On April 26th 1954, in an effort to resolve several problems in Asia, including the war between the French and Vietnamese nationalists in Indochina, representatives from the world’s powers met at the Geneva Conference. The conference marked a turning point in the United States’ involvement in Vietnam.
The Soviet Union, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China were participants throughout the whole conference, while different countries concerned with the two questions were also represented during the discussion of their respective questions. These included the countries that sent troops through the UN to the Korean War and the various countries that ended the First Indochina War between France and the Việt Minh. The part of the conference on the Korean question ended without adopting any declarations or proposals. Some participants and analysts blame the U.S. for having obstructed movements towards the unification of Korea as a Communist state.
In addition, three separate ceasefire accords, covering Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, were signed at the conference. One of the most troubling concerns was the long and bloody battle between Vietnamese nationalist forces, under the leadership of the communist Ho Chi Minh, and the French, who were intent on continuing colonial control over Vietnam.
The two sides had been in fierce conflict since 1946. By 1954, however, the French were tiring of the long and inclusive war that was draining both the national treasury and public patience. The United States had been supporting the French out of concern that a victory for Ho’s forces would be the first step in communist expansion throughout Southeast Asia. When America refused France’s requests for more direct intervention in the war, the French announced that they were including the Vietnam question in the agenda for the Geneva Conference.
Discussions on the Vietnam issue started at the conference just as France suffered its worst military defeat of the war, when Vietnamese forces captured the French base at Dien Bien Phu. In July 1954, the Geneva Agreements were signed. As part of the agreement, the French agreed to withdraw their troops from northern Vietnam. Vietnam would be temporarily divided at the 17th parallel, pending elections within two years to choose a president and reunite the country. During that two-year period, no foreign troops could enter Vietnam. Ho reluctantly signed off on the agreement though he believed that it cheated him out of the spoils of his victory.
The non-communist puppet government set up by the French in southern Vietnam refused to sign, but without French support this was of little concern at the time. The United States also refused to sign, but did commit itself to abide by the agreement. Privately, U.S. officials felt that the Geneva Agreements, if allowed to be put into action, were a disaster. They were convinced that national elections in Vietnam would result in an overwhelming victory for Ho, the man who had defeated the French colonialists.
John Lewis Gaddis, a historian, said that the 1954 accords “were so hastily drafted and ambiguously worded that, from the standpoint of international law, it makes little sense to speak of violations from either side.” The British and Communist Chinese delegations reached agreement on the sidelines of the Conference to upgrade their diplomatic relations.
The U.S. government scrambled to develop a policy that would, at the least, save southern Vietnam from the communists. Within a year of the Geneva Conference, the United States had helped establish a new anti-communist government in South Vietnam and began giving it financial and military assistance, the first fateful steps toward even greater U.S. involvement in Vietnam.