Sound and the Fury — The 1954 Geneva Conference on Vietnam and Korea
In April 1954, amidst growing tensions regarding the situation in the Korean Peninsula and Indochina, the international community convened a conference in Geneva in the hopes of reaching some sort of accord. The United States, United Kingdom, France, Soviet Union, and People’s Republic of China were the primary negotiators, each jockeying to achieve their objectives through backroom negotiations, while other countries which had sent troops in the Korean War or the First Indochina War against the Viet Minh had smaller roles. Meanwhile, as the negotiations were going on in Geneva, the Viet Minh achieved their decisive victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu, which led to France’s withdrawal from the region.
On July 21st, 1954, the results of the Geneva Conference on Indochina were announced. While the Korean question went unanswered, the Conference passed the Geneva Accords, which divided French Indochina into Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Vietnam was to be temporarily partitioned on the 17th parallel with elections scheduled for July 1956. These elections, of course, never materialized, as Ngo Dinh Diem declared himself leader of the new state of South Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh established a Communist state in the North.
The Accords were considered relatively favorable to France given its weak bargaining position, and resulted in a strong U.S. presence in the former Indochina. In the end, however, those involved had little confidence that anything had been solved.
Dr. Robert R. Bowie, who served as Head of Policy Planning at the State Department, was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning March 1988. Thomas J. Corcoran was Political Officer in Hanoi; he was interviewed by Kennedy beginning June 1988. Edwin Webb Martin worked in the Office of Chinese Affairs and was interviewed by William Johnson and Harold Hinton starting in December 1987.
Morris Draper was assigned to the State Department Secretariat and was interviewed by Kennedy in February 1991. William H. Gleysteen was also in the Secretariat and was interviewed by Thomas Stern in June 1997. C. Douglas Dillon was the Ambassador to France; he was interviewed by Robert D. Schulzinger in April 1987. Robert O. Blake was on the Soviet Desk; he was interviewed by Horace G. Torbert beginning December 1990. John H. Holdridge, at the time U.S. Consul to Hong Kong, was interviewed by Marshall Green and Charles Stuart Kennedy starting December 1989.
Prelude to Negotiations — “France felt terribly humiliated”
Thomas J. Corcoran, Political Officer, Hanoi, 1954-1955
CORCORAN: The main thing was to point out that we were not pulling out; we weren’t prejudging the Geneva Conference as the end of everything. It was an armistice. We were going to wait and see what happened. We were supporting the government in the South, but we were keeping consular representation in the North. According to tradition and custom, the people holding the real power in the North, the Communists, could have expelled us if they had chosen so to do. But they chose, instead, to say that they just did not recognize us.
But of course, we did exist, and we had employees, we had our buildings, two buildings which we owned, and for a while, a couple which we leased just as an anchor to windward, and had people spread out. We obeyed the curfews and we paid our electricity bills and things of that sort. But our main purpose there was to wait and see what happened, rather than just climb aboard airplanes and get out.
William H. Gleysteen, State Department Secretariat, 1951-1955
GLEYSTEEN: [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles traveled with a rather small group of aides. He had two persons from the Secretariat — one administrative officer and one substantive officer like myself. I was essentially the person responsible for assuring that the Secretary saw all the important messages.
I discovered during the Geneva conference, however, that there were critically important messages not shown to me — a system that I found troubling. In particular I was not aware of discussions with the British and French about possible air strikes and other measures to rescue the French at Dien Bien Phu. These were back channel messages involving Eisenhower’s talks with prime ministers.
Douglas Dillon, Ambassador to France, 1953-1957
DILLON: I think the main thing, where we came in, was telling the French that we wouldn’t do some of the things they wanted us to do. The thing I particularly remember is Dien Bien Phu. The French had an idea, that, if we wanted to, we could send half a dozen B-52’s from Clark Field [in the Philippines], and in one day — one night — they could destroy the encircling Vietnamese forces and the siege would be over. And, of course, I don’t know — we hadn’t had much experience then, but we’ve seen pretty clearly since then, that it doesn’t work that way. They did ask for help, and we did tell them no. Eisenhower decided not to do it, I guess partly because he thought it would be ineffective….
