The Geneva Conference and Eisenhower’s response, 1954-1960

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • The aims of the Geneva Conference (1954);
  • The formation of South Vietnam;
  • The emergence of a civil war in South Vietnam;
  • The reasons for US intervention under Eisenhower;
  • Domino theory and its application to Vietnam.

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • Geneva Conference;
  • President Dwight Eisenhower (1953-60);
  • Containment;
  • Truman Doctrine;
  • Domino Theory;
  • Ngo Dinh Diệm (1901-1963);
  • ARVN (South Vietnamese Army)
  • Argovilles
  • Quagmire thesis
  • Stalemate theory
  • Flawed containment

The aims of the Geneva Conference
In July 1954 The Geneva Conference was intended to settle outstanding issues of the Korean War and First Indochina War. It was agreed that:

  • Vietnam would be divided at the 17th parallel by a ‘provisional military demarcation line’, with the North ruled by Ho Chi Minh from Hanoi and the South by Bao Dai and his new prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diệm from Saigon;
  • French troops would withdraw from the North and Ho’s Vietminh forces from the South;
  • Vietnamese could freely choose to live in the South or North;
  • a General Election for the whole of Vietnam would be held before July 1956, when the whole of Vietnam would be re-unified;
  • Both the North and the south were forbidden from making any military alliances with foreign powers, nor were they to allow foreign military bases in their territories.

The formation of South Vietnam and US intervention

  • Eisenhower knew that the Communists would win any such election. He believed that if that should happen, American efforts to stop Communism in South Korea would be wasted. America’s credibility in the region would suffer as it would have demonstrated an inability to live up to the Truman Doctrine and to contain communism. He believed that the rest of Indochina would fall like a row of dominoes under Communist domination.
  • ‘You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly … So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.’
    – President Eisenhower, speaking at a press conference in April 1954
  • Eisenhower agreed to respect, but would not sign, the Geneva agreements, saying the ‘United States has not itself been a party to or bound by the decisions taken’, and warning that America would view ‘any renewal of aggression’ with ‘grave concern.’
  • However, Eisenhower also knew that Americans were in no mood for more intervention in the region, following the 33,651 troops killed in battle and 3,262 other deaths in the Korean War.
  • Going against French advice, Eisenhower supported the Catholic anti-Communist, Ngo Dinh Diệm as Prime Minister of South Vietnam and sent Colonel Edward Landsdale and team of 12 soldiers and intelligence agents to mount a propaganda campaign against the Communists ahead of the election.
  • In violation of the Geneva accords, Landsdale recruited mercenaries from the Philippines to commit acts of sabotage in the North; Landsdale was also employed to promote the success of Diệm; propaganda was designed to show that the South was undergoing an economic miracle under Diệm’s rule. Finally, Landsdale was responsible for training South Vietnamese forces – ARVN – in preparation for a coming war.
  • In September 1954, along with Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand and Pakistan, John Foster Dulles masterminded the creation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), whose members agreed to protest South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos under a separate protocol – a transparent American protocol designed circumvent the Geneva agreement;
  • Eisenhower chose to treat the division at the 17th parallel as a permanent rather than as a temporary division.
  • In October 1955Diệm held an election in South Vietnam, now clearly a separate state. Those voting for Bao Dai were punished. The result – 98.2% in favour of Diệm – was produced by intimidation and fraud; it served to undermine Diem’s authority rather than reinforce it. Diệm proclaimed the first Republic of Vietnam (RVN).
  • Ho Chi Minh’s regime in the North had carried out a land reform programme that was far from perfect but it captured the hearts and minds of ordinary peasants. By contrast, Diệm’s regime in the South continued to be associated with wealthy landlords and the colonial past. Diệm was advised by the Americans to instigate a programme of land reform but he would not listen.
  • Diệm represented the 10% Catholic minority that had survived following France’s evacuation of Vietnam. Diệm’s failure to repeal French anti-Buddhist laws was bitterly resented. The migration of Catholics from the North to the South was welcomed by Diệm, but it soon led to greater resentment for Diệm’s regime among Buddhists in the South.
  • In July 1956, Diệm began arresting opponents; soon 100,000 Communists, Socialists, journalists, trade unionists and Buddhists were thrown in prison. It became clear that no Vietnam-wide elections would be held and Diệm’s opponents resorted to violence.
  • Diệm’s state visit to America in 1957 underlined America’s commitment to the South Vietnamese regime and to its continued existence as state within its own right, but the public nature of the visit would in itself make it difficult for American government to back-track without losing credibility both among its own people and abroad (see videos below).

The emergence of a Civil War in the South

  • By 1958 South Vietnam was practically in a state of civil war, with roughly 1200 of Diệm’s own government officials assassinated.
  • Before 1959 Ho Chi Minh had discouraged attacks on Diệm’s regime, but by 1960 Hanoi had decided to give liberation equal priority to consolidation
  • Diệm responded by re-locating peasants to army-protected villages called argovilles, a strategy that had to be suspended in 1960 because of peasant hostility to being forcibly removed from their homes, lands and sacred ancestral tombs.
  • Between 1955 and 1961, the South Vietnamese regime had received $7 billion dollars worth of aid and military support from the US.

In 1964, David Halberstam published The Making of a Quagmire in which he argued that due to a combination of ignorance and arrogance, the US got gradually trapped in an expensive commitment in an unimportant area, unable to exit without losing credibility. By the 1970s another theory emerged known as ‘stalemate theory’ in which America’s commitment increased not in order to win but only to avoid being seen to lose by the American voters. By the early 1980s another theory emerged known as ‘flawed containment’ which combined quagmire theory with the global containment viewpoint, in which the US got bogged down into a no-win situation in trying to halt Communism in a location in which ‘containment’ need never have been applied and could not work. In The Vietnam War (1991), David L. Anderson argues that ‘Eisenhower left Kennedy a policy of unequivocal support for Diem that had kept the domino from falling, but had not produced a self-sufficient nation in the South’. In that respect, ‘Eisenhower trapped itself and its successors into a commitment to the survival of its own counterfeit creation.’

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