Memorandum of Conversation, by the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Bonbright)

top secret


  • Indochina


  • The Canadian Ambassador
  • The Secretary
  • EUR—Mr. Bonbright

The Secretary began the conversation by stating that he understood the Ambassador had seen Mr. MacArthur1 and that in the circumstances it would probably not be necessary for him to cover the entire ground, but that he would be glad to answer any questions. He said he realized that Canada, like us, was a Pacific as well as an Atlantic power and he thought that the economic measures recently taken by Canada with respect to Japan were constructive. The immediate problem in Southeast Asia was perhaps a little further away but he could see that it was of considerable interest to Canada because of its potential effects on Japan. He feared that the loss of Southeast Asia would have serious repercussions on Japan in view of the importance of that country as a market and source of raw materials. Our further fear was that the whole situation would slip at Geneva unless there was unity and determination on the part of the Governments with immediate interests in the area.

In response to a question from Ambassador Heeney concerning the relationship of Burma and Indonesia to our proposal, the Secretary replied that he expects to see the Indonesian Ambassador in the next twenty-four hours in order to fill him in. He had not planned to see the Burmese Ambassador but he thought that perhaps as a matter of courtesy he should do so. He hardly dared hope that these Governments [Page 1276]would formally associate themselves with the enterprise but thought that they should be given the opportunity.

The Ambassador indicated that Mr. MacArthur had not felt free to disclose to him the precise character of our proposal and wondered if the Secretary felt he was in a position to do so. The Secretary replied that we were suggesting, subject of course to counter suggestions, an ad hoc political association somewhat along the lines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization but limited in purpose. We were not attempting to set up a new permanent organization. Our thought was that this association should be based on a determination on the part of parties concerned to prevent the spread of the Soviet and Chinese Communist system to Southeast Asia. The members should be prepared if necessary to take military action, primarily in support of the French effort, the extent of the military action to be worked out later by a military committee which might be established. He believed that military activity in Indochina would substantially decrease by the end of May when the rainy season begins, but he did not discount the possibility that Viet Minh would endeavor to keep up the pressure, particularly in view of the Geneva Conference. However, there was less likelihood of a major military change during the rainy season and we do not think it likely that a disaster will occur between now and the arrival of the rains. The difficulty was with the situation in France and we feared that the French might collapse and seek peace at any price at Geneva. Our hope is that this can be delayed and prevented. In our view, even if Dien Bien Phu falls this should not, militarily speaking, destroy the French effort since only 5 to 6 per cent of their total forces (although an admittedly higher proportion in terms of quality) are engaged in the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Moreover, the French have engaged and mauled the major military formations of the enemy. A serious Viet Minh military effort prior to Geneva had been expected and the Secretary had forecast this to M. Bidault at Berlin. In view of the bad situation in Paris we had felt that a new element in the situation was required to support the French effort. This new element would be even more necessary if Indochina is lost. We also anticipate that ANZUS will be called upon to play a more active role in the future.

The Ambassador then asked for clarification on the factors which would bring this new united action into play and whether it was designed to meet the situation as it is at present or some new action on the part of the Communists. The Secretary indicated that it was the present situation which called for the new initiative. If the coalition is created we will try to get Congress to grant discretional authority to the President to use military force in support of the French effort and in association with others. If there should be open intervention on [Page 1277]the part of Chinese Red armies we would expect to take such measures as knocking out Chinese air bases, the interdiction of supplies on roads, trails, etc. leading into Indochina and probably the stepping up of activities along the South China coast. Any idea that we were considering some such thing as dropping an H-bomb on Peiping was, of course, fantastic.

The Secretary then stated that we had been giving massive aid to the French, both in money and matériel, and this aid was being given with the utmost speed. The French had recently asked us to intervene in terms which would have involved our belligerency. We were not disposed to take such steps except as part of a collective operation. The danger to the United States was great but it was less than the danger to Malaya, New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines. The United States people and Congress feel that if these countries are not moved by the danger we should not be moved. Consequently, a condition precedent to U.S. participation is evidence that others are worried and are willing to act with us. The Secretary wanted to make it clear that we were not trying to prevent the reaching of agreement at Geneva; on the contrary, we were endeavoring to increase our collective strength so as to make possible the saving of Indochina. He then referred briefly to the analogy between the situation today and that of 1932 when we endeavored to get the British to join with us in stopping the Japanese in Manchuria. The British had not responded, largely on the grounds that they lacked our support in Europe. This certainly was not true today.

