with the communists was a wasteful exercise. But in keeping open the option of united action, the Administration, during May and the first half of June, as in April, carefully conditioned it on a range of French concessions and promises. Thus, this second go-'round of united action was not designed to make further negotiations impossible; rather, it was intended to provide an alternative which the French might utilize once negotiations were conceded by them to be useless.
The issue of united action arose again in early May when Premier Laniel, in a talk with Ambassador Dillon, expressed the view that the Chinese were the real masters of the negotiations at Geneva. This being the case, Laniel reasoned, the Chinese would probably seek to drag out the talks over any number of peripheral issues while the Viet Minh pushed on for a military decision. Readjustment of the French position in the field, with a major withdrawal on the order of 15 battalions to the Tonkin Delta, was probable very soon, Laniel said, unless the U.S. decided to give its active military cooperation. In the interim, the Premier requested that a U.S. general be dispatched to Paris to assist in military planning.1
Laniel's views failed to make an impression in Washington. Although the Administration agreed to dispatch a general (Trapnell), Dulles proposed, and Eisenhower accepted, a series of "indispensable" conditions to American involvement which would have to be met by Paris;2
- (1) A formal request for U.S. involvement from France and the Associated States; similar invitations to other nations;
- (2) An immediate, favorable response to those invitations from Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand, as well as the assurance that Britain "would either participate or be acquiescent";
- (3) Presentation of "some aspect of matter" to the UN by one of the involved Asian states;
- (4) A French guarantee of complete independence to the Associated States, "including unqualified option to withdraw from French Union at any time...";
- (5) A French undertaking not to withdraw the Expeditionary Corps from Indochina during the period of united action in order to ensure that the U.S. would be providing air and sea, but not combat troop, support;
- (6) Franco–American agreement on the training of native forces and a new command structure during united action (Admiral Radford was reported to be thinking in terms of a French supreme command with a U.S. air command);
- (7) Full endorsement by the French cabinet and Assembly of these conditions to ensure a firm French commitment even in the event of a change in government in Paris.
It was further agreed that in the course of united action, the U.S. would pursue efforts to broaden the coalition and to formalize it as a regional defense pact.
Eisenhower was still insistent on collective action, but recognized that the British might not commit themselves initially and that the Australians, facing a general election later in May, could only give "evidence" of their willingness to participate. A second major problem was Indochinese independence. Dulles posed the American dilemma on this score: on the one hand, the U.S. had to avoid giving Asia reason to believe we were intervening on behalf of colonialism; on the other, the Associated States lacked the personnel and leadership necessary to carrying on alone. "In a sense," said Dulles, "if the Associated States, were turned loose, it would be like putting a baby in a cage of hungry lions. The baby would rapidly be devoured." His solution was that the Associated States be granted (evidently, orally) the right to withdraw from the French Union after passage of a suitable time period, perhaps five or ten years. A final point concerned Executive–Congressional relations once a French request, backed by Parliamentary assent, reached Washington. The President felt he should appear before a joint session of Congress and seek a Congressional resolution to use the armed forces in Indochina. At Eisenhower's request, Dulles directed that State Department begin working up a first draft of such a Presidential message.3
The American response to Laniel's requests set the stage for an extended series of discussions over the ensuing five weeks. In Paris, Dillon communicated the American conditions to Laniel, who accepted the conditions, but with important reservations. First, Laniel indicated his dismay at the U.S. insistence on the right of the Associated States to withdraw from the French Union. The Premier commented that the French public could never accept this condition inasmuch as the Associated States had themselves never made it and since even the Viet Minh envisioned joining the Union. Second, the obvious U.S. reluctance to go beyond air and naval forces disturbed the Premier. He requested that the U.S. provide, in addition, artillery forces and token ground troops. Moreover, he indicated pleasure that UK participation was no longer a prerequisite to American involvement.
