PPS files, lot 65 D 101, “Indochina”

Memorandum by Edmund A. Gullion of the Policy Planning Staff to the Director of That Staff (Bowie)



  • Negotiations on Far Eastern Questions at Geneva.

In this paper I explain my misgivings, some of which I know you share, about the effect of the announcement of Geneva and about the possible results of a negotiated settlement in Indochina. A suggestion for further discussion with the French is included at the end of the paper.

[Page 418]

I. The Impact of the Announcement


In the United States

During the Berlin Conference, public and Congressional opinion at home was occupied with the discussion of how to strengthen the effort in Indochina (the O’Daniel Mission;1 Secretary Wilson’s press statement, etc.). The announcement of imminent negotiations comes to many as a surprise.

The inconsistency cannot be entirely explained by saying that fighting will go on until a better bargaining position is obtained: the conference is to take place before any appreciable improvement in the French Union military position can occur.

There may be some difficult questions to answer to Congress or elsewhere with respect to the purposes of our aid to France. We decided to increase our contribution by another $385,000,000 on the basis of French assurances that this should enable us to win a decisive victory, not merely to “improve our bargaining position”.


In France

It will be very difficult to mobilize French opinion in full support of the war once it has been relaxed and beguiled by the prospects of a compromise peace. M. Bidault may believe, and no doubt has told us, that he cannot afford to appear unreceptive to any possibility of ending the war, but I believe the mere announcement of negotiation will set in motion forces which cannot be reversed. We and M. Bidault are both embarked upon a slippery slope.

It seems to me that the French military effort in Indochina (the LanielNavarre Plan)2 has been seriously compromised. Its objectives have been subtly modified to the attainment of a “better bargaining position” rather than a real victory. Although the French Army is a professional one, its will for the offensive is bound to be somewhat inhibited by the prospect of negotiations.

It may have been argued that negotiations could be carried on without giving up any vital position in Indochina, and that this was necessary in order to ensure French ratification of EDC.3 I fear that the opposite may be the case. With the prospect of the conference and an [Page 419]end of the war, the French may defer all urgency in EDC. And if the war in Indochina should be settled, I believe that the French, instead of building up EDC or NATO, will go in for a period of “normalcy” and a general relaxing of effort.

We must also reckon with the effect on France of offers from India to mediate or to promote an armistice.


In Vietnam

It is in Indochina where the announcement of the negotiations is of critical importance. Here I think we should be prepared for trouble, including military defections and the appearance of islands of armed neutralism. Although the Vietnamese who have collaborated with the French and ourselves have for years suspected that the French would “sell them out”, I fear this development has taken them by surprise. They are not likely to be impressed with the theory that negotiations in order to conciliate French parliamentary opinion can be undertaken without loss to themselves or to their territory. Regardless of the outcome of negotiations, the Vietnamese are bound to fear either

the emergence of coalition governments eventually dominated by the Communists, or
a partition.

Leaders and organized groups will now begin to make their arrangements in accordance with the way in which such an outcome would affect them. Those who have worked with us and the French may scurry for cover in fear of Viet Minh retribution; others may defect to the Viet Minh, and still others, perhaps the Cao Dai, may decide to play a lone and desperate game against the Vietnamese, the French, or the Americans who would urge a negotiated peace.

Most Vietnamese would prefer free elections or some accommodation with Ho Chi Minh to a partition of the country. In the latter, they would see the negation of independence, which to them has been tantamount to unification of the country. Moreover, they would fear the transformation of their country into another Korea if the UN attempted to guarantee the line against the north.

I am not sure, however, that partition would not be the French choice if public opinion forced them to sue for peace.

It has an historical basis, both post-Potsdam and in the colonial era.
A beachhead could be preserved in the hope that the world situation might improve, or the Communist Chinese regime might fall or something else might turn up somewhere.
The principal French economic and cultural preserves would be retained. (The looming of partition is one possible explanation for the composition of the government recently installed under Prince Buuloc [Buu Log] with a majority of Cochin-Chinese at a time when the new [Page 420]Cabinet was expected to be one of national union, headed by men from the north.)

The effect of these prospects upon the formation of the Vietnamese Army and upon the process of incorporating in it irregulars and the troops of the armed sects is obvious. At best the Army will become increasingly passive, looking upon itself merely as a guarantee against French return; at worst, elements of it may point their guns the wrong way.

