Conference files, lot 60 D 627, CF 324

Memorandum of Conversation, by the Head of the United States Delegation ( Johnson )1



  • The Secretary
  • Ambassador Dillon
  • Mr. MacArthur
  • Mr. Phleger
  • Ambassador Johnson
  • Prime Minister Mendes-France
  • M. Latournelle
  • M. Parodi
  • M. de Folin
  • Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden
  • Sir Harold Caccia
  • Sir Gladwyn Jebb
  • Sir Anthony Rumbold

Following dinner Mendes-France explained to Eden and the Secretary present state of negotiations with respect to regroupment areas in Vietnam. He had a map showing the various proposals and counterproposals in detail and the areas occupied by the French and the Vietminh respectively. He said the original French proposal from which they had not deviated was for a line along a defensive ridge somewhat north of Donghoi in the vicinity of the 18th parallel (all parallels in accordance US system). He said this line was somewhat north of the Donghoi Thakhek line set forth in the seven points of the US-UK memorandum.2 He said the original Vietminh proposal was for somewhat “S” shaped line in the vicinity of the 13th parallel. They had then moved to a line in the vicinity of the 14th parallel.

Yesterday after they had heard the Secretary was meeting with Mendes-France and Eden in Paris, Dong had made a proposal to Mendes roughly along the 16th parallel, the line being just to the south of the French air and naval base at Tourane. Mendes ascribed this relatively major shift in the Vietminh position as attributable to Vietminh knowledge of the Secretary’s meeting with himself and Eden. Mendes stated that French had flatly rejected this proposal and could never agree to Vietminh control of the naval and air base at Tourane, the important center of Hue and the vital road to Laos. He said that with [Page 1349] respect to the road to Laos Molotov had suggested that the French could have the right of access to Laos along the road, apparently something along the lines of the corridor to Berlin. Mendes said that the road was narrow, mountainous, with many culverts and bridges and that French must have full control of the area both sides of the road, as Communist performance on any corridor arrangement could not be anticipated and stray individuals could blow bridges and culverts making the road unuseable.

He indicated that the French would be prepared to drop their line some small distance south, possibly to the Donghoi Thakhek line or slightly south thereof.

The French map had an enclave drawn around the Haiphong area but there was no discussion of this.

With respect to Laos, Mendes-France stated that Communists now admitted to the existence of Vietminh forces which would be withdrawn, but had insisted upon some temporary regroupment areas for the indigenous resistance forces pending their integration into Laotian forces. He said the Communists recognized the unity of Laos under its present government. He stated that the indigenous resistance forces were unimportant, totalling about 25 hundred men and that the Laotians were confident they could handle this problem. However, on the military level the Vietminh had come forth with a regroupment proposal for a line running the entire length of Laos connecting up with their original (“S” shaped) 13th parallel line in Vietnam. He said that the French military experts had shown Vietminh proposal to the Soviet military experts and the latter had characterized it as absurd. Mendes appeared to feel there was no serious problem with respect to Laos, except that of the two French bases which he said consisted of small air strips, some stores of ammunition garrisons totalling about 2000 French Union forces. He said the bases were entirely without military interest to the French and from the French standpoint they had no desire to maintain them. However, Laotians placed high value on them and had asked they be retained and he thought the Laotians would be able to work out something on this with the Vietminh.

Mendes said that Communists had recognized and seemed willing to agree to French military instructors and technical assistance to the armed forces of Laos and Cambodia as opposed to French garrisons being stationed there. He said the Communists were entirely unwilling to see any US military personnel stationed there in any capacity whatever and were extremely sensitive on the subject of US bases in those countries. The Secretary disclaimed any intention or desire for the US to establish military bases of any kind in those countries and stressed the importance of being able to assist those countries to maintain adequate [Page 1350] defense forces and contribute to their economic development. In view of the traditional Communist charge that US bases were being established wherever we have had even an economic aid program, and the US legislative requirement that US personnel have some role in the administration of US economic aid, he expressed the fear that what the Communists were really attempting to do was to keep all US personnel, both civilian and military, out of these areas. He made it clear that the US would be willing to assist these countries but we were not willing or able to simply turn money over to them to spend as they saw fit.

Mendes-France and Eden both indicated that their understanding was that the Communists were opposing US military bases in the traditional sense of the term. The Secretary expressed the strong view that it was of vital importance not to agree to any terms which would inhibit the ability of Laos and Cambodia and retained Vietnam to obtain economic and military assistance from the free world.

There was no specific discussion of Cambodia. Mendes-France apparently did not take much interest in Cambodia. He said they had 99.5% full independence and they apparently wanted to stay in the French Union and that was all right with him.

