740.0011 European War 1939/4556: Telegram

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

19. I had long conversations with Pétain, Laval, Chautemps, Baudouin, General Requin, and others yesterday. Pétain was engaged in preparing a message to you stating the facts from the French point of view with regard to the British attack on the French Fleet. Since there will be a delay of at least 12 to 24 hours on all my messages, as I am obliged to return to La Bourboule from Vichy to send them, I assume that you already have all the facts and Pétain’s message and will, therefore, omit them.

The reaction produced by the news of the British attack on the French Fleet was, of course, violent in the extreme. Several members of the present Cabinet advocated immediate acts of war against England. Baudouin stated to me that he had led the fight in the Cabinet to prevent any act of war; but I learned later from three of his colleagues that he had advocated an act of war. Pétain was resolutely opposed to anything more than a break in diplomatic relations with England. Orders have been sent recalling the French Chargé d’Affaires in London.

The Germans and Italians were quick to try to take advantage of the violent wave of anti-British feeling. They lifted the armistice clauses with regard to the French Fleet and French Air Force and [Page 471] also permitted the French to stop demobilization of that portion of the French Army still remaining intact on the Italian frontier. Moreover, Pétain informed me that the clause forbidding him and the Government to use the radio for broadcasts had been lifted.

Baudouin in commenting to me said that he hoped I would not forget that henceforth there would be a chasm between France and Great Britain which it would be impossible to bridge. He added that France hoped to pursue good relations with the United States.

The British action strengthened greatly the hands of those who desire to establish as rapidly as possible a full and complete cooperation with Germany and Italy, and correspondingly weakened those who desire to continue a policy of cooperation with Great Britain and the United States. The latter indeed are in despair.

Pétain recognizes that only a defeat of Hitler by some other power can restore independence to France. He is, therefore, sincerely desirous of a British victory. Pétain was inclined to minimize “breach” by attributing it to Churchill’s personal lack of balance. Incidentally, Darlan was opposed to acts of war against England on the ground that the French Fleet could not now fight except by receiving its supplies entirely from German and Italian hands and he was unwilling to take any such assistance.

Pétain and Laval both said to me that the Chamber and Senate would meet on Monday next and that the vote giving full powers to the Marshal to establish a new constitution would come on Wednesday. Incidentally Pétain has left the nature of this National Assembly entirely to Laval and, if Laval should be unable to obtain a majority for the abolition of the present constitution, Pétain is apparently prepared to dissociate himself from Laval, force Laval’s resignation and remain himself leader of the French nation.

Pétain has told me that in view of the new concessions made to France yesterday by Germany and Italy, he again hoped that it might be possible for the French Government to return to Paris in the near future.