740.0011 European War 1939/4361½: Telegram

The Ambassador in France (Bullitt) to the Secretary of State

6. Personal for the Secretary and the President. I had long conversations today with Lebrun,16 Pétain, Darlan, and Chautemps.;17 and also spoke briefly with Weygand,18 Pomaret,19 Marquet20 and many Senators and Ambassadors. The impression which emerges from these conversations is the extraordinary one that the French leaders desire to cut loose from all that France has represented during the past two generations, that their physical and moral defeat has been so absolute that they have accepted completely for France the fate of becoming a province of Nazi Germany. Moreover, in order that they may have as many companions in misery as possible they hope that England will be rapidly and completely defeated by Germany and that the Italians will suffer the same fate. Their hope is that France may become Germany’s favorite province—a new Gau which will develop into a new Gaul.

This mental disorder yesterday was accompanied by a physical disorder in living conditions and office arrangements which was fantastic. As you know the French Government arrived in Clermont-Ferrand yesterday. Displeased by living arrangements it left today for Vichy. In view of the disorder none of the statements which were made to me today should be taken as indicating any fixed line of policy or opinion. The truth is that the French are so completely crushed and so without hope for the future that they are likely to say or do almost anything.

1. I called on Lebrun at 11:30. When he entered the room he had a telegram from the United States (Atlanta, Georgia) imploring him not to surrender the French Government [Fleet?] to Germany. He said that he had received hundreds of such telegrams. I replied that these telegrams unquestionably had shown him the terrible shock to American public opinion that had been produced by the idea that France could deliver into the hands of her enemy a weapon with which [Page 463] to cut the throat of her ally, England. He immediately became very excited and said that the French positively would not deliver the fleet to Germany for the Germans intended to carry out the clauses of the armistice and that he was certain that they would not take and employ these warships.

He then said that the United States had done nothing to help France which had been fighting the battle of all the democracies and that criticisms from the United States were in extremely bad taste.

I replied that we had done all that we could; that we had made it clear to France from the beginning that we would not enter the war; that the people of the United States could understand that the French Army had been obliged to surrender and that this action was considered as bad as the action of the King of the Belgians in withdrawing his army from the battle at Dunkirk which had been vigorously condemned as an act of treachery by the French. The permitting the fleet to fall into German hands was, however, much more serious. It meant providing means to destroy an ally.

Lebrun flew into a passion and said that the British had given almost no help whatsoever to the French. They had sent 10 divisions incompetently officered which had proved to be deficient in fighting spirit. They had run from the Somme and the British Government had withdrawn the British pursuit planes from the battle of the Somme. The British would soon suffer the same fate that the French had suffered. It would then be the turn of the United States and he would like to see whether either Great Britain or the United States would stand up to the Germans as well as France.

He then suddenly, without mental continuity, stated that in his belief the British would be able to beat off the German attack and that he heartily hoped they would be able to. He then launched into a description of the pitiable plight of the refugees, which is indeed horrible, and stated that if the fleet had been sent to England the Germans unquestionably in retaliation would have destroyed Paris, Lyon, and every other city in France.

I have never seen Lebrun in such a state of nervous excitement and it was obviously wearisome to carry the conversation further.

I then called on Marshal Pétain who was calm, serious [?] and altogether dignified as a [?] great [?].21 After I talked for an hour the Marshal asked me to take luncheon with him and as a result I talked with him for 3 hours.

The Marshal first asked me about conditions in Paris which I described in great detail and made a number of recommendations all of which he noted. He then said that he desired to thank me most profoundly for having remained in Paris and for [having?] arranged [Page 464] the orderly occupation of the city. He said that he personally and all other Frenchmen owed me a deep debt of gratitude for this act. He then said that he felt that the main outlines of the future were clear. The Germans would attempt to reduce France to a province of Germany by obtaining complete control of the economic life of France and by maintaining France in a condition of permanent military impotence. It had been obvious to him when he had returned from his Embassy in Spain that the war was lost. He had attempted to persuade Reynaud to ask for an armistice the moment the British had refused to send their pursuit planes to participate in the fighting on the Somme. The truth was that the British had scarcely participated in that decisive battle of the war. Their troops had run, and although they had had 40 squadrons of pursuit planes in England they had sent only 5 to participate in the battle. French losses of material in Belgium and on the French frontier had been such that the French troops outnumbered 4 and 5 to 1 had finally been without munitions. The French Army had disintegrated and there was nothing to do except to make peace.

The Marshal then went on to say that the question of the fleet had been a terribly difficult one. He himself had taken the position that the French Fleet would never be surrendered to Germany and he wished to tell me that orders had been given to every captain of the French Fleet to sink his ship rather than permit his ship to fall into German hands.

