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Digital Archive International History Declassified

June 23, 1954

RECORD OF CONVERSATION BETWEEN ZHOU ENLAI AND PIERRE MENDèS-FRANCE

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    Mendes-France and Zhou discuss the Indochina issue during their first meeting together. Both men feel they are in agreement with each other regarding several points (establishing a cease-fire before discussing political issues, that no US military bases should be established in Indochina, elections in Cambodia and Laos, cooperation between France and Vietnam and between the two sides in Vietnam). They end on a positive note, both certain that their few differences of opinion will be worked out.
    "Record of Conversation between Zhou Enlai and Pierre Mendès-France," June 23, 1954, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, PRC FMA 206-Y0007, reprinted in Waijiaobu dang’anguan ed., Yijiuwusi nian Rineiwa huiyi (The Geneva Conference of 1954) (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 2006), 292-298. Translated by Li Xiaobing. https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/111864
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Time: 23 June 1954
Location: French Embassy, Bern
Chinese participants: Premier Zhou Enlai, Vice Minister Li Kenong, [Chinese Embassy in Switzerland Minister] Feng Xian, Huan Xiang, Zhang Wenjin (secretary), and Dong Ningchuan (translator)
French participants: Pierre Mendes-France, Ambassador [to Switzerland Jean] Chauvel, Luwin, Jacques Guillermaz, and one translator

[Pierre] Mendes-France: It is said that [you,] Mr. Premier[,] postponed your trip to India for one day in order to come here. I really appreciate it.

Zhou Enlai: We are so glad to meet Mr. Prime Minister and Foreign Minister before my brief return to China.

Mendes-France: It is very good to make this meeting happen quickly. I am very glad about this. The reason is that I'd like to solve all of the problems concerning us quickly. Mr. Premier knows under what kind of circumstance our new national government was established. The French National Assembly has decided on a date and hopes that a settlement will be achieved before this date. This settlement of course must bring about peace.

Zhou Enlai: It is for this reason that the leaders of our two countries have this early meeting to exchange our opinions. I believe this [will be] helpful in making conference progress from now on.

Mendes-France: Mr. Premier has been attending all the meetings. I couldn't participate in the conference before. But I had the information on your conversations with Mr. Bidault. I'd like to know more about Mr. Premier's observation and opinion on what measures we should take in order to achieve peace in Indochina.

Zhou Enlai: In the past meetings I have exchanged many opinions with Mr. Bidault and Mr. Chauvel. Nevertheless, I'd still like to talk to the new French prime minister and foreign minister now about the Chinese delegation's opinion on the conference.
The Chinese delegation's purpose of coming and attending this Geneva Conference is to resume and realize peace in Indochina. This is our goal, and we do not ask for anything else. We oppose any enlargement or internationalization of the war. We oppose any use of threatening or provocative methods. They do not help negotiations. China, however, is not afraid of threats, as Mr. Prime Minister knows. We need to employ conciliatory methods to help both sides to arrive at an agreement.
It is because of this common spirit, we'd like to address my opinions to Mr. Prime Minister.


To solve any problem in Indochina, the first [requirement] is a cease-fire. Military issues are always related to political issues. The military issue is being discussed presently, and the political issue can be discussed later on. After an agreement is reached, the first [step] is to stop the war. As Mr. Prime Minister said, the French Parliament has expressed this kind of desire, because the people of France, Indochina, and the world all support this. The current situation in Indochina is that all three countries are involved in the war. They have a similar situation. All of the three countries need a cease-fire, and their people demand independence and national unification. The French government has shown its willingness to recognize the independence of the three countries and their national unification. China is willing to see they will stay in the French Union. Our country also intends to establish a friendly and peaceful relationship with France.


The three countries, however, have different problems. Therefore, we should accept different ways in solving the problems in each country. Vietnam, for example, needs a general election for its national unification after the war, and then [the new national government] decides on the type of its political system. This will be determined by the Vietnamese people themselves. Regarding Laos and Cambodia, as long as the people in the two countries are still supportive of their current
royal governments, our government will be very happy to see these two countries become part of the normal Southeast Asian countries, like India and Indonesia. I have expressed the same opinion to Mr. [Georges] Bidault.
Of course, on the other hand, we don't want to see that these three countries become military bases of the United States, or that the United States builds up a military pact with them. This is what we are against. If the United States establishes its military base there, we have to check it out, and we can't just let it go without checking.


