Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam



The peace settlement

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By 1953, the State of Vietnam had become an agglomeration of several elements.  A cluster of politicians, most of whom had been part of the Cochinchina separat- ist scheme of d’Argenlieu, gathered in Saigon around Prime Minister Nguyen  Van Tam. The Binh Xuyen was a crime syndicate in Saigon and Cholon in alliance with the Corsican mafia that handled the opium traffic. The Hoa Hao was ascendant in western Cochinchina. The main Cao Dai leadership at Tay Ninh was allied with Bao Dai, but splinter groups followed the Viet Minh or the maverick general Trinh Minh The (1922–1955), who opposed both the Viet Minh and the French. The Dai Viet Party was dominant in Tonkin except for the Catholic bishoprics of Phat Diem and Bui Chu near the coast south of Hanoi, which governed their own affairs. Bao Dai resided in Dalat surrounded by his favorites, one of whom one was General Nguyen Van Hinh (1915–2004), son of Nguyen Van Tam, a French citizen, and a former major in the French air force, now serving as commander of the Vietnamese army. The remaining element was a disparate collection of people unwilling to participate in the false independence of the State of Vietnam and who were “waiting” for an opportunity to press for total independence. A leading figure among these was Ngo Dinh Nhu (1910–1963), a younger brother of Ngo Dinh Diem. Ngo Dinh Nhu had studied in France in the 1930s and, influenced by ideas  of progressive French Catholic philosophers, endeavored to articulate an alter- native to the extremes of communist collectivism and capitalist individualism.  Ngo Dinh Nhu rejected both the “masses” (quan chung) of communist ideol- ogy and the “individual” (ca nhan) of capitalism. He advocated instead the  “person” (nhan vi) who both cooperated with others and retained an autono- mous personal identity. His ideology, commonly translated as “personalism”  and generally conflated with the “personalism” of Emmanuel Mounier (1905– 1950), who influenced his thought, is probably more correctly translated as “personism” with its emphasis on the dignity of each person in the context of collective self-help. It was an adaptation of French “personalism” to an Asian society emerging from colonialism into the modern world. Ngo Dinh Nhu aimed for a society based neither on submersion into the mass nor the isolation of individuality but rather on the integrity of persons who take responsibility for each other. He rejected the communist term for “labor” (lao dong) that was used in the communist party name, Vietnamese Labor Party (Dang Lao Dong Viet Nam), because it derives from a classical expression meaning to mobilize or to rouse to action, which implies labor under the pressure of an external authority. He preferred the term can lao, which derives from a classical expression meaning a willingness to work without coercion, which can be translated as “diligence.” Ngo Dinh Diem easily understood these ideas, for  he believed that neither the coercive collectivism of communism nor the alienat- ing individualism of capitalism was a suitable model for his vision of a modern  Vietnamese society. After Ngo Dinh Diem went into exile in 1950, Ngo Dinh Nhu began to speak publicly about his ideas and to attract like-minded people. He lived for a time in Dalat where he established contact with Bao Dai. In 1953 he allied with a Saigon trade union leader and began to organize labor unions. He became a spokesman for those seeking total independence from the French. Before Bao Dai departed for France in August to follow up the Laniel government’s July announcement, Ngo Dinh Nhu met with him to discuss the Vietnamese negotiating position. Nguyen Van Tam was discredited, and under Dejean the French grip on Vietnamese political life had loosened. In early September, Ngo Dinh Nhu, along with the Cao Dai leader Pham Cong Tac (1890–1969), organized a congress in Cholon that included around fifty delegates from the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao, the Binh Xuyen, the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, the Dai Viet Nationalist Party,  and various Catholic groups. After lively debates, the delegates called for uncon- ditional independence and a national assembly elected by universal suffrage. This  congress brought to the surface widely shared opinions that had previously been pushed down by the French. Although it was an ad hoc event and lacked any official government standing, it opened political space and enabled Bao Dai to convene another congress in October. This congress, representing Bao Dai’s government, called for total independence and sovereignty, rejected membership in the French Union in its current form, rejected any negotiated settlement made by an international conference that was not approved by the Saigon government, and designated