We did talk to the military people about NATO things, but I don’t recall ever asking them about Indochina. We just reported the French requests to Washington, and got the answers and reported then to the French. What I recall most vividly about Dien Bien Phu was the French reaction afterward. Particularly with the more conservative people, there were people that wouldn’t talk to us. It was at times unpleasant.
It didn’t last too long, but for awhile, you’d go to dinner and get in an elevator to go to some apartment, and other people in the elevator would turn their back! The French felt it very deeply. There were many in France who felt that they had been let down, that we’d had it in our power to very easily prevent this humiliating occurrence. It was just that France felt terribly humiliated.
The Conference Begins — “At that time I don’t think you could expect anything else”
Robert O. Blake, the Soviet Desk, 1954-1957
BLAKE: When we went to Geneva, the presumption was that we were going to talk largely about Korea. In fact, while the talks on Korea took up a lot of the time, they were almost totally unproductive. The real center of attention was Vietnam: Dien Bien Phu, the collapse of French military resistance, the pull-out of the French from really active responsibility, and the beginning of a major transfer to the United States of that responsibility.
It was very clear there that the leading person at the conference was [Secretary of State John] Foster Dulles. Foster Dulles was the proponent of the idea that the United States could, and should, assume major responsibility in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. He felt we were in a position of strength for negotiating with the Chinese, and the Russians.
He, incidentally, tried his best to divide the Russians from the Chinese. He thought this was possible. After all, this was ’54 and it was a good four or five years before it became totally clear that there was this sharp split. [Russian Foreign Minister Vyacheslav] Molotov was at the end of his career, cold as ice, obviously not at all in sync with [Chinese Premier] Zhou En-lai, who was certainly from my memory, the dominating personality on the other side of the conference.
Most of my work, of course, was to follow very closely and report on what the Russians were doing, what they were saying, thinking, discussing with them — certainly not at the top level although I would go with the Secretary, or one of the other top people when that would happen. These meetings weren’t particularly productive.
Molotov was pretty uncommunicative. Obviously, in retrospect, the Russians were having plenty of problems with the Chinese who simply were not ready to let the Russians establish hegemony down in that area. But a lot of that came out later. I think it’s pretty easy to overestimate our influence at the time in Sino-Soviet difficulties. We did know there were problems.
CORCORAN: As time went on, a difference developed between the way they treated us and the other non-Communist representatives. You had the British consul general, who was an ipso facto agent of [British Deputy Prime Minister] Anthony Eden, who was the Co-chairman of the Geneva Conference. You had the [French politician Jean] Sainteny mission (his nom de guerre) and he was accredited by [French Prime Minister] Mendes France personally to the government of North Vietnam. Mendes France was the Prime Minister who had forced the Geneva Conference in 1953.
There was also the French military mission, actually a liaison mission with the International Control Commission, headed by General Groot de Beaufort. There was the Indian Chairman of the International Commission, Mr. Desai, who later became Number Two in the Indian Foreign Office. And there was the Canadian delegate, Brigadier Sherwood Lett, who was a war hero, who took part in the famous Canadian landing at Dieppe [France in 1942], was a lawyer, and who later ended up and died as Chief Justice of British Columbia. He was the Canadian representative on the Commission. Then there was a Polish delegation headed by a man named Ogrodinszki. He was a complete Communist doing the bidding of the North Vietnamese.
At that time I don’t think you could expect anything else. On the other hand, the Canadians, who were trying to defend the free world’s interests, were not in the same relationship with us at all. They were trying to help us out as much as they could, but they had their own standards of propriety. The Indians were somewhat in between. The Indians represented the personal policy of [Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru, which was that the important thing was the end of colonialism and the independence of former Asian countries, and the Communist thing wasn’t to be worried about too much, that it would sort itself out later.
“It was inevitable that the thing would just be stalemated — and it was”
Edwin Webb Martin, Office of Chinese Affairs, 1951-1955
MARTIN: The release of prisoners was the only thing we were interested in. Well, I shouldn’t say that. That’s the first thing we were interested in, and the second was the renunciation of force in the Taiwan Strait. No, the [mainland] Chinese weren’t about to do this. They felt that this was an internal affair because Taiwan was part of China, so they could not enter formally into an international agreement, renouncing force against their own territory. So it was a built-in, total impasse there. That went on.
The Chinese used the talks to try to get us to change our policy on travel to China and on trade and so forth. At that time, we were very rigid. I participated in the talks only at the very beginning….I don’t know whether they honestly thought in Washington that the Chinese would accept this; I never thought they would.
