740.00119 European War 1939/553: Telegram

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

857. Ambassador Jules Henry who is off in a few days for his new post at Ankara dined with me last night. He said that he felt that we should take a calmer view of things in the United States and should try to understand the frightfully difficult position in which France finds herself. He pleaded in particular that we place full faith in Marshal Pétain not to plunge the country into war against Great Britain and not to turn over the French Fleet or French air and naval bases to Britain’s enemy. He referred to the Marshal’s brief message broadcast to the French people last night as evidence that he and not Laval is controlling the country’s destiny. The message he said had in part been destined to calm the country’s suspicions that Laval may be selling it out. (The Department will have noted the significant closing paragraphs: “The armistice after all is not peace. France is held by many obligations vis-à-vis her conqueror. At least she remains sovereign. This sovereignty imposes upon her the duty to defend her soil, to extinguish differences of opinion, to reduce dissi-dence in her colonies. This policy is mine. The Ministers are responsible only to me. It is I alone whom history will judge. I have spoken to you hitherto in the language of a father. I speak to you today as your leader. Follow me. Keep your confidence in France eternal.”)

I told him in reply—and he will no doubt pass the remarks along—that I had heard much complaint in the last 3 months of our unwillingness or inability to understand France’s position and to place in her Government the confidence which they felt they deserved. I remarked that it seemed to me that little effort and little desire had been demonstrated to understand the viewpoint of the United States. In the Marshal’s integrity and patriotism we had full confidence; we had the greatest admiration for the personal sacrifice he is making for his country. He must bear in mind, however I said, that the Marshal [Page 479] was a man of considerable age (Henry himself had asked me whether I had seen him “in the morning when his mind was clear or in the afternoon”) and that we could not place equal confidence in other members of his Government. The British, we feel, are fighting our battle and the British cause is our own. The man who has today the greatest authority in the French Government after the Marshal and who has just had himself made Foreign Minister is Pierre Laval. Laval, I went on, had expressed himself with great vehemence and sincerity first to Ambassador Biddle at Bordeaux, later to Ambassador Bullitt, to my predecessor Murphy (telegram No. 201, July 29, 5 p.m.35) and to both the French and American press that France’s only salvation lay in a British defeat and in complete collaboration with Germany. It was all very well to say that neither the Marshal nor the country would permit the fleet and air and naval bases in unoccupied France and North Africa to serve Germany’s aims. The fact remained that in spite of the armistice clauses which gave Germany the right to compel the dismantling of the French Fleet and the demobilization of its personnel the Germans had shown themselves only too anxious that the fleet be maintained 100% in commission and that not one man be demobilized. The fact could only mean that Germany hoped some day to use that fleet against the British and we quite naturally felt that if means could be found to make it possible without stirring up a revolt or the separation of the colonies Laval would be glad to “collaborate” fully to that end. I said that furthermore French industries including airplane factories are now actively engaged in producing planes and war material to strengthen Germany’s war machine; that I understood that one of the principal topics in Laval’s discussions in Paris was the question of “fuller collaboration” of French industry for German account. It seemed to me therefore that the French Government could hardly wonder at our anxiety with respect to a question so vitally important to our own security as the fate of the French Fleet and French and North African bases.

  1. Ante, p. 377.