II. The Hypotheses of Negotiation

In preparing our position for the negotiations, we must be fully aware of the possible pitfalls in the various hypotheses. As I see them, they are the following:


Cessation of arms aid by both sides

This might emerge as the minimum area of agreement, or the only proposition upon which the Chinese, the Viet Minh and the French might agree, together with whatever representatives of the Associated States the French are able to persuade to be present. It might be considered independently of territorial settlements, political arrangements, or supervised elections. Our side or the French might propose cessation of Chinese aid without promising to halt aid on our side. The Viet Minh are most unlikely to accept such a proposition unless it is accompanied by other very solid concessions in the way of political or territorial settlements. Let us assume, therefore, that arms aid would stop on both sides. All other things being equal, I am not confident that our side could win. The Viet Minh fought the war very effectively without Chinese aid for some three or four years, using mere pickup stocks. From about 1950 on, our aid to the Associated States was scores of times greater in tonnage than Chinese aid to the Viet Minh; we had more men under arms, better communications, and a great food supply base in our territory. Yet all this superiority has not been translated into offensive gains by our side. Moreover, the Viet Minh travels “light” while we travel “heavy”. If our arms aid ceased, the war machine in Indochina might clank to a halt for want of gasoline, bombs, ammunition, spare parts and servicing.

I stress this point because in the various hypothetical peace settlements many persons are prone to assume that if only Chinese aid were interrupted, our problems would be solved. Even if arms aid were stopped, we should make certain that this actually meant a closed frontier. As it is, the enemy can make very effective use of the firepower he has, because he has a secure base and a line of communications in China itself.

An overall settlement, probably including stipulations with respect to cessation of aid [Page 421]
This might take the form of a cease-fire to be followed by an interval of recuperation and consolidation, to be followed in turn by supervised elections. There might be either a provisional coalition government, or the elections might result in a coalition government. To my mind, this is the most dangerous possibility for us while it is the solution most likely to be favored in extremis by the Associated States, or whoever claims to speak for them. Here it must be recalled that, unfortunately, to a great number of Indochinese in both loyal and rebel zones, the French are still the principal enemy. A real understanding of the nature of the Viet Minh or of the changes that have come over the Viet Minh since 1945 has only slowly gained headway. The spirit of the Vietnamese Army is still not such as would drive it to exterminate its compatriots in the Viet Minh Army. The consequences of this psychology, the enormously heightened prestige of Ho Chi Minh as the victor and a desire to ride with the “wave of the future” would, in my opinion, promptly lead to consolidation of all of Vietnam under the Communists, with the subversion of all of Southeast Asia to follow thereafter.

Buying Time

Obviously, our side would strive for an arrangement which would defer elections until we had been able to make effective propaganda and until arms and troops were disposed in the best possible positions. We would try to phase out any withdrawal of French troops over a long period. Yet we must not delude ourselves that time would not be working equally strongly (if not more strongly) for the enemy for the reasons already cited. Moreover, the Viet Minh are apt to make stringent stipulations about the withdrawal of French troops as the price of any settlement. The French would find it hard to resist especially since they know that the dwindling rearguard will always be in mortal danger.


A Partition of Indochina

I have already cited some of the consequences of this solution.

The first problem would be to achieve any basic line of demarcation. If this were to run, say, along the 16th Parallel, (which was the line dividing the Chinese Zone from the Franco-British Zone, post-Potsdam), it would leave above the line the key to the whole of Southeast Asia in the Tonkin Delta; the most numerous and warlike part of the population; the north of Laos with its contacts with the Thai areas in the Shan States of Burma, in Yunnan and in Thailand; the upper courses of the Mekong and the principal communications links with China. If, on the other hand, an attempt was made to freeze the zones of control along lines coinciding with present military occupation, [Page 422]the result would be an impossible patch of enclaves, of pockets within pockets, with the advantage clearly with the Viet Minh.

There is no neat line of demarcation like the battle line in Korea. Nor does the parallel with Korea hold good in any important way. In Korea, there were 20 million South Korean south of the line and only four or five million north of it. In Indochina, the population is broken up about evenly with approximately eleven million people on either side of a ubiquitous and indeterminate bamboo curtain.

While it is true that the partition formula would offer the vague hope of later improvements in the Asian or world situation, it would be considered as the ultimate sell-out by most Vietnamese. After a period in which all of Vietnam on both sides was broken down into many warring groups with divergent interests, the whole population on both sides would settle down for a century of effort, if need be, to throw out whoever was trying to hold them apart. If this were the UN, it would doubtless mean that US troops would be involved: if US troops were involved, we could expect Chinese involvement. Clearly there is actually little to choose between this catastrophe and the catastrophe of an overall settlement in which all of Indochina might fall at one time as a unit.

It will be apparent at this point that a question arises as to the wisdom of completely identifying US policies with French policies in Asia. While for four short years they have coincided in many particulars, they are not necessarily identical. We, not the French, would probably be the principal sufferers if we are held responsible for a multilateral partition of Indochina, completely losing what credit we have remaining in Asia. It might be better, if such a catastropic settlement must be made, that the responsibility be borne by the French alone and be undertaken in direct negotiations with Ho Chi Minh.


