The Ambassador in France (Leahy) to President Roosevelt 23

My Dear Mr. President: On February 11th we received by cable from the State Department your message to Marshal Pétain24 in which you informed him of information received in Washington to the effect that an agreement had been made to transport war material to the Axis forces in Libya by the use of French merchant ships between France and Tunis, and in which you told him that unless official assurance should be given by France that no military aid will go forward to Germany, Italy and Japan, and that French ships will not be used in the furtherance of their acts of aggression in any theater of war wherever it may be, I would be recalled for advice and counsel in a determination of American future policy with regard to the Government of Vichy.

In the forenoon of the next day, February 12th, I delivered to the Marshal a written French translation of your message which he read aloud to Admiral Darlan and M. Rochat who were as usual present at the conference. The Marshal made no other comment than to say that he would give me a written reply.

Admiral Darlan who had made an agreement with Italy, possibly without the knowledge of the Marshal, to send in French ships to Tunis for Rommel’s army 200 tons of foodstuffs each week and a total of 500 Italian trucks seemed unusually disturbed by your very positive statement of your reaction thereto.

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The Marshal throughout our very brief tense interview was as friendly and considerate as always. Upon my departure he expressed a hope that it will not be necessary for me to depart from France.

On February 16th we received and forwarded by cable to the Department of State a note signed by Darlan in reply to your message to the Marshal.

None of the assurances demanded by you in regard to giving assistance to the Axis forces or in regard to the use of French ships in the furtherance of their acts of aggression appear in the Vichy reply to your message, and I am therefore expecting a “recall for consultation”.

In view of an opinion previously expressed by Admiral Darlan and entertained by other officials of the Vichy Government that the United States can be depended upon to never take any positive action I consider it would be extremely detrimental to American prestige to fail in this instance to carry out your announced intention to recall the Ambassador for consultation in the determination of future policy with regard to the Government of Vichy.

If in the larger field of view from Washington it would appear advantageous to our war effort for me to continue in the office of Ambassador to France, it would appear from this point of view entirely practicable for me to return after a “consultation”, but in my opinion Vichy should not be permitted to believe that your statement in regard to my recall for consultation in the event of failure to receive the requested assurances was a “bluff”. Too large a number of the members of the Vichy Government now share a belief with Admiral Darlan that the United States may be always depended upon to take no positive action whatever.

Since receiving the Marshal’s reply to your message I have seen a copy of a proposal made by Vichy in January to Japan in regard to the use by Japan of French merchant ships in the Orient. This proposal agrees to charter to Japan about 50,000 tons of the French shipping now in Chinese and Indochinese ports, the ships to be operated under the Japanese flag with Japanese officers and crews, but not to be used for “war purposes”. Other French ships will be used under a time charter for commercial purposes between Japanese occupied ports but under the French flag and with French crews.

I was, in reply to a specific question, informed orally by Admiral Darlan on 12 February that arrangements for the chartering of French merchant shipping by Japan had not been completed.

I personally have no doubt that under a threat of Axis pressure Vichy will agree to any use of French shipping that may be demanded.

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Since the retreat in Libya, the escape of German ships from Brest, and the fall of Singapore, British prestige has fallen to a new low level.

I am sure that French public opinion and I believe that the Marshal himself hopes that an Allied victory will save France from the fate toward which it is moving, but at the present time public opinion and the Marshal have difficulty in believing that the Axis can be defeated.

The local press yesterday reported a statement by General Smuts25 that there is as yet no reason for taking any action in regard to Madagascar.26

This is reassuring to Vichy where there has very naturally been a fear for some time that the Allies might anticipate Japanese action by occupying Madagascar, Mauritius, and Réunion.

From this point of view and particularly in consideration of previous action of Vichy in Indochina it is difficult to understand why these islands, flanking as they do the supply route from anywhere to the Red Sea and now also from Good Hope to the Dutch East Indies, have not long ago been occupied by the Allies.

There must be a sufficient force in South Africa that could be spared for that purpose before it is made difficult by previous enemy action.

While one should have great sympathy for the Marshal in his almost impossible position, and a real affection for the unorganized, inarticulate, depressed people of France, it would appear that the time has already passed when this war for the preservation of our civilization permits of giving further consideration to the pride or sensibilities of defeated France in Madagascar, in Indochina, or elsewhere.

With one and a half million of its young men in German prison camps and with more than half of its continental area occupied by German troops there is not a chance that France can be of any assistance to the Allies or even be of any assistance to itself. It would therefore seem desirable, necessary and essential that French territory be utilized by the Allies wherever it promises advantage to us in the prosecution of our war effort.

Vichy would object of course but much of French public opinion would cheer us on.

I am taking advantage of courier departing today to send this hurriedly prepared letter.

Most respectfully,

William D. Leahy
  1. Copy obtained from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, N. Y.
  2. See telegram No. 88, February 10, 7 p.m., to the Ambassador in France, p. 131.
  3. Jan Christian Smuts, South African Prime Minister.
  4. For correspondence regarding the British occupation of Madagascar, see pp. 687 ff.