I talked to the foreign ministers of Laos and Cambodia a few days ago. They all assured me that they don't want any American military base in their countries. I said that was good and encouraged them to make friends with France, as long as France respects their independence.
I also heard that [Minister of Foreign Affairs] Mr. Pham Van Dong, representative of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, talked to them and expressed that Vietnam will respect the independence and sovereignty of Laos and Cambodia, and assure a non-aggression between them and Vietnam. It was very good when I heard they were talking like this.


Politically, the three countries face different situations. Currently, Vietnam has two governments. The military regrouping areas must be determined, but it doesn't [require] a [political] division. During a period of time after the cease-fire, a free election will be held through negotiations between the two governments. This is their own domestic affair. We can show our support, even though we can't intervene. Laos and Cambodia also need to achieve their unifications through elections. I think the Democratic Republic of Vietnam can agree on this point. The question is whether the two royal governments can recognize the resistance movements in their countries, and unite with the resistance governments in order to achieve their national unifications. The Bao Dai government should approach the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through discussions and negotiations, instead of opposing it. Unfortunately, his [Bao Dai's] political proposal aims exactly at opposition, hegemony, and at inviting the United Nations to intervene. This is unacceptable.


Militarily, the military representatives from both sides are negotiating the issue of Vietnam. We all hope that a settlement will be reached sooner. Laos and Cambodia have two situations. The first is that they have local resistance forces; it is small in Cambodia, and large in Laos. In Cambodia, the Royal government should talk directly to the resistance forces about cease-fire, neutral nation supervision, and political solutions there. So it should in Laos. In the meantime, the royal governments should also join France in the negotiations of both sides to determine the regrouping areas for the local forces. This will lead to their political unifications. The second situation is that all the foreign armed forces and military personnel should withdraw from these two countries. Vietnam had sent some volunteers over there. If it is still the case at the present, they may follow the resolution provided by the military staff meetings, requiring the withdrawal of all the foreign troops from all of Indochina.


By now the representatives from both commands have reached an agreement in principle about the military meetings. They will meet and talk intensively in the next three weeks. Currently, the meetings of the belligerent states became the center of the conference. France and Vietnam are the most important parties from both sides. Our desire is a direct contact of both sides and a signed settlement [to be reached] soon. All the nations at the conference, including China, are willing to make contributions to genuine progress, and [are] firm to oppose any obstruction or destruction.
These are the main points of my opinion.

Mendes-France: The Premier's points help me realize that the Premier's thoughts on the issues are very clear. Of course, I can't respond to every point, but some particular points should be discussed carefully. What made me glad is that our opinions are pretty close on the main points. I heard that the discussions on Laos and Cambodia have made some progress in the past several days. I also know that the progress was achieved mostly through the efforts by the delegation under the leadership of Premier Zhou. I believe that we don't have any unsolvable
problems between us over the issues of Laos and Cambodia.


As the Premier mentioned, coping with the domestic problems in Laos and Cambodia also requires international supervision. Certainly, a solution requires some work, but I don't think it is too difficult to find out.


The problem in Vietnam is different. The Premier just said that it is tougher. And then the situation is not optimistic because the war has been [going on] in that country for so long. Moreover, as the Premier said, the two governments there have their own administrations and armies. The Vietnamese people are divided into two sides, and both sides have been fighting the war for many years. One of the points mentioned by the Premier needs to be noticed[:] that many problems can be solved through direct contact between both sides. If workable, we certainly welcome [direct contact]. In fact, however, it is difficult. Although it is difficult to contact and to obtain any result, we will make our vigorous effort to arrive at this goal. Nevertheless, we agree on this direction. The Premier also said that the goal in this region is unification, and that the methods and procedure can be considered differently. Vietnam is divided into two parts, it is difficult to reach any agreement in a short period of time. It is impossible to complete its national unification as soon as the cease-fire becomes effective. The time issue was just mentioned because the war has been there so long that peace would not be stalled immediately, and that procedure will not be that simple, for example, talking about an immediate election. In fact, if the Vietnamese people really want their unification, they have to cooperate and need certain procedures. Generally speaking, [our] goals are not much different in principle.


