740.00119 European War 1939/606: Telegram

The Chargé in France (Matthews) to the Secretary of State

954. My telegram No. 949, November 14, 1 p.m.41 Laval asked me to call this afternoon and in the presence of Rochat.42 We talked for approximately 45 minutes. He said that the notes which Rochat had given him—which he had before him—of the Secretary’s statements to Henry-Haye had “surprised and pained and shocked” him and that he felt they were “unjust” as regards himself. He said he had talked to Barnes43 in Paris yesterday but had not realized how far the rift between our two countries had developed. He continued that the Secretary’s remarks to Henry-Haye showed a misunderstanding of his policies and aims.

First he wanted it understood above everything else that he is interested solely in the welfare of France; he was in no sense the tool of Hitler and Mussolini. As to Great Britain he made no secret of his personal bitterness and his strong convictions that British policy since 1935 had been in large part responsible for France’s downfall. He talked at some length, but without undue display of feeling, of his policies and aims in 1935 and how the British “let him down”.

He then came on to lack of British help during the war, the “treachery” of Mers-el-Kebir and Dakar and their continued backing of the “traitor De Gaulle”. This, however, was all a matter of sentiment and belonged to the past; sentiment had nothing to do with his policies which are to make the best possible peace for France. She had been pushed into this “senseless and needless” war by the British and on “other bad advice” on the worst possible pretext (Danzig) and at a time when, thanks to the criminal errors and negligence of the Front Populaire, France was in no sense prepared for a war. German industry had been working for the war machine at full speed for years while France was indulging in the luxury of strikes; on the day war broke out she had but nine modern bombers. Germany, he is convinced, is going to win the war. He recognizes that our help to the British will be great but it will arrive too late. Hitler, he said, spoke to him “with great assurance of victory and of what Germany can and will do” and he believes Hitler is right. Even taking the opposite hypothesis, however, of a possible British victory the British would never be able to invade the continent and march to Berlin and the problems of the new Europe would remain. He had always worked [Page 404] for European collaboration; the luxury of a war every 20 years and what it means to France is something we cannot understand. He had, he said, “no mission” (and he repeated this statement several times during the interview) but he had the definite hope that he could bring about in this new Europe a collaboration of the United States. He had spoken frankly on this subject to his German friends and they too saw no reason why such an agreement is impossible. He had no such feelings towards us as he has towards the British who have so often and at such cost deceived France. On the contrary he feels both a real liking and a real admiration for us. He said that, as he “had told his friend Heinzen of the United Press: ‘Je m’en fous de l’opinion americaine’” (my telegram No. 902, November 6, 4 p.m.44). This is because he realizes we do not at all understand France or her problems. We would, however, some day have to come to the point of collaboration and certainly the sooner the better to avoid needless slaughter and suffering. I asked him how he envisaged this “collaboration” and what it involved and he replied that he had as yet no definite ideas and much depended on future circumstances. He felt, however, that he could be useful in bringing Europe and America together to build the future on this sound and lasting foundation he has been seeking since 1935. He then asked me whether I believed in a British victory and I replied, “Emphatically yes.” His answer then was “When?—in another Hundred Years’ War?” I asked when he expected the German victory and he merely shrugged his shoulders and said unfortunately he was no prophet. He reiterated that he knows what our industry is capable of in eventual help for the British but that it would come too late; we too were slow.

Turning the notes before him he said that the disappearance of the “old order” aroused no regrets in him nor was he frightened by the [apparent omission] of totalitarian autarchy. The word “democracy”, which is so often repeated, as far as France is concerned leaves him completely cold. He had been surprised that during the entire war there was only talk that France was fighting for “democracy”; not that she was fighting for France; that, he said, was why France was beaten. He had seen enough of so-called democracy in France in the past few years and the state to which it had brought his country, the vile and criminal demagogy into which it had degenerated under the Front Populaire ever to wish to see it again.

He seemed struck likewise especially by our “lack of confidence in Hitler”. He was not of a too trusting nature himself, he said, but he felt that Hitler was a man he could deal with. In any event France had no option. “How”, he said, “could France defend herself and what could she do, and I am fighting,” he said, “to hold for France her [Page 405] entire metropolitan territory and in addition her colonial empire—hardly a modest ambition for a man leading a defeated country. In none of my discussions with the Germans has there been any question of negotiating a peace before the end of the war with England. There has been no discussion of the cession of any territory, even Alsace–Lorraine. There has been no question of giving up air and naval bases but I should like to ask you if Germany decides to take such bases what can we do to stop her? France has no army and no means of defense.” (This rhetorical question he asked as one of a number and with no particular emphasis but its importance and pertinence in the present situation struck me forcibly.) “You may say that in the long run a people cannot be kept down and that is true but it is only in the long run. For the present we can do nothing.”

