Memorandum by the Director of the Office of Philippine and, Southeast Asian Affairs ( Bonsal )1
Notes on a Minimum Position Regarding Indochina for the Geneva Conference
The U.S. objective for Indochina at Geneva is presumably to avoid Communist control of the area and, as in the case of Korea, to secure the control of the entire area by indigenous non-Communist elements capable of sustaining themselves against internal subversion. Although the U.S. would be pleased with governments in Indochina firmly aligned on the side of the free world, the U.S. would presumably not reject governments of the nature of India or Indonesia the foreign policy of which would be neutralist.[Page 438]
The principal obstacle to the achievement of this goal whether by military means or at the conference table is the existence of eight well equipped, trained and undefeated Vietminh divisions of high morale and under complete Communist control. Until and unless these divisions are defeated or disarmed and dispersed, any peace negotiation or cease fire in Viet-Nam can result only in a Communist take-over sooner or later, probably sooner. Any formula of coalition or of territorial division, any procedure of elections or plebiscite would be powerless to deter the overwhelming political and military significance of these eight divisions with their great prestige of years of successful resistance against France, Viet-Nam and the support furnished by the United States.
Our side will not obtain at the conference table a united non-Communist Viet-Nam, any more than we will obtain a united non-Communist Korea unless we make clear to the enemy that, in the event of a breakdown of negotiations, our side is not only able but willing to do what is necessary to secure the objective by force of arms.
In the case of Korea, it is almost certain that we will not obtain a satisfactory basis through negotiation for a united, free Korea. It is perhaps equally certain that the failure of negotiations will not result in a resumption of hostilities. In other words, the Communists will continue to hold North Korea as they have since 1946 while the Republic of Korea holds the South, as it has for the past few years. This status quo will probably continue to be guaranteed by the allies and sponsors of the respective Korean governments. Korea, like Germany, will remain a helpless symbol of the world division until a basic change in the dynamics of that division takes place.
In the case of Indochina, there is no status quo susceptible of being formalized in the Korean or German manner. Throughout the area, the major centers of political and economic power have remained firmly in French Union hands through seven years of war. On the other hand, the enemy controls perhaps half the population of Viet-Nam militarily and politically. A military defeat or withdrawal of French Union forces would mean sooner or later the control of the country by the indigenous Communist dominated Vietminh army and hence by Communist China. Whether this result was achieved by plebiscite, or through a temporary division of the country with the Communists holding only the North at first or through a coalition government would be of little eventual importance. This particular conflict, because of its very nature, must end with either a winner or a loser; there can be no tie as in Korea.
Therefore, the major trump card in our side’s hand at Geneva would be a recognized military ability and determination to defeat the [Page 439] enemy’s regular armed forces in the field. To the extent that we and the enemy believe our side possesses that ability and determination, to that extent will successful negotiation be feasible. Conversely, to the extent that the enemy believes that our side’s will to fight on to victory is waning, to that extent will negotiation be the equivalent of capitulation.
Our whole policy toward Indochina has been based upon this central objective, that of helping to create, maintain and demonstrate a Franco-Vietnamese ability and will to win this war. Our current efforts in support of the Laniel–Navarre Plan are further steps in a policy steadily followed, in spite of disappointments, since 1950 when the Chinese Communists revitalized the Vietminh and when, but for the magnificent leadership of de Lattre, Hanoi might have fallen to the enemy.
Laniel, Bidault and Pleven would probably agree with this diagnosis. Yet they are confronted in the French Assembly and within their own government with a powerful movement for peace at practically any price. Those who lead this movement argue that even the degree of military progress envisaged by Navarre is unattainable, that France can no longer bear the burden in spite of increased American help, that the Vietnamese non-Communist elements are not making and never will make the necessary effort, that these elements do not support the French Union concept and that some way must be found of ending what they term a hopeless struggle. They do not advocate any particular type of settlement nor do they face the fact that any settlement leaving the Communist army intact would be a victory for the Communists. But they will fall and fall hard for the most specious type of proposal which may be advanced by the Communists at Geneva.
It must be recognized that the agreement in Berlin in February that there should be negotiations about Indochina at Geneva has improved the position of the French Government and made it practically certain that that Government will take measures, including military measures, to improve its negotiating position for Geneva. There should be full agreement in Saigon, Paris and Washington on fullest and most energetic pursuit of the Laniel–Navarre Plan particularly at a time when the enemy may also be expected to do his utmost to improve his military position in anticipation of the Geneva negotiations.
Another element in the situation which must be recognized is the fact that, in French eyes, the decision to discuss Indochina in an international framework represents a considerable triumph for French diplomacy. When the French recall the negative or evasive stand on [Page 440] this subject taken by the Secretary and by General Smith last summer,2 they undoubtedly experience a sense of gratification at their own powers of persuasiveness and a hopeful confidence that those powers may still have some successful scope in directions related to the Indochina problem.
In this connection, there is no doubt that the Communists will exploit to the utmost factors which may divide the United States from its allies and pillory us in the spotlight of war-weary French public opinion as the country whose intransigence is responsible for continued bloodshed. This will be done by suggesting that Communist China’s influence could be brought to bear on the side of an honorable peace in Indochina, a peace that would, in appearance at least, maintain the principle of the French Union and hence justify the French in their own eyes, if, in return, France could find a way to support such C.P.R. objectives as recognition, membership in the U.N. and perhaps even support for a formula which would eventually destroy the Chinese Nationalists on Formosa. Neither the French nor the British would be as unwilling to make concessions on these points as we are. Our intransigence on these points could conceivably give the French a basis for assuming a greater liberty of action than we would wish in dealing with the C.P.R. and the USSR in regard to Indochina.