Laniel's qualified approval of the preconditions was accompanied by a request for a U.S. response to two other questions: (1) Could the U.S. in some way guarantee the borders and independence of Laos and Cambodia following a French withdrawal from those countries? (2) Could the U.S. provide written assurance of prompt air intervention to meet a Chinese Communist air attack on French forces in the delta?4
The American response to Laniel's demurrers and requests was for the most part negative. On the French–Associated States relationship, which Ambassador Dillon had commented was the chief barrier to a French request for intervention,5 Dulles replied (through Dillon) that the U.S. might have some flexibility on the matter, but had to remain adamant on complete independence if we ever hoped to gain Thai and Filipino support. Next, on the question of the extent of U.S. involvement, the U.S. was more amenable: we would not exclude antiaircraft "and limited U.S. ground forces for protection of bases which might be used by U.S. naval and air forces." As for Laniel's specific requests, Washington answered that it saw no way, in view of the military and legal impracticalities, to guarantee the security of Laos and Cambodia; the alternative was that Laos and Cambodia join with Thailand in seeking a UN Peace Observation Commission (POC) on their territories. On the possibility of Chinese MIG intervention, considered extremely remote by the Defense Department, the French were to be assured that a collective defense arrangement would include protection against that contingency.6
During the U.S.–French give-and-take, the British were clearly being kept at arm's length, no longer considered essential to the beginning of a united action. This irked London considerably, especially as the Washington–Paris exchanges were making headlines despite efforts to keep them under wraps. It was only because of the stories and British annoyance that Dulles directed that the British, Australian, and New Zealand ambassadors be informed "in general terms" regarding U.S.–French talks.7
Although the setting up of several U.S. preconditions to involvement and the qualifications of the French reply by no means made intervention an immediate possibility, the U.S., apparently for the first time, moved ahead on contingency planning. The State Department's Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs took the lead by producing a hypothetical timetable based on the assumption of U.S.–French agreement in principle to the proposed conditions by 21 May.8 FEA also outlined a full slate of urgent priority studies to be undertaken by various Government agencies, including U.S. strategy under differing circumstances of Chinese involvement in the war. By 24 May, FEA had forwarded a contingency study of the Operations Planning Board, which proposed, among other things, U.S. public and private communications to Peking to prevent, or at least reduce the effectiveness of, direct Chinese intervention.10
The initiation of planning for U.S. intervention extended to more far-ranging discussions of the purposes, requirements, and make-up of a Southeast Asia collective defense organization. The framework of the discussions evidenced the Government's intention that united action only be undertaken after the Geneva conference had reached a stalemate or, far less likely, a settlement. Three regional formulations were envisaged: the first would be designed for direct action, probably without British participation, either to defeat the Viet Minh or exclude them from gaining control of Indochina; the second, formed, after a settlement, would comprise the present SEATO members and functions, in particular actual assistance to the participating Asian states against external attack or "Communist insurrection"; the third would have a broad Asian membership, with its function limited to social and economic cooperation.11
An important input to contingency planning on intervention came from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On 20 May, the JCS sent a memorandum to the Secretary of Defense entitled "U.S. Military Participation in Indochina."12 In the paper, the Chiefs requested formulation of a Defense Department position on the size of any U.S. contributions and the nature of the command structure once united action began. They noted the "limited availability of U.S. forces for military action in Indochina" and the "current numerical advantage of the French Union forces over the enemy, i.e., approximately 5 to 3." Pointing out the disadvantages of either stationing large numbers of U.S. troops in Indochina or of basing U.S. aircraft on Indochina's limited facilities, the Chiefs considered "the current greatest need" to be an expanded, intensified training program for indigenous troops. The JCS observed, moreover, that they were guided in their comments by the likely reaction of the CPR to U.S. involvement, as well as by the prescription: "Atomic weapons will be used whenever it is to our military advantage."
In view of these problems and prospects, the JCS urged the limitation of U.S. involvement to strategic planning and the training of indigenous forces through an increase in MAAG to 2250 men. Our force commitment should be limited, they thought, primarily to air-naval support directed from outside Indochina; even here, the Chiefs cautioned against making a "substantial" air force commitment. The Chiefs were also mindful of the Chinese. Since Viet Minh supplies came mainly from China, "the destruction or neutralization of those outside sources supporting the Viet Minh would materially reduce the French military problems in Indochina." The Chiefs were clearly taking the position that any major U.S. force commitment in the Far East should be reserved for a war against the Chinese. Recognizing the limitations of the U.S. defense establishment for large-scale involvement in so-called "brush-fire" wars, the Chiefs were extremely hesitant as had consistently been the case, to favor action along the periphery of China when the strategic advantages of U.S. power lay in decisive blows against the major enemy. Thus, the JCS closed their memorandum with the admonition that air-naval commitments beyond those specified
- "...will involve maldeployment of forces and reduce readiness to meet probable Chinese Communist reaction elsewhere in the Far East. From the point of view of the United States, with reference to the Far East as a whole, Indochina is devoid of decisive military objectives and the allocation of more than token U.S. armed forces to that area would be a serious diversion of limited U.S. capabilities."13
The JCS evidently also decided that it would be a good idea to gather together military representatives of the U.S., France, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. At first, the Chiefs suggested the downgrading of the representatives to below chief-of-staff level; but apparently on the strong protest of Under Secretary Smith at Geneva,14 and of the British too,15 the Chiefs acquiesced in a meeting at chief-of-staff level. But prior to the meeting, which began the first week of June, important developments occurred in the U.S.–France go-'round on intervention.