I happened to be the only person that was involved in the  Panmunjom [which ended the Korean War], the Geneva and the Warsaw talks [in 1958, which were the first non-war related contact]. So I was in at the very ground floor, you might say, of our first diplomatic contacts with the Chinese Communists after the Korean War, which was at Panmunjom.
The thing that struck me rather strongly when we got together with Arthur Dean (pictured), who was our leader and a lawyer, a New York corporation lawyer, not a diplomat, (although he had diplomatic assignments before, going back, apparently to Mexico in the 20s and 30s) was that he was very strongly convinced that we must get an agreement with the Chinese for the sake of the Eisenhower Administration. He felt it would be a real feather in their cap. I thought that our chances of getting an agreement with the Chinese was very slim
All during this hassle in the fall of ’53, where the Chinese and the North Koreans were accusing us of sabotaging the Armistice Agreement and everything, it was just not the kind of atmosphere where they’re going to reach an agreement implementing the armistice agreement.
It was sort of inevitable, I think, that the thing would just be stalemated — and it was. I think Dean might have handled it a little better, although I think basically he was right. When you’re at a negotiation and the people you’re negotiating with start attacking your good faith, attacking your credentials and your ability to negotiate, then you might as well fold up. As a minimum in a negotiation, you have to have both sides saying, “Okay, you do represent the other side, and we’ll negotiate with you.” That’s where we got at that particular time.
I think that Dean did contribute, because he was a very good briefer and a very good lawyer, to an understanding, to giving a public explanation in his press conferences after the various sessions, which made the U.N. side, the U.S. side, look more flexible, which we were–there’s no question about it — than the Chinese. I think that’s about all we could get out of that. [Laughter]
GLEYSTEEN: I found conference preparations very tedious. I was quite cynical about the amount of paper produced by the bureaus and offices; that was particularly true for the Geneva conference where I had to read every paper from beginning to end.
I knew that the Secretary and his senior assistants would never read most of these documents. Many were not worth reading; quite a few were prepared to fill arbitrary briefing book requirements. Even with all this paper flow, there was not enough attention paid to contingency situations which, for example, dominated at Geneva. Some important papers on critical policy issues were warped by the kind of ideological posturing that obstructed communication with our adversaries.
The extremes of these papers were reflected in Dulles’ refusal to shake the hand Zhou Enlai extended to him or to communicate directly with the Chinese. Not only did we demonized the Chinese to our own disadvantage but we also complicated our dealings with the Soviets.
Morris Draper, State Department Secretariat, 1953-1954
DRAPER: The Geneva Conference was supposed to settle the issues. It of course didn’t. There were periods before and after Dien Bien Phu when Washington was in a crisis atmosphere not knowing what to do. There were people with varying interests and ideas.
It was quite clear that Eisenhower would be very, very cautious and would not be stampeded into any rash action. His decisions prevailed, but I was struck by the thoughtful way he arrived at the decisions. He was firm about them and although Dulles was probably disappointed by them, all the Cabinet were good soldiers and behaved. Eisenhower had to have an opportunity to examine all the alternatives and he did do that.
Most of the Foreign Service people were quite pessimistic about the U.S.’s ability to influence events in Southeast Asia. Rob McClintock, who was our Chargé in Saigon, was probably the most pessimistic. He was also very effective, being very articulate, with a real gift for words. His cables were awaited every morning because of the interesting asides and humorous phrases and telling similes. Dulles never cared for McClintock; Dulles didn’t have any sense of humor. There were a number of people who felt McClintock was a more smart aleck than a statesman. He did have certain tricks. For example, he carried around a French Field Marshal’s baton, which was needlessly insulting to the French. He always had his dogs. I always felt that to end of his life he was a great gentleman and a very generous friend and colleagues. It was not a universal perception. But there was no question that he had a first-class intellect and abilities.
Q: Were the South Koreans actually represented in the conference? Because they had not signed the armistice.
MARTIN: No, they had not signed the armistice, that’s true. No, I don’t think that they were officially represented, but we didn’t want them to denounce our proposal, because it would look very poor: the Communists could always come back and say, “Look, the South Koreans don’t agree to this.” We finally got something or we got them to be still or agree not to denounce our proposal.