Neutralization and Demilitarization

It seems to me most unlikely that the Communists would accept such a proposal. They have never yet agreed to pull back their zone of control beyond the line occupied by Communist forces. Even if they did accept such a proposal, we could expect the Viet Minh Communists eventually to take over control. The example of a Red Indochina would have a powerful impact in Southeast Asia. Of course, neutralization would mean a fairly rapid withdrawal of French troops.

Presumably demilitarization and neutralization would have to be insured and inspected on a continuous basis by the UN or some collective body. In this case, we ought to put the Asian powers to the fore rather than ourselves.

This neutralization solution is possibly the least dangerous formula but the most unlikely to be realized.

[Page 423]

IV [sic]. A Settlement in Indochina in the Framework of a General Far Eastern Settlement

It is conceivable that a settlement free from some of these overriding objections could be reached in Indochina if we were to offer the Chinese Communists or the Viet Minh sufficient inducements outside of Indochina. However, this course seems politically almost impossible for the United States and may lose us more than we stand to lose even in Indochina.

Which of the following would a US administration which has condemned Yalta and the loss of China be prepared to grant?

recognition of Red China
more trade with Red China
scuttling of Formosa
abandonment of EDC
abstention from all arms and matériel aid in Asia
abandonment of thesis of unification of Korea

Merely to cite these questions is to expose the difficulties. Moreover, even if we were to offer China trade and recognition as the price for ending the Viet Minh war, it is by no means certain that they could achieve it.

In one form or another, the present war is an expression of rebellion against white rule which has been going on for some 80 years with intermediate periods of quasi-pacification. If the Communist Chinese undertook to end the war, it would not merely have to close the frontier, but take more active measures against the Viet Minh.

This, of course, would for a time mean that the main menace of Communist China expansion had been exorcised—but it is a necessary corrective to any exaggerated hopes we may cherish.

Moreover, there is no assurance that China would keep this or any other bargain. The situation in South Asia is so fluid that “indigenous” movements would always carry on the struggle for Communism while Peiping and Moscow ostensibly disavow it.

An enlarged frame of reference for the negotiations may include still other possibilities. It is conceivable that the Soviet Union and the Communist Chinese might wish to trade unification of Korea for advantages in Southeast Asia. This might give them as a bonus a chance of splitting France and the United States. The transformation of the Korean stalemate into apparent total victory for the UN through the restoration of the integrity of Korea would be a difficult inducement for this country to resist—and it might be presented in the form of a proposal for free elections in both Korea and Indochina.

Confronted with this perhaps most dangerous of all the hypotheses, we must carefully weigh up the relative importance for us of Korea [Page 424]and Indochina. In my opinion, the loss of Indochina would be much more menacing to the free world than the loss of Korea.

V. Where do we go from here?

We should arrive in this government at an understanding of the possible consequences of a negotiated peace. Such a consideration should also take up the question of whether we ought to be a party to any negotiated peace in Indochina. It may be better for us for the Conference in Geneva to end inconclusively than to put our signature to a partition or “sell-out” of our Asian allies.
At the earliest possible moment we should consult with the French, persuading them to take the initiative in explaining their thinking on the substantive part of the negotiations. Unless they can reveal to us some alternative more feasible than those discussed above, we should make clear to the French our firm opposition to a settlement on any such basis. We should try to persuade the French that the war should go on, using whatever inducements we can.
If the French are determined to negotiate, we should decide: (a) whether this should be done unilaterally; or (b) multilaterally, and with what degree of responsibility for ourselves.

My own recommendation would be that the war in Indochina should continue but that we should raise our sights with respect to needs in manpower, and in the political basis for sincere Vietnamese participation. If, in spite of everything the French should decide unilaterally to quit the war (which I for one do not believe they can or will do) I should recommend not a compromise peace on the bases listed above, but an internationalization of the war under the UN, with the participation of US forces, if necessary, recognizing that the Chinese might retaliate massively.

  1. See “Report of U.S. Special Mission to Indochina, ” Feb. 5, 1954, by Lt. Gen. John W. O’Daniel, the Chief of Mission, in United States-Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967 (The Pentagon Papers) (House Committee on Armed Services, committee print, 1971), Book 9, pp. 246–258.
  2. General Navarre’s plan called for adopting a defensive strategy north of the 18th Parallel throughout the 1953–1954 campaign and for attempting to clear the zones held by the Viet Minh south of the 18th Parallel during the spring and summer of 1954. In the fall of 1954 he would launch a general offensive north of the 18th Parallel in an effort to exert sufficient pressure whereby France and the Associated States could obtain, through negotiations, a settlement of the Indochina conflict on the best possible terms.
  3. For documentation on the proposed establishment of a European Defense Community, see volume v .