Bao Dai to conduct negotiations with the French. Nguyen Van Tam resigned in December and, in January 1954, Bao Dai appointed his cousin Buu Loc (1914–1990) to be prime minister. Meanwhile, the Laniel government was envisioning the prospect of negotiations with the Viet Minh as well, and the contradiction of simultaneously dealing with Bao Dai and Ho Chi Minh created difficulties for the French. The cases of Laos and Cambodia were simpler, and France concluded treaties granting independence to those countries by the end of 1953. When Buu Loc finally began negotiations with the French in early March of 1954, he discovered that the French were still not ready to take up his agenda. Within days, these negotiations were overshadowed by military events in Vietnam and by the impending international conference at Geneva, which had developed from the easing of Cold War tensions after Stalin’s death. Navarre, despite the lack of significant reinforcements from France and the lack of progress in expanding the Vietnamese army to the extent necessary for his plan, was under pressure from both the Americans and his own government to act, from the Americans to show evidence that his plan was still alive and from Paris to improve the French negotiating position. In November 1953 he began to garrison the valley of Dien Bien Phu, three hundred kilometers west of Hanoi near the Laotian border. There were five plausible reasons for this move, but they were unlikely to have been decisive without Navarre’s need to demonstrate some kind of offensive operation as envisioned by his plan. Dien Bien Phu was a major junction for routes between Vietnam, Laos, and China, and one reason for garrisoning this place was to inhibit the movement of enemy troops from Vietnam into Laos, as had occurred in the spring of 1953, which had distracted the French from Vietnamese battlefields to the defense of Laos. A second reason for going to Dien Bien Phu was to establish a base for offensive operations to bring the war into the enemy’s territory. Related to this was a third consideration: to more effectively support and maximize the guerrilla operations of France’s Tai allies in that region. A fourth idea was that a base at Dien Bien Phu would attract suicidal enemy attacks that could be destroyed by French firepower, as had happened the previous year at a mountain base named Na San. Finally, Dien Bien Phu was a major center of the opium trade, which was coveted by both the communists and the French. Controlling this place would deny a large source of income to the enemy and ensure that it came into French hands instead. But most important, the garrisoning of Dien Bien Phu was intended to restore a sense of mobility and an offensive spirit to an army that had become passive and road-bound. The main problem with Dien Bien Phu was that it could be supplied only by air, and its distance from French airfields was near the limit of the amount of fuel a plane could carry for a return trip. This was not a serious problem so long as the Dien Bien Phu airfield was serviceable. More serious was that, by itself, without reinforcements or a major growth of the Vietnamese army, it took limited resources away from other priorities. This may not have been a factor if more men had been available and the move to Dien Bien Phu had promptly  developed into a more general occupation of the surrounding area and pro- gressed to threaten communist supply lines from China. However, contrary to  French expectations, Vo Nguyen Giap rather quickly surrounded Dien Bien Phu and installed heavy artillery in the mountains overlooking it. Once the battle began in mid March, the airfield was unusable and Dien Bien Phu became a trap for the French. The Eisenhower administration was uninterested in intervening militarily, and Dien Bien Phu fell to the communists one day before the Geneva conference took up the Vietnamese issue on May 8. The fall of Dien Bien Phu, although not militarily decisive, broke the French will to continue the war. But even at this point, the issue of acknowledging Vietnamese independence remained unresolved. Under American pressure, a treaty granting independence to the State of Vietnam had been completed by late April, but the French delayed signing it. Negotiations were about to begin at Geneva, where Ho Chi Minh’s government would also be represented, and, as long as the independence treaty with the State of Vietnam remained unsigned, the French could negotiate with the communists on behalf of the Saigon government without its approval. However, Laniel’s thinking about this changed somewhat in late May after Bao Dai summoned Ngo Dinh Diem from Belgium, where he was residing, and  arranged for him to replace Buu Loc in June. Ngo Dinh Diem was famously anti- French and Laniel expected that dealing with him would be more difficult than  with Buu Loc. At the same time, however, by late May it was clear to the French that a partition