The Light That Failed 11

The Soviet Union was on a similar track. Stalin’s successors had issued a statement as early as August 4, eight days after the Korean agreement was signed, proposing discussions to resolve conflicts in Asia. Such a meeting, they later suggested, could proceed from a conference scheduled to explore ways to settle differences over Ger¬many. Their conciliatory gesture was partly designed to disavow the late Soviet dictator’s belligerence and promote themselves as partisans of “peaceful coexistence.” They hoped as well that, by extending an olive branch to the French, they might dissuade France from joining the European Defense Community, an American plan to bring a rearmed West Germany into a Western military pact. They also in¬sisted that China be included in talks on Asia.
The Chinese Communists, who had gained control in Beijing only four years earlier, were then eager to play a role on the international scene—largely to dilute their almost exclusive reliance on the Soviet Union. Their economic programs were also faltering, and they felt that they might benefit from trade with the West. And, by projecting an image of moderation, they hoped to win sympathy from the non- aligned countries of Africa and Asia, and perhaps gain recognition from Western Europe, even if the United States continued to spurn them. Above all, they were worried about their own security.
Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, who directed Chinese foreign policy, had concluded by 1953 that France would sooner or later scuttle its commitment in Indochina. He estimated, however, that the United States might step in, thus menacing China on its own doorstep. So he favored a negotiated settlement that would give the French a future stake in their former colonial possession and prevent the United States from filling the vacuum left by their departure. He would work for such an accord, even at the expense of the Vietminh.
These trends troubled both Bao Dai and his anti-Communist Viet¬namese adversaries, who feared that the French might sell them out for the sake of a deal with Ho Chi Minh. A vocal spokesman for the “third force” nationalists was Ngo Dinh Diem’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, a fiery intellectual who in September 1953 organized a dem¬onstration in Saigon to denounce France. The protests, amply reported in Paris newspapers, further confused and alienated the French public, which had been told that France’s only foes in Indochina were the Communists. As this clamor mounted, Prime Minister Laniel declared in a parliamentary speech that France “has no reason to prolong its sacrifices if the very people for whom they are being made disdain those sacrifices and betray them.”
Nowhere did the drift toward negotiations raise more alarm than in Washington, where President Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, saw the U.S. policy of containment crumbling. In his view, the Chinese Communists had only conceded to a truce in Korea in order to redirect their aggression against Southeast Asia. He there¬fore urged the French to delay making any diplomatic moves until they had improved their military posture in Indochina, and he pledged $500 million to sweeten his plea. The French took the money but rebuffed his advice—even to the point of threatening to sabotage the projected European Defense Community unless he supported their efforts to achieve what Prime Minister Laniel had called an “honorable settlement.”
Ho Chi Minh, recalling his past betrayals by France, was suspicious of negotiations. His strategy was to continue fighting until he had worn down French opinion to the point at which he could dictate the terms of an armistice. In a statement issued on September 2, the eighth anniversary of his declaration of independence, he cautioned against a premature cessation of hostilities, saying that “only when our long and hard resistance is victorious can we win peace. ” But both Moscow and Beijing were leaning on him to show flexibility, and the Chinese in particular could exert leverage.
They had trained his troops at camps in China, and they had stiffened his ranks with advisers. Though they probably never intended to intervene directly, they had massed two hundred thousand men on the Vietnamese border, thereby frightening the weary French public into seeking an exit from Indochina rather than risk a wider war. They had furnished him with at least fifty thousand tons of military hard¬ware since 1950, and he knew that their heavy artillery, antiaircraft guns, mortars and ammunition would be crucial to the outcome of the confrontation then shaping up at Dienbienphu. Since the Korean truce, indeed, the Chinese had vastly increased its supplies, providing him with four thousand tons of equipment and two thousand tons of food per month. Later, Beijing would threaten to curtail its aid unless Ho compromised with the French—just as, in 1972, both the Chinese and Russians used the same pressure to compel his successors to make concessions to the United States. For all his claims to independence, Ho was essentially reliant on his Communist patrons, who did not hesitate to subvert his goals to advance their own interests.
Under this pressure, Ho turned to diplomacy. On November 29, 1953, the Swedish newspaper Expressen published his answers to ques¬tions posed by Sven Lofgren, its enterprising correspondent in Paris. He would be willing, Ho wrote, to end the war “by peaceful means.”
Lofgren had cabled his questions through Beijing weeks earlier, and the Chinese, aware of them, certainly informed the Soviets of the opportunity to benefit from the interview. Thus, two days before Expressen printed Ho’s replies, the Russians accepted an old Western proposal for discussions on Germany among the United States, Brit¬ain, France and the Soviet Union: by implication, the meeting would go on in expanded form to deal with Indochina.

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