There is one more final point. I am glad the Premier made such a suggestion: it is the best to go through two steps. This first is a cease-fire, and the second is a political settlement. I fully agree for the same reasons the Premier stated. For genuine progress, the first step is to concentrate our attention and energy on the cease-fire issue, including the determination of regrouping areas. This is a practical solution, it should be reached quickly. I'd like to ask the Premier if you agree that we have many points in common?
There is another important point. The Premier raised a concern about establishing American military bases. I fully agree on this point. I want to make it clear that we don't intend to establish any American bases in that region. We don't have such a plan.

Zhou Enlai: I'd like to explain regarding your points:

You had a very good answer to my last point. France has no intention to establish any American bases. This is very good not only for the three countries, but also good for China, France, and Southeast Asia. All of us hope for a peaceful co-existence and for building a common foundation for the future.

You also said that the military and political solutions in Laos and Cambodia needed international supervision. Our opinions are the same on this point.

The situation in Vietnam is different and difficult. But I think the military and political principles can be reached first. The problem-solving should deal with the troop regrouping and cease-fire issues first, and then turn to the political settlement. It should be two steps, not one step. The length of each step depends on the effort of both sides, and requires discussions between the two sides. France bears more responsibilities for them to get closer, not confrontational. If the two sides refuse to make contact or refuse to talk to each other, it will slow down the cease-fire. I believe that you have found that the Chinese delegation is pushing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to approach not only France, but also Bao Dai Vietnam. France may find it difficult to ask the Bao Dai government to make contact with the others. The Prime Minister knows where the difficulty comes from. That is the situation. Mr. Chauvel knows [it] even better.

Of course, if we want to satisfy the reasonable requests made by Laos and Cambodia, we should meet the reasonable requests in Vietnam made by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Therefore, the military meetings between both sides may reach an agreement more easily.

Mendes-France: I don't have a whole package of opinions. We have the same opinion on some of the issues. Let me repeat this, it is a good thing if we can help to put the two Vietnamese governments together. The French government really wants to use its influence to facilitate their cooperation. It is, however, very difficult. We just talked about the long war, a long period of division, so that it is difficult for them to come together psychologically and politically. But [they] need to follow this guideline in order to achieve some settlements. It is better for them to set up some kind of foundation for implementing a cease-fire and troop regrouping. As you know, the negotiations between their military experts are still ongoing. Even though they do not seem to be having any major problems, the direction of their meetings is unclear. If we know what the foundation is and an agreement can be based on it, it would be much easier for us to push Vietnam. So far the French-Vietnamese meetings haven't yet made any important progress. Mr. Pham Van Dong made contact with Mr. Chauvel yesterday. Currently, the focus of the conference is on military issues, but there is not much progress. I am returning to Paris tonight and will meet [French Commander in Chief and Commissioner General for Indochina] General [Paul] Ely. I will surely discuss this issue with him in order to further instruct our military representatives here and push the negotiations forward. And, if the Vietnamese government could do the same and give new instructions, it would be very good and easy to reach an agreement. Could [you, Mr.] Premier[,] use your influence over the Vietnamese government to do this like us and help us on this? Once the military experts have made progress in their discussions, arrived at an agreement, and created a foundation, it will be easy for diplomacy to proceed.


I have one more point to make. If we go with the Vietnamese government's proposal on 25 May suggesting to have two main regrouping areas, only the military experts can provide us a foundation for diplomatic discussions.

Zhou Enlai: To avoid misunderstanding, I'd like to explain one thing. I said the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Bao Dai government should establish their “contact,” not “cooperation.” Since both sides have engaged in the war for many years, it is impossible to talk about any cooperation. Our expectation is that France could influence Bao Dai and make his government contact the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in order to reduce difficulties and leave no room for any external disruption. The negotiations on the troop regrouping should now enter the phase of discussing specific matters. My opinion is the same as Mr. Prime Minister regarding this issue. The current discussions should get into specific matters. We know that the military representatives of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam also intend to achieve early and positive results.
I am very glad to hear that Mr. Mendes-France is going to meet General Ely, commander-in-chief of the French expeditionary forces in Indochina, after returning to Paris, and that General Ely will give specific instructions to the French military representatives at Geneva. The agreement on the main regrouping areas by both sides will lay the foundation for further diplomatic negotiations. I agree with Mr. Prime Minister at this point. Regarding the main regrouping areas, [I'd like to know] whether Mr. Prime Minister has any specific idea. If you have not decided on this point, [we] don't have to talk about this issue right now.