The ticklish problem of bringing France to concede the vitalness of granting full independence to the Associated States occupied center stage once more. On 27 May, the State Department, acknowledging France's hesitancy to go too far on this score, still insisted on certain "minimum measures," the most important of which was that France announce, during or immediately after the signing of the latest draft treaties,16 that she would willingly withdraw all her forces from Indochina unless invited by the governments of the Associated States to maintain them or to establish bases. The U.S., the Department added, would be prepared to make a similar declaration if it committed forces. Beyond that step, the French were also asked to permit Indochinese participation in the programming of economic aid, and their direct receipt of all military aid; to find ways to broaden participation of the Vietnamese defense ministry and armed forces in national defence; and to push for the establishment of "representative and authentic nationalist governments" at the earliest possible date.17
The French responded, with surprising affirmativeness to these proposals. Dillon was able to report from Paris on 29 May, following a conversation with Laniel, that the two perhaps "had now reached accord in principle on political side." Laniel, he reported, urged immediate military talks to complete arrangements on training of the Vietnamese, a new command structure, and war plans.18 Inasmuch as Ely and O'Daniel in Indochina had reached general agreements on American assumption of responsibility for training the VNA, the way was apparently cleared for bilateral military talks in Washington to take place simultaneously with, and therefore disguised by, the five-power staff negotiations.19
Dillon's optimism was cut short rather quickly. When he reported on talks with Schumann, Dillon had added Schumann's and Pleven's concern about Chinese air intervention, which they felt would be so damaging as to warrant a deterrent action in the form of a Presidential request to the Congress for discretionary authority to defend the Delta in case of CCAF attack. The French wanted a virtually instantaneous U.S. response, which would be assured by a Presidential request before, rather than after, overt Chinese aerial intervention.20 The State Department's retort was that the French first had to satisfy the previously reported conditions before any such move by the President could be considered.
Dillon was no less disappointed by Washington's reply than the French. He cabled back that there apparently was an "extremely serious misunderstanding between U.S. and French":21
- "French draw sharp distinction between (1) US intervention in present circumstances with Viet Minh bolstered by Chinese Communist materiel, technicians and possibly scattered troops and (2) US reaction against full-scale air attack mounted from Communist Chinese bases."
Dillon said that, for the French, the U.S. preconditions applied in the first case but not the second, wherein only Congressional authorization was understood to stand in the way of direct U.S. action. Ely, the Ambassador reported, had all along believed he had Radford's personal assurance of an American reaction to Chinese air attack in the Delta. Now, the French wanted to know if they could count on instant U.S. interdiction of a CCAF strike. The Ambassador closed by reminding the Department of the incalculable harm to NATO, to the whole U.S. position in Western Europe, and to the U.S. position against communist worldwide strategy if a Chinese attack were not met.22
Despite Dillon's protestations, the Department stuck by its initial position of May 15, namely, that Chinese air attack was unlikely and that the U.S. would meet that problem when it arose.23 Clearly, the U.S. was unwilling to make any advance commitments which the French could seize upon for political advantage without having to give a in their Indochina policy. Eisenhower affirmed this view and went beyond it: the conditions for united action, he said, applied equally to Chinese direct and indirect involvement in Indochina. The U.S. would make no unilateral commitment against any contingency, including overt, unprovoked Chinese aggression, without firm broad allied support.24
There were other obstacles to U.S.–French agreement, as brought into the open with a memorandum to the President from Foreign Minister Bidault on June 1.25 One was American insistence on French Assembly approval of a government request for U.S. intervention. The French cabinet considered that to present a program of Allied involvement to the Assembly except under the circumstance of "a complete failure of the Geneva Conference" attributable to the communists "would be literally to wish to overthrow the [French] Government." A second area of continuing disagreement concerned the maintenance of French forces in the field and the nature of a U.S. commitment. The French held that the U.S. could bypass Congress by committing perhaps one division of Marines without a declaration of war.26 Although assured that the Marines, being part of the Navy, would be included in a U.S. air–naval commitment, the French wanted much more.
A final, but by no means negligible, French objection to the U.S. proposals was the independence issue. Far from having been settled, as Dillon supposed, the French were still unhappy about American pressure for concessions even after the State Department's May 27 revisions. The French were particularly disturbed (as Bidault implied) at the notion that the Associated States could leave the Union at any time, even while French fighting men were in the field on Indochina's behalf. France was perfectly willing, Bidault remarked, to sign new treaties of association with the three Indochinese States, to allow them a larger voice in defense matters, and to work with them toward formation of truly national governments; but, to judge from his commentary, Paris would not go the whole route by committing itself in advance to Indochina's full freedom of action. And while this and other issues remained unresolved, as Dulles observed on June 4, Laniel's reported belief that the U.S. and France were politically agreed was, to Washington, a "serious overstatement."27
Early in June, the unsettled issues separating the U.S. from France began to lose their relevance to the war. Even if they could be resolved, it was questionable whether U.S. involvement could any longer be useful or decisive. Thus, on the matter of training the VNA, we were no longer certain that time would, permit our training methods to take effect even if the French promptly removed themselves from responsibility in that area. State Department opinion now held that the Vietnam situation had deteriorated "to point where any commitment at this time to send over U.S. instructors in near future might expose us to being faced with situation in which it would be contrary to our interests to have to fulfill such commitment. Our position accordingly is that we do not wish to consider U.S. training mission or program separately from over-all operational plan on assumption conditions fulfilled for U.S. participation war Indochina."28
Simply put, the Department had determined that the grave but still retrievable military situation prevailing at the time united, action was proposed and pursued had, in June, altered radically. Morale of the Franco–Vietnamese forces had dropped sharply, the whole Tonkin Delta was endangered, and the political situation in Saigon was dangerously unstable.29 Faced with this uniformly black picture, the Administration moved to withdraw united action from consideration by the French.