Of course, the thing that interested me as far as our relations with China was concerned at the Geneva Conference, was that we sat down and had bilateral discussions with the Chinese on the question of the Americans detained in China and the Chinese who had not been allowed to leave the United States. Those two issues really weren’t comparable, because we had never imprisoned any Chinese. There had been some who had been refused permission to leave because — interestingly enough the same argument that is being made by Gorbachev on why he won’t let some Jews leave — because they knew secrets.
We said, “These people know secrets.” During the Korean War whether that was a valid thing or not I don’t know, but certainly after the Korean War it was no longer valid, so we had no interest whatsoever in keeping them. In subsequent years we even went to prisons to try to get Chinese that had been convicted of crimes to say they’d go back to the mainland if we let them go. We just couldn’t find anybody. [Laughter] They’d rather stay in this country. In other words, we went to great lengths to try to get Chinese to go back to the mainland. We didn’t force anybody, obviously, but if they wanted to, even if they were in jail, they could return.
Having bilateral discussions with the PRC at Geneva was a breakthrough. I actually drafted the telegram that went to Dulles. Dulles, by that time, had left the Geneva Conference, and [Under Secretary of State] Bedell Smith was in charge, and Robertson was still there. I drafted the telegram which went back to the Department, saying, “We have to sit down and talk to the Chinese.”
We wanted to try to do it through the British, as we’d done before, but they would have none of it. They said, “You’re here talking to us. We’re in the same conference with you, and you won’t even sit down and talk bilaterally,” so we had to talk bilaterally.
We brought in [Baron Humphrey] Trevelyan, the British chargé in Beijing at that time, as sort of an umpire to begin with, but then we wound up with bilateral talks. So that was the beginning, sort of a preliminary act to the Warsaw talks on the Geneva talks which began later. In the telegram we just laid it out that, “We’re either going to talk to the Chinese or we’re not going to get anywhere on the prisoner issue. It’s not going to read very well at home, you know, if you say, ‘These guys are detaining our citizens and we refuse to talk to them about it.” (Photo: Walter Stoneman, 1956)
Of course, we had tried to talk to them before when we were still in China, and they wouldn’t talk to us then. So as I say, I drafted the telegram. It was approved by Robertson and by Bedell Smith, and sent to Dulles. Although he seemed to be a little reluctant, he did eventually agree we would do it, so we went ahead. [Laughter] That was the beginning of that. [Ambassador to Czechoslovakia] Alex Johnson was, of course, our Secretary General. Wang Ping-nan was the Secretary General of the Chinese side, and it was interesting that they were the two negotiators in ’55 when the talks restarted.
“The real negotiations took place in the corridors and in Geneva’s hotels”
DRAPER: I was struck by the Chinese in Geneva; they were afraid to talk to Americans, but Zhou En-lai was a forceful presence. He had a phalanx of something like eighteen interpreters and note-takers in all the plenary sessions. So the PRC had a gigantic delegation — three rows of people madly taking notes of speeches being made in all different languages. We handle it much more economically; we had one man who allegedly could read lips speaking Russian and Chinese. I thought he was a great failure.
Q: How did Dulles handle the relations with Zhou En-lai? Did we have normal communication around the table with them?
BLAKE: None at all.
There were different physical arrangements for each of the conferences. If I remember correctly, and I’m not absolutely sure of this, in the Korean conference it was a little like the way it is in the United Nations, with the presiding officer up in front, and a series of people sort of ranked behind. There were lots of government representatives there. Everybody who had participated even with a few soldiers in the Korean War, countries like Mexico and Colombia [had representatives there]. The Vietnamese conference was much smaller.
We were around a big table with the Communist groups on one side and the rest of us on the other. As I remember, it was a sort of a round table but split in the middle, or an oval table perhaps.
But of course, an awful lot of the real negotiations didn’t take place there. It took place between ourselves, and others, in the corridors, and in Geneva’s hotels. We had no direct contact with the Chinese, except for one man from CIA who was on our delegation….He was a colonel who had been with Zhou En-lai in Yenan. He maintained a certain amount of contact on a covert basis — not covert from our point of view, but covert from the press. We wanted to be sure that the Chinese always got our message with the strength that we wanted, whatever was said in open sessions.
