Resisting the designs of major powers

Update: July, 20/2014 - 16:56
Let's talk: The Geneva Conference which was first organised by the four UNSecurity Council members - Russia, the United States, Britain and France. — VNA File Photos

The signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954 is a seminal event in Vietnamese history that offers a crucial lesson - knowing the full story is crucial for understanding behind-the-scenes manipulation by big powers. On the 60th anniversary of this historical landmark, Vu Khoan, former Secretary of the Party Central Committee and former Deputy Prime Minister, candidly sets a few records straight.

I was 17 years old and a student at Nanning Boarding School, Guangxi province, China, at that time and I didn't know anything about the signing of the Geneva Accords { in order to bring an end to the first Indochina war} .

What is etched in my memory is the visit by a Vietnamese government delegation led by Pham Van Dong, the then Deputy Prime Minister cum Foreign Minister, to our school. He was on his way back to Viet Nam following the conference.

I was going through mixed feelings. I was sad that I could not return to Ha Noi to celebrate its liberation from the French because I was among several Vietnamese students selected to go to Moscow in the following days to study Russian as future interpreters.

Luckily, more than a year later, I was told to stop my studies and work in the Vietnamese Embassy there. That is how I became a diplomat. Now, I can say that the Geneva Accords were a turning point in my life.

Working in the diplomatic sector, I had to study the history of the Vietnamese diplomacy, including the Geneva Accords. As time passed, I came to the conclusion that if you want to have thorough understanding about any international event, you should understand the background circumstances in which it happened.

Here, in this article, I will focus on the Geneva Accords.

Power play

Everything that happened then was arranged by the then big powers - the Soviet Union, Britain, France and the US. Then, the People's Republic of China was not included as it was not a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The Geneva Conference was arranged by the four UN Security Council members.

The early 50s of the last century were seen as the peak of the Cold War days. The world was divided into two sides { capitalist and socialist} . The peaks of confrontation between the two sides were the Berlin crisis in 1948, the Korean War in 1951 and the 9-year Indochina War (1945-1954).

It was a time that Joseph Stalin had died and the Soviet Union had fallen into a deep crisis. As a result, it wanted to reconcile with the western world. I didn't know how the then Vietnamese leaders had evaluated the international situation. Recently, the National Political Publishing House released the book Dien Bien Phu- Geneva Conference, Party Documents. The book recalls that at the meeting of the Lien Viet [United Viet Nam Front] Standing Committee from March 31 to April 2, 1953, Truong Chinh, the then Party General Secretary, said: "To defuse the tense situation in the world is the concern of our side (the socialist side). We want the conflicts to be resolved peacefully by parties involved."

Dividing line: The Hien Luong Bridge running across Ben Hai River at the 17th parallel.

Meanwhile, France was very weak because of the war in Indochina. Britain wanted to improve its role in the international arena. So it accepted the Soviet Union's initiative to organise a conference in Geneva to iron out differences among the four big powers. At the beginning, the US wanted to maintain the tense situation to manipulate Western Europe and control the Soviet Union. It refused to attend the meeting. On second thoughts, it agreed to participate, not to difuse hostilities, but to disturb the other participants. As a result, the meeting didn't reach any agreement on Europe. Yet, they agreed to discuss the cessation of hostilities in the Korean peninsula and Indochina. As the sole country confronting the three western nations, the Soviet Union demanded the inclusion of China in the conference - a big country in Asia sharing the border with both North Korea and Indochina. It was a golden chance for China to win support from the international community and be recognised as a major nation in the world.

Finally, China was invited to attend the Geneva Conference.

Viet Nam's position

Until now I have not been able to access any original documents on how Viet Nam agreed to attend the Geneva Conference, or on Viet Nam's negotiation plans.

In the book published by the National Political Publishing House, I found Truong Chinh saying: "We are now conducting three wars at the same time - the diplomatic war, the military war and the land war [land reform]. Our firm stand is national independence, unification, democracy and peace."

Monitors: An international team oversees the withdrawal of French forces from downtown Ha Noi.

To win the three wars, he laid down four principles:

(i) No change in the nation's objectives, but the roads to achieve these objectives can be straight or winding;

(ii) We should hold high the principle of respecting our national sovereignty, equality, willingness and for the interest of both sides;

(iii) Subjective force is the principal condition for winning the final victory; and

(iv) We must always put the nation's interest within the interest of the international movement of peace, democracy and socialism.

In an interview granted to the Swedish newspaper Expressen on November 26, 1953, President Ho Chi Minh said, "If the French government had drawn lessons learned from the war in the last few years and wanted a cessation of hostilities in Viet Nam through peaceful negotiations, the government of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam and the Vietnamese people would have approved the French proposal. A foundation for the cessation of hostilities in Viet Nam was that the French government must respect Viet Nam's independence."

