740.0011 European War 1939/6705: Telegram

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

956. Following this morning by courier:

From Paris. 1628. November 13, 8 p.m. I attended an off the record luncheon given this noon by the American Press Association of Paris for Vice Prime Minister Pierre Laval and Ambassador of France Fernand de Brinon.48 Before accepting this invitation I had made it clear to the Press Association that I did not wish to assist at a seance of indoctrination against American policy and in support of the point of view that America can only do harm in Europe if she entertains misgivings with respect to Franco-German “collaboration” and continues to support the British war effort. After the Association had consulted with Ambassador de Brinon, I was given every assurance that nothing would occur which might prove embarrassing to me.

In conversation across the table with Mr. Laval during the luncheon many points of Franco-American relations as they are affected by Mr. Laval’s policy of “collaboration” with Germany were touched upon in a friendly and sometimes humorous way, but with a certain note of serious undercurrent. Laval was in marvelous form, his eyes sparkling, his wit very much to the point and his humor of the best. He said at one point that I could measure his friendship for America best by knowing that on leaving the United States in 193149 he had said to himself if he were a young man and had his way to make he would want to be an American citizen. He also expressed the most friendly personal feelings towards Ambassador Bullitt, and asked me to send on his behalf to the Ambassador a message of “amitié”.

Immediately the Vice Prime Minister began his talk I had the distinct impression that he had decided “to shoot the works” and not to follow what he had previously thought out as an appropriate statement [Page 408] to make to the American journalists. I therefore feel that there was no premeditation in what followed. The Vice Prime Minister’s speech appeared to all of us there as being addressed to me personally. Rarely during his talk, which he made seated at table, did he take his eyes off mine. The atmosphere was more in the nature of a one-sided personal conversation between two people which was pitched by the talker on a high emotional level and which was not intended for other ears but due to circumstances had to be conducted in the presence of others. On numerous occasions when a particularly pungent point was made with respect [to] American policy the Vice Prime Minister smiled broadly but pleasantly at me as if to emphasize the point that he liked us all but that we were babes lost in the European woods.

He said in effect about everything that I have surmised concerning his policy and have tried to report in my despatches. His initial point was that when [he?] was thrown out of power by “occult forces” in 1936 it was apparent to him that Europe had to choose between fascism and bolshevism and that he had chosen then for fascism. He contended that France might have been justified in making war over the remilitarization of the Rhineland, because of the Anschluss or even because of the destruction of Czechoslovakia but that she foolishly made war merely because of the Corridor and Danzig. He stated explicitly that in his opinion France had declared war in September 1939 without any justification whatsoever; that she had been led to do so by England and not by a valid reason of her own. He remarked parenthetically that as we were “chez nous” he felt no reticence in saying that he detested England.

From this point on Mr. Laval devoted himself entirely to America and to what he termed our mistaken ideas about Europe. While both before and after luncheon he spoke of his resentment against President Roosevelt’s assumption that he, and therefore the present French Government, were not free agents in dealing with Germany he emphasized in his talk that France was without arms and therefore must “collaborate” or court destruction. But he added when Hitler offered me his hand and the opportunity of collaboration at Montoire, a thing that no other military conqueror had ever done in history toward the leader of a conquered race, he had realized that out of this war might grow the very thing that Europe had been striving for for centuries, notably a permanent peace and general cooperation. It was in this connection that he appealed to America and particularly to President Roosevelt to comprehend the revolution that has occurred in Europe during the last 4 years and to work with it. He said that American public opinion would not carry one gram of weight with him in the event it continued to manifest its mistaken view of what is happening in Europe. He said he had no interest or desire in receiving [Page 409] an “injection” of American support; that such treatment could cause only a temporary reaction and that then France and Europe would relapse into their old illnesses.

As we had talked openly and most amicably across the table during nearly the whole of the luncheon, I decided toward the end of the Vice Prime Minister’s talk that I should take the opportunity to observe to him and to the others gathered around that the American people feel that the word of the German leaders does not inspire the confidence necessary to an understanding with them, that we Americans love our country just as Frenchmen love theirs and that we had misgivings with respect to the future and that as a freedom loving people we still resist Fascist doctrines for ourselves. This opportunity was denied to me by the action of the president of the Association, but not by the Vice Prime Minister, who realized after several words had passed between us over the table at the end of his talk that he had gone too far in so obviously addressing his remarks to me and in going to the length that he had in subjecting American policy to a critical analysis by inference and direct statement. The upshot was that we made an engagement to meet later in the afternoon.

At 5 o’clock I was received by Mr. Laval at the Hotel Matignon. I began the conversation by stating that I had been impressed by the fact that almost every German I had met since the occupation of Paris had asked me how I could explain the fact that neither the French Government nor the French people had taken seriously Germany’s efforts prior to the outbreak of the war to convince both the French Government and the French people that Hitler “meant business[”] and that he possessed the instruments and supplies of war necessary to victory.