By mid-June, American diplomacy was in an unenviable position. At Geneva, very little progress had been made of a kind that could lead any of the Allies to expect a satisfactory outcome. Yet, the alternative which the U.S. had kept open no longer seemed viable either. As Dulles told Smith, any "final agreement" with the French would be "quite impossible," for Paris was moving farther than ever from a determination that united action was necessary. "They want, and in effect have, an option on our intervention," Dulles wrote, "but they do not want to exercise it and the date of expiry of our option is fast running out."30 From Paris, in fact, Ambassador Dillon urged the Secretary that "the time limit be now" on U.S. intervention.31 And Dulles was fast concluding that Dillon was correct.
In view of France's feeling that, because of strong Assembly pressure for a settlement, no request could be made of the U.S. until every effort to reach agreement at Geneva had been exhausted,32 Dulles in effect decided on 15 June that united action was no longer tenable. In a conversation with Bonnet, in which the Ambassador read a message from Bidault which indicated that the French no longer considered the U.S. bound to intervention on satisfaction of the seven conditions, the Secretary again put forth the difficulty of the American position. He stated that the U.S. stood willing to respond to a French request under the conditions of 11 May, but that time and circumstance might make future U.S. intervention "impracticable or so burdensome as to be out of proportion to the results obtainable." While this standpoint would be unsatisfactory to Bidault, especially in his dealings with the communists at Geneva, Dulles "could not conceive that it would be expected that the U.S. would, give a third power the option to put it into war at times and under conditions wholly of the other's choosing."33 United action was, then, not removed from consideration at a later date; but it was shelved, and it never appeared again in the form and with the purpose originally proposed.
During this period of a gradual "break" with France on united action, the alternative for the United States became a collective defense arrangement with British participation. Once again, U.S. hopes shifted to London, particularly when Eden, on 9 June, told Smith of his extreme pessimism over the course of the negotiations. Smith drew from the conversation the strong impression that Eden believed negotiations to have failed, and would now follow the U.S. lead on a coalition to guarantee Cambodia and Laos "under umbrella of some UN action" (Smith's words). Whether the U.S. and U.K. would act prior to or after a likely settlement at Geneva by the desperate French became the major area of inquiry.34
The rebirth and demise of united action was a rare case of history repeated almost immediately after it had been made. The United States, having failed to interest Britain in united action prior to the start of the Geneva Conference, determined to plunge ahead without British participation as a . But, the caveat to the French grew in importance. Conditions which had been given the French before the fall of Dien Bien Phu were now augmented, most importantly by a greater detailing of the process the French government would have to go through before the U.S. would consider intervention.
Even while the French pondered the conditions, urged their refinement and redefinition to suit French policies, and insisted in the end that they saw no political obstacles separating the U.S. and France, Washington foresaw that the French were very unlikely to forward a request for U.S. involvement. Having learned something from the futile diplomatic bargaining in April, Department of State representatives in Paris and Washington saw that what the French wanted was not the military but the political benefits of U.S. involvement; and they thought they could get them by bringing into the open the fact that the U.S. and France were negotiating active American participation in the fighting. Thus, Dillon correctly assessed in mid-May that French inquiries about U.S. conditions for intervention represented a "wish to use possibility of our intervention primarily to strengthen their hand at Geneva."35 Dillon's sensitivity to the French position was proven accurate by Bidault's memorandum to the President: France would, in reality, only call on the United States if an "honorable" settlement could clearly not be obtained at Geneva, for only under that circumstance could the National Assembly be persuaded that the Laniel government had done everything possible to achieve peace.
Our recognition of the game the French were playing did not keep us from posing intervention as an alternative for them; but by adhering tenaciously to the seven conditions, the U.S. ruled out either precipitous American action or an open-ended commitment to be used or rejected by Paris. "We cannot grant French an indefinite option on us without regard to intervening deterioration" of the military situation, Dulles wrote 8 June.36 As much as the Administration wanted to avoid a sell-out at Geneva, it was aware that events in Indochina might preclude effective action even if the French suddenly decided they wanted U.S. support.