This meant that both the Soviet Union and China at that time wanted detente with the West. However, China wanted to take the opportunity to tell the world that it was a big power. And for Viet Nam, in such a context, we were in favour of settling all issues by peaceful negotiations.

'Initiative' to divide

When they talk about the 1954 General Accords everyone want to know who initiated the idea of dividing Viet Nam into two parts.

In his first report sent home on May 4, 1954, Deputy Prime Minister Pham Van Dong said Britain was the first country to come up with the idea. It was later supported by the US and France. The demarcation line was proposed either at the 20th parallel or 16th parallel.

Good riddance: Djiring carries French soldiers home from the port city of Hai Phong in July 1954.

According to other sources, China also took that stand.

To come to the final decision on how Viet Nam should be divided into two parts, on March 2, 1954 (two months before Dong sent the above said report), the Chinese Party Central Committee sent a telegram to the Vietnamese Party Central Committee, saying: "If Viet Nam wants to have a cessation of hostilities, it is ideal to have a relatively permanent demarcation line that can safeguard the whole region. In reality, the cessation of hostilities today may become a permanent demarcation line dividing the country into two parts tomorrow. The demarcation line should go further the south. It could be the 16th parallel."

These pieces of information indicate that China, at that time, wanted Viet Nam to participate in the Geneva Conference to help consolidate China's ambition to be among the big powers, to rank alongside the four UN Security Council members in discussions of world affairs. To achieve this objective, China supported the idea of dividing Viet Nam into two parts, which was already endorsed by the Soviet Union, France, Britain and the US.

'Expensive lesson'

However, based on other documents, we can see that the Soviet Union was put in a rather "passive position" as its attention at that time was on how to solve issues in Europe. Moscow let China decide on its behalf all issues relating to the Far East. This is an expensive lesson for Viet Nam in the course of pursuing its policy of independence and self-reliance in international relations.

On the other hand I also realize that what was achieved at the Geneva Conference in 1954, including the agreements on the cessation of hostilities, French troops' withdrawal from Indochina, liberation of North Viet Nam, the affirmation by countries participating in the conference that they "are committed to respecting sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia" - all this can be attributed to the huge sacrifices and the resounding victory gained by the Vietnamese people and army in their resistance war against the French colonialists, particularly the Dien Bien Phu victory.

The achievements on the negotiation table were rooted in the indirect victories on the battlefield.

Regarding the regrouping sites, Dong had been persistent in choosing the 13th parallel. But his proposal was rejected by other participants who said the demarcation line should be either the 16th or 17th parallel. And finally, the 17th parallel was selected.

From a historical point of view, the 1954 Geneva agreement truthfully reflected the balance of force between parties attending the conference. We could not achieve greater results because China and the Soviet Union, our two main supporters, wanted detente with the West.

From this, I have drawn for myself another lesson, that is, if Viet Nam wants to confront powerful external forces we should apply a "step by step" strategy. This strategy was proved correct during the period 1945-1946 when the young Democratic Republic of Viet Nam adopted a policy of hoa de tien [compromise to advance]. This strategy proved successful again in the 1973 Paris Accords when our set objectives were to force the American troops to "quit" and the Sai Gon puppet regime to "be toppled".

Indochinese solidarity

Another topic discussed at the Geneva Conference was the issue of Laos and Cambodia.

Forces of the Cambodian and Lao resistance were not invited to participate in the conference. The other participants who only wanted to talk about the liberation of Northern Viet Nam, simply demanded that the Pathet Laos forces regroup to Samnua and Phongsaly provinces and that the Khmer Issarak forces merge with the forces of the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Hero's welcome: A parade of Viet Nam's armed forces in Hai Phong City.

Abusing the situation, some forces slandered Viet Nam, saying it had "abandoned" its neighbours!

In his speech at the conference, Dong demanded that representatives of the resistance forces of Laos and Cambodia be present at the conference on an equal footing with other participants.

Dong's legitimate stand was reiterated many times at various sessions of the conference. His point of view was also included in the 8 points petition issued on May 10, 1954.

Of course, it is easy to understand that the western countries only wanted to recognise the representatives of administrations having close relations with them, not the resistance forces of Laos and Cambodia. In addition, they wanted to separate the Viet Nam issue from other issues while demanding that the Vietnamese armed forces withdraw their troops from Laos and Cambodia.

Recent documents that I have read has further vindicated Viet Nam's strong stand regarding the protection of Lao and Cambodian patriotic forces. However, outside forces had tried to arrange any issue relating to these two countries for their own benefit. They wanted to divide and rule the three Indochinese countries.

Until now, this lesson remains fresh and valuable. The solidarity among the three nations is based on equality and development of each nation. That's the rule of life for people of the three Indochinese nations. — VNS