The Light That Failed 15

Zhou Enlai, then fifty-six, showed at Geneva for the first time the skills that made him one of the most brilliant diplomats of the century. Urbane, subtle, tough and determined, he was a unique blend of Chinese mandarin and Communist commissar, and he had a special affinity for the French, having spent his youth in Paris. The Chinese had just suffered a million casualties in Korea, and the conflict had nearly spilled over their border. Zhou’s primary aim at Geneva was to carve out an agreement that would deny the United States a pretext to intervene in Indochina and again threaten China. Thus he sought a settlement that would give the French at least a foothold in their former possession, to the exclusion of the Americans.
Such an accommodation inevitably required a sacrifice of the Viet- minh’s objectives. But Zhou put China’s priorities first. Besides, Chinese foreign policy throughout the centuries had been to fragment Southeast Asia in order to influence its states, and Zhou subscribed to that tradition. A divided Vietnam suited the Chinese better than a unified neighbor—particularly one that had quarreled with China for two thousand years. Similarly, China’s security would be served by restraining Vietnamese ambitions in Laos and Cambodia. By curbing the Vietminh, moreover, Zhou hoped to display his moderation to India, Indonesia and the other nonaligned countries of Asia. Indeed, his appearance at Geneva was a prelude to his performance soon af¬terward at the Bandung Conference, where he and Indian Prime Min¬ister Jawaharlal Nehru embraced as they launched their campaign to preach the pantjasila, the “principles of peaceful coexistence.”
As early as May 18, ten days after the start of the conference, one of Zhou’s deputies explained to a French delegate over dinner that “we are here to reestablish peace, not to back the Vietminh.” Soon, Zhou confided to Eden and Bidault separately that he opposed the Vietminh’s attempts to control Laos and Cambodia. He further an¬noyed the Vietminh leaders by taking a furlough to visit India and Burma, whose governments did not recognize their regime. During that trip, he met with Ho Chi Minh in southern China, evidently telling him not to expect further Chinese economic aid unless the Vietminh behaved more flexibly at Geneva. By this time, Zhou was beginning to clear the air with Mendes-France.
Mendes-France, then forty-seven, was Jewish, rather a rarity in French politics; even more rare, he could be bravely candid. He had been denouncing the Indochina war for years. Now he would try to end it—and he publicly handed himself an ultimatum. On June 17, asked by the president of France to form a cabinet, he ascended the rostrum of the National Assembly to seek a vote of confidence. He dramatized the danger of an international, perhaps even atomic, war in Asia unless he obtained a cease-fire, and he set a deadline. “My government will give itself—and its adversaries—four weeks. … If no satisfactory solution can be achieved by then, I will resign.”
His task was formidable. The Vietminh showed no signs of elas¬ticity, and Bao Dai had just appointed the intractable Ngo Dinh Diem to be his prime minister. But Zhou Enlai intervened. He arranged to meet Mendes-France covertly on June 23, at the French embassy in Bern, the Swiss capital.
Zhou had discarded his usual severe tunic for a gray Western busi¬ness suit, and he meant business. He told Mendes-France that, in contrast to the demands of the Vietminh, he favored a cease-fire first and a political accord afterward. He would urge the Vietminh to stop meddling in Laos and Cambodia, and to respect the sovereignty of these two countries. Most astonishingly, he foresaw the probability of “two Vietnams”—a direct blow to the Vietminh’s dream of uni¬fication. The possibility of American military bases in Indochina wor¬ried him. Beyond that, he said, China’s only aim was peace in the region, adding that his government had “no other ambitions [and] poses no conditions.”
Dulles, hypnotized by his own vision of monolithic Communism bent on world domination, fretted over the meeting between Zhou and Mendes-France. He considered pulling the U.S. delegation out of Geneva, as he informed Douglas Dillon, the American ambassador in Paris: “These negotiations appear to have gone underground, and we have little reliable knowledge of what is really in the minds of the French government. . . . We fear that the French may in fact, without prior consultations with us . . . agree to a settlement that . . . contains such political clauses and restrictions that Laos, Cambodia and south¬ern Vietnam will almost surely fall in a few months under Communist control.”
Encouraged by Zhou Enlai’s apparent willingness to cut Vietnam into two zones, Mendes-France, too, came around to the idea of par¬tition. But how? Pham Van Dong had finally acceded to the principle under both Chinese and Soviet pressure, but he argued that the line should be drawn at the thirteenth parallel, which would give the Vietminh two-thirds of the country. Mendes-France suggested the eighteenth parallel. On July 12, he again met in Bern with Zhou Enlai, who hinted at a pro-French tilt: “The two parties should take a few steps toward each other—which doesn’t mean that each has to take the same number of steps.”
Zhou had earlier persuaded the Vietminh to drop its demand that the Pathet Lao and Free Khmer be allowed to occupy parts of Laos and Cambodia, but another snag developed. Partition, a temporary expedient designed to separate the belligerents, would be followed by elections to unify Vietnam. But when? Pham Van Dong, eager to take advantage of the Vietminh’s military momentum, called for six months from the date of a cease-fire; this was much too soon for the French. The haggling continued as Mendes-France raced the clock.

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