The United States, then, did not propose united action with the intention of subverting the Conference. Instead, united action was offered as a palliative if the Conference should become an exercise in futility for the Western side. Washington clearly hoped that France would find it could not gain an "honorable settlement" through talks with the Viet Minh, and that the British could admit to having been unrealistic in postponing a commitment to united action pending the outcome of talks. In short, the U.S. predicted and welcomed the Conference's "subversion" through communist intransigence; yet when, in mid-June, the Conference began to break for what would be a lengthy recess, Washington had to conclude that united action was no longer appropriate to military circumstances in Indochina, nor feasible given U.S. insistence on intervention only under conditions conducive to a decisive success. By the end of June, therefore, the pattern of U.S. diplomacy shifted — from united action in Indochina to collective defense in Southeast Asia, and from disenchantment with the Geneva Conference to attempts to influence a settlement at least basically in keeping with our interests.
III. A. 3.
|a.||United Action is Allowed to Remain a Public Option||A-34|
|b.||France and U.K. Exploit U.S. Threat||A-34|
|c.||Eden Viewed as Moderating U.S. Threat||A-34|
|a.||Communists Appear Intransigent||A-35|
|b.||French Increasingly Interested in Partition||A-35|
|c.||Two New Factors Enhance Partition||A-35|
|d.||Communist Concessions Show More Promise||A-36|
|e.||U.S. Remains Pessimistic||A-36|
|a.||French Request Statements of U.S. and U.K. Support||A-36|
|b.||U.S. and U.K. Issue Joint Statement||A-37|
|c.||U.S. and U.K. Formulate "Seven Points" Agreement||A-37|
|d.||British Adherence to Seven Points Remains Doubtful||A-38|
|e.||French Generally Concur with Seven Points||A-38|
|a.||French Request High-Level U.S. Representation||A-39|
|b.||Dulles Objects to High-Level U.S. Representative||A-39|
|c.||Dulles Lists Objections||A-40|
|d.||Dulles and Mendes–France Agree on the Seven Points||A-40|
|e.||France Continues Insistence on High-Level U.S. Representation||A-41|
|f.||The U.S. Reconsiders French Request||A-41|
|g.||Bedell Smith Instructed Not to Commit the U.S||A-41|
|h.||Smith's Presence Reinforces Western Position||A-42|
Between mid-June and the end of the Conference on 21 July, U.S. diplomacy worked at unifying the Western alliance behind a Southeast Asia defense pact and at coalescing a united Western diplomatic front at Geneva so as to obtain the best possible settlement. In this process, the Western alliance gradually cohered. The result was that Anglo–French cooperation was gained not only for the concept of a regional security pact, but also for a firm negotiating position vis-à-vis the communists. Additionally, although the U.S. private position was, by late June, to abide by a settlement which partitioned Vietnam and provided for "the ultimate reunification of Vietnam by peaceful means" (under the U.S.–U.K. seven-point memorandum of 29 June, our public posture at the Conference left unclear to the communists just what terms would in fact be acceptable to us. For our part, united action was a dead issue by mid-June; but the communist negotiators could not have known this. As a result, they may well have been influenced toward a settlement by the belief that further prolongation of talks would only reinforce Western unity, perhaps coalesce a united response in Indochina previously unobtainable by the U.S., and very likely bring the three Indochinese states into the proposed American security treaty.
Both the French and the British negotiators made excellent use of America's ambivalent status. The Chief French delegate, Jean Chauvel, told a Russian delegate, Kuznetsov, for instance, that France's proposed division of Vietnam at the 18th parallel would probably be more acceptable to the other conferees than the unreasonable Viet Minh demand for the 13th parallel. Chauvel added that a settlement along the French line would thereby avert the risk of an internationalization of the conflict,1 Eden also used the implied threat of U.S. involvement.
During late May, he warned Chou "again" of the dangers inherent in the Indochina situation, which could lead to unpredictable and serious results. When Chou said he was counting on Britain to prevent this from happening, the Foreign Secretary replied Chou was mistaken, since Britain would stand by the U.S. in a showdown.2 And Bidault and Smith, in mid-June, agreed that in view of genuine Sino-Soviet desire to keep the Conference going, Chinese concern' over U.S. bases in Laos and Cambodia should not be dispelled,3
The British seem to have played a particularly vital role in exploiting ambiguous American intentions for diplomatic gain. At the Conference, Eden was in close contact with Molotov and Chou, and evidently earned their confidence and respect. He was clearly viewed as a moderating element who could be counted on (as Chou put it) to influence the U.S. away from rash actions such as might subvert the Conference. Eden's conduct, therefore, served as a barometer to the Communists of the prospects for Western agreement to a settlement. When the British agreed to participate in five-power military staff talks in Washington (3–9 June), and when Eden and Churchill flew to Washington in late June for talks with Dulles and Eisenhower, the communists may have believed that the U.K. was undergoing some kind of reassessment of its attitude toward U.S. proposals for a Southeast Asia coalition. The implicit warning of U.K. participation in a "united action" approach which it had previously rebuffed, whether or not the actual intention of the British leaders, could not have been missed in Moscow and Peking.
