The Munich Analogy - The geneva conference

The outbreak of the Korean War and the American reaction to it, more than any other single event, crystallized the Cold War mentality that had been more or less in a state of fluidity from 1945 to 1950. As part of this process, American understanding and appreciation of the realities and aspirations of Indochina were transformed. With the North Korean invasion across the Thirty-eighth Parallel, Indochina came to be seen mainly as an aspect of the larger problem of coping with the communist conquest of the Free World by the Soviets and Chinese. Or, as Truman put it: "We were seeing a pattern in Indo-China timed to coincide with the attack in Korea as a challenge to the Western world …a challenge by the Communists alone, aimed at intensifying the smouldering and anti-foreign feeling among most Asian peoples."

The Cold War paradigm that portrayed the Indochina conflict as but a functional aspect of worldwide communist aggression was passed on intact to the Eisenhower administration. The Korean War, argued President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was "clearly part of the same calculated assault that the aggressor is simultaneously pursuing in Indo-China." And, conversely, the working out of a settlement of the Korean War would presumably have a lasting impact on Indochina as well as on other nations in the region. In this way, then, the American fear of another Munich carried over into the Eisenhower administration.

In 1954 the administration feared that the Geneva Conference called to discuss the future of Korea and the division of Indochina would turn into "another Munich." An armistice had been signed in Korea the previous year, but new concerns had arisen over the eight-year war in Indochina between France and the French Union and the communist-led Viet Minh resistance movement. The conference was arranged by Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and France and was also attended by countries with an interest in the issue, including the People's Republic of China.

The United States was exceptionally hostile to any negotiation with Beijing. The Americans, especially Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, described the talks as "phoney" and "unpalatable" because they represented the "psychology of appeasement." Dulles was obsessed with the seating arrangements at the conference and even refused to shake hands with Chinese Foreign Minister Chou En-lai. Because Dulles equated Geneva with the Munich Conference he was determined to be firm whatever the outcome.

The United States has been roundly criticized for its behavior at the Geneva Conference. The delegation was so opposed to negotiations before the conference started that they even attempted to sabotage efforts to reach any political settlement. As Richard H. Immerman observed:

If by these actions it exacted some concessions from the Communists, they were limited and more than offset by the strains they placed on the western alliance. If by resisting compromise and dissociating the United States from the result officials managed to avoid the label "appeaser," they cost America countless hearts and minds, particularly those in the third world. Worst of all, by refusing to sanction the elections, Washington signaled the diplomacy—and international law—were not substitutes for force.

The American attitude was simply that any concession amounted to capitulation, for by this time the American political culture had come to equate all forms of negotiation with appeasement at Munich. The United States finally refused to sign the Geneva agreement, which divided Vietnam along the Seventeenth Parallel and promised elections in 1956 to unify the country under one government. When President Eisenhower returned from the conference, he gave the usual speech at the airport immediately upon his arrival. Although it was raining, Vice President Richard M. Nixon was adamant that Eisenhower should not carry an umbrella, lest the nation and the media be reminded of Neville Chamberlain and his famous umbrella.

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