In the corridors and receptions we never talked to the Chinese although we’d be right next to them. If we came to a group that they were in, we had orders to walk away. They would do the same. On one occasion when Foster Dulles had a chance to shake Zhou En-lai’s hand, he very purposely snubbed him.
One of the questions was, what kind of a regime would be formed in the two Vietnams? What kind of a security framework would be developed? This was the moment that Foster Dulles launched the idea of SEATO [South East Asia Treaty Organization, a collective defense organization] which was supposed to be the Far Eastern equivalent of NATO for solidifying the ring around the communist Bloc.
I can’t remember all the details but I know that a number of us were doubtful whether an organization which included such disparate countries as Pakistan, and Thailand, plus a series of countries that we felt were very, very weak — the Philippines for example — would have any strength and legitimacy. We told the Secretary that we thought this was a bad idea, and were told to shut up. That this was the way it was going to be. SEATO would give legitimacy to our military intervention in Southeast Asia. It never was clear in my mind whether this was what President Eisenhower wanted, or just what Foster wanted. But that debate stopped not very long after it started
“The main objective was not make things easier for the hostile regimes to get a foothold in the South. That started some of our dirty tricks.”
MARTIN: In June ’54, we started these bilateral talks with the Chinese at the Geneva Conference. By agreement they were reduced to the consular level. The Chinese released a few American prisoners, and I think we told them we had some Chinese who were leaving and so forth. These talks were held intermittently, I think, for four or five weeks in Geneva at that level. Now, that’s the background of the Warsaw talks.
Q: What kind of agreement was Dean actually hoping to reach? Was it a peace treaty with the Chinese?
MARTIN: No, no. This was very limited. This was a very limited negotiation, and maybe that was why he felt we could accomplish it. Under Paragraph 60 of the[Korean] Armistice Agreement, the two sides were to meet, to discuss the future of Korea and arrive at some political settlement. Well, our negotiations in Panmunjom were merely to make arrangements to set up the conference: it was not the conference itself, just to make arrangements to set up the conference.
As far as we were concerned, there were only two things to talk about: when would the conference be held and where would it be held. The Chinese and the North Koreans wanted to discuss the composition of the conference. We felt the composition of the conference had already been settled by Paragraph 60 of the Armistice Agreement, and actually, that language about the two sides was originally introduced by the Communist side.
So one wouldn’t expect that they would make an issue of this, but they did. They wanted to have neutral countries, and they wanted to have the Soviet Union there. We said, “We don’t object to the Soviet Union being there, but we can’t call it neutral. It’s completely on your side.” So this is what we wrangled about, and we eventually divided into two committees. We did come to one agreement that was on the agenda. [Laughter] But then we divided into two committees.
I was in charge of the subcommittee which was discussing the time and place of the conference, and naturally that was just marking time, because the real issue was the composition, and we never got anywhere on that. But I think it should be pointed out that in Berlin in January of ’54, an agreement was reached to have a conference on Korea and on Indochina to convene in Geneva in April of 1954. Most books refer to this as the Geneva Conference on Indochina. They totally ignore the fact that Korea was discussed.
But, in fact, there was a conference of the two sides as provided in the Armistice Agreement, and Zhou En-lai was there. The only time that I’d ever seen Zhou En-lai in action was at this conference. It was interesting to watch him. He had been a Chinese opera actor as a student, you know, so he was a dramatic fellow, and he had this high-pitched voice….
It was very hard to deal with the Chinese and the Russians. They seemed to be annoyed all the time. We had problems with the French who felt that they were coming in second. It was a peculiar conference. One of our chief delegates, U. Alexis Johnson, when in charge of our delegation would sometime read the newspaper in sight of all the delegations when something was being said that he didn’t want to hear. That surprised me, but he did it ostentatiously to show his disdain. There were a lot of hard feelings.
When I got back to Washington, Robert Murphy, then the Under Secretary for Political Affairs, called a big meeting with all intelligence agencies and the Pentagon present to discuss Southeast Asia in his office which was quite large. There were many people in the room. He then asked what should the U.S. do now after the Conference. The Geneva accords would not satisfy American security interests.
That is where we probably started down the “slippery slope”. People had ideas for clandestine programs. The main objective was not make things easier for the hostile regimes in the North to get a foothold in the South. That started some of our dirty tricks activities.
