Memorandum of Conversation, by the Under Secretary of State (Welles)

The French Ambassador20 called to see me this morning at his request.

The Ambassador commenced the conversation by complaining again, this time in extremely bitter tones, of the ever-increasing misrepresentation of his Government that was appearing in the American press and the totally false and mendacious statements which were emanating from the British radio and news services tending to show that the French Government was under the complete control of Germany and was acting as a puppet for the German Government.

French denial of presence of German officers in Dakar

The Ambassador then read to me three cables. The first cable flatly denied that there were either German soldiers or German officers at Dakar and that our own consular representative in Dakar could confirm this information. The Ambassador said that the only German officers who had ever been in Dakar since the Armistice were the members of the German mission which had gone there under the terms of the armistice agreement to verify the munitions that existed there.

Alleged demands by Italy on France for submarine and air bases and demobilization of troops

The second cable the Ambassador read to me was from his Government stating that the reports alleging that Italy had made demands on France for the installation of air bases in Syria, submarine bases in North African French possessions, and the complete demobilization of all French forces in Syria were totally false. The French Foreign Minister by means of this cable informed the French Ambassador to inform this Government that no demands of any character with regard to Syria or other French African possessions had ever been formulated by Italy.

Alleged intention of French Government to fortify Martinique

With regard to the third cable, the Ambassador stated that reports sent by the United Press correspondent from Vichy alleging that the French Government intended to undertake large military and naval fortifications in Martinique were totally unfounded.21 The Ambassador said that the report was probably due to the fact that the correspondent had read the budget for the year 1941, which had included [Page 385] the provisions insisted upon by M. Mandel when he was Minister for Colonies and which budget had been approved by the French Chambers before the armistice, providing for the undertaking of military and naval fortifications in Martinique as well as in many other French colonies. The Ambassador said that this budget, of course, was now a matter of past history and the present French Government could not attempt to carry out any of the provisions thereof. The Ambassador was instructed to state that the French Government had no intention of undertaking any military or naval fortifications in Martinique and that the only work to be undertaken there was the dredging of the harbor at Fort de France and the improvement of certain of the docks for commercial purposes. The Ambassador specifically stated that the submarine base which had been planned for Martinique had been completely abandoned. In brief, the French Government desired this Government to know that under no conditions would they agree to any of their possessions in the Western Hemisphere becoming, directly or indirectly, the source of disquiet or of danger to the United States.

Neutralization of French colonies in the Western Hemisphere

The Ambassador then referred to his conversation with the President of the other day and the suggestion made by the President that the French Government declare publicly that its possessions in the Western Hemisphere would be neutralized. The Ambassador said that he had this morning received a reply from his Government with respect to the suggestion made by the President and that in this reply the French Government declared that it desired to cooperate in every way with the United States so that the United States could assure itself that French possessions in the New World could in no event become a source of danger to the security of the United States. The French Government, consequently, made the following proposals:

The French Government would agree that United States official observers might be stationed in French Guiana, Guadeloupe, and St. Pierre-Miquelon, and that all facilities would be given these United States observers by the local French authorities to find out exactly what was going on and to assure themselves that no steps were in progress which could result in endangering the security of the United States.
The French Government would instruct Admiral Robert, the French commander at Martinique with full authority over all of the other French colonies of the Western Hemisphere, to undertake with an American high ranking officer to be sent to Martinique for that purpose, the study and determination of such military steps as might in the judgment of the United States be required to avoid any disquiet on the part of the United States Government. The Ambassador stated that owing to the present situation of France anything in the nature of a written contract or treaty would have to be avoided but [Page 386] that such oral arrangements as might be arrived at with Admiral Robert would be meticulously complied with.
The French Government was appointing General Bonavita as Military Attaché in Washington, and should the American Government so desire, the General would be instructed to leave immediately for the United States to cooperate in the coordination of such measures as might be agreed upon by Admiral Robert and the American officer to be sent to negotiate with Admiral Robert.
The French Government believed that in all of the French Colonies in the Western Hemisphere there was now a minimum of military forces stationed. In the opinion of the French Government, complete neutralization in the sense that the existing minimum military forces would either have to be sent away or be demobilized would be likely to stir up revolution in many of the colonies, or at least social disorder, since the implication would be understood by the native populations as being an invitation to license through the removal of all symbols of authority.
While the French Government would not discard the possibility of the issuance of an official statement by France with regard to the neutralization of the French colonies in the Americas, it desired to know before reaching a final decision whether, if the measures above set forth were undertaken, the President still believed that such a statement would be necessary.

I stated to the Ambassador that I would be glad to submit to the President the reply of the French Government as delivered to me and that at first glance it seemed to me that some of the steps suggested, if faithfully carried out, would undoubtedly remove some of the grounds for disquiet which this Government had possessed. I said that I was glad to note the friendly and cooperative reaction evidenced by the French Government to the suggestion made by the President.

