396.1 GE/5–1154

Memorandum of Conversation, by Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Taber of the United States Delegation1



  • Ambassador Heath
  • Mr. Bonsal
  • General Daley
  • Colonel Ferguson
  • Lt. Colonel Taber
  • Colonel Monckton, Military Advisor to the British Delegation
  • Colonel de Brebisson, French Del.
  • Major Debarnot, French Del.
  • Major Seze, French Del.


  • French Military Briefing—Indo China


French object to use of word “armistice” as it combines both military and political considerations. It is also psychologically bad as word associated with the long negotiations at Panmunjom.

French want agreements for cessation of hostilities in Indo China to be guaranteed by the great powers now at Geneva. On-the-spot inspections for compliance with agreements should be accomplished by a neutral commission.

After cessation of hostilities opposing regular forces would move to previously designated zones. Maintenance of forces would be allowed but reinforcement or tactical movement prohibited. Ports, airfields [Page 763] and frontier entry points would be controlled by neutral commission.

French would retain north part of Tonkin Delta including Hanoi and Haiphong. Viet Minh would be given Southern part of delta except Catholic areas of Phat Diem and Bui Chu which would be neutralized. A ten kilometer demilitarized zone would separate French Union and Viet Minh areas in Tonkin Delta.

Viet Minh would hold area from south edge of delta south to Song Giang (river). French would hold area from Song Giang to Faifo (inclusive). Viet Minh from Faifo (exclusive) to Qui Nhon (exclusive). French would continue to hold plateau, area taken during operation Atlante and the coastal area south to Phan Thiet (inclusive). There would be four small Viet Minh zones in South Viet Nam.

Detailed Record

At Colonel de Brebisson’s invitation above-named persons attended a briefing on preliminary plans for the implementation of the military phase of possible French agreement with the Viet Minh. Colonel de Brebisson started the briefing saying that the French Government wanted to avoid the use of the term “armistice”. He said there were two reasons for this—one, juridical, and the other, psychological. Juridically, an armistice contains both military and political considerations and must be agreed to by a government, not a commander-in-chief. Therefore, it takes longer to negotiate. Psychologically, the French feel that people’s minds are still influenced by the Panmunjom negotiations and there is a tendency among the French to feel that an armistice would take several years to negotiate. In reply to a question as to what the French call their plan, he said it had no name but it could well be called a “cessation of hostilities” or “suspension of hostilities.” He added that a simple cease-fire would be dangerous and must be avoided. The French believe that a “cessation of hostilities” guaranteed by the great powers can be worked out at Geneva. This agreement would include the acceptance of regrouping zones for regular armed forces and the delimitation of these zones. The details could then be worked out in the field. The French suggested a neutral commission, with advisors from opposing forces attached, to supervise the implementation of this agreement in Indo China.

Colonel de Brebisson said the French continue to consider Cambodia and Laos as separate problems which will be relatively easy to solve. The French will insist on the withdrawal of Viet Minh invaders in Laos and Cambodia. The Viet Minh could logically ask that all French military be withdrawn. During recent negotiations with Laos, the Laotians requested that a French mission remain with the Lao Army and, in addition, that the French maintain four bases with garrisons. [Page 764] The French had little interest in maintaining bases in Laos but finally agreed to keep Xieng Khouang and Seno. In view of the accords which they have signed, the French will insist on keeping those bases if the Laotians still want them to do so. In Cambodia, the French have no bases and no garrisons but they do have a small mission with the Royal Khmer Army. The French are prepared to listen carefully to Laotian and Cambodian suggestions for the cessation of hostilities and will give their views consideration.

Considering the question of control measures, de Brebisson said there would be no question of identification of Viet Minh units in Cambodia and Laos as General Navarre’s headquarters had excellent order of battle information on these areas. However, the length and character of the frontier would complicate the control problem. The well-known hostility of the Cambodians and Laotians to the Vietnamese would facilitate the detection of Vietnamese border crossings since the population can be expected to report to neutral observers all known Vietnamese frontier crossers. Preliminary studies of control measures have indicated that a neutral group of three or four hundred people would be needed to observe and control the frontier. The Laotians and Cambodians have been given a general briefing of the French plan for their countries but have not yet been given the details. De Brebisson said they would be given complete information soon, as obviously the French must have their consent to any proposal.

The control problem in Viet Nam is much more complicated because the troops of opposing forces are well mixed throughout the country. The establishment of regrouping zones would require giving up, to the Viet Minh, certain areas now controlled administratively by the Vietnamese Government. Also, there is the question of turning over areas in which the population has been friendly to the French and thus exposing these people to Viet Minh terrorist counter-measures. These people could be moved to Vietnamese controlled zones if they wished, but that would raise additional problems. Certain zones, particularly Catholic areas, should be neutralized and possibly administered by the neutral commission.

At this point Major Debarnot, Deputy G-2 in General Navarre’s headquarters, presented the military plan in some detail. As background he explained that there are two types of terrain in Indo China, first, mountain and hill country—generally covered with heavy vegetation, and second, rice paddy. The Viet Minh are expert at moving undetected in both of these types of terrain. Also, there are vast areas with low population density and, conversely, other areas which are extremely over-populated. Either condition facilitates undetected Viet Minh movement and infiltration. Another important consideration is the feeling of the population, which varies throughout Indo China. [Page 765] Major Debarnot then gave a brief summary of the military situation in Indo China. This summary is omitted from this memorandum as it presented no new information.