One of the experts, Paul Sterner, described the differences between the Vietnamese of the North and those of the South — ethnic and religious differences, drive and determination. He made it clear that if we didn’t do anything, the North would control the whole region. They were powerful people with a long record of domination. The American experts were generally very pessimistic about the future of South Vietnam and about altering the course of events. And this was in a period of élan in the foreign policy establishment which thought we could do anything. That feeling was not lost for a long, long time. In fact, it may have never been lost.
John H. Holdridge, U.S. Consul to Hong Kong, 1962-1966
HOLDRIDGE: The Chinese had first brought up these five principles of peaceful coexistence with the Indians back in the good old days of “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai“–“Indians and Chinese are brothers,” Nehru, Zhou En-lai, etc. This was about the era of the Geneva Conference in 1954. Later on, the whole concept of peaceful coexistence became a basic element in this terrible fight and diatribe between Mao and the Soviets.
The idea that you could have a peaceful transition to Communism, with a peaceful relationship between the capitalist world and the Communist world while this transition was going on, was abhorrent to Mao Zedong–a basic element in his whole attack against the Soviets. Then, all of a sudden, for the Chinese to bring up the five principles of peaceful coexistence — boy, bells bonged all over.
This goes back to the meeting that Zhou En-lai had with Nehru which was before the Geneva Conference of 1954. They met to talk about Tibet, in fact, in which the Indians were supposed to lay off Tibet and relinquish all claims, territorial and otherwise. This is where it first came out.
After the Bandung Conference [a cultural and economic conference of 25 newly independent African and Asian states in Bandung, Indonesia that ended up being an important step in forming the Non-Aligned Movement], they came out with ten principles, five of which were the ones which the Chinese favored: non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, etc. Peaceful coexistence, itself, was the last of the five principles of peaceful coexistence — undefined.
At any rate, this was a formula which they had used for quite a while, until the time that they became involved in this whole fuss about revisionism, long live Leninism, etc. It kind of dropped out. Then to see it suddenly revived after years, we thought that something was really afoot here, and that it ought to be taken up.
BLAKE: I remember one time, there was a long interval between two parts of the conference, arranged ostensibly so that Zhou En-lai could go back to China to talk with Mao Zedong and get “new instructions.” It obviously wasn’t the whole reason. We felt that they thought their position with Ho Chi Minh must be strengthened. Zhou En-lai went back to Beijing through Hanoi. The Russians were furious that he hadn’t gone back through Moscow.
HOLDRIDGE: We were on another track from 1954 on, as well. That was that we tried to resume some degree of contact with the Chinese Communists. Zhou En-lai was the instigator or initiator of that at the Bandung Conference in April of 1955. He proposed that the United States and China get together to resolve their differences — to talk about resolving them, anyway. There had already been a contact in 1954 at the Geneva Conference which addressed the resolution of Indochina. Ed Martin was along on that and met some of his Chinese friends from earlier days. In 1955 we began the ambassadorial-level talks which went on, off and on, between 1955 and 1970. The idea was to try to keep some degree of contact with the Chinese Communists.
Alex Johnson headed up the team which was sitting in Geneva. He was actually in Prague. Wang Ping-nan, who was his opposite number, was in Warsaw. They used to come down and meet in Geneva. In the beginning, these meetings occurred weekly, and then they became more sporadic. I sat in on them for a few weeks in 1956.
We came awfully close to having some degree of accord with the Chinese over Taiwan at this time. The whole thing rotated around the wording of a joint communiqué in which we looked to resolve the dispute between us by peaceful means. John Foster Dulles, the good old Presbyterian elder of the church, had put in a comma after this “by peaceful means” and said, “Including the dispute in the Taiwan Strait.” This made life extremely difficult.
Giving the Soviets and the Chinese pause about pushing too far
MARTIN: Our main problem at the Korean end (and that’s why I was an advisor to the U.S. delegation, because of my experience in Panmunjom), was, as it often was, of getting the South Koreans to go along and to present a united front. We finally succeeded in getting a position which we could offer as the U.N. side’s position, and it was rejected by the Communists, which wasn’t surprising, and the conference went on to deal with Indochina, where they really did something. So it’s not surprising that people forget about the Korean part because nothing came out of it at all.