He thought that German conduct in France indicated a desire to obtain the collaboration of the French as the chief conquered province of Germany. He did not believe that the Germans would break the terms of the armistice and he thought that they would on the contrary do everything to obtain the good will of the people of France and their cooperation in a subordinate role.

Pétain then went on to say that he thought that it would be a good thing for France if the parliamentarians who had been responsible not only for the policies which had led to the war but also for the relative unpreparedness of France should be eliminated from the French Government. He intended to dismiss every politician who had been connected with the Blum22 Government. He felt that the system of government in France must be changed. In his opinion one of the chief causes for the collapse of the French Army was that the reserve officers who had been educated by school teachers who were Socialists and not patriots had deserted their men and shown no fighting spirit whatsoever. A sense of courage and duty must be reintroduced into France.

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Marshal Pétain went on to say that he expected Germany to crush England rapidly and he believed that Germany would make her chief demands at the expense of England. Germany probably would annex certain portions of France and would probably control the whole of France through economic arrangements but he felt that England would be [?] destroyed by Germany and that while Germany would take French Morocco and other French possessions on the Atlantic coast of Africa she would also take South Africa, India, and Canada if the United States should be defeated. He believed that the Italians would take Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria and perhaps some portion of continental France. He felt that Algeria would be permitted to remain in French hands. He expressed great bitterness against Churchill23 and General de Gaulle.24

Pétain added that he had just asked the German Government to permit the French Government to establish a sort of Vatican City at Versailles from which France could be governed much more efficiently than from Vichy.

3 [sic]. Admiral Darlan was intensely bitter against Great Britain. He said he felt that the British Fleet had proved to be as great a disappointment as the French Army. It was directed not by a man, but by a board of directors who could never make up their minds about anything until it was too late. He had spent a month trying to discover who was responsible for the fiasco of the Norwegian expedition and he was unable to pin the responsibility on any single Englishman since the board of directors had taken the responsibility collectively.

His most intense bitterness apparently had been aroused by an experience of his own son who was with the French Marines (fusiliers marines) at the Somme in direct contact with the British.

He said that his son who had been taken prisoner near Calais had managed to reach Bordeaux and had told him that the British troops on the Somme had run to the Bresle before the Germans had fired a single shot and had blown up the bridges behind the French Marines.

Darlan went on to say that he felt absolutely certain that Great Britain would be completely conquered by Germany within 5 weeks unless Great Britain should surrender sooner. It would in his opinion be entirely impossible for the British to send a single ship into the port of London or into the ports of Plymouth, Southampton, and Portsmouth. The Germans could take Ireland easily and close the ports of Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, and Bristol. Great Britain would die of asphyxiation even without a German invasion. For his [Page 466] part, he did not believe that the British Government or people would have the courage to stand against serious German air bombardments and he expected a surrender after a few heavy air attacks.

I remarked that he seemed to regard this prospect with considerable pleasure and when he did not deny this remark but smiled I said that it seemed to me that I had observed that the French would like to have England conquered in order that Germany might have as many conquered provinces to control as possible and that France might become the favorite province, he smiled again and nodded.

I then asked Darlan if he expected an attack on the United States. He said that he felt certain that Hitler would attack the United States shortly after disposing of England and equally certain that the defenses of the United States would prove to be as vulnerable as those of England. He then said that he felt that the President of the United States had made a great mistake in criticizing the French Government’s agreements with regard to the fleet. He, Darlan, had sent word to the officers of the fleet before the armistice negotiations that he would take one of two courses. If the Germans should demand the fleet and insisted on the demand they would be ordered to leave at once for Martinique and Guantánamo to place the fleet in the hands of the United States. If on the other hand it should be possible to keep the fleet out of the hands of the Germans and in French hands he would prefer such a solution. Under no conditions would he send the fleet to England since he was certain that the British would never return a single vessel of the fleet to France and that if Great Britain should win the war the treatment which would be accorded to France by Great Britain would be no more generous than the treatment accorded by Germany.

He added that he had given absolute orders to the officers of his fleet to sink immediately any ship that the Germans should attempt to seize. He said that preparations for the sinking of the ships had been made on every French vessel.

I said to him that I did not see how the French could have any control over any French vessel which might return to French ports under German control. He replied that there would always be aboard the vessels sufficient Frenchmen to sink them and that they would be on the alert.

I asked what vessels he expected to send back to Toulon. He replied that he expected to send both the Dunherque and Strasbourg to Toulon. I expressed the opinion that this means that the two most valuable units of the French Fleet would soon be in German hands since the Germans could always say that one term of the armistice or another had not been carried out and that they were justified therefore in disregarding the other terms of the armistice.