By mid-June there seemed to be little reason to expect that the Geneva Conference, even if it reconvened in July, would see any significant breakthroughs from the communist side. Inasmuch as the French had decided, under a new government committed to a settlement by 20 July, to continue their "underground" military discussions with the Viet Minh, U.S. diplomatic efforts concentrated on pushing the British to agree to a treaty system for Southeast Asia that would, in effect, guarantee the security of those areas left in non-Communist hands following a settlement. On 14 June, Dulles observed that events at Geneva apparently had "been such as to satisfy the British insistence that they did not want to discuss collective action until either Geneva was over or at least the results of Geneva were known." Dulles assumed that the departure of Eden was "evidence that there was no adequate reason for further delaying collective talks on Southeast Asia defense."4
While plans were being laid to press ahead with a regional coalition, important developments occurred at the Conference. Partition, which the communist side had introduced in late May as a compromise formula, was being given serious attention by the French. Informed of this by Smith, Dulles reiterated the view that the U.S. could not possibly associate itself with a sell-out of the Delta any more than we could be expected (as Jean Chauvel had urged) to "sell" partition to the non-Communist Vietnamese.5
Two qualifications to the partition concept cropped up in the same period. A five-power military staff conference in Washington (U.S., U.K., France, Australia, and New Zealand) had ended 9 June with a report that considered the Thakhek–Dong Hoi line (midway between the 17th and 18th parallels) defensible in the event Vietnam were partitioned.6 Moreover, Chauvel had told U. Alexis Johnson, then a member of the American delegation, that French flirtation with the idea of one or more enclaves for each side in the northern and southern zones of divided Vietnam had been abandoned. Chauvel indicated his government had decided it would rather give up Haiphong than accept a Viet Minh enclave in the south if the choice came to that.7 The conference report and the Paris change of heart on the enclave concept had the effect of convincing some that if partition were adopted, it could provide for a solid, militarily defensible South Vietnam.
In another area, the communists had conceded — with Chou En-lai's proposal at a restricted Conference session of 16 June — that Laos and Cambodia were problems distinct from that in Vietnam. And in a conversation with Smith, Molotov added his conviction that Pham Van Dong already had evidenced his willingness to withdraw Viet Minh "volunteers" from Laos and Cambodia.8 But, here as with partition, communist initiatives only satisfied in small part the American conception of acceptable terms. Until regular Viet Minh forces were entirely removed from Laos and Cambodia, until their puppet Free Khmer and Pathet Lao elements were disarmed or withdrawn, and until the right of the royal governments to seek outside support for self-defense was confirmed, the U.S. saw little progress in Chou's statement.
The gloom in American circles thickened considerably in late June. Continued irresolution at the conference table, together with the strong feeling in Washington that the French delegation, now responsible to Pierre Mendès-France (as of 18 June), would conclude a settlement as soon as the Conference reconvened, led Dulles to caution Smith against becoming involved in committee work (as the French proposed) that would appear to link the U.S. to any final decisions. "Our thinking at present," Dulles cabled Smith on 34 June, "is that our role at Geneva should soon be restricted to that of observer...."9
While the U.S. wanted to cut back on its involvement in the Conference proceedings, the French hoped to obtain, as previously, sufficient U.S. support to bolster their negotiating position in the face of communist pressure. Thus, on 26 June, Henri Bonnet delivered an aide-memoire from his government to Dulles and Eden, noting the difficulties of the French position. The French wanted to "assure the State of Vietnam a territory as solid as possible," but the Viet Minh were unlikely to make concessions in the Tonkin Delta, and the Vietnamese in Saigon were likely to object violently to a partition arrangement. The French government, therefore, hoped that the U.S. could find a way to assist it in both directions: first, the U.S. and U.K. might issue a declaration following their upcoming talks in Washington that would "state in some fashion or other that, if it is not possible to reach a reasonable settle ment at the Geneva Conference, a serious aggravation of international relations would result"; second, the U.S. might intercede with the Vietnamese to counsel them against opposing a settlement really in their best interests.10
The second suggestion was never given serious consideration, for the U.S. did not wish to be tied to a settlement that would cede territory to the Viet Minh. The first, however, was acted upon when Churchill and Eden arrived in Washington on 24 June. Four days later, the U.S. and U.K. issued a joint statement which warned: "if at Geneva the French Government is confronted with demands which prevent an acceptable agreement regarding Indochina, the international situation will be seriously aggravated."11
Of more immediate consequence for the course of the negotiations was the unpublicized agreement between the two countries on a set of principles which, if worked into the settlement terms, would enable London and Washington to "respect" the armistice. The principles, known subsequently as the seven points, were communicated to the French. They were:12
(1) Preservation of the integrity and independence of Laos and Cambodia, and assurance of Viet Minh withdrawal from those countries;
(2) Preservation of at least the southern half of Vietnam, and if possible an enclave in the Tonkin Delta, with the line of demarcation no further south than one running generally west from Dong Hoi;
(3) No restrictions on Laos, Cambodia, or retained Vietnam "materially impairing their capacity to maintain stable non-Communist regimes; and especially restrictions impairing their right to maintain adequate forces for internal security, to import arms and to employ foreign advisers";
(4) No "political provisions which would risk loss of the retained area to Communist control";
(5) No provision that would "exclude the possibility of the ultimate reunification of Vietnam by peaceful means";
(6) Provision for "the peaceful and humane transfer, under international supervision, of those people desiring to be moved from one zone to another of Vietnam";
(7) Provision for "effective machinery for international supervision of the agreement."