He was struck also by the reference to the acts of the Vichy Government “inspired by Laval” and asked what acts we meant. He said again he was sorry to see such a misunderstanding of France and of his objects, aims, and policies. I interrupted to point out that this misunderstanding was due in large part to the fact that we had at no time received any information whatsoever from his Government as to its plans, hopes, or even what was under discussion. He said: “As I have indicated to you nothing definite has been discussed other than a general policy of collaboration and as you must have gathered from this evening’s communiqué (see my telegram No. 953, November 14, 6 p.m.45) that is not always easy. Hitler offered me collaboration in a spirit rare in a conqueror. We have accepted that collaboration but no details have been worked out. If you want any information, however, come straight to me at any time and I will tell you.”

“Do you think my policy unreasonable?”, he continued; “I hope that you will explain it to your Government and endeavor to correct the injustice that is being done me. I think you over there have listened too much to the propaganda of those miserable people who fled France—most of them Jews—who are now conducting such abominable and traitorous propaganda in the United States.”

I said that I would cable you fully of his views; that I saw, however, not the slightest possibility of the collaboration between the United States and a German-dominated Europe such as he hoped for. We could appreciate the difficulties of France’s position. On the other hand we differed from him decidedly and fundamentally on two basic points: we have not the slightest trust in Hitler’s word nor any belief that a Hitler Europe would mean anything but slavery for other peoples including France. Secondly as concerns the British there has in the past, I said, been strong anglophobe sentiment in parts of the United States and we have not always agreed as he must know [Page 406] with British policies. That feeling, I emphasized, has now completely disappeared: England we know is fighting our battle and that of the civilized world and in view thereof she will receive every possible bit of our rapidly growing material assistance; we believe in British victory. (His reply was: “Well, the British may be fighting your battle; they certainly did not fight ours.”) The interview closed with a reiteration on his part of the request that I fully explain his viewpoint and his hopes and report how pained and surprised he had been by the Secretary’s remarks.

Possibly because of this he was calm throughout, moderate in speech at times, serious at others, genial and never unfriendly. He pleaded his cause with considerable eloquence considering the false premises on which it is based, namely, belief in German victory, belief that a German “led” Europe is better for France than a British Europe and a completely defeatist attitude on the question of any present day French resistance. He has, I gathered, considerable confidence in his ability to outwit and outnegotiate his German adversaries and there is little doubt in my mind that Hitler has convinced him of the certainty of a German victory. They have also apparently flattered him to good effect. For example, he said: “My friend Abetz one day, as we rode to Fontainebleau to see Von Brauschitz,46 remarked: ‘We feel deeply that it should not be you who has this task today; it is people like Sarraut’47 and he was right. I am the last one who should be faced with the job of trying to save France, for I am the least responsible for her defeat.”

Rochat told me afterwards that he was delighted we had let him make clear to Laval the Secretary’s feelings. “Those notes,” he said “really considerably moved him. When he said he had been surprised, pained, and shocked he meant it. I saw his reaction when I showed them to him and it was just that. It has, I feel, considerably cleared the atmosphere and I am really most grateful. I am delighted you had this talk.”

In spite of Laval’s assurances of his willingness to talk to us freely and frankly of what Franco-German collaboration involves the Department will have noted that aside from his negative statements of what had not been discussed he gave no details whatsoever of what his lengthy negotiations with his German friends have covered. His offer therefore, it seems to me, should be savored with several grains of salt.

In conclusion at the risk of repetition I should like to emphasize that as long as Laval retains his present position of authority and influence the gulf between France and the United States will be great. [Page 407] There is only one thing which will deter him from his present course: conviction that the British may win the war and a knowledge that we have both the will and the means to assure that victory. A breach in Franco-American relations would make his position almost untenable; the fear of a serious breach therefore might slow him in his march towards Hitler’s new Europe.

  1. Not printed.
  2. Charles Rochat succeeded Charles-Roux as Secretary General of the French Foreign Office on November 1, 1940.
  3. Maynard B. Barnes, First Secretary of Embassy in France.
  4. Not printed.
  5. Not printed.
  6. Gen. Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the German land forces.
  7. Albert Sarraut, French ex-Minister of Education.