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Darlan replied that he had just as little confidence as I had in any German promise. But all the behavior of the Germans since their conquest of France had indicated that Germany desired to make France a willing vassal of Germany. It was in his opinion certain that Hitler intended to bring the entire continent of Europe including England into a single customs union and that he desired to make France his leading vassal state. France could do nothing but accept such a position for the moment. Hitler might spread his empire from one end of the earth to the other including the United States but all such empires eventually broke up because the masters in each subordinate country began eventually to sympathize with the country in which they were resident. He did not believe, therefore, that German domination of the earth would be permanent although it might be long. However disagreeable this prospect was it had to be faced.

Darlan then went on to say that the British Government was refusing to permit a French cruiser and two torpedo boats which were in the harbor of Alexandria to leave for French ports. He added that he intended to give immediate orders to these ships to shoot their way out if necessary.

He commented that he felt that when England should be forced to submit to Germany’s will we should find the British eager to see the United States in the same subordinate position.

Darlan then said that French Army had not only been defeated but completely disintegrated. The French Fleet had not been defeated and its spirit remained intact and he hoped and believed that the officers corps of the French Navy would play a great role in rebuilding France. Every report from the front since May 10 indicated that the French soldier still had all the courage and ability that he had ever had. In his opinion the soldiers of 1940 were fully equal to the soldiers of 1914. But the entire system of parliamentary government in France had been rotten and the high commander of the army had proved to be equally rotten. A complete change in French ways of life was needed.

Darlan said that he had positive information that in the immediate future German troops would pass through northwestern Spain to attack and seize Portugal. He thought that Portugal would be turned over to Spain with the exception of Lisbon which would be kept permanently in German hands. He stated that he had just been informed authoritatively that German troops had already crossed into Spain.

Immediately after talking with Darlan I had a long talk with Lequerica, Spanish Ambassador to France. I told him without naming Darlan that I had heard this report. He replied that there was not a word of truth in the statement that German troops had crossed the Spanish frontier. Moreover, he did not believe that German [Page 468] troops would cross the Spanish frontier. He felt, however, that it was very important for Spain to bring the present war to an end as rapidly as possible and he hoped that a cooperation between the United States and Spain to this end might be established. In confirmation of his statement that there was no truth in the report that German troops had entered Spain he said that he had talked with the Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs by telephone to Madrid at 12:30 today and that the Minister had assured him that the report was entirely false.

Chautemps and Senator Henry-Haye gave me a concrete description of the present plan to change the French Constitution. Chautemps said that Pétain had asked him to join his government and he had done so but he was gradually being shoved aside as an adviser of Pétain by Laval. He said that Pétain, Weygand, and Laval intended to abolish the present French Constitution and to introduce a semi-dictatorial state in which Parliament would play a small role. The model would be probably the German Constitution when Hin-denburg had been President and Hitler Chancellor. Pétain would be Hindenburg and Laval would be Hitler. Pétain, Weygand, and Laval all believed that if a dictatorship of this kind should be introduced in France before the peace France would obtain much better terms than could be obtained under a parliamentary regime.

Henry-Haye said that all the Senators and Deputies would be summoned to a constitutional convention to establish this new form of government.

I also talked today with one of the few men in France in whose integrity, intelligence, and wisdom I have absolute confidence. I deliberately omit his name. He stated to me that he felt that the coming man in France was General Huntziger who is now in Germany at the head of the French Armistice Commission. He believed that there would be exploratory changes in French life and that the democratic parliamentary system of government was doomed. It had produced in public life too many men who had cleverness but no character; too many men who regarded their own interests and disregarded the interests of the country. It would take an extremely long time to rebuild a strong France of character and convictions and there would be strange aberrations and eruptions but he was absolutely confident that the French soldier and the French peasant were as sound as they had ever been.

I received a long letter tonight from General Requin who commanded at the end the superb French resistance at Rethel where his troops stood until they had not one cartridge left. It gives the same impression. I have talked with many soldiers who fought until they were totally without munitions and then charged with the bayonet.

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The simple people of the country are as fine as they have ever been. The upper classes have failed completely.

  1. Albert Lebrun, President of France.
  2. Camille Chautemps, appointed Vice President of the French Council of Ministers, June 16, 1940.
  3. Gen. Maxime Weygand, appointed French Minister of Defense, June 16, 1940.
  4. Charles Pomaret, French Minister of Labor.
  5. Adrien Marquet, Mayor of Bordeaux; he became French Minister of the Interior on July 15, 1940.
  6. This sentence obviously garbled.
  7. Léon Blum, President of the French Council of Ministers, June 5, 1936, to June 20, 1937, and again for a short period in 1938.
  8. Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister.
  9. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces.