Reunification Elections

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The 1956 "Elections"

from Myths and Realities in the Vietnam Debate By Robert F. Turner

Few myths were more popular or more effective in making Americans doubt the moral authority of U.S. policy in Vietnam than the suggestion that the United States government encouraged Ngo Dinh Diem to refuse to hold the reunification elections allegedly agreed to during the 1954 Geneva Conference and scheduled for July 1956. This was often reinforced with a quotation from President Eisenhower’s Mandate for Change to the effect that eighty percent of the Vietnamese people would have voted for Ho Chi Minh.

Ironically, perhaps the best antidote to this mythology were The Pentagon Papers published in 1971. They make clear, first of all, that neither the United States government nor Ngo Dinh Diem's State of Vietnam signed anything at the 1954 Geneva Conference. With respect to the question of reunification, the non-communist Vietnamese delegation objected strenuously to any division of Vietnam, but lost out when the French accepted the proposal of Viet Minh delegate Pham Van Dong.[1] Dong, who subsequently became Prime Minister of Ho Chi Minh's government, then proposed that Vietnam eventually be united by elections under the supervision of "local commissions."[2] The United States countered with what became known as the "American Plan," with the support of South Vietnam and the United Kingdom. It provided for unification elections under the supervision of the United Nations.[3] This was rejected by Soviet delegation head Molotov, with the support of the other communist delegations.[4] In the end, over the protest of South Vietnam and the United States, the cease fire agreement (signed only by France and the Viet Minh) provided for division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel and supervision of the agreement by an International Control Commission (ICC) chaired by India with Hungary and Canada as members. At the insistence of the communist delegations, "important questions" could only be settled by unanimous vote of the commissioners.[5]

The nationalist Vietnamese position was very clear. The Diem government continued to call for free elections supervised by the United Nations and, as The Pentagon Papers later observed, it protested against the Viet Minh proposed elections because it was "convinced that Hanoi would not permit `free general elections by secret ballot,' and that the ICC would be important in supervising the elections in any case."[6]

The United States position at Geneva was equally clear. The Pentagon Papers wrote that the low level U.S.delegation took a "rigid" position:

[T]he United States would not associate itself with any arrangement that failed to provide adequately for an internationally supervised cease-fire and national elections, that resulted in the partitioning of any of the Associated States, or that compromised the independence and territorial integrity of those States in any way. It would not interfere with French efforts to reach an agreement, but neither would it guarantee or otherwise be placed in the position of seeming to support it if contrary to policy.[7]

Because the United States refused to sign the proposed "Final Declaration" relating to Vietnam at the Geneva Conference—the only document to make reference to holding unification elections in July 1956[8] —the Declaration was simply approved by a voice vote without signature. Before the vote, Dr. Tran Van Do of South Vietnam protested strongly against the idea of partition and against the absence of effective international supervision, and reaffirmed his government's demand for United Nations supervision of a cease-fire and of free elections when the United Nations believes that order and security will have been everywhere truly restored."[9] The U.S. position on elections was equally clear and was set forth by delegation head Ambassador Walter Bedell Smith on the final day of the conference:

As I stated on July 18, my Government is not prepared to join in a declaration by the Conference such as is submitted. However, the United States makes this unilateral declaration of its position in these matters. . . . In connection with the statement in the declaration concerning free elections in Viet-Nam my Government wishes to make clear its position which it has expressed in a declaration made in Washington on June 29, 1954, as follows:

In the case of nations now divided against their will, we shall continue to seek to achieve unity through free elections supervised by the United Nations to insure that they are conducted fairly.
With respect to the statement made by the representative of the State of Vietnam, the United States reiterates its traditional position that peoples are entitled to determine their own future and that it will not join in any arrangement which would hinder this.[10]

The wisdom of the U.S. and South Vietnamese positions with respect to elections has been reaffirmed time and again during the past three decades. Because of the Polish veto on important questions, the ICC proved as powerless as both delegations feared. Since Hanoi had a significant majority of the population following partition, and since Ho Chi Minh and other key Party leaders always received at least ninety-nine percent of the vote in the subsequent so-called "elections"[11] in North Vietnam, it would have been suicide for Diem's government to accept the communist proposal. The consistent position of Diem and the American delegation that unification elections must have effective international supervision was admirable, and any criticism of either government for failing to submit to essentially unsupervised proposed elections envisioned by the Final Declaration at Geneva—which both governments denounced at the time—is unwarranted. Nevertheless, this argument was instrumental in turning many Americans against their government’s policies in Vietnam.

