740.0011 European War 1939/7068: Telegram

The Chargé in France (Murphy)51 to the Secretary of State

1109. Laval, who is leaving this evening for Paris, received me today and discussed for over an hour several phases of the situation which are of especial interest. He commenced by a reference to American sentiment regarding France which he hopes is improving. Laval said with some feeling that he believed that the efforts of a number of discredited French émigrés now in the United States, plus the antagonism of certain American and foreign Jews, are doing much to obscure the verities of the French situation and to endanger the friendship which he hopes will continue between our two countries. He expressed no bitterness except for a passing reference to the bluntness of the Secretary’s November conversation with Henry-Haye saying that time alone will demonstrate the facts in the European situation and the merits of Laval’s policy. He hoped that the Secretary would understand from the reply he personally drafted that he is motivated by no desire to play Germany’s game but merely to protect French interests and to retain intact France’s Colonial Empire. Malicious stories to the effect that he is eager to do the German bidding, that he even goes farther in subservient compliance than the Germans demand are the mouthings of the ignorant and uninformed. He is French he said and the best interests of his own people are his only goal.

At this point I referred to the reference made by the Secretary that he felt frequently that Laval had failed to keep our Government advised of his policies and his negotiations especially those relating to matters of direct mutual concern such as Indochina. He said he regretted if we believed there was any desire on his part to conceal from us matters which would be of mutual interest. Often the rapidity of events and the pressure under which he worked caused him to overlook and neglect many important items. He was resolved that there should be a better understanding on our part of his acts and intentions; [Page 415] that later in the discussion he would give me proof of his sincerity in this regard. I said he had been quoted as saying “Je m’en fous de I’opinion americaine.” He replied that it is always easy to pick a phrase out of a conversation and twist its meaning. I could hardly consider him so unintelligent as to belittle the importance of the United States. His reference in that connection was simply to his conviction that whether the American people liked or did not like it the German success is a hard fact and not a theory. The French Government has to deal unfortunately with the facts, and in that respect if American public opinion was critical, it simply could not be helped.

Laval asked what the prevailing sentiment is on the part of the Administration and the American public concerning “that war between England and Germany”. I replied that there is no change—that the belief in a victory was growing and that we were committed to give all possible aid to Great Britain short of entry into the war. We believed our best interests and those of humanity would be served by a victory.

Laval said that he had thought we believed in a victory “less and less” and that he personally believed in a German victory “more and more”. One of his principal reasons he said in indulging in such a hope is that in such case Britain will pay the bill and not France. Laval added that in his conversation with Hitler the subject of the eventual conditions of peace had never been discussed, even in the most preliminary fashion, but that he is convinced that Hitler is far too astute to wish the ruin of France. He said that while it is obvious that Germany has no intention of relinquishing Alsace-Lorraine, Germany, he is convinced, had no intention to destroy the French Colonial Empire.

Laval went on to deplore what he believes is a lack of understanding in the United States that an economic and political revolution is under way in Europe; that it was bound to happen and would continue whether Hitler and associated personalities ever existed or whether they disappear.

European order would have fallen in any event he said and the sooner the United States understands that fact the quicker some of the problems will be solved. Their solution will only be delayed, he believes, if through American aid the war is prolonged and Europe reduced to a shambles. What good, he said, will Europe be to itself or to the United States, whose best customer it has been, if it is nothing but a cemetery.

Laval inquired about our interest in the French fleet and asked why we could not believe that it would be preserved to retain the French Empire intact, and would never fall into German hands. [Page 416] I replied that we entertained no doubts of the good intentions of his Government to prevent the fleet falling into German hands but it was a question whether in view of all the circumstances France could in an eventuality execute its intentions. Laval said we could feel secure in our minds that the only use which would be made of the French fleet would be the protection of France’s empire, that it would be used to repel any aggressive action just as it would any stupid British or De Gaulle attempt to seize and occupy French territory.

At this point I mentioned to Laval the interest which so many elements in the United States attach to the North African situation, Martinique and to Indochina.

Laval replied that that brought him to something of importance which he wished to convey to the Secretary. Japan, he said, has offered its arbitration to settle the present difficulties between Thailand and Indochina. Laval said Arsène-Henry52 would inform the Tokyo Government in 48 hours that France prefers to settle the difference directly with Thailand or if necessary resort to the good offices of the United States. Laval would also request Henry-Haye to inform the Secretary fully in this connection.53

Laval said that he wishes by this action to make plain to the Secretary that he is fully conscious that the power of the United States is the bulwark protecting Indochina against Japanese aggression. At the same time he said that he thought our Government should support the French demand that colonial troops be allowed to proceed to Indochina from Djibouti, this demand having been rejected by Britain without any intelligent reason. Laval added that he hoped that aviation equipment could be sent from the United States to Indochina to strengthen the French position. I asked at this point whether he had ever seriously considered sending the modern planes of American manufacture now in Martinique54 to Indochina as would be the French right under the armistice convention. (I emphasized that this was only a personal inquiry as I had no instructions from my Government to raise the question.) Laval said that he was glad I had mentioned the matter—he would like to see it done and would bring up the question again after a discussion with his colleagues. Personally he saw no objection and did not believe the Germans would oppose. He said he found amusing many of the American press reports on the subject of Martinique. In fact he said some of the criticism of France, as unjust as it might be, appearing in the American press occasionally pleased the Germans and made it easier for Laval to obtain concessions from them.

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Laval emphasized his recognition of our interest in Martinique and his desire in every way to please our Government in that regard.

The conversation then swung to North Africa55 with a question from Laval regarding the reported visit, said to be under contemplation, by Colonel Donovan56 to North Africa. I replied that I was without information except for a radio report on the subject but that Colonel Donovan is a well-known private American citizen whose judgment is respected in the United States.

Laval said we would find no German interference in French African affairs—the Germans had been absolutely correct and circumspect regarding French African interests, much more so than the British. There are no Germans at Dakar, he said, and only one civilian observer near Casablanca. The Italians, he is confident, are also withdrawing completely. Laval is certain that France with some minor exceptions (I inquired about Spanish demands but he brushed the question aside saying he would revert to it some other time and it was nothing to worry about) will retain her African interests practically intact. He said with a bland smile: “My friendly efforts with the Germans are bearing some fruit.”

I seized the opportunity to mention that an inspection of our consular establishments in North Africa was long overdue and was desired by my Government. I would probably make it shortly and this would give me an opportunity to see the actual conditions. Laval ended the conversation by saying with a grimace that the French and American policies seemed to differ only in respect to the “small question” of a British victory but that for him American friendship, in any event, would always be a cornerstone in France’s foreign policy.

  1. Murphy returned to France for a few days in December, after an extended visit in the United States, before going to his new assignment in North Africa.
  2. Charles Arsène-Henry, French Ambassador in Japan.
  3. See memorandum by the Under Secretary of State, December 11, p. 532.
  4. See pp. 505 ff.
  5. For correspondence regarding the situation in North Africa, see pp. 570 ff.
  6. William J. Donovan, unofficial observer for the Secretary of the Navy in Southeastern Europe, December 1940–March 1941.