In response to the Secretary’s questions concerning the Communist position on political settlement, Mendes stated that Dong had first insisted on elections within six months after the cessation of hostilities and had also insisted that French troops must be evacuated before the holding of elections. Mendes-France stated that he had pointed out the inconsistency of this position and that Dong had now agreed that the question of the date for elections should be left for determination by the two governments in Vietnam. He said Dong was preparing a draft of some sort of general declaration in this regard. He said that the Communists were entirely willing to see Vietnam remain in the French Union and the Secretary pointed out that Communists would probably be very glad to see three Communist members in the French Union. Mendes replied that there was no danger of three, only of one, i.e. Vietnam and that he was well aware of this possibility and was considering handling it by some statement to the effect that the conditions for membership of a united Vietnam in the French Union would be determined by subsequent agreement.

There was a brief discussion about the International Control Commission for Indochina being discussed at Geneva. Mendes-France said he might eventually have to accept a Communist member on such a commission but he would not agree to the Communists having veto power.

[Page 1351]

Following presentation by Mendes, the Secretary went into a detailed, careful and reasoned exposition of his viewpoint on US representation at Geneva. He said that it was clear that the main Soviet Communist objective was Europe and that if they could disrupt allied unity with respect to Europe, preventing ratification of EDC and reconciliation between France and Germany, the major objective would be accomplished. For the USSR, the Far East was essentially a secondary objective, but they would exploit the situation in the Far East to the maximum so as to prevent allied unity, particularly so as to cause a split between the US and France. The US and France were united by deep ties of common interest and sentiment and he desired to do everything possible to maintain those ties and prevent disunity developing. His interest was in doing whatever was best to achieve this objective.

With respect to Geneva he was very concerned over the situation if there was high level representation there. There were two major possibilities.

The Communists would make proposals conditional upon US association and guarantee in such a form that they knew could not be accepted by the US. The Communists probably knew very well just how far the US was able to go. If, as would be necessary, the US refused to associate itself with and did not approve such guarantees, in the eyes of French public opinion US would be responsible for failure of France to achieve peace in Indochina. This would place an intolerable strain upon US–French relations.
On the other hand, the French might well come to the point that they would say they did not feel they could resist making a poor settlement with the Communists unless the US would join with them in the fight on brief notice if they turned down the Communist terms. The US several months ago had stated the conditions under which it would join in action to defend Indochina on the basis of united action. Since then, the military situation had deteriorated very substantially, and the conditions under which we were then willing to join in collective action were no longer the same. If the French, as a condition for not making a bad agreement at Geneva, should ask us to give them a commitment to join with them in Indochina in a matter of days, this we would not be able to do. Neither the Secretary nor the President could make such a commitment. Whereas three months ago he was confident that Congressional approval for military action in Indochina could have been obtained under the conditions set forth to the French, he was not confident that this now could be done. If there were high level representation at Geneva, this problem would be much more acute, and therefore after long and careful thought and full discussion with the President, the conclusion had been reached that the long-term interests of US–French relations would be best served by neither the Secretary nor the Under Secretary returning to Geneva.
[Page 1352]

Mendes-France replied that as the US was in any event represented at Geneva, the problems mentioned by the Secretary were not avoided. The US could still be faced with the same dilemmas. He felt very strongly that the Communists feared that the Secretary would come to Geneva and that his failure to come would be interpreted by the Communists as indicating a rift in allied relationships which could be exploited by them. The Secretary’s presence would without question assure that the Communists would agree to much more reasonable terms than if he were absent. Eden strongly supported Mendes-France. Eden said that he felt it would be possible to obtain a settlement within the framework of the seven points but that it would be a very tough negotiation, the balance might well be on a knife-edge. The Secretary’s or Under Secretary’s presence could well be the factor which would tip the balance in favor of our side.

The Secretary then explained carefully against the background of US public opinion and political situation the difficulties of the US Government associating itself with any agreement which would appear to guarantee to the Communists the fruits of their aggression. He said that Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, were clearly not going to be happy with any settlement the French would be able to reach and were already asking for our help. Mendes replied that these countries were strongly divided and that while asking for our help they were also all talking with Dong in Geneva. The Secretary earnestly explained that we wanted to help any way we could, that the US did not want to see the war continue in Indochina. While if the war did continue it could well turn into a situation that would engulf all of our countries in war, from a military standpoint we felt that commitment of a major part of our own and our allies’ military force to combat the “third team” of the Communists, would be a colossal military error. Whereas three months ago it appeared the situation might have been retrieved with the addition of some naval and air power together with a small commitment of ground forces, that time had now passed. We full well realize the realities of the situation which the French face. We will not reproach them for what they find it necessary to do. We recognize their primary responsibility. However, the US Government could not be in a position of seeming to approve the sale of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam into Communist captivity. The memories of Yalta in the United States were very fresh. The US Government cannot be associated with a settlement which would be portrayed in the US as a second Yalta. The very fact that the US had agreed even to the holding of the Geneva Conference had been unreasonably portrayed as a major diplomatic defeat for the US and the fact that the President and the Secretary even agreed to the Conference has been a political liability.