Although agreement to the seven points represented something of an American diplomatic victory (with the important exception of point 2, where the U.S. for the first time conceded that partition was inescapable), the U.S. was by no means confident that the British would actually abide by the relatively hard bargaining lines set forth. "...we have the distinct impression," Dulles wrote, "that the British look upon this [memorandum of the seven points] merely as an optimum solution and that they would not encourage the French to hold out for a solution as good as this." The Secretary observed that the British, during the talks, had settled for agreement to "respect" the final terms; they preferred something stronger, and in fact "wanted to express these 7 points merely as a 'hope' without any indication of firmness on our part." The U.S., quite aside from what was said in the seven points, "would not want to be associated in any way with a settlement which fell materially short of the 7 point memorandum."13 The possibility of a unilateral withdrawal was still being "given consideration," Dulles reported,14 even as the seven points were agreed upon.
Despite reservations about the feasibility of implementing the seven points, the U.S. hoped to get French approval of them. On 6 July Dillon telegraphed the French reaction as given him by Parodi, the Secretary-General of the cabinet. With the exception of point 5 dealing with elections, the French were in agreement. They were confused about an apparent conflict between the elections provision and point 4, under which political provisions, which would include elections, were not to risk loss of retained Vietnam. In addition, they felt U.S. intention merely to "respect" any agreement was too weak a term, and requested clarification of its meaning.15
Dulles responded the next day to both matters. Points 4 and 5 were not in conflict, he said. It was quite possible that an agreement in line with the seven points might still not prevent Indochina from going communist. The important thing, therefore, was to arrange for national elections in a way that would give the South Vietnamese a liberal breathing spell:
- "...since undoubtedly true that elections might eventually mean unification Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh this makes it all more important they should be only held as long after cease-fire agreement as possible and in conditions free from intimidation to give democratic elements [in South Vietnam] best chance."
And so far as "respect" of that agreement was concerned, the U.S. and U.K. meant they
- "would not oppose a settlement which conformed to seven points....It does not of course mean we would guarantee much settlement or that we would necessarily support it publicly. We consider 'respect' as strong a word as we can possibly employ in the circumstances....'Respect' would also mean that we would not seek directly or indirectly to upset settlement by force."16
The seven points, Dulles' clarification of the U.S. position on elections in Vietnam, and his delimitation of the U.S. obligation towards a settlement were for the most part satisfactory to the French. But to Paris, the firm American position, to be influential at the Conference, had to be supplemented by high-level representation. Otherwise, Mendès-France argued, the French could not present a strong front when Molotov and Chou resumed their places in the coming weeks. Answering U.S. doubts, Mendès-France averred that the French bargaining position was precisely in line with the seven points and would not deviate substantially from them. With great feeling, he told a member of the U.S. Embassy in Paris that the presence of either the Secretary or the Under Secretary was "absolutely essential and necessary."17
The U.S. remained opposed to any proposal that implied acceptance of the final terms. While recognizing Mendès-France's difficulties in carrying on almost alone, Dulles firmly believed the French would end by accepting a settlement unsatisfactory to the U.S. — whether or not the U.S. delegation was upgraded.18 Moreover, were the U.S. to send Smith or Dulles back to Geneva only to find the French compelled to negotiate an unacceptable agreement, Washington would be required to dissociate itself in a manner "which would be deeply resented by the French as an effort on our part to block at the last minute a peace which they ardently desire," possibly with "irreparable injury to Franco–American relations..."19
On 10 July these objections to Mendès-France's pleadings were forcefully raised in a direct message to the French Premier from the Secretary. Dulles stated that the presence of high-ranking Western Big Three delegates at Geneva would be no "substitute for a clear agreement on a joint position which includes agreement as to what will happen if that position is not accepted by the Communists." Denying that a true united front existed even with the seven-point memorandum, Dulles went on to say that the seven points seemed to be "merely an optimum solution" not only for the British, but equally for the French. He cited French willingness to permit communist forces to remain in northern Laos, to accept a demarcation line "considerably south of Donghoi," to neutralize and demilitarize Laos, and Cambodia, and to permit "elections so early and so ill-prepared and ill-supervised as to risk the loss of the entire area to Communism..." These, said Dulles, were illustrative of a "whittling-away process" which, cumulatively, could destroy the intent of the seven points.
