740.0011 European War 1939/6725: Telegram

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

965. After the statements reported in my 964, November 16, 5 p.m.,50 Marshal Pétain continued to talk of his present problems with the greatest seriousness and at times emotionally. He was obviously depressed and weighed down by a sense of the enormous and tragic responsibilities which face him in trying to save what he can for France.

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He said that his policy of “collaboration” with Germany had been much criticized and misunderstood in the United States. By “collaboration” he said he means only economic collaboration and in no sense military aid to Germany in her war against the British nor cession of bases. So far, his offer of “collaboration” had brought nothing until a few moments ago. He had just learned that Germany has agreed to release those prisoners who are fathers of four children or who are the oldest of four children whether [where?] the father is dead. That at least was something. He had also heard that there are to be certain facilities granted for communication between the two zones though he was not sure just what. (I presume, though he did not so state, he had obtained this news from Laval who is due back in Vichy tonight or tomorrow.)

On the other hand, he continued, as I probably knew, the Germans were sending thousands of the poor loyal inhabitants of Lorraine down to unoccupied France with no prior notice, permitted them to take but 2000 francs and 50 kilos of luggage, and imposing on France the additional burden of caring for and feeding these people. I asked if this was what the Germans meant by “collaboration” and he replied sadly that so far that seemed to be the case; that they talked of the fruits of collaboration mainly as something to come when their war against Great Britain is won and peace is made. He went on to say that for these poor people from Lorraine and the prisoners, work must be found and they must be fed and that is why he hopes to get French industry started again a little. The Germans, however, are placing on France the burden of reimbursing these poor people from Lorraine for the loss of their property in addition to the 400,000,000 francs a day obligation France is now paying.

He has sent, he said, a definite statement to the Germans that France cannot continue to pay this sum of 400,000,000 a day. What the result will be and what the Germans will do he does not know: “They are capable of anything. But you may be sure that I will never agree to anything that will dishonor France or to assist Germany in a military way in her war against the British.”

As for the British he said they have behaved badly toward France. They had helped to push her into a war for which she was in no way prepared but they had not helped her much once she was in it. Their air force has now shown what it can do but they did not send that air force to help France. Since the armistice they had given their support “to the traitor De Gaulle”; they had engaged in a cowardly, cowardly attack on Mers-el-Kebir. France owed little to the British. In spite of all that he bears them no hate, on the contrary, from what he has seen of German behavior, a British victory is what France must [Page 413] hope for. They are fighting a good fight now and he does not believe that they will ever yield. On the other hand they cannot land on the Continent, he said, and invade Germany. He therefore sees after much tragic destruction a drawn peace. The sooner that could come the better, for France will pay the price. I said that regardless of any errors of the past the British we feel are now fighting our war, that they will be victorious and that we shall give them all possible material aid. He reacted immediately: “Of course, and I hope your aid will be very great. After what they have done, I cannot help them; but I say again that a British-American victory is what France must wish. I have no love for the British and I shall defend French territory against them. But their victory is much better for France than that of Germany. The Germans are becoming each day more exigent in their demands and I do not know where we shall end.” He repeated as though to emphasize the seriousness of the situation: “They may finish by putting me in prison. I shall however never agree to anything contrary to the honor of France. Many people even in France today criticized me for signing the armistice. It was the only policy and by it I have saved what I could of France. Otherwise the Germans would have occupied my entire country and we know what their occupation means.”

He then talked a little of our association in Spain and asked that his very cordial regards be sent to Ambassador Weddell for whom he expressed his esteem. “Spain,” he said in reply to my inquiry, “is in a very serious situation. There is really hunger there too. [Apparent omission] much common sense and will not come in unless forced to—just as I would have wanted no war. The task which has fallen on me is as great as that which ever faced a man. It is Blum, Daladier and others brought to Riom, who are responsible for this war and should have to bear the problems of today instead of me. They and the others who have so misgoverned France for the past 20 years.” (The Department may be interested to compare the similarity of these last statements with those made to me by Laval—see my telegram 954, November 14, 9 p.m.)

In reply to my offer to communicate at any time any information or message which he cared to send us he concluded our talk with an expression of appreciation and by saying with great seriousness: “I want you to tell your President whose words have at times been hard that I shall do all in my power to keep the friendship of your country and to maintain as good relations as may be possible.”

I have reported this conversation in some detail and even some repetition because they are the words of the one man who today for all his age can alone speak for France, and who alone possesses the prestige and affection of his people. Without him this Government [Page 414] would not last 10 minutes. A defeatist in some respects history shows him to be, but I came away with the firm impression that he will never consciously agree to any step which by his lights and standards and in his words is contrary “to the honor of France”. He sold me completely on that.

  1. Post, p. 488.