Conference files, lot 60 D 627, CF 316

Memorandum by the Adviser to the United States Delegation (Bonsal) to the Head of the Delegation (Smith)1

top secret


  • Implication of Probable Vietminh Offensive in Tonkin Delta

The following factors seem pertinent to an appraisal of the Indochina situation:

Present French military dispositions and intentions, even if successfully carried out, present the Vietminh with an opportunity in the [Page 1052] next few weeks to achieve an important increase in territory held by them in the Tonkin Delta. The loss of such places as Nam Dinh, Thai Binh and the two Catholic bishoprics would represent a serious further drop in prestige for the Franco-Vietnamese cause and will further depreciate the negotiating position of our side at Geneva.
The above represents the best we may hope for in the military-political situation over the next few weeks if the Vietminh resumes the offensive. If the French are again, as they have so often been in the past months, “surprised” at increased Vietminh power and are unable to meet that power, we may be faced with the loss of Hanoi and perhaps with a large scale military disaster if the French are unable to withdraw their forces to Haiphong.
A deteriorating military situation, whether it takes the form set forth in (1) or (2) above, coupled with French public and parliamentary anxiety for a cease fire, will make it increasingly difficult for the French negotiators to stand firm on the negotiating points which are vital if any part of Vietnam is to have a chance of being kept from Communist control. (These points are (a) regrouping zones which would permit if necessary a resumption of hostilities under conditions reasonably favorable for our side particularly if direct US intervention were contemplated, (b) a Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission which would have the will and the means to control the execution of the armistice terms, and (c) a UN or other guarantee in such form that the free world guarantors could not be hamstrung by the Communist guarantors.)
In the present military-political situation, there seems to be absolutely no indication of any significant improvement in Vietnamese political morale. Bao Dai has proved himself to be an even more inert and repulsive figure than we had earlier thought. So far as North Vietnam is concerned, Governor Tri is our only hope and his morale is pretty low at this time.
Our conversations with the French regarding conditions for possible US intervention are presumably progressing favorably. We can probably assume that, if the Geneva Conference is unsuccessful from the French point of view, the French will invite US intervention and that the other conditions for such intervention will prove workable. On the other hand, the possibility that the French will in fact agree to the breaking off of the Geneva discussions will diminish with the deterioration of the military situation in Indochina and the increased peril of the expeditionary corps. As the military situation gets worse, the trend toward peace at any price and away from the enlarging of the conflict will probably become accentuated. In any event, it would be most difficult to find, in the face of a rapidly deteriorating military situation in Indochina, the formula for a break at Geneva which would satisfy the requirements of both the French Assembly and the US Congress in the event that such a break were followed by a request to the Assembly and to the Congress for authorization for a US intervention in the war.

Our most recent information indicates that the bulk of the Vietminh forces will be ready for further offensive action on June 15. If such an [Page 1053] offensive does begin, the following courses of action appear to be open to us:

If we and the French were really and irrevocably determined on US intervention in order to prevent a Vietminh victory, we would simply, in view of the enemy’s pursuit of his aggression, and in concert with the French take the necessary steps to withdraw from the Geneva Conference and we would submit the whole problem to our respective legislatures and to the UN and to our allies. It is quite obvious, however, that France is not in a position to take speedy effective action nor is it certain that the US could act speedily.
Another possible course of action would be for the US, acting unilaterally following the resumption of the Vietminh offensive, to withdraw from the conference and to recover complete freedom of action. This might involve branding the Vietminh offensive as involving an overt Chinese Communist aggression. (You will recall that the Secretary early in April said that the Chinese were very close to such overt aggression.) We would then proceed as provided in NSC 54052 in the event of an overt Chinese aggression. This would be unsatisfactory because our military-political relations with the French would be uncoordinated, and because there is considerable doubt that our other allies would follow us.
A third alternative would be for the US simply to withdraw from the conference and to disassociate itself from any deal which the French may be forced to make. Such a course would be extremely damaging to our prestige and would spell the end of the policy of collective security which we have endeavored to build. It would accelerate the turning over of Indochina to the Communists more than any other action we could take. We do not have a substitute partner in Indochina if the French bow out.

The consideration of these factors and of these alternatives leads me to pose the following questions: Is there anything which can be done within the current week (the critical date of June 15 is next Tuesday) to induce the enemy to abandon his apparent offensive intentions? Can it be made clear to Molotov and to Chou En-lai that if Giap intensifies his military action in the delta, we would be forced to withdraw from the Geneva Conference and to concert military measures to meet a changing military situation? Can we get the agreement of the French and British delegates?

Molotov and Chou En-lai would be informed perhaps by Eden acting for the French and ourselves that our readiness to negotiate for the restoration of peace in Indochina was predicated upon the situation as it existed when the conference opened. If that situation is to be changed we desire to recover full freedom of action to take necessary countermeasures. By means of this démarche, we would endeavor to impress in the most serious and convincing fashion upon Molotov and Chou Enlai [Page 1054] the extreme danger to world peace of a further offensive in the Tonkin Delta. At the same time, we could authorize Eden or whoever represents us to express a realistic understanding of the situation in Vietnam and a willingness to accept an agreement for the cessation of hostilities and for a transitional period leading to general elections throughout Vietnam which would give the Vietminh leaders an opportunity through peaceful means to contest control of the country with non-Communist leadership. We should of course stress the firmness of our position regarding Laos and Cambodia. Molotov should be made to feel that on the military actions of Giap over the next ten days, the whole issue of peace or war may depend.

The drawback to any approach to Molotov and Chou En-lai along the lines proposed above is of course the possibility that they might believe we were bluffing. This is a risk which we would have to take. We have to take it because, in the last analysis, we ourselves don’t know whether we are bluffing or not, i.e., we can not be sure at this stage of the reaction of the American public to a further serious deterioration of the Franco-Vietnamese position in the Tonkin Delta followed by a Presidential appeal to Congress for the necessary authority to intervene militarily. Furthermore, we are uncertain regarding the reaction in France to further Vietminh military successes under either of the hypotheses set forth in numbered paragraphs 1 and 2 above. But the uncertainties in the situation should be made to work so far as possible to our advantage by being, from the enemy’s point of view, as great as possible.

  1. This memorandum was sent to Under Secretary Smith through Robertson and Heath. In a note attached to the source text Heath informed Smith and Robertson that “I agree that the analysis of the present situation is very good but I am not clear whether the action recommended in the final two paragraphs is practical. In a handwritten notation by Robertson on Heath’s note, Robertson said “I don’t agree that we should attempt a ‘bluff’. It might be called.”
  2. For NSC 5405, “U.S. Objectives and Courses of Action With Respect to Southeast Asia,” Jan. 16, 1954, see volume xii.