Mendes-France: To avoid any misunderstanding, I'd also like to give an explanation. When I said “cooperation,” I meant using “cooperative” methods to solve problems.


I agree with Premier Zhou Enlai's point. We really hope that the military staff meetings can move into practical phase quickly, and that the Vietnamese representatives will receive their new and clear instructions from their high command. The determination of the main regrouping areas can be used as the foundation for diplomatic negotiations. It seems that the main regrouping areas can be decided pretty soon. Regarding particular ideas on the main regrouping areas, I can't make any suggestion right now, because I don't know how the military staff negotiations are going. They are planning to draw a horizontal line from west to east. The line, however, proposed by the Vietnamese staff is much more to Pierre Mendes-France and Zhou Enlai at the Geneva Conference (courtesy PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archives) the south than the real situation [reflects]. Our experts, who know the field situation, have taken note of all the points proposed by the Vietnamese on 25 May. I think it is possible for them to provide a basis for further diplomatic negotiations. Another [piece of] evidence is that the negotiations on supervision currently are about practical methods. We think that, if the objectives of supervision are known in particular, the problem of supervision could be solved easily. Thus, we should push the negotiations on the regrouping forward and quickly in order to advance the discussions on supervisory issues.

Zhou Enlai: That's right. We should resolve the problem of the regrouping areas first. I have noticed Mr. Prime Minister's stance on these issues. We believe that, after the military staff of both sides detail their discussions, the supervisory problem will be solved easily. I have exchanged my opinion on this issue with Mr. Eden. He agrees with my opinion.


Our current efforts should help [the military staff of] both sides to reach an agreement soon, achieving a result within three weeks. This result will bring both belligerent sides their glorious peace, and realize the desires of the people of France, Vietnam, and the world. All the foreign ministers can return to Geneva earlier.

Mendes-France: Three weeks should be the maximum time. During this period, as soon as the military representatives of both sides reach their agreement, they should inform their delegations. Thereby, there will be a few days for the foreign ministers to return to the conference.

Zhou Enlai: The sooner, the better. After my departure, Mr. Li Kenong, our vice minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will be in charge here. I hope that Mr. Chauvel will continue the communication with Mr. Li Kenong.
I am very glad to meet Mr. Prime Minister. I really appreciate you are willing to spend time in Bern.

Mendes-France: This is for our common task for peace.

Zhou Enlai: Mr. Mendes-France said in the Parliament that everything is for peace and friendship. We fully agree with this point.

Mendes-France: This is our first meeting. I hope we will have more contacts later on. I am really happy about this meeting. I'd like to express my appreciation here. Although I am very busy with many things since I have just organized my new cabinet, I really want to come here and meet you.
I have another practical question, that is, what we are going to tell the reporters. What do you think about this?

Zhou Enlai: Mr. Prime Minister can make a suggestion, please.

Mendes-France: I agree with a news release draft suggested by Mr. Chauvel: “We had a frank conversation on the issue of peace in Indochina, not a negotiation. This conversation may lead to our desire that the Geneva Conference will achieve genuine progress.” It seems that not too much besides this can be said.

Zhou Enlai: It is good not to say too much.

Mendes-France: Hopefully, Mr. Li Kenong will contact Mr. Chauvel often later on.

Zhou Enlai: I have a wish. Within the next three weeks, if Mr. Mendes-France comes to Geneva or has other opportunities, I hope you can make a contact with Mr. Pham Van Dong, head of the delegation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. We think such a direct contact beneficial.

Mendes-France: Mr. Chauvel already met Mr. Pham Van Dong yesterday. Mr. Chauvel told Mr. Pham Van Dong that I'd like to meet him. But it is not clear when and where the meeting can take place. It may depend on the progress of the conference. I agree that this kind of the meeting is very important. I hope this meeting can happen.

Zhou Enlai: I will be happy to pass on Mr. Prime Minister's idea to Mr. Pham Van Dong. We hope that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and France can build a friendship on the foundation of peace.

Mendes-France: This is also our hope. Mr. Zhou Enlai is a senior and experienced premier and foreign minister. I am a new and inexperienced prime minister and foreign minister. So there are too many things to be handled. But I will try my best to establish a friendly relationship between France and China, and between France and Vietnam.

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