Purchase of munitions, etc., in the United States for French Indo-China

The Ambassador then said that he had received a further telegram from his Government on another matter which had occasioned him surprise. He said this message was to the effect that the German Government had given permission to the French Government to purchase munitions in the United States for the use of the authorities in Indo-China and that he had, consequently, been instructed by his Foreign Minister to take up the negotiations recently conducted by Colonel Jacomy on behalf of the Indo-China Government and to ascertain whether the munitions for the French authorities in Indo-China could now be obtained in the United States. The Ambassador said that upon receipt of this message he had sent a telegram to his Government inquiring whether this implied that the German Government would permit the shipment of the planes now in Martinique to Indo-China. He said that he had not received any reply to this inquiry [Page 387] as yet. The Ambassador thereupon inquired whether this Government would be prepared to facilitate the purchase by the French authorities in the United States of munitions for Indo-China.

I said to the Ambassador that it must be as evident to him as it was to me that the situation had changed completely since the time some weeks ago when Colonel Jacomy had been informed that this Government would permit the sale of such munitions as might be available to the Government of French Indo-China. I said that since that time the Japanese forces had occupied many points in Indo-China and it would be the obvious thing for this Government to want to know what practical assurances could be given that the munitions that might be bought here, or the planes that might be sent from Martinique, would not fall into the hands of the Japanese authorities in Indo-China rather than into the hands of the French authorities. I said, furthermore, that in as much as all evidence of French resistance to the Japanese occupation had ceased, what reason could now be evidenced by the French Government that the dispatch of the munitions or aviation matériel was of any practical or urgent need.

The Ambassador replied that Indo-China would not only resist further aggression on the part of Japan, but would also probably soon be forced to resist aggression on the part of Siam.

I said that I was sure that the Ambassador must possess the feeling that any action taken by Siam under present conditions must be action taken at least with the tacit acquiescence of Japan. I asked, consequently, whether the Ambassador could for a moment believe that Japan would permit the French Government in Indo-China to acquire munitions at this moment which might be utilized either in resisting Japan or in resisting Siam. I also asked what explanation the Ambassador could give me as to why the German Government should accord permission for the purchase of these munitions at this particular moment when the French Government had been either unable or unwilling to obtain the acquiescence of the German Government six weeks ago to sending perfectly new and powerful airplanes to China before the actual occupation by Japan had begun. To all of these inquiries the Ambassador had no ready reply, and merely stated that he would give me further information as to the situation in Indo-China as a result of an inquiry which he would address to Admiral Decoux, the Governor General.

Airplanes in Martinique22

In speaking again of the airplanes in Martinique, the Ambassador said that he was informed that these airplanes had now deteriorated to such an extent that they would require a great deal of repair work before they could fly again.

[Page 388]

I said that this was not my information, but that on the contrary I was informed that the airplanes were being protected and that mechanics were looking after them.

The Ambassador thereupon stated that should this Government desire to send a competent expert to look into the condition of these airplanes, he would be very glad himself to authorize the dispatch to Martinique of such an agent of the United States Government.

Blocked French funds in the United States

The Ambassador then inquired whether I had been informed by the President of his conversation with the Ambassador with regard to the request for the unblocking of French funds in this country so as to permit the French Embassy here to pay from these funds the expenses of French diplomatic and consular establishments in the Western Hemisphere and in certain countries of Europe, and also to utilize $1,500,000 for the purchase of beef in Argentina to be used in feeding French prisoners of war in Germany and in French occupied territory. The Ambassador also asked whether I had any information concerning his recent conversation on this subject with the Secretary of the Treasury.

I replied that while the President had spoken to me concerning certain features of his interview with the Ambassador, the President had not spoken with me concerning the question of blocked funds.

The Ambassador thereupon stated that he had outlined the situation to the President and that as he was leaving, the President had said “I hope you will work out satisfactorily the question of your diplomatic and consular establishments on the American continent”.

I said to the Ambassador that I had spoken only this morning with the Secretary of the Treasury on the telephone and that I was afraid the Ambassador had misunderstood the President, since I was informed by the Secretary of the Treasury that the President had made no commitment in that regard whatever. I then went on to say that I would have to inform the Ambassador that he could expect no relaxation by this Government of the blocking of French funds in so far as the suggested purchase of beef by France for the relief of French prisoners of war was concerned. I said that under the accepted rules of international law and in accordance with various international agreements, the German Government was obligated to undertake the proper feeding and care of the prisoners of war under its control. I stated that there seemed in the judgment of this Government no justification whatever for the purchase by the French Government of large quantities of beef to be used in the feeding of prisoners of war, thus relieving the German Government of its valid obligations in this regard and making it easier for the German Government to feed its own troops and its own civilian population. I said that with regard [Page 389] to the facilitation of funds for the payment of diplomatic and consular establishments of France in the Western Hemisphere, I could at this time give him no definite reply. I said that all I could add in this regard was that questions of this character could undoubtedly be more readily solved if the French Government showed a more friendly and cooperative spirit in its dealings with the United States and that I trusted that the reply made by France as communicated to me this morning by the French Ambassador with regard to French colonies in the Americas would seem to the high officials of this Government as an indication of such desire on the part of the Vichy Government to cooperate to our mutual advantage.

