Memorandum of Conversation, by the Secretary of State

The French Ambassador called and handed to me, for delivery to the President, the reply of Marshal Pétain of the French Government at Vichy to a previous communication of the President to Marshal Pétain, contained in a telegram to the Chargé d’Affaires at Vichy on October 25, 1940.39 I thanked the Ambassador and said that I would transmit the communication to the President.

The Ambassador then brought up in a general way the subject of the relations between our two Governments and said that Marshal Pétain felt somewhat hurt at the tone of the President’s message, and that we should appreciate the desperate situation of the French Government at Vichy and not be too severe in judging it.

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I spoke somewhat in general terms and repeated our frequent statement about the traditional friendship between France and the United States and our anxious desire to preserve in the most genuine manner that spirit of friendliness and of mutual cooperation in every way that might be at all practicable and mutually desirable. I said that the chief trouble seems to be that high-ranking officials in the French Government seem disposed to keep entirely away from this Government in most everything that relates to normal relations, and at the same time to keep extremely close to Hitler and to show every sympathetic interest in his plans and purposes, revealing all the while the utmost antipathy toward Great Britain and the cause for which she is fighting. I stated that this Government has the usual normal relations with all other governments except those at Tokyo, Berlin, Rome and Vichy; that I can always understand readily the attitude of all the other governments and can get legitimate information promptly and voluntarily from all of them with the exception of the four mentioned; that Vichy, along with Tokyo, Berlin and Rome, is just the opposite in its disposition to be frank and friendly. I said that I receive many rumors and reports about the attitude of the Vichy Government contrary to the interests of this country, but nothing direct, and I am obliged to look to other rumors and reports, direct and indirect, coming through the press and through foreign offices in various parts of the world, in order to get any real grasp of what is actually taking place at Vichy that is calculated seriously to affect this Government. I added that the French Government in adopting this sort of attitude and practice will not get 2 inches in carrying on its relations with the Government of the United States. The Ambassador said he supposed I referred to Mr. Laval in connection with the foregoing. I remarked that, of course, the Ambassador knew that the definite impression created here and everywhere by Mr. Laval is that he is an extreme partisan of Hitler and Mussolini and very bitter toward Great Britain; that he is reported to favor strongly a permanent rejection of the so-called “old order” in Europe, and the embracing of Hitler’s political, social and other policies with totalitarian autarchy a basic part. I said that Mr. Laval had the privilege of becoming an ally and associate of Hitler and the monstrous things for which he stands, but that he must not imagine that this Government does not know what his attitude and purpose are. I added that we propose to be on our guard with respect to acts of the Vichy Government, inspired by Mr. Laval, that are intended to aid by French connivance the military activities of Hitler, such as the supplying of naval and air bases, or other help given by the land, sea or air forces of France; that in any event this Government has had nothing resembling satisfactory [Page 401] information from the French Government about what is really going on that would constitute legitimate information to us from any government at all disposed to be friendly.

I then said that our Government thus far has retained its high regard for Marshal Pétain and its anxious desire to be of help to the French people to the fullest practical extent; that this Government recognizes the unfortunate situation of France as a captive nation and it recognizes to the fullest extent the duty of the French Government to conform to the armistice terms along with other functions and requirements of a captive nation, but that in so doing this Government maintains strongly its original position that the French Government has no justification of any sort to render the slightest military aid to Germany; that the French Government has no right in its acts and utterances to go beyond and outside the armistice terms for the purpose of making itself a partisan of Hitler, as between Hitler and non-belligerent countries, such as the United States, unless the French Government intends to abandon its friendly relations with other nations which are antagonistic to Hitler’s movements of conquest.

The Ambassador stoutly contended that they had no plan or purpose thus to go beyond their legitimate functions, as I had described them, and he reiterated fairly often the attitude of his Government to the effect that it would not in any circumstances lend aid to the military plans of Hitler. I said that Mr. Laval may think that he can appease Mr. Hitler just as others heretofore have imagined that they could appease him; that that was his affair; that this Government, however, recognizing the great misfortune of the French Government in not pursuing the long-view objectives within sufficient time for its safety, does not propose to trust Hitler for one split second to fall in with any government on a course of appeasement; that the French Government, therefore, should understand the position of this Government and its determination to take no chances. I went on to say that this Government is not remotely thinking about minor considerations between our two Governments, such as freeing some French assets, etc., etc., but that it had a supreme and firm purpose to have no relations with any government, such as that of Vichy, which would give the slightest encouragement to Hitler, either directly or indirectly. It is manifest, therefore, that, if Marshal Pétain feels aggrieved at the President’s recent message to him, he might well review and take cognizance of Mr. Laval’s extreme pro-German plans and efforts, as reported in various ways to this Government, and which have been concealed in the main by the French Government, and only reached this Government to a limited extent, directly or indirectly. [Page 402] I said that there must be a spirit of candor and a willing disposition to confer back and forth with full exchanges of information in a thoroughly accurate and candid manner, so that this Government will know exactly what the Government of France is doing insofar as it relates to possible aid to Hitler over and above the terms of the armistice and the function and duty of a captive of war. I said it would be a mistake for Marshal Pétain, knowing what is going on in his Government at the instance of Mr. Laval, to expect good relations between our countries to continue to exist, while he takes exception to any act of utterance of this Government in its strong protest against the reported policies and purposes of Laval.

The Ambassador said that Mr. Laval was merely attempting to procure the release of French prisoners and some other things that would be helpful to France. I said that again there comes up the matter of attempted appeasement of Hitler; that Hitler in the end would do what he pleased with all of his captive nations regardless of whether they offered him gifts and other appeasement considerations; that he would take such nations and then at some future time retake them if his past acts are to be judged fairly; that this again brings back the question of rendering aid to Germany over and above the terms of the armistice, and that the Government of France must understand that this Government is too much concerned about possible future attacks by Hitler to acquiesce in the slightest with acts of the French Government that would aid or encourage Hitler in still wider conquest, especially in the direction of this hemisphere. It is on this broad position that our Government rests its attitude toward France. This applies to Martinique and other possessions. In the case of Martinique, for example, if the French Government is in earnest about the absolute observance of the temporary agreement between officials of this Government and those of the French Government in regard to the status quo of Martinique,40 there should not be the slightest hesitation on the part of the French Government to give to this Government such assurances as would leave no doubt or uneasiness on the part of this Government, such as removing some of the parts of the ships anchored there, or a large portion of the seamen from the vessels, or to permit American vessels to inspect the properties at any reasonable time, such as the airplanes and the gold. The Ambassador professed to agree entirely and insisted that it should be done. I replied that we would see what happens with respect to all the matters mentioned in our conversation.

C[ordell] H[ull]
  1. For President Roosevelt’s message to Marshal Pétain, see telegram No. 636, October 25, noon, p. 475; for Marshal Pétain’s reply, see telegram No. 872, November 1, 5 p.m., from the Chargé in France, p. 480.
  2. See pp. 505 ff.