The Light That Failed 14

It was clear by late April, as the battle raged at Dienbienphu, that neither the Americans nor anyone else would come to the rescue of the French. During our chat in Hanoi thirty-six years later, I asked Giap to reflect on what might have happened had Eisenhower inter¬vened. “No doubt we would have had problems,” he replied, “but the outcome would have been the same. The battlefield was too big for effective bombing. Only a lunatic would have resorted to atomic weapons, which in any case would have devastated the French troops. At the time, however, I feared poison gas. Fortunately, it was never used.”
Confronted by the inevitable, the Washington hierarchy now ac¬cepted the imminent French defeat with genuine or contrived equan¬imity. Dulles tried to portray the coming debacle as a blessing, saying that it would arouse the other countries of Southeast Asia to take “measures that we hope will be sufficiently timely and vigorous to preserve [them] from Communist domination.” Eisenhower, ap¬pearing as calm as ever, shrugged off what had not long befort loomed as a crisis. Speaking at a press conference on April 29, he said, “You certainly cannot hope at the present state of our relations in the world for a completely satisfactory answer with the Communists. The most you can work out is a practical way of getting along.”
Giap’s timing was perfect. On the afternoon of May 7, 1954, the red Vietminh flag went up over the French command bunker at Dien¬bienphu. The next morning in Geneva, nine delegations assembled around a horseshoe-shaped table at the old League of Nations building to open discussions aimed at ending the war in Indochina. Except for Dulles, who checked into a hotel and stayed for only a week, the chief representatives at Geneva had rented residences—an indication of their intention to remain for the duration of the confer¬ence. The Chinese, as befitting their debut on the international stage, arrived with a mission of two hundred, including cooks, and en¬sconced Zhou Enlai in a lavish estate, Grand Mont-Fleuri, decorating its large house with antiques and carpets brought from China. Eden lived in equal splendor amid the velvet upholstery of Reposoir, an elegant eighteenth-century mansion set in a park, while Georges Bi- dault occupied Joli-Port, a modest villa next door to Pham Van Dong, the Vietminh leader. But despite their seventy-four days together in the placid Swiss city, the diplomats never cleared the prevailing at¬mosphere of distrust and tension.
The Vietminh’s officials avoided Bao Dai’s representatives and spurned the envoys from Cambodia and Laos; they also boycotted the French, who did not encounter the Chinese until late in the episode. The Russians dropped disparaging remarks about the Chinese. The Americans had been ordered to shun the Chinese, lest a smile be interpreted as formal recognition, and Dulles even refused to shake hands with Zhou Enlai, conceding sarcastically that they might pos¬sibly meet if their cars collided. The French resented American at¬tempts to use them as intermediaries, and the Americans blamed the French for keeping their maneuvers secret. The Americans also ex¬pressed impatience with the British, who they felt were not sufficiently tough. Eden struggled heroically to hold this fragile house of cards together, observing afterward: “I had never known a conference of this kind. The parties would not make direct contact, and we were in constant danger of one or another backing out the door. ”
In the end, the Geneva Conference produced no durable solution to the Indochina conflict, only a military truce that awaited a political settlement, which never really happened. So the conference was merely an interlude between two wars—or, rather, a lull in the same war.
The American delegation, headed by Bedell Smith, the unflappable under secretary of state, limped into the meeting, its authority shackled by Eisenhower and Dulles. Eisenhower, having failed to mobilize a Western coalition, had publicly ruled out a unilateral U.S. military alternative in Southeast Asia if the talks foundered. So American ap¬peals to resist Communist demands lacked substance. At the same time, Dulles had instructed Smith to stand aloof from the negotia¬tions—partly because he considered concessions to Communists to be sacrilegious, and also because he was reluctant to link the United States to any agreement that already looked as if it would be unsat-isfactory. Smith, therefore, could only keep the French representatives from betraying American interests. That meant, among other things, keeping them from making any deal that gave real estate to the Viet- minh.
Bidault, puffy and dissolute, started out by proclaiming that he would not accept a divided Vietnam as a solution but would work solely for a cease-fire. He simply hoped to stop the fighting, placate French public opinion and save Laniel’s tottering government—post¬poning a political agreement for a later date. Without informing the United States, however, the French had already begun to toy with the concept of partition, figuring that they might induce Ho Chi Minh to halt the hostilities in exchange for granting some measure of le¬gitimacy to his regime.
Since the Vietminh had prevailed at Dienbienphu and still menaced the French elsewhere in Indochina, Pham Van Dong predictably came on strong. He insisted on a political settlement first, under which the French would withdraw and leave the Vietnamese to resolve their own differences—a formula calculated to panic the Bao Dai regime and virtually guarantee a Communist triumph. He also argued for recognition of the Pathet Lao and the Free Khmer, the Vietminh- supported Communist movements in Laos and Cambodia, contending that they deserved legal status and control of territory in their coun¬tries. The French rejected these demands, Pham Van Dong refused to yield—and the conference slid to a standstill.
There it remained until the middle of June, when two major events occurred. The French parliament, reflecting the public’s impatience with the immobility at Geneva, ousted Prime Minister Laniel and replaced him with Mendes-France—in effect, challenging the critic to do better. And Zhou Enlai, grabbing a chance to break the deadlock, stepped in to take charge of the talks for the Communists. From then on, Mendes-France and Zhou negotiated covertly, the ritual speeches around the conference table serving only as a formal facade. In the end, both men realized for their own reasons that an imperfect com¬promise was preferable to a prolonged war that could escalate.

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