In appraising the French pre-Geneva position, it must be borne in mind that no French Government, regardless of its private opinion, can express public scepticism regarding negotiations to end the Indochina conflict. The concept of negotiations can no more be rejected in Paris than it was in Washington with regard to Korea. A hopeful attitude must be maintained—a willingness to examine proposals made by the other side. Prime Minister Laniel’s response to Nehru’s suggestion of a cease-fire is a useful indication of the type of action it may be hoped the French will take in regard to proposals for negotiations. Laniel did not reject, in fact, he welcomed the idea of a ceasefire. At the same time, he laid down conditions designed to insure the security of the French expeditionary corps and of the national armies and of friendly elements in Indochina which, if accepted by the enemy, would radically change the military situation in favor of our side.
These conditions for a cease-fire were roughly as follows:
- Withdrawal of Vietminh forces from Laos and Cambodia.
- Establishment of a neutral zone around the Tonkin Delta and withdrawal of Vietminh forces from within the Delta.
- Confinement of Vietminh troops in central Annam to designated points.
- Evacuation or surrender and disarmament of Vietminh troops in south Annam.
- Other measures of control and supervision.
The Vietminh would probably only accept terms of this kind—particularly the evacuation of the Tonkin Delta and the establishment of a neutral zone around the Delta—if it thought the alternative was military defeat. The acceptance by the Vietminh of such conditions would consequently be the equivalent of an admission of military defeat.
Whether a cease-fire results from an agreement along the above lines or from the carrying out of the Navarre Plan for military decision, the next step would obviously be the establishment of a truly national government based on some sort of popular consultation. It would be neither desirable nor, in all probability, possible for the Bao Dai–Buu Loc governing formula to establish an adequate control of the entire country. A formula of national pacification and union would impose itself. Nevertheless, in order for the necessary transition to take place under the most favorable possible circumstances, it would be necessary to find some sort of interim system. This might be done on a regional basis, drawing heavily on non-Communist nationalists, on fence sitting elements and on loyal Vietnamese not too tied up or compromised in the eyes of their fellow citizens by their relations with the French.
So far as fundamentals at Geneva are concerned, the principal objective should be to convince the French to take a position based firmly on the probability of a military decision favoring our side and crowning seven years of struggle. Our own support for the French military effort must be unstinted and unquestioning. If, at any time at Geneva, there is any prospect that an offer of U.S. support, air, naval or even ground forces to supplement the Franco-Vietnamese military effort will cause the French to refuse to capitulate, we must be in a position to make or not to make such an offer as a result of a firm U.S. policy decision at the highest level. This involves a decision as to whether holding Indochina warrants a sacrifice of American lives and the risk of starting World War III. The following paragraphs from a PSA memorandum of December 18, 1953, are pertinent:
“If the interested agencies conclude that even with maximum quantitative increase in present US financial and end-item assistance the Navarre Plan is not apt to succeed within existing time limits, a recommendation should immediately be prepared for the National Security Council as to additional types of aid to be considered. This recommendation should be formulated even in the absence of any specific request from the Frerch or the Vietnamese. (If the Navarre effort is to fail, our observers should be able to tell us about it before the French and the Vietnamese make up their minds to admit it.)[Page 442]
“The recommendation referred to above would presumably include the furnishing of US service and, if necessary, combat troops who would serve under French command within the general framework of the present strategic concepts. The communication to the French and Vietnamese of an affirmative decision in this respect might well prevent the reaching on their part of a decision to enter into negotiations or to abandon their present military effort in Indochina. Any further US contribution to the holding of Indochina is apt to be both more effective and less considerable the sooner it is made after a conclusion has been reached that current resources are inadequate. The longer we wait the bigger will be the commitment we will be called upon to make.”3
The point here is not a recommendation that U.S. forces should or should not be engaged in Indochina but rather that a decision, positive or negative on the subject cannot be evaded—unless it is believed that it has already been taken in a negative sense as a result of the President’s press conference of February 10th.4
- Bonsal in a covering memorandum to Robertson indicated that the attached paper was “designed to serve generally as a working paper in order to stimulate discussion. It will not be considered as representing Departmental views.” (396.1 GE/3–854)↩
- Refers to talks held between Secretary Dulles and Foreign Minister Bidault in Washington during the Tripartite Foreign Ministers meetings. July 10–14, 1953. For documentation on these talks, see volume v .↩
- Memorandum by Bonsal to Bowie, Dec. 18, 1953, “Special Annex on Indochina” (appended to NSC 177, “U.S. Objectives and Courses of Action With Respect to Southeast Asia”). (PSA files, lot 58 D 207, “Memoranda on Indochina by Bonsal”)↩
- At his press conference on Feb. 10 President Eisenhower stated that U.S. training and administrative personnel in Indochina, including mechanics who recently had accompanied aircraft shipped there were “only maintenance troops” and would not be used in combat. He said the United States “is supporting the Vietnamese and French in their conduct of the war.” The President’s remarks are printed in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954, pp. 247, 250, 253–254.↩