The question of the "Eisenhower quote" is equally easy to dispose of: all one has to do is read the entire sentence. Not infrequently, for maximum effectiveness, critics of U.S. involvement in Vietnam would omit two separate passages from the sentence in Mandate for Change.

For example, Felix Greene, in his 1966 book, Vietnam! Vietnam, wrote that:

The reason the U.S. refused to allow elections was abundantly clear. No one who knew the conditions in Vietnam was in any doubt that, if elections were held, Ho Chi Minh would be elected by an overwhelming majority of the people.

He then quotes President Eisenhower as writing:

I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held . . . possibly eighty percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh.

It is instructive to compare what President Eisenhower actually wrote with this partial excerpt:

I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly eighty percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai. Indeed, the lack of leadership and drive on the part of Bao Dai was a factor in the feeling prevalent among Vietnamese that they had nothing to fight for.[12]

Thus, in context, Eisenhower was talking about an election in 1954 between Ho and Bao Dai, and his purpose was at least in part to emphasize the shortcomings of Bao Dai, a corrupt French puppet who had very little support in Vietnam. He was eventually defeated by well in excess of eighty percent of the vote by Ngo Dinh Diem, a man The Pentagon Papers note had a "reputation for incorruptible nationalism."[13] After working for the French for a year in 1933, Diem resigned in protest that promised reforms were being blocked. He subsequently refused invitations to head a puppet government for the Japanese, to serve as Premier under Bao Dai at the end of World War II, and to accept a senior position in Ho Chi Minh's government in 1946.[14] When the French returned later that year—at Ho's invitation[15] —they, too, sought to persuade Diem to head a puppet government.[16] Indeed, it is quite possible that Diem’s refusal to be an American "puppet" in the end led to the frustration that caused the Kennedy Administration to engineer his overthrow and eventual death.

Not only was the famous "Eisenhower quote" not a comparison between Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem, but it was discussing an entirely different period in both North and South Vietnam. Between 1954 and 1956 (when the elections envisioned in the Final Declaration would have been held) "Ngo Dinh Diem really did accomplish miracles"[17] in South Vietnam, while North Vietnam experienced a blood land reform purge that resulted in the deaths of tens if not hundreds of thousands of people.[18] As The Pentagon Papers observed in discussing the Eisenhower quote:

It is almost certain that by 1956 the proportion which might have voted for Ho—in a free election against Diem—would have been much smaller than eighty percent. Diem's success in the South had been far greater than anyone could have foreseen, while the North Vietnamese regime had been suffering from food scarcity, and low public morale stemming from inept imitation of Chinese communism.[19]

In summary, the reality is that "the United States did not—as is often alleged—connive with Diem to ignore the elections.”[20] Both governments strongly supported the concept of unification through free elections, but both insisted wisely that any such election must have effective international supervision, preferably under the auspices of the United Nations, to be meaningful. History has shown that this was a wise decision. With the support of China and the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese Communists essentially blocked free elections by objecting to effective supervision. Nevertheless, the myth that the United States reneged on its commitment at the Geneva Conference to permit free elections in July 1956 was instrumental in persuading large numbers of Americans that their government was morally wrong in Vietnam.


  1. 1 Pentagon Papers, supra note 5 at 134
  2. Id. at 119
  3. Id. at 140
  4. Id
  5. Id. at 140, 147
  6. Id. at 247
  7. Id. at 121
  8. Final Declaration of the Geneva Conference (21 July 1954), unsigned, art. 7. See also Agreement on the Cessation of Hostilities in Vietnam (20 July 1954), signed by French and Viet Minh, art. 14(a)
  9. The Pentagon Papers, supra note 5 at 560, 570
  10. Id. at 570-71
  11. See, e.g., Turner, supra note 1 at 193-94, 202-03, 215-17
  12. D. Eisenhower, The White House Years: Mandate for Change 372; (1963). Emphasis added
  13. The Pentagon Papers, supra note 5 at 296. Bernard Fall writes of Diem's "reputation for ‘all-or-nothing integrity’...." Fall, supra note 5 at 239
  14. The Pentagon Papers, supra note 5 at 298
  15. Turner, supra note 1 at 52
  16. The Pentagon Papers, supra note 5 at 298
  17. Id. at 252
  18. See Turner, supra note 1 at 142-43
  19. The Pentagon Papers, supra note 5 at 246
  20. Id. at 245

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