The Ambassador then launched into a very long and exceedingly vehement tirade. He stated that the refusal of this Government at this juncture to release funds for the payment of French diplomatic and consular missions in the American continent was tantamount to a desire on the part of the United States to liquidate such establishments and as proof that this Government did not regard the Vichy Government as a sovereign government. He said that our refusal to permit French funds in the United States to be used for the purchase of food supplies to relieve the situation of French prisoners of war was a proof that this Government had no humanitarian interest in the fate of these unfortunate individuals and that our action in this regard would be equivalent to a sentence of death for them.

I said to the Ambassador that with regard to the first point, it seemed to me preferable that it be not discussed, that it seemed to me that it was for many reasons inadvisable to discuss the nature of the independence and sovereignty of the present French Government and that I believed that on full reflection he would agree with me that no useful purpose could be served thereby. With regard to the second point, I said that I could assure him, as I had in a previous conversation, that while the American people possessed to a full degree their traditional friendship for the French people and were animated as they had been throughout their history by a humanitarian desire to relieve distress and suffering of peoples in other parts of the world, it was the considered policy of this Government that no step should be taken which would in any sense facilitate or aid the Government of Germany in its prosecution of the present war.

I said that it was well known to me that Germany had been exporting from occupied France many thousands of head of cattle for her own use and that if we agreed to permit France to send into the occupied zone very large quantities of beef, this would obviously only make it easier for Germany to pursue this course. The Ambassador immediately contradicted me and said that Wayne Taylor23 had told [Page 390] him that while the Germans had commandeered cattle in the occupied zone, these cattle were being utilized for feeding German troops in that area.

I replied that while I would not agree in any way that my information was incorrect, I could not see the slightest difference in the two cases presented. Here was the Ambassador demanding that the French Government be permitted to send beef into the occupied zone to feed the French prisoners of war, and yet at the same time admitting through him that the cattle in that region which might be used for this purpose were being utilized for the feeding of German troops of occupation. I said that what the Ambassador had just stated confirmed me positively in my belief that the step which was proposed was merely a means of relieving Germany of her inescapable obligation to feed properly and give humanitarian treatment to the French prisoners of war under her control without assistance from the outside world.

The Ambassador then said that this made a “very grave situation”.

I said that if he referred to the relations between the two countries, as I assumed he did, and had made this remark on the pretext that this Government was not giving friendly consideration to all the requests of the French Government, I might remind him that public opinion in the United States and the opinion of this Administration had been profoundly affected in a manner adverse to the present French Government by three things: first, the determination of the French Government with regard to the disposition of the French fleet as included in the terms of the armistice; second, the refusal of the French Government to return the airplanes in Martinique to the United States on the allegation that the terms of the armistice made it necessary for all French munitions in French territory to remain where they were at the time of the signing of the armistice, when only a few weeks ago the American public had been informed that French airplanes in large numbers had left French possessions in Northern Africa in order to undertake the bombardment of Gibraltar; and third, the negotiation by the Vichy Government of an agreement with Japan which provided for a change in the status quo in the Pacific by the occupation of Indo-China, although it was well known to the French Government that the maintenance of the status quo in the Far East was a matter of peculiar concern to the United States.

Furthermore, I said, did the Ambassador think that the statements made by his Foreign Minister in an interview with the press which the Foreign Minister was said to have given on the evening of October 4 in Vichy and in which M. Baudouin is alleged to have stated, among other things, “Japan is a great nation. Its preponderant position in the Far East cannot be denied by any realistic statesman, etc.”, was the expression of a point of view which would be well received [Page 391] by American public opinion, or which would tend to bring closer together the policies of the Government of the United States and the Government of France.

At this point the Ambassador interjected to say that he was sure that his Foreign Minister had been misquoted again and that he would check up to ascertain whether such a statement had actually been made. I remarked to the Ambassador that I had been careful to say that his Foreign Minister had been “alleged” to have made this statement and that if this statement was not accurate, I would be glad to be informed accordingly.

In conclusion, I said to the Ambassador that as soon as the President returned to Washington I would submit to him the reply of the French Government with regard to French colonies in the Western Hemisphere and that I would again discuss with him the question of the release of funds sufficient to meet the expenses of the French diplomatic and consular establishments in the American Republics. For that reason, I said, I would prefer to withhold any further discussion on these problems until this conversation had taken place, and I said that I would ask the Ambassador to come to see me as soon thereafter as might be possible.

Finally, I said that I trusted, in view of the cooperative spirit shown by the French Government in its latest communication to us, that the way might yet be found for a more friendly and understanding feeling between the two Governments than had seemed, at least on our part, possible because of the recent policies pursued by the Government of Marshal Pétain.

S[umner] W[elles]
  1. Gaston Henry-Haye.
  2. For correspondence pertaining to concern of the United States over the fate of French possessions in the Western Hemisphere, see pp. 493 ff.
  3. For other documentary material pertaining to concern of the United States over the disposition of French airplanes in Martinique, see pp. 505 ff.
  4. Wayne Chatfield Taylor, American Red Cross Delegate in Paris.