[Page 1353]

Mr. Eden expressed the view that the important thing was to get the best possible settlement, then make it clear that if the Communists broke it, everybody would be lined up against them. He hoped that not only the US, UK, and France would be able to take such a position together, but that it would be possible to obtain wide agreement thereon in South Asia. This would be a very important gain. The Secretary again expressed the view that if the Communists maneuver the situation so that it appears that the US is the only obstacle to a settlement, it would so strain relations between the allies that EDC would be killed and the Communists would accomplish their major objective in Europe. He did not want to expose himself to that risk. He said that he was prepared to say publicly and in writing that he was 100% behind the present French demands in Indochina, and wondered if this might help the French. Mendes-France again reiterated that the risks for the US are exactly the same whether high-level representation is present or not at Geneva and without the Secretary’s presence the efficacy of US support of France is not the same.

Mendes-France then referred to the seven points, stating that he will do all he can to obtain a settlement within their framework, that if the Secretary were there he could help in this regard. If he is not there, he, Mendes-France, is satisfied the result would not be as good and his absence would weaken the French. The Secretary replied that the real question is what we do if Geneva fails. Perhaps the French negotiating position would be strengthened if it could portray to the Communists the US as the “wicked partner” in the background. Eden reacted very strongly to this, saying that he under no circumstances would be prepared to portray the US to the Communists as the “bogeyman”, the UK, US, and France are allies and he simply would not place himself in such a position. The Secretary suggested that this aspect might be implicit rather than explicit, to which Eden replied that Communists take advantage of every possible opportunity to try to get the British to say that the US is what is preventing peace, that the US is the only country that does not want peace. He absolutely refuses to be trapped into any such statement because he knows it is not true.

Mendes-France then stated that if France desired to obtain peace at any price, it would be much easier to do if the US were not there. However, this was most emphatically not the French position. France will do its best to get a settlement within the framework of the seven points, but if the US is not there at a high level, this will be much more difficult. There are definite limits beyond which France will not go. If there is no agreement by July 20, the war will continue, with intensification. The Communists well know that France will send reinforcements. The [Page 1354] danger of the enlargement of the war will be great. However, reinforcements cannot arrive there until September. Therefore, he is convinced that if there is no settlement by July 20 the Vietminh will immediately launch a big offensive. It will be impossible to hold Hanoi. Haiphong can be held only if there is naval and air support. There might be a question of whether the US could help if that situation arises. He wants to do all possible to obtain such a settlement by obtaining a cease-fire and obtaining it on the best possible terms. The best terms can be assured if the Secretary is there.

Mendes-France said that if there were big differences between the US and France, he could understand the US not being there, but this was not the case. The Secretary replied that the French might have to give in to very onerous Communist terms and he would fully understand that it might well be necessary for France to make peace terms which the US could not approve. He would not want to place himself in the position of having publicly to denounce the terms. He would not want France to say that it will stand on the seven points only if the US will fight as an alternative. Mendes-France replied that he would not ask this “for the time being” and said that if France does not stick to the substance of the seven points whether the Secretary is in Geneva or Washington, he would probably have to disavow the settlement, and he understood this fact. He was not prepared to say that on some points of detail the present French position might not compromise but he had no thought of compromise of any of the points on which, in the Secretary’s letter to him of July 11th,3 the Secretary indicated he understood the French positions were shifting. He said with great earnestness that if a US Minister comes to Geneva and France signs something which the US feels it necessary to disavow, he would take the responsibility. He then solemnly said that in his official capacity “I ask you to come and help us.” The Secretary stated that he fully appreciated the weight of the Prime Minister’s request, he would defer his reply.

There was then some discussion of the type of statement the US could make with regard to any settlement at Geneva within the framework of the seven points, in which Mendes-France said that all France asked was that the US make a unilateral statement that it will take action if the Communists break any settlement that is reached. Mendes-France suggested something along the lines that the US would “view with grave concern any action from any country which will endanger the maintenance of peace in Indochina”. The Secretary said that a unilateral declaration something along these lines would present no problem.

[Page 1355]

At the close (approximately 12:30 a.m.) the Secretary expressed his great appreciation for such a frank talk, which he felt was long overdue, and it was agreed that another meeting would be held July 14 at 11:30 a.m. at the Quai d’Orsay.

  1. This meeting took place at the Hotel Matignon, Paris, at 8:30 p.m.

    For background information on the circumstances of the Secretary’s trip to Paris and his discussions with Mendès-France and Eden see the entry from James Hagerty’s diary, July 11, p. 1333.

    The meeting described here was preceded by a conversation between Secretary Dulles and Premier Mendès-France from 7:30 to 8:30 at the residence of Ambassador Dillon. For a text of this discussion, which dealt largely with European matters, see volume vi .

  2. Text of the memorandum was contained in telegram 4853 to Paris, June 28. p. 1256.
  3. Text of this message was in telegram 127 to Paris, July 10, p. 1330.