After the defeat of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the Provisional Government of the French Republic restored colonial rule in French Indochina. Nationalist and communist popular movements in Vietnam led to the First Indochina War in 1946. This colonial war between the French Union's Expeditionary Corps and Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh guerrillas turned into a Cold War crisis in January 1950. The communist Viet Minh received support from the newly proclaimed People's Republic of China and the Soviet Union, while France and the newly created Vietnamese National Army received support from the United States.
The Battle of Dien Bien Phu started in March 13 and continued during the conference. Its issue became a strategic turnover as both sides wanted to emerge as the victor in order to benefit of a favorable position during the planned negotiations about "the Indochinese problem". After fighting for 57 days the besieged French garrison was ordered to ceasefire on May 7th at 5:00 PM by the Hanoi-based French Chief of Staff.
This war was significant in that it demonstrated that a western colonial power could be defeated by an indigenous revolutionary force; the French previously pacified a similar uprising in the Madagascar colony in March, 1947. A few months after the fall of Dien Bien Phu, troops were deployed in Algeria and a second guerrilla-warfare-based war of independence started in November 1954. Growing distrust and defiance among the army's Chief of Staff toward the Fourth French Republic after the contested defeats of the First Indochina War and the Suez Crisis led to two military coups d'état in March 1958 and April 1961. Most of the rebel Generals were Indochina veterans including their leader, Raoul Salan.
On April 27, 1954, the Conference produced a declaration which supported the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Indochina thereby granting it independence from France. In addition, the Conference declaration agreed upon the cessation of hostilities and foreign involvement (or troops) in internal Indochina affairs. Northern and southern zones were drawn into which opposing troops were to withdraw, to facilitate the cessation of hostilities between the Vietnamese forces and those that had supported the French. The Viet Minh, awaited unification on the basis of internationally supervised free elections to be held in July 1956. Most of the French Union forces evacuated Vietnam, although much of the regional governmental infrastructure in the South was the same as it had been under the French administration. An International Control Commission was set up to oversee the implementation of the Geneva Accords, but it was basically powerless to ensure compliance. It was to consist of India, Canada, and Poland.
The agreement was between Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, France, Laos, the People's Republic of China, the State of Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom. The United States refused to participate in the conference or recognize the accords.
Communist forces had been instrumental in the defeat of the French; the ideology of communism and nationalism were closely linked. Many viewed the South Vietnamese leadership as a French colonial, and later, an American puppet regime. Ho Chi Minh's Democratic Republic of Vietnam looked forward fairly comfortably to being elected in the forthcoming elections.
After the cessation of hostilities, a large migration took place. 450,000, mostly Catholics, moved to south of the Accords-mandated ceasefire line during Operation Passage to Freedom. The CIA attempted to further influence Catholic Vietnamese with slogans such as 'the Virgin Mary is moving South'. 52,000 people went north. Communist supporters were urged to remain in the south to vote in the coming elections.
The U.S. replaced the French as a political backup for Ngo Dinh Diem, then President of the State of Vietnam, and he asserted his power in the south. A referendum rigged by his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu saw Diem gain 98% of the vote, with 133% in Saigon. American advisors had suggested that he win by a lesser margin since it was felt that he would be able to win any fair poll against Emperor Bao Dai. Diem refused to hold the national elections, noting that the State of Vietnam never signed the Geneva Accords and went about attempting to crush all remnant of communist opposition. The prospect of democratic elections dwindling away led South Vietnamese who opposed Diem to form the Communist National Liberation Front, better known as the Vietcong, which engaged in guerrilla attacks and domestic terrorism against the RVN government and desired the reunification of Vietnam under Communist rule. The Việt Cộng were supported by the Vietnam People's Army (VPA) of the North.
Both sides violated multiple provisions of the Accords, with both communists and anti-communists engaging in military buildups contrary to the accords.
Guerrilla activity in the South escalated, while U.S. military advisors continued to support the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which was created as a replacement for the Vietnamese National Army. The result was the Second Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War.