Debarnot then stated that the military proposal that he was about to present was tailor-made for the unusual military situation in Indo China and that it had different solutions for different areas. He also stressed the fact that this proposal was based on a “preliminary” study. The guiding principles for this study were as follows:

the proposal must guarantee the security and existence of French Union Forces during any cessation of hostilities;
there must be adequate guarantees to prevent the Viet Minh from reinforcing during the truce or making troop movements to improve positions;
the French must avoid any conditions which would in practice be more restrictive to French Union Forces than to the Viet Minh. As an example, certain movement restrictions might be very easy to enforce on French Union troops but difficult or impossible to enforce on Viet Minh;
conditions must allow French Union Forces to be maintained in such a way that they would be able to fight to defend themselves or to recommence hostilities in case of a breakdown of negotiations.

As previously stated, the French expect that the general conditions for a cessation of hostilities would be agreed at Geneva and the following minimum conditions are desired for this initial agreement:

cessation of hostilities must be complete in all areas and be accompanied by suitable inspections by a neutral commission.
agreement should be made that opposing forces would give adequate warning in the event of unilateral re-opening of hostilities.
the Viet Minh must be prohibited from reinforcing or creating new units.
there must be neutral control of ports, airfields and frontier entry points.
movement of rations and maintenance supplies and the rotation of troops must be allowed.
training should be authorized.
the French Expeditionary Force should have the right of replacement by individual or unit from areas outside Indo China.
in the case of French Union losses from attrition which are not immediately replaced, the French should be given credit for these losses in order to allow replacement at a later time.
free movement in respective zones and on agreed inter-zone lines of communication must be guaranteed.
the French must be guaranteed free use of air transport for supply, liaison and movement of replacements.

Major Debarnot next discussed the zones of relocation for opposing regular forces, pointing out that these zones were proposed by General Navarre’s staff and have not yet been approved by the French Government. Movements for regrouping of troops must be gradual [Page 766] and there must be agreement at Geneva on phasing of these movements.

The following zones were delimited: (See sketch, Inch 1)2

North Viet Nam—Delta: The French will retain the area delimited by the following points—RN–1 from Mon Cay to Hon Gay, RN–18 to Sept Pagodes, along river to Dap Cau, Da Phuc, Lap Thrach, Viet Tri, Son Tay, Xuan Mai, Phu Xuyen, Hung Yen, along the Canal des Bambous to Ninh Giang and down the Song Thai Binh to the sea. A demilitarized zone, 10 kilometers wide, extending outside of this line will separate the present forces.

The Viet Minh would be required to regroup their regular forces in Thai Binh province. The area Phat Dien, Ninh Binh, Phu Ly, Nam Dinh, Quat Lam would be neutralized, probably under the control of a neutral commission. In northwest Tonkin certain areas between the Red and Black Rivers and the Red and Clair Rivers would be set aside for French Union maquis. In center Viet Nam, the Viet Minh would continue to hold the area from the south edge of the Tonkin Delta to the Song Giang River. The French would retain control of the area from the Song Giang south to, and including, Faifo. The Viet Minh would regroup in the area they presently hold between Faifo and RN–19, excluding Qui Nhon, and west to the eastern limit of Kontum Province. The French would relocate in the plateau, the area recently captured by operation Atlante and along the coast to Phan Thiet. In South Viet Nam there would be four Viet Minh zones—the western half of the Ca Mau peninsula, the Plain des Jones, “War Zone D” area northeast of Saigon, and along the Annam-Cochin Chinese border, excluding Phan Thiet. Many of the above delimitations were quite vague. Major Debarnot explained this by saying that they were recently transmitted from General Navarre’s headquarters by cable and that the cable had some omissions and garbles.

Viet Minh regionals would be considered as regular troops and would be moved to Viet Minh controlled zones. The Viet Minh guerrillas or “Troupe Populaire” would be disarmed, although Debarnot added that he thought this would probably be impossible.

De Brebisson stressed the fact that this is a military plan, not political, and it would be part of the larger overall Indo China solution. General Navarre considers it a minimum position that he could accept militarily in Indo China and it is one that would leave the French Union Forces in a position to resume combat under relatively favorable conditions if that were required. The plan has not yet been discussed with the Vietnamese. It is admittedly a far from perfect solution but the French state they have been unable, after much study, to come up with anything better and they believe that it fits the situation [Page 767] as it actually exists in Indo China. They believe it is imperative that opposing forces regroup after cessation of hostilities and not remain scattered throughout Indo China as at present. A cessation of hostilities, with troops remaining in present dispersed positions, would expose French Union Forces to the possibility of a massacre such as they experienced in Tonkin on the night of 19 December 1946. De Brebisson stated he believed that the problem in Viet Nam was primarily a political one. He said he would not be surprised if the Viet Minh would ask for a capital, probably Hanoi.

In reply to a question as to what the French military plan to do if negotiations break down at Geneva, Debarnot stated it is obvious there is only one thing they could do—continue fighting. He said General Navarre has asked for reinforcements and realizes that he may have to abandon certain areas of Indo China in order to hold the more important ones. French air power in Indo China is his greatest asset and it will be much more effective, now that the Dien Bien Phu operation is over, as targets will be much nearer the departure airfields. The history of the war in Indo China has been one in which French Union Forces have repeatedly been given missions and objectives requiring an effort far greater than their capabilities. Debarnot likened the war to a poker game where each side is continually raising the ante on logistical support. This year the Viet Minh had more artillery than before and next year they may have tanks and airpower. De Brebisson ended the briefing by saying that the French were open to suggestions and would appreciate any comments we might have on their proposal.

Members of the American delegation said they would study the proposal. No commitments were made.

  1. Hennes in a note to Under Secretary Smith, May 12, stated that “although you saw this briefly at staff meeting this morning, you may wish to examine it in greater detail. The map of the proposed re-grouping zones, not yet approved by the French Government, is on the last page.” (396.1 GE/5–1154)
  2. Not printed.