123 Leahy, Wm. D./30½

President Roosevelt to the Ambassador in France (Leahy)61

My Dear Admiral Leahy: As Ambassador of the United States near the French Government, you will be serving the United States at a very critical time in the relations between the United States and France. I impose entire confidence in your ability and judgment to meet all situations which may arise. Nevertheless, for your general guidance I feel that I may properly outline some of the basic principles which at present govern the relations of the United States with France.

(1) Marshal Pétain occupies a unique position both in the hearts of the French people and in the Government. Under the existing Constitution his word is law and nothing can be done against his opposition unless it is accomplished without his knowledge. In his decrees [Page 426] he uses the royal “we” and I have gathered that he intends to rule.

Accordingly, I desire that you endeavor to cultivate as close relations with Marshal Pétain as may be possible. You should outline to him the position of the United States in the present conflict and you should stress our firm conviction that only by defeat of the powers now controlling the destiny of Germany and Italy can the world live in liberty, peace and prosperity; that civilization cannot progress with a return to totalitarianism.

I had reason to believe that Marshal Pétain was not cognizant of all of the acts of his Vice Premier and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Monsieur Laval, in his relations with the Germans. There can be no assurance that a similar situation will not exist with the new Foreign Minister.62 Accordingly, you should endeavor to bring to Marshal Pétain’s attention such acts done or contemplated in the name of France which you deem to be inimical to the interests of the United States.

(2) I have made it abundantly clear that the policy of this administration is to support in every way practicable those countries which are defending themselves against aggression. In harmony with this principle this Government is affording and will continue to afford to the Government of Great Britain all possible assistance short of war. You may wish from time to time to bring to the attention of Marshal Pétain and members of the Government concrete information regarding the American program to this end.

(3) I have been much perturbed by reports indicating that resources of France are being placed at the disposal of Germany in a measure beyond that positively required by the terms of the armistice agreement. I have reason to believe that aside from the selfish interests of individuals there is unrequired governmental cooperation with Germany motivated by a belief in the inevitableness of a German victory and ultimate benefit to France. I desire that you endeavor to inform yourself with relation to this question and report fully regarding it.

You should endeavor to persuade Marshal Pétain, the members of his Government, and high ranking officers in the military forces with whom you come into contact, of the conviction of this Government that a German victory would inevitably result in the dismemberment of the French Empire and the maintenance at most of France as a vassal state.

(4) I believe that the maintenance of the French fleet free of German control is not only of prime importance to the defense of this hemisphere but is also vital to the preservation of the French Empire and the eventual restoration of French independence and autonomy.

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Accordingly, from the moment we were confronted with the imminent collapse of French resistance it has been a cardinal principle of this administration to assure that the French fleet did not fall into German hands and was not used in the furtherance of German aims. I immediately informed the French Government, therefore, that should that Government permit the French fleet to be surrendered to Germany the French Government would permanently lose the friendship and good will of the Government of the United States.

Since that time I have received numerous assurances from those in control of the destiny of France that the French fleet would under no circumstances be surrendered.

On June 18, 1940, Monsieur Paul Baudouin, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, assured Ambassador Biddle “in the name of the French Government in the most solemn manner that the French fleet would never be surrendered to the enemy.”

On July 1, 1940, President Lebrun informed Ambassador Bullitt that “France would under no conditions deliver the fleet to Germany.” On the same day Marshal Pétain assured Ambassador Bullitt that orders had been issued to every Captain of the French fleet to sink his ship rather than to permit it to fall into German hands, and Admiral Darlan told Ambassador Bullitt that he had “given absolute orders to the officers of his fleet to sink immediately any ship that the Germans should attempt to seize.”

When Marshal Pétain came into power as Chief of the French State I received renewed and most solemn assurances that the French fleet would not be surrendered to Germany. Vice Premier Laval reiterated these assurances to Mr. Matthews on November 14 when he said that “the French fleet will never fall into the hands of a hostile power.”

On November 16 Marshal Pétain, when the subject was again raised, told Mr. Matthews: “I have given the most solemn assurances that the French fleet, including the Jean Bart and the Richelieu, should never fall into Germany’s hands. I have given these assurances to your Government. I have given them to the British Government, and even to Churchill personally. I reiterate them now. They will be used to defend French territory and possessions. They will never be used against the British unless we are attacked by them.” And most recently Marshal Pétain, in a conversation with the present Chargé d’Affaires ad interim, Mr. Murphy, said on December 12: “I hope your President understands that I have kept and will continue to keep the solemn promise I made that the French fleet will be scuttled before it is allowed to fall into German hands.”

I feel most strongly that if the French Government after these repeated solemn assurances were to permit the use of the French fleet in hostile operations against the British, such action would constitute [Page 428] a flagrant and deliberate breach of faith to the Government of the United States.

You will undoubtedly associate with high officers of the French Navy. I desire, therefore, that in your relations with such officers, as well as in your conversations with French officials, you endeavor to convince them that to permit the use of the French fleet or naval bases by Germany or to attain German aims, would most certainly forfeit the friendship and good will of the United States and result in the destruction of the French fleet to the irreparable injury of France.

(5) You will undoubtedly be approached from numerous quarters regarding food for the French people.

There is no people on earth who have done more than the American people in relieving the suffering of humanity. The hearts of the American people go out to the people of France in their distress. As you are aware we are continuing our efforts to arrange for the forwarding through the Red Cross of medical supplies and also tinned or powdered milk for children in the unoccupied regions of France.63 Nevertheless, the primary interest of the American people, and an interest which overshadows all else at the moment, is to see a British victory. The American people are therefore unwilling to take any measure which in the slightest degree will prejudice such a victory. Before the American people would be willing to have influence exerted upon the British Government to permit the shipment of food through the British blockade to France, it would be necessary that the American people be convinced beyond peradventure that such action would not in the slightest assist Germany.

(6) In your discussions regarding the French West Indies and French Guiana64 you should point out that our sole desire in that region is to maintain the status quo and to be assured that neither those possessions nor their resources will ever be used to the detriment of the United States or the American republics. To accomplish this we feel that it is essential that the naval vessels stationed in the ports of those islands or possessions be immobilized and that we have adequate guarantees that the gold which is at present stored in Martinique be not used in any manner which could conceivably benefit Germany in the present struggle.

(7) I have noticed with sympathetic interest the efforts of France to maintain its authority in its North African possessions65 and to improve their economic status. In your discussions you may say that [Page 429] your Government is prepared to assist in this regard in any appropriate way.

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt
  1. Handed to Admiral Leahy in Washington on December 20, 1940, by the Secretary of State. Admiral Leahy arrived in Vichy on January 5, 1941.
  2. Pierre Étienne Flandin succeeded Laval upon the latter’s dismissal on December 13, 1940.
  3. For correspondence regarding food relief to France, see pp. 537 ff.
  4. For correspondence on interest of the United States in the fate of French possessions in the Western Hemisphere, see pp. 493 ff.
  5. For correspondence regarding the interest of the United States in political and economic conditions in French North Africa, see pp. 570 ff.