of Vietnam would be a fundamental part of the settlement. This was strongly opposed by Bao Dai, Ngo Dinh Diem, and other representatives of the State of Vietnam. Laniel accordingly wanted to get the independence issue out of the way without fanfare before the people around Bao Dai learned of the partition issue. Consequently, on June 4, Laniel and Buu Loc initialed the independence treaty, but it was not ratified with the signatures of Bao Dai and the French president. Nine days later, Laniel resigned and, four days after that, Pierre Mendès-France (1907–1982) became prime minister with the pledge to obtain a peace agreement within a month. Mendès-France had no intention of observing any assurances that had previously been made to the State of Vietnam about not negotiating a settlement without its approval. France ostensibly released its colonial claim on Vietnam only at the last  possible moment, after years of tortuous negotiations, in the calamity of repudi- ating a costly war, as a subsidiary aspect of larger diplomatic maneuvers, and  with the anticipated embarrassment of breaking promises. And even then, it was not done, for the independence treaty would never be ratified. All the same, the State of Vietnam began to act as if it had been ratified and to establish relations directly with the United States, the only major power with a serious interest in its future. Ngo Dinh Diem had already left for Vietnam when Bao Dai proclaimed him as prime minister in mid June. France, the People’s Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom were the major negotiating powers at Geneva. The Soviet Union and the United Kingdom were the co-conveners of the conference and drove the agenda. China posed as mentor and patron of its Vietnamese ally. Desperate for a settlement before his self-imposed deadline of thirty days, Mendès-France acted for France and left the newly independent Indochinese associated states to manage on their own. The interests of Cambodia and Laos, each of which had only one government, were generally observed by the major powers. The State of Vietnam, however, was an orphan. The United States, while attending the conference, stood to one side, seeking to minimize being implicated in what it  understood as a Cold War defeat. Its presence offstage, however, was an import- ant influence on the outcome and confirmed the need to partition Vietnam  between its two governments not just to end the current war but more import- antly to prevent the outbreak of a new war.  It was obvious to nearly all the major powers that the only way to remove the likelihood of Vietnam again becoming a place of crisis in the Cold War was to separate the two Vietnamese governments, each in its own territory. However, Vietnamese of all political persuasions opposed a permanent partition of the country. Consequently, the expedient of a unification election in the future was contrived to conveniently dispose of the issue. Except for France, the major powers subsequently showed no further interest in the matter, understanding that Vietnam could not be united without war, and more war was what they hoped to preclude. Nothing of the Geneva settlement was signed except for  ceasefire arrangements by mid-level representatives of the French and Demo- cratic Republic of Vietnam’s armies, thereby demonstrating the studied ambigu- ity of a document that affirmed the sovereign independence and unity of a  country that it also partitioned between two rival armies and governments. Mendès-France revealed the persistence of colonial habits by neglecting to ratify the independence treaty that had been initialed by Laniel and Buu Loc in early June, claiming that to do so would violate the Geneva provision for an election to unify the country and that, until the election was held, France was still responsible for southern Vietnam. At the same time he sent an envoy to Hanoi to  sign a commercial treaty with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam that acknow- ledged French economic and cultural interests. He seemingly imagined that, by  maintaining the upper hand in southern Vietnam until the elections, France could produce an electoral result that unified Vietnam under Hanoi while preserving French influence. Even after his resignation in February 1955, the momentum of French efforts to direct Saigon politics continued for another three months.  For his part, Ngo Dinh Diem regarded the State of Vietnam as fully independ- ent and considered the Geneva agreement to be a vestige of French colonialism,  having been negotiated without the participation or approval of his government. While he publicly accepted the line of partition, he would have nothing to do with unification elections, which he viewed as impossible in a northern Vietnam ruled by a communist regime and as an opportunity for France to continue its pretensions of sovereignty.

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