Challenge One: Dien Bien Phu and the Geneva Conference of 1954

  • Mara Oliva


“I cannot afford to have the Democrats ask: who lost Vietnam?” President Dwight D. Eisenhower told his National Security Council in January 1954 while discussing a possible US intervention in the French colonial war against the Communist-led Vietminh in Indochina. The military crisis at Dien Bien Phu and the subsequent peace conference in Geneva were the first challenge to the Eisenhower administration’s hardline policy toward the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They typified the dilemma outlined in the 1952 Presidential campaign. Public opinion was still reeling from the painful Korean War experience and was certainly not in the mood for another limited war, especially if that might precipitate PRC involvement. However, Eisenhower correctly feared a repeat of “the loss of China” debate. This time, however, he would be accused of losing yet another country to Communism, if he let the Vietminh take control of the Indochina peninsula. The vast revisionist literature on the involvement of Eisenhower’s administration in Indochina has advanced numerous interpretations of the influence those contradictory popular feelings had on the President’s thinking. Without disputing Eisenhower’s sound decision not to intervene in Dienbienphu, some scholars, such as Robert Divine, have suggested that the President and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles skillfully used public opinion, and particularly Congress, to restrain those “impulsive administration advisers” that favored sending US troops to Indochina. Others, like historian Stephen Ambrose, have observed that Eisenhower’s strategy in Indochina was fashioned by his fear of the domestic repercussions of losing Vietnam. More recently, political scientist Douglas Foyle has argued that Congressional and public lack of support for US intervention forced the Eisenhower administration to review its policy of hostility toward the PRC and back down in Indochina. This chapter disputes those scholars’ contention. It argues instead that while the administration kept a careful eye on public opinion, neither Eisenhower nor Dulles were willing to sacrifice national security interests and review their hardline policy toward Beijing (Peiping) to appease the public. The popular outlook, and particularly Congress, narrowed the choice of policy options available and affected the way that the President and the Secretary of State implemented their national security strategy and how they presented it to the public, but it did not influence the administration’s basic thinking about the enemy, nor did it determine the policy choice.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mara Oliva
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of ReadingReadingUK

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