Thus, believing that the French had already gone far toward nullifying some of the major provisions of the U.S.–U.K. memorandum, Dulles reiterated the long-standing position that the U.S. had the right "not to endorse a solution which would seem to us to impair seriously certain principles which the U.S. believes must, as far as it is concerned, be kept unimpaired, if our own struggle against Communism is to be successfully pursued." Dulles added that a U.S. position that created uncertainty in the minds of the enemy "might strengthen your hand more than our presence at Geneva...."20
Mendès-France, in reply, stated that France would accept nothing unacceptable to the U.S.21 Apparently, this move had some effect on Dulles, for he flew to Paris for talks that resulted in a Franco–American endorsement of the U.S.–U.K. memorandum.22 In addition, Mendès-France and Dulles signed a position paper on the same day (14 July) that reiterated the U.S. position at the conference as "a friendly nation" whose role was subordinate to that of the primary non-Communist parties, the Associated States and France. This paper went on to describe the seven points as those acceptable to the "primarily interested nations" and as those which the U.S. could "respect." However, should terms ultimately be concluded which differed markedly from the seven points, the U.S. would neither be asked nor expected to accept them, and "may publicly disassociate itself from such differing terms." Dulles further obtained from the French certain assurances regarding coordinated action regardless of the outcome of the conference. The position paper declared America's intention "to seek, with other interested nations, a collective defense association designed to preserve, against direct and indirect aggression, the integrity of the non-Communist areas of Southeast Asia following any settlement."23
On all but one matter, the U.S. and France were now in complete accord on a negotiating strategy. That strategy, if adhered to, would not only prevent a sell-out to the communists, but also provide the framework for further allied discussions whether or not a settlement were concluded. The point of difference was Mendès-France's continued insistence that his delegation be supported by the presence of Dulles himself. Writing to Dulles of his understanding of the seven-point position paper just signed, the French Premier added:
- "...In effect, I have every reason to think that your absence would be precisely interpreted as demonstrating, before the fact, that you disapproved of the conference and of everything which might be accomplished. Not only would those who are against us find therein the confirmation of the ill will which they attribute to your government concerning the reestablishment of peace in Indochina; but many others would read in it a sure sign of a division of the western powers."24
For reasons not entirely clear, Mendès-France's appeal for high-level U.S. representation at Geneva was now favorably received in Washington. Dulles was able to inform Mendès-France on 14 July:
- "In the light of what you say and after consultation with President Eisenhower, I am glad to be able to inform you that the President and I are asking the Undersecretary of State, General Walter Bedell Smith, to prepare to return at his earliest convenience to Geneva to share in the work of the conference on the basis of the understanding which we have arrived at."25
For the first time since mid-1953, the U.S. and France were solidly joined in a common front on Indochina.
On 16 July Smith received a new set of instructions based upon the U.S.–France seven-point agreement. After reiterating the passive, formal role the U.S. was to play at the Conference, Dulles told the Under Secretary (1) that if a settlement should be reached he was to issue a unilateral (or, if possible, multilateral) statement that "conforms substantially" to the seven points; (2) that "The United States will not, however, become cosignatory with the Communists in any Declaration"; (3) that the U.S. should not be put in a position where it could be held responsible for guaranteeing the results of the Conference; (4) that Smith's efforts should be directed toward forwarding ideas to the "active negotiators" (France, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam); and (5) that the U.S. should avoid permitting the French to believe that a breakdown of the negotiations was due to U.S. advice or pressure, thus making the U.S. in some way morally obligated to intervene militarily in Indochina. Dulles stated with respect to this last point that the U.S. was "not prepared at the present time to give any commitment that it will intervene in the war if the Geneva Conference fails...."26 This decision, of course, remained unknown to the communists at Geneva, who continued to speculate on U.S. intentions.
Coming soon after the Dulles–Bidault talks in Paris (13–14 July), Smith's return was apparently interpreted by the Chinese, and doubtless by the Russians as well, as a sign of a united Western front at the Conference.27 When taken in conjunction with what Mèndes-France had already publicly told the National Assembly of his intentions to ask for conscripts in the event his 20 July deadline passed without a settlement, and with what the Premier told Malenkov about not intending Geneva to "turn into a Panmunjom,"28 the return of Smith gave the French negotiating position the appearance of real strength. The communist delegations, therefore, were presented with an option. They could call France's bluff — by refusing further concessions or by making a settlement contingent on a U.S. guarantee29 — or they could seek to gain French agreement that, hopefully, would obviate a U.S.–U.K.–French alignment in Asia. As the Conference ground on toward Mèndes-France's 20 July deadline, major concessions from the communist side brought the settlement essentially in line with the seven points.