The Light That Failed 16

Now Molotov, the grim old Bolshevik, would arbitrate—at the last minute. On the afternoon of July 20, Mendes-France’s deadline, Molotov convened a meeting at his villa, Le Bocage. He conspicuously excluded Bedell Smith and Bao Dai’s delegate, but Mendes-France, Zhou, Eden and Pham Van Dong assembled in the salon, and they bargained. Pham Van Dong, perspiring as the heavyweights encircled him, now accepted a partition at the sixteenth parallel. Mendes-France stuck to the eighteenth. “Let’s agree on the seventeenth,” announced Molotov, then moved on to the election schedule. Mendes-France wanted the timetable left open. Pham Van Dong amended his demand for six months, offering a year, maybe even eighteen months. Mol¬otov, his round face motionless, delivered the verdict with a rhetorical question: “Shall we say two years?” Mendes-France had slipped under the wire, having completed the onerous job that no other French politician had the courage to undertake. He had won more for France at the conference table than its generals had won on the battlefield; the Vietminh had gained less in the talks than in combat. Pham Van Dong, furious with Zhou, walked away from the last round of hag¬gling and muttered to an aide, “He has double-crossed us.”
Worse awaited the Vietminh leader two evenings later, at a farewell dinner organized by Zhou. The guests included a member of Bao Dai’s delegation, Ngo Dinh Luyen, the younger brother of Ngo Dinh Diem. Pham Van Dong was astonished and dismayed that Zhou, a Communist comrade, should have invited a “puppet” of the French. But Zhou went even further, obliquely indicating in his silky manner that China favored a permanent partition of Vietnam. Turning to Luyen during the evening, he suggested almost casually that the gov¬ernment to be established in Saigon open a diplomatic mission in Beijing: “Of course, Pham Van Dong is closer to us ideologically, but that doesn’t rule out representation from the south. After all, aren’t you both Vietnamese, and aren’t we all Asians?”
The conclusion at Geneva was to be misinterpreted, if not misun¬derstood, for years to come. The only documents signed were cease¬fire accords ending the hostilities in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The agreement between France and the Democratic Republic of Viet¬nam, as the Vietminh officially called itself, was not a political settle¬ment. It provided for the temporary division of Vietnam pending a nationwide election to be held in the summer of 1956. The French forces would meanwhile withdraw from the north, and the Vietminh from the south. Except for the United States and the Saigon regime, the other participants merely gave their oral endorsement to a final declaration noting the understandings.
The Eisenhower administration, crusading against its foggy notion of an international Communist conspiracy, reluctantly pledged to abide by the Geneva agreement. In a separate statement, however, Bedell Smith warned that the United States would view “with grave concern . . . any renewal of aggression”—a caveat President Kennedy used seven years later to justify his commitment to the Ngo Dinh Diem government. Diem also rejected the Geneva accords, which put half of Vietnam under Communist control, and he predicted that “another more deadly war” lay ahead for Vietnam. His forecast was prescient: after eight years of conflict and four hundred thousand sol¬diers and civilians dead, the agony was far from finished.

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