BOWIE: We were talking about the gradual decline of the French position in Indochina during the spring of 1954. And as I said, as the time for this conference on Indochina in Geneva approached, Dulles became more and more aware of the fact that the French were practically naked and without any real strength from which to negotiate a solution in Indochina. And I think he felt, therefore, that the likely outcome would be that the French would just throw in the sponge and that the whole of Indochina would be lost.
I think that he felt that this would be very damaging, both in the region itself and in the sort of broader implications as the wave of the future kind of thing. I think it was pretty clear that Eisenhower was not going to intervene with American forces and the British were very clear, I think he understood this, that they were not going to intervene at that point before the Geneva conference. But at the same time he was trying to find some way to bolster the negotiating position of the West.
In my opinion the speech which he made, I think it was at the end of March 1954, about how the West must meet this by united action, was intended to create an atmosphere and some activity which would give the Soviets and the Chinese pause about pushing too far at the Geneva meeting.
As I recall it, I went with him when he went to see Eden after this united action speech. And what he suggested was, I think, that they consider the possibility of creating some sort of a pact, a coalition, which would essentially be willing to defend whatever settlement came out of the Indochina conference. But that they would start steps toward such a pact after he got back, which was in the middle of April, as I remember it, so that the Soviets and the Chinese would be sort of aware that there was the possibility that the West just might be triggered into doing something if they pushed too far.
Q: What was the reluctance, in your judgment, on the part of Dulles?
MARTIN: Well, it was because the background of the Geneva conference. It was agreed at [a planning conference in] Berlin that the Chinese would be there, the Chinese Communists, and we knew Zhou En-lai would be there. Peking obviously played it up: “This shows we’re now a great power. We’re sitting down with the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France.” The PRC at that time were trying to get as much as they could in gestures of recognition from the United States.
Our policy was very rigid on that, and people would make speeches saying , “Just because we’re sitting down with them in a conference with a lot of other people doesn’t mean we’re recognizing them.” But sitting down with them bilaterally might seem like a step forward to recognition, at least an appearance of an acceptance, of the PRC. That’s why we tried to get the British involved, and we had Trevelyan there for two sessions before to bow out. The talks were finally reduced to the consular level; but the PRC did release some of our people. Then the talks sort of petered out
End Results – “The experts had very little confidence that anything had been solved”
BOWIE: As a result of the trip to London, Eden (pictured) agreed, at least as Dulles understood it, that these initial steps would be taken, not with the idea of actually intervening before the meeting, but with the idea of starting to create some sort of an organization which the Soviets and the Chinese might not know exactly what you were trying to do. And when Dulles tried to call a meeting right after his return, Eden ordered his ambassador not to attend. And Dulles felt this was a renege on what had been promised by Eden in London. And I think this was one source of distrust — they had never been terribly close. But this I think undercut Dulles’ confidence in Eden because I think he felt that Eden had taken a commitment, then had reneged under pressure either by India–I think there was some sort of a meeting of the Commonwealth about to be held. Or maybe it had been pressure from the Cabinet….
Dulles kept only partially involved in the Conference and created a feeling of hovering in the background. I think this was again for the purpose of making the Soviets and the Chinese uneasy about whether the Americans just might be pushed too far, might react if they pressed too far. I personally think this was part of the reason for actually getting the deal that they got at Geneva, and some people have said that there is evidence that the Soviets and the Chinese put great pressure on the North Vietnamese not to push beyond the agreed parallel as a basis for the settlement, for fear that it might provoke some reaction.
But Eden thought that he had apparently got the deal by the fact that he got on so well with the Soviets but I think that he got the deal he was able to make partly because of their uneasiness about this club behind the door.
DRAPER: I always marveled that we got so deep into Vietnam even though the preponderance of the experts were pessimistic. After the Geneva Conference, in which all the Great Powers participated –including China and USSR– and which was supposed to settle all the problems not only of Vietnam, but Cambodia and Laos as well, was over, the experts had very little confidence that anything had been solved.
In fact, Dulles was very reluctant to agree and in the end did not stay in Geneva for the final signing. He did not wish to be seen signing the documents. So he sent Bedell Smith for the last days of the Conference when it came to frantic conclusion with many of the participants not being fully aware of what was going on.
When the Conference ended, every one fled to the bathrooms, as is the custom for all conferences. That is followed by drinks or coffee. I found myself between Molotov and Zhou En-lai in the men’s room.