I said that I had grave misgivings that Americans might some day be asking similar questions of the French with respect to a period in Franco-American relations. I asked the Vice Prime Minister how closely informed he was kept with respect to the development of American official and popular opinion on these relations. He replied that Henry-Haye sent him nothing.

I thereupon told him somewhat fully of the Secretary’s conversation of November 4 with the French Ambassador. The Vice Prime Minister said that he was not surprised at the tone the Secretary had taken now that the question of mutual comprehension had been brought to his attention and that it was obvious that immediate steps were necessary looking to a mutual revelation and understanding of policies and ideas. He said that he would like to put aside all the claptrap of diplomacy and speak as a Frenchman to an American. He said that he would like to have me report our talk by telegram and present it in the form of a message of clarification from him to the American [Page 410] Government. He asked me to emphasize the point that he had talked to Hitler and to Ribbentrop as a proud Frenchman, that he was definitely still a proud Frenchman despite France’s defeat and that when he talked to any Government his pride as a Frenchman would play an important role. He said that it was for this reason that he had reacted unfavorably to the suggestion in the President’s message that the present French Government was a prisoner government that might dishonor its word.

What he desired to have set forth as a message of explanation may be summarized as follows:

He had not sought the interview with the victorious leader and his Minister for Foreign Affairs. Hitler had taken the first step and France beaten, disarmed and disorganized as she is had to take the step to meet this gesture.
He, Laval, is convinced of a British defeat even though the United States augments material aid to Britain to the utmost and even ultimately becomes a belligerent. Ergo, not only was it necessary at the moment to meet Hitler halfway but considerations of the future impose a collaboration that may lead to France regaining her rightful place in Europe as the first Latin power. In connection with his belief that Hitler is bound to be the victor he asked me to point out that he by no means underestimates the importance of the aid that the United States can give to England. But he said Germany’s victory in Europe to date is so great that full victory by Germany is now inevitable.
The Vice Prime Minister asked me what my own view was with respect to the outcome of the war. I said that I personally was convinced that Germany would lose. He said that if this personal view represented the view generally held in the United States it was of course clear why the Vichy Government and the Washington Government sensed a lack of mutual comprehension. He said that he personally felt there was a way out of the present dilemma without total defeat and total victory and that he would like to work with the American Government to this end. I told him that in my personal opinion this would be extremely difficult because of the absence of the necessary confidence in the word of the German leaders and because those leaders had become what might even be described as “untouchables” for many Americans. He said that he realized this, but that nevertheless he knew it was his duty to protect the French people from [as much] suffering that [as?] he could and he felt sure that a similar feeling must constitute the major preoccupation of President Roosevelt and the American leaders with respect to the American people. At this point the Vice Prime Minister reiterated that he was prepared to be frank and open with the United States Government at any time and stated that he would give the United States Government whatever information it asked for about his own ideas and plans at any time.
The Vice Prime Minister said that he was in a position in view of his current discussions with the German leaders to tell them at any time that he was requested to do so what the American view might be with respect to questions under consideration relating to the future [Page 411] of Europe. He explained this statement by pointing out that he recognized that a revolution had occurred on the Continent of Europe and that he believed in the possibility of a new European order with which the United States could and should work and cooperate.
I told the Vice Prime Minister that opinion in the United States was determined against appeasement. He said that this new order need not be appeasement, that surely a pledge or a guaranty could be found.
At about this point in our talk I said that I would like to speak even more frankly and more personally with him than I had yet done thus far in a conversation that was no more than a talk between a Frenchman and an American. I then said that in my own personal opinion collaboration and appeasement would fully lead to a situation in which one might easily envisage the possibility of a rupture between the French and American Governments. After a few moments of reflection Mr. Laval said that such a development “would be horrible”. It was then that he emphasized with great vigor his desire that a report be sent by me that would take the form of a message of explanation from him, and his parting words to me, when I left at 6:00 o’clock, were “You must try with the greatest care to tell your Government accurately what are the thoughts that have been and are passing through my mind and you must take even greater care that there shall stand out over and above all you record my deep felt desire to safeguard the relations between our two countries.”

I left the Vice Prime Minister with the feeling that the very serious view taken by the American Government of the present state of our relations with the Vichy Government and the reasons therefor had struck home. This does not imply that he is less convinced of Germany’s victory and the need to work with Germany. But I do believe that he has begun to reflect again on the American position and to realize that perhaps he has not given sufficient attention to the role of the United States. The Vice Prime Minister is frank to admit that the mass of the French people are not with him. He himself refers to times in the past when he was “thrown out of office” by acts and statements outside France. [Barnes.]

  1. Fernand de Brinon, with the title of Ambassador, handled the political relations between Vichy and Germany with Otto Abetz, the Ambassador of the Reich.
  2. For correspondence regarding Pierre Laval’s visit to the United States in 1931, see Foreign Relations, 1931, vol. ii, pp. 237 ff.