The Ambassador then stated that Pearson was extremely interested in this situation and had been questioned about it yesterday in the External Affairs Committee of the Parliament, particularly with respect to what were Canada’s commitments in the Far East. Mr. Pearson had answered these inquiries by indicating that Canada’s commitments were closely tied to the United Nations’ and for this reason Mr. Heeney believed that this aspect of the problem had particular significance for Canada. The Secretary stated that he hoped to get the French to agree to withdraw their opposition to placing the matter before the UN. He had tried to do this last year without success. In any event, we felt that the matter should be brought to the attention of the UN where we would explain our position and there would be an opportunity to make it a UN affair if that was desired. We could not ignore the UN and even if we wanted to, others would raise the question. However, we should recognize that we would be faced there with a Soviet veto in the first instance, and it was at least uncertain that we could get quick and satisfactory action in the UN. He thought we [Page 1278]could base our action on Article 51 of the Charter and perhaps ask that the Uniting for Peace Resolution be invoked. He himself would like to see a peace observation commission sent to Indochina.

The Ambassador then indicated that the next question to which the Canadians attach great importance is the question of independence for the Associated States. The Secretary agreed and said we must insist on this with the French. The people of this country would not take action which would have the effect of bolstering the French colonial position in Indochina. In our view the purpose of the war was independence. We have charged the Viet Minh and Chinese with trying to subvert nationalistic feeling for their own purposes. In spite of French fears about taking the matter to the UN, which we recognize have been at least partly based in the past on the effects of such a move on the French position in North Africa, we believe these fears will tend to disappear if we can get the French to give stronger and clearer commitments on the independence question.

The Ambassador then asked if the reactions which we had received from the countries consulted were encouraging. The Secretary replied that as yet we really had no firm reactions. The United Kingdom Cabinet was understood to be discussing the matter today. The initial personal reactions of the Ambassador of New Zealand, Australia and the Philippines had been sympathetic but these were not governmental views. A flash reaction from M. Bidault was unfavorable in that Bidault seemed to feel that unless the battle of Dien Bien Phu is won, all is lost. The Secretary stressed that this again was purely a preliminary reaction on the part of the French, but he was wondering if anyone in Paris was in a position today to give a meaningful answer in view of the division in the Cabinet, parliamentary difficulties, the Indochina situation, EDC, the Saar and, lastly, the trouble with Marshal Juin.2 It was the Secretary’s personal belief that there would probably have to be high-level talks in London and Paris before we can get a final action.

Ambassador Heeney said he understood that it was our hope to have the coalition in being prior to Geneva. The Secretary agreed that at least it should be in the process of formation when the conference convenes. The new association should be accepted in principle by then or Indochina would be lost in Geneva.

The Secretary concluded by saying that he would be interested in Mr. Pearson’s reactions and that he was looking forward to seeing him in Paris.

  1. Ambassador Heeney discussed Indochina with MacArthur on the morning of Apr. 6. The memorandum of that conversation indicates that MacArthur told the Ambassador that there appeared to be no basis for a satisfactory negotiated settlement at the Geneva Conference. In view of French fatigue, the United States feared that if some new element were not injected into the situation before the conference, the temptation of France to let Indochina go by the board might be overpowering. This, said the Counselor, was what the Secretary had in mind in his recent appeal for “united action.” MacArthur expressed the hope that Canada would support steps to prevent Southeast Asia from falling into Communist hands. (751G.00/4–754)
  2. On Apr. 1 Marshal Juin was divested of his functions as permanent military adviser to the French Government and as military vice-president of the Superior Council of the French Armed Forces following his public criticism of the additional protocols of the proposed European Defense Treaty.