Oral Message From President Roosevelt to General Weygand

[Editorial Note. No written text of this message has been found, and it appears that none was made or preserved. The information set forth below with respect to the message has been derived from the following sources: a letter from Ambassador Douglas MacArthur II to the Historical Office, December 14, 1961 (023.1/12–1461); a letter from Ambassador H. Freeman Matthews to the Historical Office, January 15, 1962 (640.001/1–1562); a memorandum by Matthews, January 17, 1945 (Matthews File); and two despatches from Leahy to Roosevelt, dated respectively January 12 and 25, 1942 (Roosevelt Papers). Reference to the message may be found in William L. Danger, Our Vichy Gamble (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947), pp. 209–210; in General Maxime Weygand, Recalled to Service (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1952), pp. 391–392; and in Leahy, pp. 72, 75.

The substance of the message was decided upon at the White House meeting on December 23, 1941 (ante, p. 67) and was transmitted by [Page 235] Matthews, who was assigned as Counselor of Embassy at London, to Henry P. Leverich, Second Secretary in the American Legation at Lisbon. Leverich memorized the message and proceeded to Vichy where he repeated it orally to Ambassador Leahy and Mr. MacArthur, who was then Third Secretary in the Embassy. Since Ambassador Leahy was under close surveillance by German or pro-German agents in Vichy, it was agreed that MacArthur should deliver the message and that this should be done under cover of a family vacation trip to the Riviera. The oral message and the President’s letter of December 27 (post, p. 244) were delivered by MacArthur to Weygand in the latter’s apartment in a hotel at Grasse on January 20, 1942. In conveying the oral message, MacArthur spoke from cryptic notes which he burned the same evening.

In response to an inquiry from the Historical Office in 1961, Ambassador MacArthur stated that the message was still “engraved” in his memory and that he could give a “rather accurate and full summary of it.” MacArthur’s summary (which was characterized by Matthews as extremely accurate) reads as follows:

“I said to General Weygand that I was charged by President Roosevelt to deliver to him a letter, together with an important oral communication. The written communication from the President was to serve as my introduction to General Weygand and to establish my bona fides and the authenticity of the oral message I had also been charged to deliver. (I then gave him the written message. After reading it he expressed appreciation of the President’s references to himself.)

“I then said that the oral message related to the future course of the war. Recently three very important interrelated new developments had taken place, which made it quite clear that the whole course of the war had changed and that ultimately the allied cause would triumph. The three new developments were:

the serious German reverses in Russia, which in themselves cast doubt in a final German victory;
the recent British successes in Cyrenaica, which made it impossible for Germany to seize the Suez Canal and all of North Africa and the Middle East;
the entry of the United States into the war, with its tremendous industrial, economic and military potential, which would greatly increase the aid which the allies would receive in prosecuting the war against Germany.

“While these three developments made it clear that Germany could not win the war, they also led the United States to attach particular and vital importance to French North Africa, because what happened in North Africa could affect favorably or adversely the length of the war on which depended the liberation of metropolitan France and the restoration of France’s overseas possessions. In this connection, the President wanted General Weygand to know that the United States firmly intends to see to it that the integrity of France and her empire [Page 236] is respected after the war and that the French possessions in North Africa remain in French hands. The United States had no desire whatsoever to replace France in North Africa, nor to see the British or the supporters of General de Gaulle take over the area. However, at the same time it was quite clear that the Germans were planning to take French North Africa and, indeed, the principal reason that General Weygand had been removed as Supreme Authority in North Africa under the Vichy Government was because the Germans knew he would resist to the end German efforts at infiltration, and because they also knew he had great standing and influence in North Africa.

“In light of the obvious German objective of seizing French North Africa, the President wanted General Weygand to know that he had reached the firm conclusion that if there were a change in the ‘status quo,’ threatening the integrity of French North Africa, the United States would be obliged to take preventive action to keep French North Africa from falling into German hands. These steps would, if necessary, include an attack on German armed forces should they move into French North Africa. By a change in the ‘status quo’ President Roosevelt particularly had in mind the following:

the replacement of Marshal Pétain’s government by a government under German domination;
the utilization of the French fleet against American forces;
the ceding of African bases by the Vichy Government to the Germans or their allies;
a military threat against North Africa, such as preparation for a German attack against North Africa through Spain or from any other direction;
German infiltration into North Africa designed to facilitate a military takeover.

“To summarize, if in the judgment of the President it appeared that the Germans were preparing to move into North Africa, or if the Vichy Government should take steps which would assist the Germans or had the effect of facilitating a German takeover, it would be essential for the United States to act before French North Africa fell into Nazi hands.

“I said the President greatly regretted that General Weygand was no longer in French North Africa to cope with German endeavors to take over that vital area. The principal purpose of my call on General Weygand was to ascertain whether, in the event of any of the eventualities listed above, he, General Weygand, would be willing to plan a role of leadership in French North Africa and rally the people and the French military there to the allied cause and cooperate fully with the United States and the allies in keeping French North Africa out of German hands. The President believed there was no one as well equipped as he to carry out such a great mission which would aid in the ultimate victory over Nazi Germany, the liberation of France, and the restoration of France’s overseas territories.”

Leahy’s report of January 25 to Roosevelt (Roosevelt Papers) indicates that Weygand’s response was “courteous and agreeable” but that the General declined even to consider the possibility of his playing an active role in French North Africa. Weygand insisted that he was [Page 237] honor-bound to inform Marshal Pétain of the secret American approach to him, but he promised to do so in such a way that it would not become known to others.]